BY: SARAH CALDWELL HANCOCK
By clarifying your purpose and making conscious choices about your life, career and leadership goals, a midlife crisis can help pave the way to more fulfilling adventures.
People of a certain age enjoy joking about how to cure a midlife crisis: buy a convertible, try a new hobby or exercise more often. Try traveling, forging a new relationship or eating more chocolate (OK, maybe kale instead).
What about a midleadership crisis?
I’ve had some days lately when I’ve thought that’s what I’m having. I know I’m not alone. Judging from my friends and acquaintances, many midcareer women like me have the same problem: We feel a little stuck. Maybe we’re phoning it in because we’re bored or overcommitted. Maybe we’re involved in the wrong leadership activities out of a sense obligation to our families (think of all those school fundraisers). Maybe it’s just time for a change.
Whatever the reason, taking a step away from the familiar isn’t simple. I talked to three women who have spent years doing social work – perhaps the most adaptive work of all – to find out what led them to shift their energies and how the transitions have gone. Their stories offer insights on the importance of clarifying your purpose in leadership and making conscious choices about what you devote your energies to on a daily basis.
Aligning activities with values
Jayme Morris-Hardeman’s big change started with a small one: She remembered the goals she had set for herself when she was 25 and decided it was time for an update.
Jayme wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of others, so just after college she went to work for Sunflower CASA, the branch of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children in Manhattan, Kansas. For 12 of her 17 years there, she was executive director of the organization. CASA’s goal is to help abused and neglected children navigate the court system and attain safe, permanent, nurturing homes. She helped Sunflower CASA grow by writing grants, carefully tending to financial administration and through effective recruiting and training of volunteers.
Jayme has engaged in many other activities. While serving on the Manhattan City Commission from 2005 through 2007 and 2009 through 2011, she worked toward what she saw as major improvements for residents, including downtown redevelopment; making Manhattan businesses smoke-free; protecting the LGBT community from discrimination; and supporting the creation of a rental inspection program. These issues taught her how to find areas of compromise (rental inspection) and how to stand firm (anti-discrimination ordinance). Downtown redevelopment wasn’t easy, but it helped reinvigorate the core of Manhattan. The local smoking ordinance failed, but she didn’t stop pushing for change, and Kansas eventually went smoke-free, eliminating the need for a local ordinance. The LGBT and rental inspection successes were rescinded by a subsequent City Commission, but the topics are still a regular part of the public dialogue in Manhattan.
From her experiences at CASA and the City Commission, Jayme learned that many people struggle to get transportation in Manhattan, so she worked to meet those needs during and after her term as a commissioner. She served as an officer on the Flint Hills Area Transportation Agency, which partners with Kansas State University, Riley County, Konza United Way, USD 383 and the Kansas Department of Transportation to offer the ATA bus service in Manhattan. The service started with two Manhattan buses and now boasts both fixed routes and service to and from locations in neighboring counties. Jayme says the service is “not all it can become,” but she’s glad it is up and running.
Family life keeps Jayme busy, too: She has a husband, Brian, and an adopted son who is now in his early 20s along with a daughter who is 8. She values education, so she serves as both a room parent and a volunteer for math and reading programs. She tries not to overcommit to activities that require her to be away from home in the evenings so she can spend time with her family.
In the midst of all of this activity, Jayme ran across the Summer 2014 edition of The Journal, which was devoted to the civic issue of childhood poverty. She read it with interest, because poverty is at the root of many of the problems children served by CASA experience. One of the articles was about an organization called Circles, which is designed to help people escape poverty. (Full disclosure: I wrote the article, but I didn’t know how it affected Jayme until after she agreed to an interview for this piece.) When the program arrived in Manhattan, the organizers asked Jayme if she would like to help by facilitating four classes. She gave up some precious evenings with her family and committed to four Tuesday nights. She wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
“I went the first and second time and fell in love with the people. I didn’t want to miss a meeting, even when it wasn’t my night,” she says.
Jayme had an aha moment as she planned a class session for Circle Leaders, the term Circles uses for the people who are working to improve their lives. The leaders were to create a dream board to show what they wanted to do, and then set goals with action steps that would help them attain their dreams.
Many of the adult Circle Leaders had never set goals, so Jayme gave them some hints. “I tried to help Circle Leaders visualize this with an activity from my senior year of college. I had a wall with goals and Post-it notes. If your goal is to move out of poverty, that’s a great goal. But you have to look at the little steps to get there, or you never will,” she explains.
Jayme realized she hadn’t done this for herself in many years. Her goals at age 25 were to have a family, become the executive director of CASA, serve on the City Commission to bring more attention to social services and travel abroad. “I’ve accomplished three of four,” she remembers thinking. “I haven’t traveled abroad yet. Now it’s time to set new goals. There are more things I want to do.”
Jayme had known for a couple of years that her role at Sunflower CASA was, as she says, “getting to be mundane.” She had been considering other career options such as school librarian or marriage and family therapy. Meanwhile, Circles asked her to volunteer more. She became an ally, a member of the mentoring group that helps Circle Leaders leave poverty behind. She helped recruit other volunteers, and then she joined the board of directors.
When Circles of Manhattan was ready to hire a coach, she decided to make the change. But leaving CASA behind was difficult, and she didn’t manage to tear herself away completely. She gave six weeks’ notice and committed to remaining on staff as a contractor to do grant and financial management to help the new director get up to speed.
“It was a really hard decision,” Jayme says. “I love CASA and didn’t want to leave the organization in any kind of disrepair. I wanted it to be in good shape and continue.”
The situation became even more difficult when her replacement didn’t work out. After a tough few months, the board and staff decided to designate a senior leadership team rather than hire another director. Jayme is one of three members of that team and will retain financial responsibilities. “I took Sunflower CASA from infancy to an amazing program. I can’t just walk away,” she says.
Jayme’s experience demonstrates the central challenge of making a change, which is dealing with loss. No matter what you gain, you may lose something – at the very least, a piece of your identity – and Jayme lost some confidence in the survival of what she built. For now, the solution of remaining on the leadership team without carrying the full leadership load is a compromise she is willing to make for the good of the kids CASA serves. The other two people on the team are directors of CASA services and community social services, and the organization is on a better path.
Despite her difficulties, Jayme’s experience shows that leaders need to take time to think about their goals. The exercise sounds simple, but it can force us to ask some uncomfortable questions. Is how you’re spending your time consistent with what you’d like to accomplish? “You have to align your activities with your goals. If not, you’re not going to be happy,” Jayme says. And she finds that she is meeting her goal of fighting child abuse effectively through Circles. Learning about the toxic stress of poverty and its lingering effects has helped her focus Circles meetings on strengthening families. “I truly see Circles as child abuse prevention,” she says.
Taking a stand
Nancy Knopp is 64, and she never could have guessed that she would retire early. After serving a Manhattan hospital as director of care management for 26 years, she resigned in August 2014.
“I could feel myself becoming negative, and I didn’t like that. It’s not the kind of leader I wanted to be,” she says.
Nancy had seen many changes because of a change in hospital ownership, and she didn’t agree with management’s direction. Nancy’s department oversaw discharge planning, crisis intervention and emotional support to patients and their families. When administrators started de-emphasizing those areas and implementing budget cuts, she felt she was being asked to dismantle what she had worked many years to build.
Imagining Nancy as negative is difficult. She is quick to smile and has a warm personality. Years of social work and raising three children have made her a good listener and mentor. She has demonstrated those qualities many times over, such as while serving as a longtime advisor of young women through her sorority’s advisory board and helping raise funds to build the Good Shepherd Hospice in Manhattan. She says she’s always been active in community organizations because she gets satisfaction from helping them “do good things.” She’s currently involved in the Kansas State University Women’s Studies Advisory Board, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sunset Zoo Trust and a local philanthropic education organization. Whenever she joins a group, she believes in stepping up to take her turn in a leadership position. “That’s what my life has been,” she says.
She demonstrated stepping up to take her turn in a major way when she served on the USD 383 school board from 1999 to 2011. Her oldest daughter had started kindergarten in 1985 in a class of 34 with one teacher and no aides, and Nancy worked to inform and involve other parents. Together they succeeded in getting another adult in the room by Christmas. Nancy became passionate about providing the best learning environment for all children – “It’s the social worker in me,” she says – and realized when she had three children in three different schools that it would be easier if she had a seat on the board.
Nancy looks back on several major accomplishments during her time on the board, including passage of a $98.5 million bond issue that facilitated a major addition to and remodelling of Manhattan High School and affected every district building; more than doubling the number of AP courses and offering a certified nursing assistant course from Manhattan Technical College at Manhattan High; implementing weighted grades; increasing the number of students taking algebra and geometry in middle school; and adding the sport of bowling and a girls’ dance team.
Another experience during her term was not so positive: Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent treatment. “I look back and I cannot believe that year,” she says. She would leave work at the hospital to go to chemotherapy on Wednesday afternoons from 1:30 to 5:30, and go to a school board meeting at 7 p.m. without missing work the next day. It tested her commitment and forced her to take one step at a time. She doesn’t know how she made it, but she learned something that may have made dealing with loss a little easier.
“When you face a life-threatening illness, it teaches you to live each day at a time. That probably contributed to my thought processes at the end of my work: Life is just too short. It’s trite, but it’s true: do things that are productive or make you feel good about what you’re doing,” she says.
Nancy didn’t make her decision to resign quickly. She worked to communicate with the managers with whom she disagreed. “It’s all of our responsibility to try to change the situation that we’re in through communication,” she says, noting that people are often too quick to dismiss the possibility of fixing a situation. But ultimately, she chose her health.
“When you feel like it’s not working and it’s interfering with your daily work satisfaction, rather than becoming a negative force or influence, it’s time to step aside,” she says.
Nancy’s case demonstrates that leaders don’t always win the battles they fight. It’s a reality check that we need to hear: Sometimes you’re not going to leave things in a good place, but making a decision that leaves behind a bad situation means we take care of ourselves and find new outlets. Retirement is also a big loss for many leaders, but it, too, offers new opportunities.
Nancy now has more time to devote to civic organizations and to continue helping college-age women develop leadership and life skills. She also cares for her mother, who became ill a few weeks after she resigned. When her first grandchild was born and her daughter and son-in-law, both Air Force fighter pilots, were stationed at Fort Leavenworth for a year for command school, she was able to be helpful to them and bond with the baby. She’ll do the same when the second grandchild is born later this year. She’s also able to travel to see her other two adult children, sons who live in Washington, D.C., and Vietnam.
Nancy looks back without regret. “If I was still employed there, I would have figured out a way. I figured out how to be a community volunteer with three kids at home … but it’s been a positive change,” she says.
Janette Meis wasn’t looking for another job. She was director of the Kansas CASA program for 16 years, fostering its growth, overseeing changes in the board structure, and serving the 23 CASA programs around the state. She traveled often. She never lacked for interesting challenges or felt she wasn’t able to make a difference.
Janette always thought that if she made a change, it would be to work at a university. When the Fort Hays State University Alumni Association advertised a vacancy for a program coordinator for alumni and chapter programs, she sent in her materials, partially because she found it rejuvenating to go through the process of applying for a job. When offered the position, she made the leap to the alma mater she shares with her mother. She had met her husband at Fort Hays State, and they were already living in Hays with their two teenage sons. It seemed meant to be.
The job was a perfect fit, but even so, the decision wasn’t easy. Janette was the first full-time staff member Kansas CASA had hired. “It was my baby,” Janette explains. “I had worked on (finding) different funding sources and corporate support.”
Janette became interested in helping people who had been abused when she was in college. A friend confided that she had been sexually abused by two family members, and Janette struggled to understand. She met with a counselor to find out how she could support her friend. Her parents also influenced her desire to reach out to those in need. “I remember going with my parents to deliver food and gifts to families who didn’t have anything,” she says. “Even though they didn’t have much themselves, they always helped others.”
CASA was an ideal outlet, and the work was stimulating as well as rewarding. “The challenges of running a nonprofit — it’s there all the time,” Janette says. The dual needs to recruit volunteers to serve the children who need them and obtain funds to support the organization were always pressing, and Janette knew she was providing a vital service. “I wholeheartedly believe in CASA,” she says. “I’ve seen great things happen – kids who grow up and come back and talk about a volunteer who had a great impact.”
Despite her faith in what she was doing, the time was ripe for a shift. Janette felt closure when she met her longtime goal of finding corporate sponsors to purchase the CASA bug, a Volkswagen decked out with a car wrap depicting children, logos, sponsors and the social media hashtag #catchthecasabug. She believed she was leaving the organization in a good position.
“I felt they would be able to move forward,” Janette says. She also thought it was time for a fresh perspective. “Sometimes you come to a point that you think it would be valuable to an organization to have someone come in with new ideas. You get stagnant to some degree.”
Her new position requires less travel, which is a boon to her family. Her older son was particularly happy to have her home more often in the evenings. Janette finishes her workday now at 4:30 p.m. and is able to go home, prepare a meal and help with homework every night. She has enjoyed having more free time and doesn’t feel guilty leaving town for the weekend to travel to her sons’ activities. She’s looking forward to helping her older son, a senior, plan for college, and to spending time with her younger son, an “American Pickers” fan, looking for flea market treasures this summer.
But Janette hasn’t left her skills behind. Working with 23 programs throughout the state for CASA was good preparation for working with alumni chapters around the state, in Texas and in Oklahoma. Because her objective is to develop new chapters, she’s using what she learned at CASA to develop chapters in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California, while examining the possibility of an international chapter. She’s comfortable working with a number of partners and volunteers to support a cause.
Sharing her passion for Fort Hays State as the institution changes is another benefit. “The university has grown so much over the years, and (people) don’t realize what it has to offer,” she says.
Janette still pays close attention to child welfare issues. The Kansas Department of Children and Families established a mentoring program for youth who have aged out of the foster system, and when the program sought Christmas gifts for the former foster children, she adopted a youth with two children. “I got my friends together, and they got a lot of stuff,” she chuckles.
Janette’s experience is a good reminder that when leaders move on, their passion and skills don’t evaporate. Janette still works for child welfare, but from a different angle, and she also works for another cause she’s passionate about.
The realities of doing adaptive work in our own lives by diagnosing our internal situations, exploring interpretations of our challenges, deciding how to use our time and determining when it’s time to give work to others by moving on are messy, to say the least.
Making a change requires making peace with loss and recognizing the plus side of the trade-off by advancing a deeply felt leadership purpose. Leaders often struggle with the guilt of leaving something behind or suffer from the feeling that passing the torch to someone else will jeopardize their past efforts. But when our gut tells us it’s time to move on – because we’ve found a new passion, because we need to tend to our own well-being or because the time is right – it’s time to meet the midleadership crisis head-on.
Talking through options, goals, motivations and fears can help. Jayme, Nancy, and Janette all sought help making their decisions. They turned to their spouses first and foremost – all of whom were supportive. They also talked with friends and colleagues. Janette spoke to a former co-worker who had recently made a career change after 15 years, and Jayme talked to a close friend she’s known since her college years. Janette also talked about the change with her sons. “My oldest son was thrilled,” she says. “I had been on the road for his entire life, and I think he was happy to know that I would be home. It was very seldom that I would miss a school activity or sporting event. I think it was just the fact that I would be home every night,” she says.
Nancy relied heavily on her husband to help her sort through the financial implications of retirement, but the emotional implications were tougher. Talking out loud with him helped her confront the difficulty of losing her identity as a professional and someone who made a difference in others’ lives. That experience made her more sensitive when she talks to friends and acquaintances who are approaching retirement age. “It has made me think how I can reach out to others to help with that. It’s dangerous to offer or broach that topic because it’s like you’re saying to someone, ‘Hey, isn’t it about time for you to retire?’” Now instead of asking others when they will retire, she is careful to ask, “Are you still enjoying your work?” or “How are things going at work?” She also reminds herself that her availability to serve as a caregiver to her mother and to visit children and grandchildren also means her life has impact.
Sometimes family members, spouses, and even friends are too close to our ideas and decisions to offer impartial advice. And sometimes we don’t need advice at all, but a listener who asks good questions. Leaders can seek that kind of help from a peer counselor or coach. Coaches can ask questions that we may not have the courage to ask ourselves or that we may duck when family members ask them. A good coach helps clients test interpretations, build competencies, set goals and face the losses that may be holding us back from making a change.
Hearing Jayme, Nancy, and Janette’s experiences made me think I’ll find a path forward that doesn’t involve a convertible. I’ve been thinking about my goals and talking to my husband about some of my frustrations (sometimes a little more than he’d like me to, I’m sure). I’m taking inventory of my skills and interests and keeping an eye out for new possibilities. I’m wrapping up a couple of multiyear obligations soon, and I have my eye on a local organization that I may like to get involved in. My oldest son wanted some volunteer experience last summer, so I connected him with a summer lunch program and joined him in walking dogs at a local animal shelter. It’s been fun to try new things and see volunteering through his eyes.
I also did something recently that women tend to do well: I had a long chat with a friend. Like me, she has high school- and middle school-age kids at home and a career that sometimes feels a little stale. We sat on my patio on a beautiful Kansas evening and talked while enjoying a glass of wine and humoring my dog, who has an insatiable craving to retrieve tennis balls. We discussed the upsides of our various career and volunteer decisions. Both of us chose to either work part-time for a number of years (her) or stay home for a time, then work part-time for a while (me) while our children were little, and both of us paid a professional price for that in terms of salary but recognize the wisdom of the decision given our circumstances at the time. Both of us have spent countless hours doing things we aren’t necessarily passionate about but that support our family members’ various interests and activities. Both of us are proud of what we invest in our families, and we don’t regret it, but we are thinking deeply and often about what we want out of the remaining years of our 40s, our 50s and beyond. We’re wrestling with how to make choices now that will mold our lives and activities into what we want from the future.
Neither of us is a trained peer counselor or coach, but the conversation felt like progress because it helped us verbalize thoughts and possibilities. We didn’t shy away from asking each other some difficult questions. My friend confided that she is preparing to make a career change and has applied for a position that will require her to assume a role with less authority for a time but offers some long-term benefits in compensation and flexibility. It’s a tough choice, but she is willing to risk what’s comfortable to make personal progress. I’m proud of her willingness to clarify her purpose and make a conscious choice.
- What different (familial, professional and civic) roles do you see the women featured in this story playing? What roles do you see yourself taking on in your familial, professional and civic lives?
- How do you think the women balance these different roles? What makes it hard? What do you think contributes to their success?
- Kate Tempest is an English poet and playwright known for her hip-hop influenced spoken word poetry. Watch her performance of “Progress” on the website www.brainpickings.org. (Warning: it contains explicit language).
Think about the poem and your reaction to it. When you think about life, career and leadership purposes, how do you ensure that you are spending time in the roles and on the purposes you care most about?
Living the examined life: Three questions for clarifying purpose
You don’t have to be middle-age to run into a leadership crisis. All of us, from time to time, can find ourselves rolling down a track we didn’t realize we had chosen. Making time for self-examination can be useful at any age.
Here’s why that’s important. “Every citizen,” social scientist Daniel Yankelovich writes, “has something to contribute” to helping tackle our society’s most intractable adaptive challenges. But we have to be willing to select our “own special task and do something about it, however modest.”
In his 2014 book “Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions: Lessons from a Public Life,” Yankelovich provides a series of questions that you can answer to help structure “your own philosophy for living.” They can help you gain clarity about your purpose and align your actions on a public issue (such as inequality or reviving distinctions between right and wrong) with your values.
Here are his questions:
- What do you really care about? Yankelovich suggests making “a written inventory of the people, places, ideas and things that you care about the most. Select the most beloved concerns and place them at the top of list. Then subject the full inventory to the ‘hypocrisy test.’”
- What expectations do you place on yourself?
- How do you personally relate to the great tasks and wicked problems that confront our society?