From Powerhouse Executive to Powerful Volunteer: How One Retiree Made the Switch
December 11, 2014 | Focus on Women
By Judy Martel
For executives accustomed to life on the uppermost rungs of the corporate ladder, the prospect of retirement can feel like stepping into a void.
Gayle Landen, 70, harbored no plans to sit in a rocking chair enjoying her golden years. Instead, she transitioned a 40-plus-year executive career into a robust retirement career as a volunteer. “I learned and honed all my skills with the best and brightest of the business community,” she said, “and I wanted to apply those skills to volunteerism.”
Landen began volunteering in earnest in 1987 after she and her husband moved to Florida from Detroit and she founded a corporate consultancy business. She began to look for opportunities to give back. “I believe if you live in a community, you should contribute to the community,” she said.
Her volunteer work snowballed into leadership roles across a number of organizations, including a stint as president of the Executive Women of the Palm Beaches, the American Lung Association and the YWCA. For the past two years, she has dedicated 30 to 35 hours a week as a volunteer, with a focus on mentoring women and children.
Her corporate career had given her a deep reserve of skills to use in volunteer executive roles. After earning a master’s degree in counseling and guidance, she began a career in human resources. She then became a counselor in the employee counseling unit at a large company, learning to solve disputes between management and employees and foster more productive working relationships. In 1978 she moved on to General Motors, where she served as the executive consultant for two divisions.
A Volunteer Career Starts with One Step
Just like the corporate ladder, a career as an executive volunteer begins with the first rung. Landen suggests starting with what you know. She first joined a group focused on her area of expertise in executive and staff training, the American Society of Training and Development. “That was my first foray into volunteering because I knew how to work with boards and high-level management teams.”
Now Landen’s volunteer resume is just as impressive as her corporate one: This year, she was honored by the Women’s Chamber of Commerce in her community and is a board member or president of several well-known executive organizations in her local area.
Throwing your hat into the volunteer ring is fairly easy, given the number of organizations looking for a high level of professional expertise. “There are all kinds of ways to get involved,” Landen said. “It’s just a matter of asking what’s out there.”
Pamela Skillings, a career coach and founder of BigInterview.com, said if there’s an organization you’re passionate about, “approach them and say, ‘Here’s what I can do; how can I help?’”
To start with, it’s helpful to attend a fundraising event or begin volunteering at a low level of commitment. That way you can meet the people involved and make sure it’s a good fit before ramping up your time commitment.
“Asking advice from friends or former colleagues is also a helpful way to identify an organization that could use your skills,” Skillings said. “It’s sort of like when you’re searching for a job—talk to people, ask questions and do research on the organization.”
Although she has a full-time business, Skillings has been volunteering with Taproot, an organization that matches volunteers to industries, for a decade. When she began her volunteer relationship with Taproot, she led teams of professionals involved in marketing for various businesses, but as her own business expanded, she reduced her commitment and now is a team member on various projects as she finds time. “It ranges from a couple hours a week to times when I put in 10-hour days for a week.”
Who Says It Has to Be All Work and No Play?
Volunteering can also provide an entry point into social and cultural events. An avid golfer, Landen has volunteered to work at PGA National events. Other non-executive roles have included handing out programs at theater performances and the lifelong learning seminars at the local college.
“When you do those kinds of things, you meet a lot of people and you get something back,” she said. “You get to go to the events.”
These types of volunteer activities were especially helpful during the handful of years when both her mother and husband were dying. “It got me out of the house and wasn’t a huge commitment,” she noted.
All of the Rewards, None of the Risks
The rewards of volunteering are numerous, including meeting people from all walks of life, gaining satisfaction from helping others and the ability to zero in on the causes you care about. For Skillings, the biggest benefit is getting to know the nonprofit companies she volunteers for and the work they’re doing. “The people are so passionate, and they’re paid peanuts in many cases,” she said. “But they’re so smart, and it’s satisfying to help them reach their next goal. I don’t see myself ever stopping.”
The benefits can’t be overstated when you’re working for free, but in some ways they are more powerful than a paycheck. Retirement can be difficult for people who don’t want to lose their skills, but putting those skills to work as volunteers allows them to stay active and also to give back.
Landen said giving back is central to who she is. The rewards come from seeing the impact her work has on the community. “I will volunteer on the things that matter to me until they put the nails into my coffin.”
Judy Martel blogs about wealth on Bankrate.com and is the author of The Dilemmas of Family Wealth, published by Bloomberg.
Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.