The following post is an excerpt from a recent Leadership Leverage radio show. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Today I’ll be exploring the topic of leadership from a unique perspective – how we as leaders can make a transition into retirement a successful one.

To help us navigate this very personal yet also public transition – a transition that for many leaders is the last one they will make – we’re joined by the distinguished professor, consultant and author Dr. Nancy K. Schlossberg.

Listen to the full audio version of this transcript or download the MP3:

Or Download the MP3

Dr. Schlossberg is an expert in the areas of adult transitions, retirement, career development, and inter-generational relationships.

She’s a past president of the National Career Development Association, Co-President of the Consulting Group Transition Works, and a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Counseling and Personnel Services at the College of Education at the University of Maryland.

In addition, she has written several books and has delivered well over 100 keynote speeches and made several national television appearances, including a PBS special on the subject of retirement.

Her book entitled “Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose” is a foundation of our dialogue today.

Nancy, welcome to Leadership Leverage.

Dr. Schlossberg: I’m delighted to be here.

Dr. Denker: And I’m delighted to have you here, too. Nancy, you’re often referred to as this expert in retirement, but more appropriately you should really be defined as an expert in transitions.

And so, can you explain the fundamental stages of a transition?

Dr. Schlossberg: Well, can I back up for a minute and explain how I am both, definitely in quotes, “an expert in transitions and an expert in retirement?”

During the time that I was a professor, I studied transitions; I studied how people were coping with change, and I developed a framework for understanding transitions.

Whether it’s a divorce, a geographical move, retirement, becoming a grandparent, losing a child, whatever the transition is, there is a way of looking at it, and a way of understanding it and sometimes I call my talks on it taking the mystery – if not the misery – out of change.

In other words, I can explain the transition model to you, but it doesn’t mean you won’t have some angst about it.

Enveloping Process

Dr. Schlossberg: There are not fundamental stages the way we think of Kubla-Ross – first there’s denial, then anger, etc. – that really has not been my experience.

What I think you can say is that when you are leaving something like your leadership role, when you are leaving that and moving out you are full of ambivalence, some regret, and some excitement.

But you become enveloped with it.

You’re thinking about it, and you are leaving your role as a leader, your relationships with the people with whom you’ve worked, your assumptions about yourself in the world and your power, and your routines; your secretaries, your assistants, all the resources you have.

So at the beginning of leaving you are enveloped with that emotion.

Now over time, and that could be six months, or six years, because there is no timeframe, eventually you’ll do what the younger people call “get a life.”

You’ll get a new life with new roles, new relationships, new routines, and a new set of assumptions.

But that period between leaving one set and getting the new set can be very tumultuous, with a lot of up and downs.

But there is no exact timeframe, and for some people it’s easy, but for many who are leaders it is not easy, because you are used to so many perks and you are used to power.

And getting a new life is not always so simple.

But you need to know that there will be an end to it and you will get a new life.

Everybody I’ve ever interviewed at the beginning, middle, end, they get through it and they look back and think, my gosh, it was hard, it was tough, but I’m over it and now, I’m doing some new things that I never thought I would do.

Dr. Denker: So you’re saying it’s hopeful; it’s a hopeful process?

Dr. Schlossberg: It is a hopeful process, but it’s not a short process. It’s not one that I can say is going to take three months. I just don’t know, because that’s a whole other part of the transition. It depends on a whole set of variables, how you navigate that process.

Retirement Is An Opportunity

Are Baby Boomers Ready For Retirement?

Dr. Denker: Retirement is clearly a major transition that most of us will be facing in the next few years, given the demographics not only found in the United States, but in many other countries as well.

So I’m curious, are the baby boomers really ready for retirement?

Dr. Schlossberg: Well, if you Google that question and you Google “baby boomers in retirement” you are going to get things like “baby boomers delay retirement”.

So asking that question in today’s economy you’ll get a different answer than if you had asked that five years ago.

Because they are terrified of leaving their jobs, they are going to stay as long as they can. And those who had looked forward to retirement as a time to adventure into new things might not have the financial resources.

So I really do think the answer to that question is determined to some degree by economic constraints.

I think there has been a lot of talk about baby boomers changing the face of retirement.

My problem with all of these articles and concerns about baby boomers is that we categorize them for marketing purposes as if they are a monolithic group, and they aren’t.

You’ve got poor baby boomers; you’ve got rich baby boomers. You’ve got fat, you’ve got thin, and you’ve got active baby boomers, inactive, and we treat baby boomers as if they are one thing, and they aren’t.

And I think it’s really, really important to talk about that.

I think probably social class is the biggest distinguishing factor that distinguishes one baby boomer from another.

If you look at our literature it’s as if all baby boomers are yuppie, and all baby boomers are entitled and feel entitled. And I don’t think that is really reality.

But in general, people are going to postpone retirement if they have a good job, because they’re not going to be able to afford not to. So I think the answer is, whether they’re ready for retirement or not, they’re going to avoid it if they can.

Developing Your Psychological Portfolio

Dr. Denker: In your book you talk about the need to have a psychological portfolio for retirement.

What does that mean? What does that look like? That may help these baby boomers who are ready or those who are not ready.

Dr. Schlossberg:   Lots of people go to a financial advisor to talk about whether they can afford to retire. And a lot of people go through what I call income withdrawal syndrome.

When you’re used to getting a paycheck and suddenly that paycheck doesn’t come, even if you’ve figured out with your financial advisor the streams of income that are going to make up for your paycheck, it’s very frightening at first.

But we spend a lot of time making sure that our finances are in order, and if we’re lucky enough to have a financial portfolio we talk to our financial advisor and we tweak our financial portfolio, and we rebalance it.

But is just as important to look at your psychological portfolio.

Your Identity

Dr. Schlossberg:   I interviewed a CEO of a Fortune 100 company and I will never forget when he said, “Retirement is hollow. I have a pension of $1 million.”

A pension of $1 million; can you imagine. And yet it’s hollow. So what is hollow?

What is your psychological portfolio?

A Book of Your IdentityIt’s really your resources that you have to deal with any major transition, and the first one is identity – who you are.

When you were a leader, the kinds of leaders that you’re talking about in this show, when you were a leader you had an identity. You had a tag; you had an easy way of identifying yourself to both yourself and to others.

Now what happens when you retire? Who are you?

I remember getting a call about a week after I had retired, but I’d been very involved in a particular project at Maryland and they were calling me—the [media] was calling me about that project.

So at the end of the interview they said, now how do we identify you? And, Bob, I could not get the word I’m a retired professor out of my mouth.

So I stumbled and fumbled, and I couldn’t answer the question.

I simply couldn’t say I’m retired, or that I’m a professor emeritus.

So it takes a while.

Your Purpose

Dr. Schlossberg: Now the second part of your portfolio – it isn’t just your identity – it’s your purpose.

What happens when you don’t have a purpose, when you don’t have a place you have to be?

I’m sure you go to work whether you feel well or you don’t, whether it’s snowing or it’s not snowing; if you have a show you get there, don’t you?

I mean, there’s no question about it; I mean, a death maybe would stop you, but aside from that you’re going to get to your job.

And suddenly if you were to retire first of all you wouldn’t get phone calls back immediately like you do today, because everybody loves to be interviewed. And they’d say, who is this guy calling me? I don’t have time to call him back.

So you’re not going to get the phone calls back, and you’re not going to know where to go in the morning, because it doesn’t matter–it doesn’t matter where you go.

And so this whole sense of purpose maybe the most critical thing of all, and it’s tied to identity, is finding a purpose, finding something that makes a difference. And that’s very hard.

I interviewed a man who had been secretary of a major division of the government. I won’t say of what.

I showed him the portfolio.

I drew the three things, because it’s identity, relationships, and purpose – so far we’ve talked about identity – and when it got to purpose he said, “That’s the problem. What is going to give me meaning in life? I’m used to power. I’m used to making things happen.”

And I interviewed a woman who had been a mayor of a small city, and she said the same thing.

It’s not that I love the title mayor, but what I loved was the power I had that I could get things done, that I had a purpose, that there was a reason for me to get up in the morning.

So that is really important to get as you’re getting your new identity, and your new purpose. That’s probably the most important thing.

Dr. Denker: And they are really tied together, aren’t they?

Dr. Schlossberg:   Sure, because if you get a new purpose then that’s going to define your identity. They are very interrelated.

Your Relationships

Dr. Schlossberg:  The third thing is your relationships. There are different kinds of relationships.

Your relationship with your colleagues at work, even if they’re people you don’t like – some of them – they are people you interact with on a daily basis. And it’s very important when you leave that world, who are you going to interact with?

Many people who are really invested in their work as leaders are, don’t have time for a lot of social life. They are pretty busy at work and then they probably have a family, but they don’t have a lot of time to spend with buddies and so forth.

There are really two parts to relationships.

First you are going to have to find substitute relationships for your professional – your colleagues – whether you’re a roofer who works with other roofers and construction people, or you’re a CEO.

You have relationships with people and when your job is over those relationships will probably cease. So it’s finding a new setting, whether it’s through a church community group, etc.

But there’s another thing and that’s your home life.

If you’re single and you live alone and now you’ve given up your work relationships you have to figure out where you’re going to get enough from relationships once work is over.

If you’re married or in a partnership that might change things.

One woman said she feels guilty.

She said, “I’m retired and I retired to have a wonderful time, and my adult daughter in Wisconsin expects me to fly up there and baby sit whenever she wants to go away. I don’t really want to baby sit.”

Dr. Denker: That’s not, I think, a lot of people’s vision of retirement.

Dr. Schlossberg: Right. So it really changes your home life.

I was giving a speech at Georgia State and my husband was up there consulting, so he came over to hear the speech, and nobody knew my husband was in the audience.

So in the question period they said, “well, how has retirement affected your relationship with your husband?”

And there is Steve sitting in the front row.

I said it’s hideous, and then I burst out laughing. I said, “My husband is in the front row.” I said, “What was the hardest thing to adjust to was somebody saying to you, ‘where are you going and when are you coming back?’”

So whatever it is that’s going to be the issue for you, it does take some renegotiation at home.

And so, now I’m very good about saying where I’m going and when I’m coming back. But that was hard for me at first. I wasn’t used to that.

Don’t Forget Your Purpose…

Don't Forget Your Purpose!

Dr. Denker: Out of identity, purpose and relationships, is the purpose still the hardest one for most to get?

Dr. Schlossberg: Well, I think so.

I’ll tell you, in the book – and my editors didn’t want me to include this example, but I insisted – I used the example of two NFL football players.

I interviewed them on a television show once, and one was a man who during [his career] – I don’t know how he did it – but he was preparing for his future, because you have to retire from football fairly early, and he became a lawyer.

So by the time he retired, he was a lawyer and he went immediately into heading up an agency for professional football players.

And so he was prepared, he still had his identity.

But the other man, this very handsome young man from the New York Jets, his wife was on the show with him, and he said, “I didn’t have enough nuts for winter, save enough nuts. I never thought I would be retiring this early.”

And he hurt his knee and he couldn’t play anymore. And his wife was on the show and she said, ”…and when I come home at night I have to pick up his ego and type his resume. “

Now this was a perfect contrast of two people.

One who had segued into a situation where there would be continuing relationships with the football players, a new purpose, and the other who has lost his purpose, his buddies, his relationships, and it looked like his marriage wasn’t too happy.

So they feed into each other, and they are very important as you think about any transition, whether it’s retirement, or a career change.

Look at your identity, look at your relationships, look at your purpose, look how they will change. And if you have no idea how they’re going to change, maybe you need to start thinking in advance about that.

Your Psychological Portfolio Makeover

Your Psychological Portfolio Makeover

Dr. Denker: So people are saying probably, “Okay, where do I begin? Is there a path that I can take that will help me deal with this?”

Dr. Schlossberg: Well, this is one of the interesting things I’ve found, that there are lots of paths that people follow in retirement.

And I’m going to describe each path briefly, and then as you listen to them, sometimes you’re not going to stay in the same path forever after retirement, because retirement is many, many years for most people.

Think of it as it’s like your makeover; what is your retirement makeover going to be?


Dr. Schlossberg: Well, for some people they are continuers.

I’m a continuer. I am not teaching anymore, I’m not advising students, but I’m still writing and lecturing, and doing a lot of things that I used to do when I was a professor. So I’ve modified my life.


Dr. Schlossberg: Then there are adventurers.

I recently interviewed two doctors who retired very young, and bought a vineyard in New Zealand, and then started a publishing house to publish mystery stories, and they’re adventuring. They’re doing something entirely different.

The adventure doesn’t have to be that dramatic.

It could be that a man who had been a dean of a college took a volunteer job driving a tram at a museum, and that was just so out of character with everything he had ever done before.


Dr. Schlossberg: So you’ve got your continuer, you’ve got your adventurer, and you’ve got your searcher. And all of us at one time or another will be a searcher.

That means you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do, and you’re searching for your niche. You don’t know – you’re retired, you haven’t had the time or the energy to make a plan, and there you are.

I will give you an example.

I interviewed a man who lived in Maine and he called himself a serial entrepreneur.

He used to buy businesses and then sell them and then buy them, and his last business was a chain of newspapers in Maine.

And he made a lot of money selling them, and he was 72 and he didn’t need to work anymore, and he had remarried, and had twins, so obviously his wife was younger than he.

So the first morning of his retirement his wife went to work, his twins went to school, and there he was with his mother-in-law, and he thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is not going to be the way I’m going to spend the next 20 years of my life.”

And so he remembered somebody who used to write a column from the Department of Labor, the Maine Department of Labor, so he called her up, her name was Candy, and he said, “Candy, you’ve got to save me. I’m searching for something to do.”

What happened is she put him to work, working for a ranger for the summer, and of course he was a real professional, and he did a heck of a job.

At the end of the summer he called her back and he said, “Now you’ve got to find me something else.”

She said, “Come work for me.” And he went to work for the Maine Department of Labor.

But there’s an example, [where] it worked out well, because he searched, he found a connector, and he found the right thing for himself.

Other people might be searching for a year or two until they figure out what they can do that can make them feel they have a purpose.

Involved Spectator

Dr. Schlossberg: The next path is involved spectator.

Let’s say you’ve been a lobbyist, and you’ve been a news media person.

But you, for health reasons, can no longer do that, but you’re still involved.

You read the papers, you watch news on television, you talk with people – you’re an involved spectator.

You are no longer doing it, you’re watching it.

It’s like somebody who would have run a museum, but they’re still involved with art, but they’re no longer running a museum.

Easy Glider

Dr. Schlossberg: And then we have your easy glider – the person who says, “I’ve worked all my life, and now I want to rest, and I want to do just what I want to do every day.”

Very often that easy glider is happy for a year, but then begins to search again for another path.


Dr. Schlossberg: Then the only dysfunctional path is a retreater, where you sort of just get depressed and you become a couch potato.

But the wonderful thing about these paths is it doesn’t matter whether they’re paid or unpaid. What matters is that there are options for you, and you can combine paths. But you won’t be on the same path forever.

Final Thoughts About Retirement

Are Women Better Than Men At Retirement?

Dr. Denker: I was wondering, are there any gender issues here?

I mean, in other words, do women do more of a superb or successful job entering into retirement and finding one of these six paths than men do?

Dr. Schlossberg: Well, there is no simple answer, because the world is changing.

In the old days when women were more traditional and more invested in family, they might then segue into more family things.

As one sociologist said, women are the ministers of the interior and men are the ministers of the exterior.

But I think that the world is changing, and women work just like men, and they work as long, and therefore I think it has to do with your investment in work.

And I’m not sure, there are women who are adventurers.

I think of the woman who worked at the State Department and when she retired she became a motorcycle instructor.

And there’s the man who was a researcher for Congress and he became a massage therapist.

Those were two adventurers, but I don’t think it’s clear-cut today, because women’s roles have so changed, so I think it depends on the degree to which women are invested in the work role.

Dr. Denker: Sure. So it really goes back to a psychological makeup of the individual.

Dr. Schlossberg:   Right.

Hollow Retirement Rituals Are Like Funerals

Dr. Denker: [From a listener question] “Seems like transitions are mainly signified by going away parties that feel more like funerals. Is there a better approach?”

Dr. Schlossberg:   Absolutely. A wonderful question. Do you remember the movie About Schmidt, with Jack Nicholson?

It starts with this retirement party for him, and he leaves and goes to the bar because it is so hollow.

That kind of ritual is very, very hollow, and it’s a one-time thing, and you get your watch or whatever it is, but it doesn’t have any real meaning, because as we said at the beginning, transitions are a process over time.

So, you might have a ritual, a retirement ritual, but it’s just the beginning of a process, and in no way does it make you feel fulfilled.

And often it can make you feel very empty, as if, okay, I’ve had all these nice things said about me, now what do I do with all that?

So I think we have to be very careful about rituals and design rituals that make sense for us actually.

But people sort of insist on giving you a retirement party, but it is not a way to signify that that is the transition. That’s just the beginning; that’s just a signal.

Dr. Denker: And perhaps like funerals the ritual is for the survivors, rather than the individual. Wouldn’t you agree?

Dr. Schlossberg: Right.

It’s All About M-A-T-T-E-R-I-N-G

Dr. Denker: And let me ask you, because you talk about the concept of happiness in your writings, and in the readings that I do and the individuals that I am privileged to interview on this show, happiness seems to be coming up more and more in the leadership literature.

I mean, several recent authors have written about it, including Marshall Goldsmith, who is part of the Leadership Leverage Show.

It's All About MatteringGiven this, what is the role that happiness plays?

Dr. Schlossberg: Well, there are many definitions of happiness.

Some say it’s an end point but there are many definitions of happiness and happiness becomes sort of everybody saying it’s important to be happy.

What I think it’s important to be is, and what I think is central in retirement, is the issue of mattering.


Dr. Denker: And that means what?

Dr. Schlossberg: The degree to which you feel you matter to others.

The degree to which you feel appreciated by others, recognized by others, depended upon by others.

And if you can develop a path where you have a sense of purpose, a sense of identity, where you feel you matter, where you feel you’re appreciated the way you were at work, then you’re going to be happy.

But the mattering is the critical issue.

And what’s the mattering recipe?

There are many things that go into making you feel you matter, to helping you get your sense of purpose, and I would say I would pick the one most significant that you must get involved, and stay involved.

And it doesn’t matter what it is, you can drive the tram, you could write books, you could volunteer in politics. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you are involved and engaged, and that you feel you matter.

If you have to keep searching for a year to find a place where you will feel you matter, it’s worth it, because that’s really what it’s all about.

The mattering is so important, and there’s been a lot of research on it, which I won’t go into now, but I would say that when you feel you matter, when you feel people are appreciating you, noticing you, depending upon you, that’s when you’ll be happy.

Dr. Denker: That’s a wonderful piece of learning that I think you’ve shared today, Nancy.

To learn more about Nancy K. Schlossberg and her book “Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose” please visit her website.


– Straws image via Flickr
– Opportunity paper image via Flickr
– Purpose image via Flickr
– Smoke art image via Flickr