Career shift: What will be your second act?

31st January 2015

The other day, I stumbled across a 1987 copy of a glossy interiors magazine called Dimensions in Living. It was a scary moment. This was the issue I worked on when I got my first job in journalism. Suddenly, I realised I’d been working for more than a quarter of a century. In fact, without noticing, I’d passed the 25-year mark.

For my parents’ generation, the 25-year work anniversary often brought a gold watch along with the promise of a pension and a quiet life. For me (now a couple of years on from this milestone) it comes with a question – what next?

I’m not alone. In fact, many of today’s fifty-somethings are asking exactly the same question. Fit and engaged and far from ready to move towards retirement, many are making plans for the next 20 years that don’t involve taking it easy.

I recently explored this topic in a couple of stories I wrote for the Financial Times –the first on what it means for companies, the second on what it means for individuals.

What struck me was that a growing number of people are looking for a second career that allows them to contribute to society – whether that means joining a non-profit or becoming a teacher, health worker or social entrepreneur.

Given the non-profit sector’s trouble finding leaders, this represents a huge opportunity. In fact, in the last major research on this “leadership deficit” (conducted by Bridgespan, a consulting group for non-profits), it was estimated that the sector would need about 80,000 new senior managers every year by 2016.

Meanwhile, here’s this wave of talented and individuals ready to bring their experience to bear on solving some of the world’s biggest problems. It would seem a match made in heaven.

It’s not that easy, it seems. This emerged from recent research by, a non-profit that helps seasoned executives move from their first career into public service, and research consultancy Penn Schoen Berland.

The research found that interest in the US in what are called “encore careers” rose by 17 per cent between 2011 and 2014. Yet, while 55 per cent of those polled saw post-midlife as a time to use skills and experience to help others, only 28 per cent had concrete plans to do so.

In matching former executives with non-profits, there are other obstacles, too. “There’s still a lot of work to be done because not a lot of organisations are equipped to take on this talent,” said Ann MacDougall, president of, told me during my interview with her for the FT.

For business executives, there’s a danger here too – of thinking you know it all. Some years ago, in an interview for another FT story, former investment banker Jeffrey Flug told me about the lesson he learned on becoming chief executive ofMillennium Promise, the organisation founded by economist Jeffrey Sachs and philanthropist Ray Chambers to fight global poverty.

He recalled the horrified expressions on the faces of his team members when he announced his first idea – to raise funds by getting Wall Street firms to sponsor African villages and giving them names like “Goldman Sachs Millennium Village”.

And if former business people have to acquire new cultural sensitivities when joining a non-profit, they also have to get used to new ways of measuring impact in a world that’s not driven by quarterly profit figures.

“You don’t have a single unifying account of what organisational success looks like,” said Simon Kingston, who leads the global development practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, the executive search firm.

Nevertheless, demographic trends in the workforce point to an enormous opportunity for the social sector to acquire new talent.

And new demands for efficiency and transparency in the non-profit and public sectors mean organisations are going to need people with the kinds of skills acquired while working in business.

MacDougall argues that the “encore career” phenomenon is important not only because seasoned individuals are finding meaningful work but also because they can apply their skills and knowledge to solving big social and environmental problems.

So what’s needed to help more people do so? First, the non-profit sector may have to adapt to accommodate the wave of experienced executives looking to use their talents to help change the world – and this might mean designing a new HR strategy.

And companies could do more to support those among their growing cohort of older workers who want to move into a new career rather than into retirement. When and The Conference Board asked 91 employers how they were helping their employees do this only a quarter were doing anything and just one in five had established a structured transition programme.

MacDougall is clear about why this needs to change. “The value of this workforce changes the impact for [non-profit] organisations and the individuals they serve,” she said. “This has to become part of the global conversation.”


Here, I invite my interviewees to name a favourite charity and – in the spirit of Mixing It Up – a favourite cocktail.

Ann MacDougall

Charities: (of course) and Global Citizen Year

Cocktail: one or two small glasses of vintage port

This post originally appeared on my LinkedIn Influencer page