What's Next? Senior Staff Members, And Bars, Plan for Retirement

Volume 31 Number 3


When Mardee Korinek leaves Omaha, Neb., each summer for her one-month working vacation in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, several members of the Omaha Bar Association usually offer kind words to the 70-year-old executive director.

“They kind of joke around and say, ‘Be careful. Don’t you fall out of the boat,’ ” says Korinek, the only executive director the 1,440-member bar has had in the past 25 years. “I tell them I won’t. I would hate to leave them in the lurch.”

But Korinek, like many key personnel at other bars, knows she will leave the association sometime soon, most likely in retirement. It is a situation many bars have faced and many others—like the Omaha bar—will likely soon face, particularly as the huge baby boom generation begins moving toward retirement.

Preparing for executive retirement can be a demanding challenge for bar associations looking to preserve continuity and smooth day-to-day operations, bar leaders and workplace experts say. It can likewise be challenging for those executives who wonder if they have the resources to retire, as well as the right mental attitude and physical health to step away from the job.

But bar associations and departing executives don’t need to fear retirement. Many say that retirement offers elected and staff leaders the opportunity to reassess job responsibilities and the organization’s structure, as well as the association’s mission and goals, while still honoring the departing staff member’s hard work and contributions.

“Institutions need fresh thought and leadership,” notes Tom Edmonds, who will retire at the end of this year after 18 years as executive director and chief operating officer of the Virginia State Bar, “and it’s good to get new ideas.”

And for the retiring executives, there are opportunities to assess just what it is they want to do in retirement—which, these days, can mean a whole new career rather than that easy chair by the fireplace.

Planning and cooperation are key elements in the transition for bars and their retiring executives, leaders and experts say. A little of both can go a long way toward easing anxieties, while providing a fruitful future for both the association and the new retiree.

The retirement boom

The demographics seem daunting: About 78 million Americans—more than a quarter of the country—are part of the baby boom generation of those born between 1946 and 1964. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that every hour, 330 people in the U.S. turn 60. That adds up to 2.89 million people a year.

A study released last year by the Bridgespan Group estimates that over the next decade, nonprofit groups will need to hire an additional 640,000 senior managers, due in large part to the impending retirement boom.

“We’re getting more interest and more calls from people on this topic,” says Deborah Hechinger, president and CEO of BoardSource, a consulting firm and clearinghouse of information for nonprofits. “We recommend that boards have policies on executive succession that address both emergency succession and the process for a planned exit.”

Within the bar world, it’s not difficult to see a change coming—or already begun. Members of the National Association of Bar Executives who are part of any of the organization’s online discussion groups have become accustomed to receiving retirement announcements by e-mail—often with the subject line, “Another one of these announcements.” Of the 20 bars in the Southern Conference of Bar Presidents, 17 of their executive directors have been on the job for 20 years or more, according to North Carolina Bar Association Executive Director (and NABE President) Allan Head, one of the 17.

The aftermath of the accounting and corporate oversight scandals at high-profile public companies such as Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, and Tyco means that times have changed for board members and their roles as executive overseers, says Jay Jamrog, executive director of the Human Resource Institute at the University of Tampa.

While there is no legal obligation for nonprofit boards to do so, Jamrog says, boards of directors are expected to become more actively involved in the association’s operations—including succession planning.

“The board should ask [the executive director] directly: ‘Do you have someone ready for your position now? If you don’t, you ought to be looking at that,’ ” Jamrog says. “The days are gone when the board could look on from a distance.”

Head and NABE’s Chief Staff Executives Committee recognize the need to make a plan, which is why guidance on proper succession planning will be part of NABE’s upcoming Best Practices Manual for bar executives.

Head is taking his own advice to heart. He remains content in the job he’s held for the last 25 years, and bar leadership is pleased with his performance, but some leaders came to him recently and asked him to start drafting a succession plan for top bar staffers, himself included.

It was a request that Head, 62, didn’t take as a threat. “I think it’s a compliment. They’re good. They know they’re good. They want to stay good,” he says. “They want to have a thoughtful and orderly procedure when someone leaves.”

Initiating a discussion about retirement, succession, and how and when to involve current or departing executives in a search process can be a bit touchy. “It’s an uncomfortable topic,” Hechinger says. “It’s the topic nobody wants to talk about.”

The fear of many boards of directors, she says, is that discussion of executive staff retirement will lead to broader and possibly more painful discussion about all of the association’s personnel and elected leaders—including the board members themselves. Key executives on the cusp of retirement are also reluctant, she says, for fear of being marginalized or being pushed out the door faster than they had planned.

“But in our experiences,” Hechinger says, “that’s just not the case. If one thinks about the importance of the leadership team, then this is a primary area and a primary issue for [the board of directors] to discuss.”

Making the transition

Shortly after Jan Michels announced last August her intention to retire as executive director of the Washington State Bar Association, she was asked to sit on a bar task force that is charged with developing the criteria for and selecting a new executive director. The task force expects to update and make changes to the job duties and salary range if necessary, she says, adding that she may or may not continue to be part of that discussion.

“I’ll be happy to serve, but I’ll be understanding if they ask me to leave,” says Michels, who plans to step down in May after 10 years as executive director.