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

Volume 31 Number 3

By

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.

Edmonds, who is also the immediate past president of NABE, says he was asked by bar leaders to identify some capable assistants at other associations as part of the search process, but that this is likely to be the extent of his involvement. “It’s their bar and their call,” he says.

Michels expects to take a low-key role once her successor is named. She hopes to spend about a month working with him or her, mainly to introduce the new E.D. to members, staff, and the community. As part of her preparation to retire, she spoke with several current and former executives who shared their experiences—including one who spent two months on the job with her predecessor. “It was totally awkward after the first month,” Michels says.

Glenda Berg Sharp, executive director of the 2,000-member DuPage County Bar Association in suburban Chicago, understands that dilemma. She also spent two months working with the outgoing executive director, who had been there for quite a while, before taking over.

“We certainly tripped over each other that final month,” Sharp says. “It was a little intimidating. She had her office, and I was out in the cubicles with the staff.”

While it was a bit difficult at first following in the footsteps of a veteran leader, Sharp says her time in the cubicles, along with one-on-one meetings after she took over, ultimately helped smooth the transition. “It helped build a team attitude,” she recalls.

An opportunity for change

There was no such overlap for the 6,200-member Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis last year following the retirement of longtime executive director Ken Klein. The bar tapped his assistant as interim executive director for six months until a permanent replacement, Zoe Lyle, took over in November.

The six-month gap between executive directors was a bit troubling at first, says bar President Lynn Ann Vogel, who helped appoint a diverse 12-member search committee chaired by a former bar president. But Vogel says the gap did give the search committee and other bar leaders the opportunity to take a closer look at the roles of the executive director and other key staff members, and home in on the qualities they wanted in a new director.

“It was a good time to evaluate programs that you’ve been doing for awhile,” Vogel says. “Membership has been flat for the last 10 years, and that was a concern we wanted a new director to address.”

The bar also opted to reinstitute a long-dormant finance committee, taking on much of the financial oversight and investment role that had been supervised by Klein.

As a result of the recent personnel changes, Vogel adds, bar leadership expects to regularly examine the roles of the executive director and other key senior staff as part of the bar’s regular three- to five-year strategic planning process.

The notebook

But the opportunity for change doesn’t mean that a new E.D. or other key staff member should be asked to start from scratch, many say.

The Omaha bar has recently been taking a closer look at how it handles succession planning and continuity, says bar President J. Scott Paul. As with many smaller bars, this presents some challenges, he says.

“We only have one other full-time employee, so we can’t really groom somebody to be a successor,” he says. “We can’t afford to bring someone else in and have them on the staff.”

What the bar has done, he says, has been to ask Korinek to create a three-ring binder of information that details what she does, when she does it, how she does it on a daily basis, and who her contacts are. It has become known as the President’s Notebook.

“When we do get a new executive director, he or she can just pick that up and have the benefit of having the previous executive director’s knowledge,” Paul says. “That’s going to be invaluable.”

Paul also hopes that once Korinek does finally retire, she’ll stay in touch and offer her expertise when called. That’s just fine with Korinek, who still isn’t quite ready to call it quits yet.

“I’d like to stay on and help out for a year,” she says. “They’re concerned about my retiring, and so am I.”

 

HOW DO YOU KNOW...WHEN IT’S TIME TO GO?

For some key bar execs, it’s another long board meeting or demanding annual event that is a signal that it’s time to go. For others, making that decision requires a years-long planning process.

And while balancing finances, health concerns, travel plans, grandchildren, and the requests of working or retired spouses is all part of the decision process, it often comes down to a feeling in the bones.

“It just felt right. I can’t explain it much more than that,” says Jan Michels, executive director of the Washington State Bar Association. “I knew last spring that I wanted to retire.”

Making the final decision to retire can be tough, several executives say. Ted Stellwag, who retired in 1999 as executive director of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, actually announced his retirement a few years before that, then changed his mind and took a three-month sabbatical to recharge his energies.

“It’s a process that evolves,” Stellwag says. “Eventually, I think you just know when it’s time.”

But retirement from the bar does not mean retiring from other careers or other things to do in life. Here are some snapshots of what brought five current or former senior bar executives to the decisions they made, and what they’ll be doing next.

 

Isolde Davidson, 59

Advertising Director,

Illinois State Bar Association

“It was simple mortality,” Davidson says. “I asked myself, ‘Is this the way I want to spend the years that I have left?’ I decided the answer was, ‘No.’ ”

Davidson actually set a date more than four years ago after talking with her husband, Ron, a longtime state employee with a good position. “It was really hard for him,” she says, noting that her plan involved retirement on his part, too. “He enjoys his job.”

But Davidson continued to go about her plans, convincing her husband to buy a second home a few years ago in their native Arizona, where much of their family was still located. That move raised a few eyebrows at the bar association once word got out, she says, but it wasn’t until last August that she gave notice that she planned to retire in a year—25 years to the day she started.

”Because I have been here so long and because of the ISBA staff culture being what it is, I felt comfortable giving [such long] notice,” she says. “Obviously, this is the ideal way to bow out. Everybody—including me—knows what to expect and is gradually getting used to the idea that things will change.”

Despite getting some friendly ribbing about being a “short-timer,” Davidson says she is committed to working at the same pace on important projects until her retirement. “I am so energized [after the decision], and I actually like my job better,” she says.

While she has no firm plans on what she’ll do after retirement, she has some ideas, including freelance writing, part-time work in visual arts, or possibly heading back to school.

“I’m very excited,” she says. “I’m looking forward to this.”

 

Dan Cirucci, 60

Former Communications Director,

Philadelphia Bar Association

Public relations people, Cirucci says, are a bit like entertainers—a bit larger than life. And he uses that parallel to explain why he retired last year from the Philadelphia Bar after 35 years in the communications business—28 of them in Philly.

“I always told my executive director that you ought to leave them wanting more. Get off the stage before they give you the hook,” he says. “I never wanted to be someone that people talk about and say, ‘You mean he’s still there?’ ”

But Cirucci freely admits that he is using the word retirement loosely. He has returned to his teaching roots: Instead of teaching fifth graders in the inner city as he did in the 1960s, he is teaching his craft to college students at Penn State University’s suburban Philadelphia campus.

“I absolutely love it,” he says. “I feel like I’ve had a rebirth of some sort. I enjoy spending time around young people. It is invigorating.”

Cirucci gave his boss three months’ notice, and agreed to be available as needed to help his successor, Beth Huffman. Although he’s a regular visitor to the bar and to Huffman, he prefers to stay low-key and not think about his former job too much. “It’s not a real interest to me at this point,” he says.

As Cirucci patiently waits for his wife to finish her public school teaching career—she’s a little younger, he says—he expects to continue and possibly expand his college teaching. He doesn’t like to plan too far in advance.

His advice to colleagues considering or worried about retirement: “Don’t think, ‘What is the bar association going to do without me?’ The answer is that they’ll do very well, thank you.”

 

Ted Stellwag, 66

Former Executive Director,

Pennsylvania Bar Association

Once a writer, always a writer. That’s why Stellwag, a former newspaperman, finds himself happily interviewing people and writing stories for the PBA, where he launched his bar career in 1972, from a small basement office at bar headquarters.

Gardening and golf are his twin passions—he lowered his golf handicap 10 strokes after retiring—but he found it hard to stay away from the bar completely. That’s why he kept an office that he visits occasionally when there’s a story to do for Pennsylvania Lawyer.

He has no desire, however, to know what’s going on upstairs in his former office. “You cross a bridge when you decide to retire,” he says.

A desire to travel, write, do volunteer work, and spend more time with Ann, his wife of 43 years, prompted Stellwag to retire in 1999 after returning to the bar for three years after his sabbatical.

Admittedly not a real whiz with numbers, Stellwag says one of the best financial decisions he made was to hire a financial adviser to help prepare him and his wife for the money side of retirement. He also thinks he prepared well for the mental side of retirement.

“Retiring is not turning away from the essential part of ourselves,” he notes.

 

Tom Edmonds, 69

Executive Director and Chief

Operating Officer,

Virginia State Bar

Though he will retire from his present job at the end of this year, Edmonds isn’t entirely sure he’s done with the world of work.

“Every time I have thought it was time to move on, something else interesting has come along,” he says. “If that holds true this time, I might be interested in working for a further time.”

After 18 years at the helm of an organization that has doubled in size since he took over, Edmonds says, it just felt like time to move along to other interests. And while he looks forward to volunteer work at his church, legal aid, and other nonprofit organizations, Edmonds says he’ll keep the door open a crack for other opportunities after he retires.

While the former law school dean might be interested in getting back to the classroom or serving as an interim or acting dean, one place he probably won’t go is back to the Virginia State Bar. “I don’t want to hang around too much. You need to stay out of the way of your successor,” he says.

Edmonds says he gave the bar a long lead time to give leaders the chance to thoroughly consider whom they want for the job. Despite that time, he has no feelings of being a lame duck, or worrying that he’ll lose interest in his work.

“I couldn’t be here if I wasn’t focused on what’s going on now,” he says. “I am performing in the same way I always have.”

 

Jan Michels, 62

Executive Director,

Washington State Bar Association

When Michels arrived as executive director a decade ago, she developed a list of things that needed to be accomplished to raise the bar’s stature and bring more to members. She made the decision to retire, she says, because “I feel a sense of completion. I feel like I’ve done some pretty fine work here … and I’m tired.”

Michels carefully chose how much notice she would give (about eight months), how long she wants to work with her successor (about one month), and when she would retire, based upon many conversations with current and former bar leaders, as well as her husband, Alan.

It was her husband’s recent retirement, along with the realization that her work was eating away at their free time together, that also contributed greatly to her decision. “Personal time is paramount,” she says.

She made a point of hand-delivering her retirement letter to several friends and colleagues, explaining the decision in more personal terms. Michels made it clear in the letter that she’s not done yet, outlining her eight remaining goals before leaving.

Among her plans is a workshop with board members that will examine the relationship between the board and future executive directors—one that that she hopes will provide for smooth transitions when any senior executive leaves.

“When I got here, I was just told, ‘Run the place,’” she says. “I’m not sure that’s the best way to do things.”

Michels says she’s had some offers for other positions and work, but it is just not on her radar right now—though some part-time work or consulting could materialize.

“I just don’t want to commit to full-time hours again,” she says. “I’m learning to just say, ‘No.’ ”

—R.J.D.

 

WHAT ABOUT MEMBERS?

Just as bars across the country are figuring out what to do when the executive director and other senior staff retire, many of their members are sorting out how to retire from full-time practice—and what to do next.

In a future issue, we will look at ways bar associations are helping their senior members retire but stay active in bar work or legal service, if they so choose. In the meantime, please see “ABA President Karen Mathis announces initiatives” (November-December 2006, page 19) and visit www.abanet.org/initiatives/secondseason/about.shtml for more information about Mathis’ Second Season of Service initiative, which addresses these same needs.

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