After decades of climbing the corporate ladder, many executives choose to seek out a “second act”—a new professional phase, often one that has a social impact. This offers them a chance to leave a different kind of legacy, taking the skills and experience they gained in the corporate world and applying them to encore careers.
“More and more executives hit a point in their lives where they realize they still have lots of time—maybe ten or twenty more working years—and decide to create the next chapter,” says Ellen Taaffe, a clinical assistant professor of leadership and director of women’s leadership programs at the Kellogg School. “They want to have a bigger impact, and they want to be aligned with something they’re passionate about and find meaningful.”
This is true for Taaffe herself. She spent more than twenty-five years in brand marketing—at PepsiCo, Royal Caribbean, and Whirlpool—then went on to lead an entrepreneurial venture, eventually joining the faculty at the Kellogg School, where she had earned her MBA. She has also started working as an executive leadership coach and is a member of two corporate boards.
“There’s great power in asking yourself: ‘What have I always wanted to do? What’s most important to me now? And where can I add value that matters most?’”
Taaffe offers four tips for anyone interested in creating a powerful second act.
Consider change an opportunity “Second acts usually emerge from major changes in people’s lives, whether professional or personal,” Taaffe says. “It could be an empty nest, which frees up parents with more time to take on more and do different things. Or maybe you have the opportunity to negotiate an exit package or find you are ready to move on from a long-standing role or industry. Sometimes it is a multistep process to finding your new path.”
Taaffe’s decision to find a new path was jumpstarted when her job at Whirlpool was eliminated. For the first time in twenty-five years, she had no clear next step—no new role to immediately step into.
Taaffe recommends using major changes as an impetus for rethinking how you currently spend your days, where you focus your skills, and whether you would like those to eventually change. With change already on the horizon—and the status quo firmly out the window—the possibility of making additional changes can feel less risky.
“Opportunity knocks,” she says. “It’s a chance to reconsider how you want to live and work.”
This is what she did. Instead of simply applying for more jobs like the one she had just lost, Taaffe chose to use this crossroads as an opportunity for reflection. What was it that she truly enjoyed most about her past jobs? Seeing an opportunity to explore her entrepreneurial streak, she took on a bit of consulting work, and then—rather than pursue the next CMO position—decided to take the bolder step of running a late-stage startup, Smith-Dahmer Associates (SDA), while joining her first corporate board.
“The answer isn’t always to take the next expected ‘best’ job,” she says. “At least it wasn’t for me. It’s about recognizing your skills, strengths, values, and passions, and finding a match for them in this phase of your life.”
After five years at the helm of SDA, she joined another board. Once SDA was sold, she then joined the faculty at Kellogg. “Finding my way back to my alma mater to focus on women’s leadership feels like the capstone of my career journey,” she says.
Find confidence in your story One of the biggest obstacles to making a bold move late in one’s career is the fear that it won’t work out. This is why confidence is so crucial.
A large part of confidence when stepping into a new role, Taaffe says, is learning to be the author of your story and reflecting on what got you to this point. Taaffe cites leading turnarounds, launching new brands and products, and guiding award-winning ad campaigns in her CMO trajectory, then tying those accomplishments to the value she brings to boards. Similarly, her years of leading and coaching individuals and teams while navigating big corporations and small companies provides her with a strong foundation to create programs that equip and inspire women to advance their careers.
“When you’re reinventing yourself and changing your expected trajectory, you have to figure out how these different acts hold together as one,” she says. “What’s your new narrative? What’s the thread that cuts across all your past experiences and explains who you are? This is incredibly helpful for your own self-confidence and enables you to share your story with others with conviction.”
Confidence is particularly important for women, says Taaffe. “There’s still that perfectionist streak in many women,” she says. “Many times we feel we need more training, or more experience, even after years of succeeding in stretch assignments. In reality, the same grit, smarts, and agility that were leveraged in the past are especially important to apply to building a new career. Remembering this can give you the courage to take the leap.”
Keep cultivating your network “Networking matters throughout your career,” Taaffe says. “You may accumulate a certain amount of credibility, skills, and income that allows you to take a bigger risk in your fifties than you would in your thirties.” But at least as importantly, she adds, “you also accumulate a wide network, and that can be an important asset.”
Cultivating your personal and professional network is what will likely open doors. This is true whether you are starting your own company or finding a new opportunity at your current organization. It is especially true when it comes to joining corporate boards, where invitations typically happen more through networking than via recruiting firms.
Taaffe stresses that mentorship is a lifelong affair. “Once in a second act, creating new relationships with intention can help you acclimate to the new environment, build your client base and expertise, and accelerate your learning curve,” she says. “Solidifying your support system and finding mentors that can guide you as you face the transition are critical steps to managing this new phase.”
Be ready to adapt For some, creating a second act can be a more significant change than they might anticipate. It can mean leaving the corporate culture and work environment they have been accustomed to for years (or decades); often it means becoming more of a student than a teacher.
“In addition to figuring out what you’re called to do, you also need to assess your own emotional and financial preparedness,” Taaffe says. “Are you ready to be a novice? Are you ready to reach up and reach down? Are you prepared for a change in how, when, and how much you get paid? Clearly understanding the realities of the new act will help you set expectations.”
To a large extent, one’s preparedness is determined by one’s attitude. It helps to keep in mind that moving from a corporate role into an entrepreneurial or not-for-profit environment can be a big change, with reduced administrative or functional support. “As president of a startup, I was CEO, CFO, CMO, and CHRO wrapped into one role,” Taaffe says. “Yet everyone on the team—me included—took out the trash if it was full.”
Those who have done the soul-searching, have the courage, and are determined they are ready to learn—and embrace new ways of working with humility—will have a better shot at making a smooth transition and finding the power in a second act.
“The clearer you are about being ready for this move,” Taaffe says, “the more successful you’ll be.”