I started Diverse and Resilient as a program in 1995 and as a separate non-profit organization seven years later. The time I spent in health care administration and medical education was rewarding in that it provided me daily opportunities to achieve good and useful things. I honed several skills in an excellent organization that had many resources and the policies, procedures, and practices to use these resources wisely. System leaders appreciated that I was a licensed psychologist, an educator, and a coach. As I moved from being a program manager, to a director, and then administrator, my strength grew as a professional. I describe it as a time when I learned to be a skilled mountain climber with all the right equipment. It was unlikely I’d fall, but the challenges were always there when I was ready.
Then I realized that I might be climbing the wrong mountain. When it felt like I was no longer enjoying the work as I once did, I saw that it was time for me to discover my next big thing. The work itself was fine; the employer, too. I changed and needed to shed my old skin that constrained that growth. But the old skin was not work. It was my limited vision of my work. One thing I learned in psychotherapy, both as client and provider, is that sometimes when one cannot see his way it is because he literally cannot. No amount of trying to do it alone will result in a different outcome.
More than a decade earlier, when I was finishing my doctoral degree quite smoothly, I noticed that I was feeling like I was a fraud. I had a sense that I had not earned my degree, but I was being given it. My dissertation research seemed too easy; my results, facile. Despite the fact that these feelings were all nonsense, they seemed real to me. A gifted therapist I worked with noted that I could not readily see that reality, possibly because no one in my family had graduated from college, let alone with a PhD. Her exercises to record the detailed work of my research, the robustness of its outcomes, and the results of my comprehensive exams made my walk across the stage to receive my hood much sweeter a few months later. I would not likely have seen this on my own. I needed insight.
So, when I recognized that I could not see different work opportunities for myself, I convened a board for me. I reasoned that I had held a dozen jobs as an undergraduate and a half-dozen since then. Surely I should be able to think of another one.
Six professional peers met with me for six months, both as a whole group and in one-to-one sessions. I selected them from varied backgrounds, half coming from within the organization for which I worked and half from the outside. I shared with them what I loved about my job, what interested me most and least, what I wanted and what I feared. In the end, the group reflected what I started to realize myself over the six months. In the development of a small program in 1995, I became increasingly aware that I had a vision of what was possible for LGBT people, social justice for all, and public health. That vision needed my attention if I was going to avoid later regrets and resentments. I left what felt comfortable and secure and went for what was unknown, but could lead to joy.
The period between 2002 and 2015 has flown by as I have followed my vision to fruition. Diverse and Resilient has grown from a program with a staff of one to a public health team of 20, with an additional 100 health promoters. We address five health disparities found in LGBT people in Wisconsin and tackle the social determinants that contribute to these disparities. Together with our more than 25 organizational partners we make big things happen.
I am proud of our organizational accomplishments. I have grown as a leader. That growth in leadership prompted me to announce in 2013 that I would be leaving my job as the agency executive so that it can flourish for years to come. Too many agencies falter for a time – some fail – when the founding executive departs. Trusted colleagues and I decided that I would be best able to lead by relinquishing the agency with ample advanced notice and evidence-based guidance in doing so. A colleague pointed me to monographs from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that specifically address the transition of a founding executive. These documents are wonderfully insightful and practical guide to my current process.
In mid-2014, I again announced my plan to depart, this time with a specific end date of July 2015. The organization’s Board of Directors engaged transition management consultants to prepare them and the agency for my departure and the selection and induction of a new executive. I am busy preparing the agency leadership team to shoulder added responsibilities for a time. Preparing legacy documents and auditing agency practices fill much of my time. Planning for my future is also part of the process.
It has been fascinating to me that outside the organization, many friends and colleagues talk about my retirement. Because of my age, level of my work, and long period of caring for my spouse who has been ill, they have deduced that I am going to stop working or devote my energy to volunteering. But I am not retiring.
I am launching my encore.
When I moved Diverse and Resilient to become an independent non-profit organization, I thought of it as my capstone career. Since then I realized that the term capstone suggests that it would be the last thing I’d do professionally. But at age 66, I know that is not an accurate description of my reality, nor the reality of hundreds of thousands of others like me. I do not need to work. I want to work and I have much to offer. But like when I was 54, I could not quite see what it was I would do. So, again I formed a Board for Me. Again there was a group of women and men who listened, conferred, and challenged.
This time, however, there is no capstone in my near future. I have planned my next encore.
As I write this memories of my enriching trips to New Mexico come to mind. I have visited a dozen times, maybe more. Jemez Pueblo and Jemez Springs are always on my list. Most often Madrid and Sandia and Bandelier are, too. But today I am most reminded of Chaco, where one can look to the south and see endless mesas. From my vantage point, I have again grown in my leadership skills, the scope of my work, and the depth of my knowledge. The climb to this plateau has been hard work and I have built real muscle from the effort. This has been my mountain to climb, but I can see another one ahead, and another.