A Story Of Finding Purpose In Work At Each Step Of The Way

As part of the Empowerment initiative, Growth Is A Journey is very honored to share Paul’s story of finding renewed purpose in his work, while getting ready to embark on a new chapter in life: retirement.

Paul Faeth is an executive in the environmental world, who recently got certified as an executive coach. As part of his environmental work, Paul is the founding president of a coalition of 24 organizations working to provide safe drinking water, hygiene, and sanitation (WASH) to the poor in Africa, Latin America and India; and served as the Executive Vice-President at the World Resources Institute (WRI), the world’s top environmental think tank. Paul also worked in over 40 countries and has been named one of Washingtonian magazine’s “Local Eco-Heroes.” For more details: https://paulfaethcoaching.com/

GIAJ: When is retirement for you, Paul, and what or who inspired you to look for renewed purpose at this point in life?

Paul: I am not old enough for retirement, but I can see it from here. I’m close enough that two years ago I began thinking about it intentionally. Having grown up in St. Petersburg, Florida, (a.k.a “God’s waiting room”), I saw many retirees who had given up their careers only to become disengaged from the world. My model, however, is my mother, who in retirement volunteered in the local hospital and numerous times won the county’s volunteer of the year award. She went to the Ringling Clown College and became a certified clown with her own trademark just so she could entertain the patients in the children’s ward. As she had been an accountant, my five siblings and I were pleasantly surprised by my mother’s rather dramatic shift later in her life. 

My oldest brother has been similarly involved in retirement, starting off as a volunteer truck driver for the Red Cross, then moving up to be a local, then state field coordinator in Florida. For over a decade, he has been a national first-responder for domestic emergencies, including being the first Red Cross staff person in place for several emergencies every year, from the Fargo floods, to hurricanes Rita and Sandy.  

GIAJ: What was the thought pattern and values that guided you the most in this soul-searching process?

Paul: As I started thinking about my own retirement, I tried to outline what I want from it. First, perhaps obviously, I want to cut my work schedule but not stop working altogether. Second, I want to use the skills I’ve acquired during my 35 years working in the environmental field. I’ve been all over the world, managed numerous teams, and at various times been a CEO, a COO, and even for a while, a CFO. I’d like to think that what I’ve learned could be useful to others in some way.

That got me thinking about my professional value at this stage of my life. As I reflected on the highlights of my own career, the times that I found the greatest enjoyment included my own successes, of course, but also included the growth and success of others. A particular example I recalled stood out. When I took over as the Managing Director and EVP of the World Resources Institute, our president had charged me with leading an organizational shift from a think tank, to a “do tank.” We set up a system to focus on outcomes and to collect and reward them. As part of this, we celebrated our top ten outcomes every year with a staff party, a public report describing the outcomes, and modest bonuses for the team that generated them. 

One year, a young woman who had recently been promoted to a team leader asked why her team did not make the top ten. I explained what we were looking for and why her team missed. She asked if she could come to me for advice during the following year, and I agreed. We met about a dozen times that year to discuss everything from developing a strategy to managing her team. When the next time came around to recognize our top ten outcomes, the team she led made it. And when she was recognized, I was about as proud of her accomplishment as if I had done it myself. 

As I reflected on this example and recalled many others like it, I discovered that my highest value in retirement may be as a coach for others. Not only have I “been there and done that”, but I enjoy listening, engaging and supporting others.

GIAJ: As you started thinking about coaching, how did you go about positioning yourself to become one?

Paul: I started by speaking with coaches I know. Reactions ranged from “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it”, to “It’s easy, you’ll be great.” I suspected the truth was somewhere in between. The most helpful advice was to get certified as a coach. So, I found a highly recommended course and began the journey to certification. Between classwork, mentored coaching sessions, getting enough compensated hours of coaching to qualify, and a certification exam, the process took me about a year. 

I was lucky to take a course that was loaded with people who either were already coaches or were professional counselors. I was the odd man out with no formal coaching or counseling background. I started out feeling very insecure and unsure of myself, but as the course progressed and I got feedback and encouragement from my mentors and colleagues, I became more confident in my ability to become a coach. I also realized that for what I wanted to do, executive coaching, that my executive experience was unusual – few executive coaches have been executives. This gave me confidence.

Eventually, I bit the bullet and decided to commit. I went part-time at my “regular” job to give me the time to invest in building a practice. I’ve found great enjoyment in coaching others and in the coaching approach, which focuses on helping clients through change processes by guiding them in identifying issues, developing action options and implementing them. The core of coaching is asking great questions that make a client come up with their own insights, not in giving them the perfect advice. 

GIAJ: What has been the most rewarding part of these life changes and what piece of advice would you give to someone looking for a change in their career?

Paul: It has been a fun and rewarding journey. I have found great satisfaction in helping clients make a breakthrough, successfully try to do something differently and get a positive response, and ultimately, to achieve their professional or organizational goals. As to changing career, you have to recognize that a substantial investment of time and energy will be required to do that successfully. Be thoughtful about exploring opportunities and keep your expectations in check regarding how quickly you can do it. You may have to take a cut in pay and/or responsibility to make the move. And, I have to say this as a coach, it helps to get advice from someone who can guide you through the process.

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