07/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Union Card For Good Works

I love Ken Caldeira. A climate scientist at the Carnegie Institute, Ken has a way of summing things up in a single phrase. When we were talking about what people need to do to transition to a new role, I ran through a long list of what I'd been hearing from New Radical pioneers. He cut me off with this: "You need to figure out what the union card of your new profession is, and then go and get it."

For Ken, whose background is in IT consulting, the union card was a Ph.D. Not a small undertaking, but one he put in perspective with his usual heart-of-the-matter style. "To a large extent, a Ph.D. is a meaningless piece of paper. It just means you were able to jump through hoops. But it is what I needed to get a job in my field."

If you've been following this column, you know that I've been writing about how to become a New Radical by leveraging skills acquired in our careers (for more, see archived articles). Now it's time to explore what we need to add to our CVs in order to be ready to step in a life-changing and world-saving role.

Up to this point, New Radicals have shared a common path. Here it diverges, based on whether we're going to become Activists (such as working for a non-profit), Entrepreneurs (starting an organization whose mission is doing good), or Innovators (driving change from within). Plus, what we need to do next is determined by whether our transformation is at the "mild" or "wild" end of the New Radical spectrum.

Many of the pioneers recommended that novice New Radicals have conversations with as many people as possible (it's called "knowledge by acquaintance", and is one of the most successful ways to research a new venture). Dr. Victoria Hale, founder of the world's first not-for-profit pharmaceutical company, the Institute for OneWorld Health, advises emerging New Radical Entrepreneurs to talk with people who have started similar companies or who have necessary information. Victoria met with a range of people when she was starting out, first in the Bay Area and then, later, in other countries. "For a year and half I travelled around the world talking to people in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors, as well as those in global health and infectious diseases."

Others identified gaining experience in your desired field or sector as an essential step. For instance, becoming a volunteer or board member for a non-profit organization is a great way to develop a better understanding of the issues, the environment, and what might be required of you. Doing so offers the additional advantage of helping you establish credibility. Carol Menaker, director of communications for the Myelin Repair Foundation, said that this approach worked for her. "Volunteering was a great way for me to get my feet wet, and for Scott [Johnson] and the board to get to know me first."

One of my clients recently found herself in a place some of you will be able to identify with. She had a long and successful career in the corporate sector and, when we met, had just accepted a senior leadership role in the non-profit sector. She spoke about her enthusiasm for the issue that had become the focus of her days, her confidence in her management abilities, and her ability to bring a fresh perspective to the perennial challenge of fundraising. But she also reported that something was throwing her off balance: a loss of mastery. She simply didn't understand the new culture, had no experience working with a volunteer board, and was finding it difficult to communicate effectively with a large team of staff and volunteers who were understandably wary of having an outsider at the helm. One of the coaches in my practice comes from the non-profit sector, and we were able to put together a "first 100 days" program for this newly-minted president, including lots of time to draw on the coach's insider's knowledge of the sector. I also regularly recommend Jim Collin's wonderful book, "Good to Great and the Social Sector", an essential primer for business people who want to work for charities.

If you have your heart set on becoming an Innovator, you'll need to figure out how to make the case for what you're proposing to do. You may already have a sense of whether your organization is open to new ideas. Don Raymond, for instance, knew that the senior management of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CCPPIB, which manages a fund that will help sustain the pensions of 16 million Canadians) were in full support of what he set out to do. Thanks to Don -- and CPPIB's leadership -- it is the first pension fund in Canada to have a Policy on Responsible Investing, and is also a signatory to the Carbon Disclosure Project, the world's largest institutional investor collaboration on the business implications of climate change. Others reported having to do double duty -- developing their New Radical idea on top of existing responsibilities -- until they got the green light (and budget) to proceed.

Sometimes your union card will be as straightforward as a degree, as it was for Ken. If you yelped "straightforward?!", you're not alone. When the subject of additional education "at this age" comes up with middle-aged boomers, they often balk. I remind them that it's an investment in their future, and ask what they'd rather be doing 10 years from now. And -- leaving aside good works for the moment -- I point out that with two, three, or more decades of work ahead, it makes sense to put time and money into an education. As one woman said when she made plans to go back to school, "It occurred to me that I would be closer to 60 than 50 when I got my degree. The fact that my 90-year-old aunt still has an active practice in Manhattan helped enormously. I figured I had 30 years ahead of me."