Transitions: Do Women Need New Skills to Navigate Them?

by Margaretta Noonan, Featured Contributor and Pat Nazemetz

AS WE MOVE through our lives, we inevitably face moments of transition which appear in a variety of forms:

  • Personal: a major live event like a birth, death, illness or relocation – either within our own lives or among our friends and family
  • Professional: feeling “stuck” in a particular job/career/industry, achieving our professional aspiration and wondering, “now what?”, the burnout and fatigue that comes from many years of hard work, loss of a job
  • Organizational: changes in reporting relationships or roles, a “loss of status”, changes in the organization’s leadership – or its fortunes

In our experience, we see women approaching these periods of transition differently than men.  Women usually approach them more holistically. They are often more self-aware and able to read the subtle signals of a pending change more quickly than men. They are often more willing to welcome change.  They’ll use their hearts as well as their heads to recalibrate and move to action.

Just as there are differences between how women and men deal with transition, we also see differences across the generations in today’s workforce.  Women currently in their 20’s and 30’s (the early Millennials and late Gen Xers) seize the opportunity to grow and expand through a variety of professional moves. They’re willing – often eager – to experiment and switch tracks. They can be fearless because they have less to lose than someone with a longer career history and greater life-encumbrances.  The younger generations in the workforce are rooted in something other than organizational life. They are looking for impact and purpose as well as financial rewards. And they’ll be the ones that force organizations to adapt, not the other way around.

Older women, those in their 50s and 60s, have rich, deep experience and finely tooled knowledge, skills and abilities.  They find much of their identity in their work and in organizational life – their work and their community of work define who they are. They measure success by what they have achieved through job and career, so they experience a profound sense of loss at the prospect of ending their careers. They’re afraid they will lose not just their jobs but themselves.

An over-simplified comparison of two ends of the generational spectrum looks like:



Traditionally retirement was to be a period of rest and recreation after a long career, usually at a single company. That is no longer either a financially viable or emotionally appealing option for many. Instead, people move from one mode of working into new ones because they want to become engaged in new ways. While not strictly speaking a function of age or gender, openness to new experience often characterizes the attitudes of women and the young. “Retirement Rethought” seems a better description of their experience with these transitions. Retirement Rethought is about the reinvention of oneself using all of one’s experiences and exposures, drawing on the wisdom gained along the way. A career’s worth of building, growing and contributing shouldn’t be set aside or downgraded by the formal end of a particular job or by traditional retirement conventions. Retirement Rethought emphasizes a change in focus from jobs – position, pay, status – to work – toward the dignity, fulfillment and psychic rewards of directing what you know and who you are at a new goal.

A job is what we do. Work is how we become more fully who we are. More and more women who are leaving corporate life are not doing it to retire, they are leaving in order to live their lives more effectively, more purposefully, more powerfully, more authentically.

This is the old retirement narrative:

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This is the Retirement Rethought narrative:


This new storyline prizes questions like “what’s next?” and “how can I effect change and move into action?” This new storyline blends the personal and professional aspects of your life into a new and more dynamic mix. It invites women to ask, What is at the core of what I know and what I want to do? These questions are not age-related.  Most Millennials and GenXers think it’s a crazy idea to wait until a certain age to ask these questions – and they’re probably right.


A successful   transition is a critical life-project that deserves all the care, commitment and effort that a major work-project would receive.  Begin with dreaming, exploring, connecting. Spend time posing questions like, “what is my purpose?” and “what is my passion?”

Only after doing that can you move to the “how” step by identifying all the possible paths that will allow you to pursue your passion and fulfill your purpose. These may be commercial, entrepreneurial, community-based, public service, creative or a mix of these. Then prepare a gap analysis: what experiences that I have had can be applied here? What’s missing? What steps do I need to take to close the gaps?

A key element to making a good transition is the willingness to leverage all of your connections. Use your network to create new relationships in the area(s) you’re interested in. Recognize that people often want to help others – particularly when they’re asked a specific question that’s within their scope to answer. Don’t be afraid to ask, and be open to the many gifts of knowledge and opportunity that others will offer you.

Transitions should be the on-going plan for your life. You don’t have to wait until traditional retirement to make a change. Always be on the lookout for the next wave, and catch it as it crests – not when it crashes.  Ride that wave to the next one. Approach your career as if you are always in a transition: after a year or two on the job, write your farewell speech – what do you want it to say? Imagining a vibrant ending can enable a new beginning.

Take the time to dream and explore. Fine-tune your self-awareness by regularly taking stock of questions like:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • What matters to me?
  • What do I know?
  • What do I bring to the table?
  • How do I define success?

As you go through life, your answers to those questions will evolve. So will your career needs and desires. Being open to transitions – and prepared for the opportunities that they offer – allows you to live a rich and rewarding professional life.

Editors Note: Patricia Nazemetz is a Talent Management professional with 30+ years’ experience primarily in the corporate world, including more than a decade as Chief Human Resource officer at Xerox. She now leverages her years of acquired know-how to help put Talent to work – in ways and places that work for individuals as well as organizations.


Margaretta Noonan
Margaretta Noonan
While still a senior executive at a global company, Margaretta Noonan started asking herself, “Am I All There?” After several years of exploring the topic of employee engagement – her own included; Margaretta co-founded ngage, a technology-enabled solution that creates a continuous connection between employees and managers about the issues that are critical to organizational success;. Margaretta spent 30 years in Human Resources and senior leadership with global Fortune 500 companies in the retail and professional services industries. Knowing that a company is only ever as strong as the talent inside it – in addition to ngage, Margaretta heads a woman-owned consulting business, noonanWorks (, dedicated to working at the intersection of employee engagement / customer engagement and financial results.

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  1. Great article – thanks for sharing Margaretta and Pat. It’s interesting to read, as I have had a couple opportunities lately to watch people who “retired” in their mid-60s find themselves without purpose and subject to loss of memory and function. I cannot imagine retiring and not using my brain to do something – just on my terms, not on someone else’s. I hope that the world does start looking at how we can use all the skills and talents we collectively have in a more fulfilling and smarter way. I like your model.

  2. I loved your article. I’m approaching the age of retirement, but I’m not planning to retire either. I can see where your line “leaving to live their lives more effectively, more purposefully, more authentically applies to my reason for seeking work beyond the corporation. I noticed in your comparison blocks a few words that I sincerely hope are never used to describe me, though. Steely – I prefer adaptable. Jaded/Cynical – I prefer knowledgeable / positive. I’d like to add to experienced the word lifelong learner. I also believe that I’ve become nurturing in a sense and flexible though change. How can we become ‘What Next?’ women if we are steely, jaded, and cynical. Someone recently pointed out to me something he saw in me that I’ve been cultivating for a lifetime and still thought very lacking. I guess I’ve been working out that list of questions you mentioned for so long I didn’t recognize that I’ve made progress.