The following is a post submitted by Randall T. Byrnes, PhD,

Imagine a remote lodge in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia that requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to traverse the final quarter mile to reach your destination. Ask five men and one woman, some who never met each other to join you for the weekend. Then challenge the family practice physician, the organizational development expert, two interim CEOs, a professional outdoor guide and a polarity theory specialist to engage in deep, thoughtful dialogue for the next 48 hours around the topics of intentional retirement and role change.

You just might experience the collaborative chemistry of a lifetime.

On Friday, June 13 I invited a group of colleagues, ages 45 – 70, to join me at Kayser Ridge, WV ( to contribute their individual wisdom around one specific objective: help me develop a 2.5 day, market-ready retreat program on intentional retirement and role change. As a former business owner, now engaged in advising and coaching leaders I had a clear definition of the problem to be addressed – business owners and CEOs who face the often daunting prospect of separating from their company are frequently unprepared for their role exit. To address the lack of forethought they frequently resort to the paraphrased Hannibal model – “Either I shall find a way or I shall make one.” The results are rarely satisfactory for them or their family.

In order to deeply mine the collective ideas of my guests in such a brief period, I needed to create an environment that encouraged rich conversation and personal engagement. Questions had to immediately pique their interest and curiosity. The science-based physician, engineering-trained executives and literal hands-on outdoor guide were not going to suffer any efforts by me, regardless of relationships, that lacked authenticity and real-time application. We bypassed the usual “Tell us about yourself” introductions. Instead, they were asked to “give” us something that they had accomplished or were doing that made them unique. The genuine, open responses immediately set the bar for all further communication. They came to work. We were ready.

Armed with my research (Transition at the Top: CEOs’ Sense of Self When Separating From Their Company) which documented the challenges of role shifts, identity changes and a general lack of preparedness by executives for successfully navigating to their next stage following a company sale or execution of a succession plan, I offered this select group the opportunity to connect theory to a practical model in a way that would address the very real, personal specter of retirement and change. They came, primed to critique my program, add their professional touches, enjoy the mountain scenery and disperse from whence they came.

But something unexpected and unforeseen occurred in those magnificent mountains. The six individuals who generously agreed to participate in the retreat with an expectation of changing other’s lives were in fact themselves changed.
From the outset of the program we created a culture of discourse and diverse thought that fueled new thinking. We debated the semantics of “retirement.” Must it be an all or nothing state? We concluded it did not. We came to consensus on the need for a set of core values and core polarities that have universal application to the phenomenon of role separation. We aligned our individual experiences with the five stages of role change that were proposed and discussed how we had managed times of uncertainty in our lives. The willingness of seasoned experts who were sometimes unknown to one another to describe without reservation their own brushes with role change in a matter-of-fact, deliberate manner was indicative of the trust in the room. It was the bedrock of our model building efforts.

Our experience was what Parker Palmer calls the connection of role and soul. We worked with a sense of humility for our ideas and a palpable respect for connecting with others contributions. It was the epitome of creative cohesion, and we knew it. We hadn’t arrived on Friday with an expectation that our individual presence would be so integral to the group’s cumulative achievements but there was no doubt every person knew that was the case.

The close of our session on Sunday brought awareness to each participant that we had experienced something unique and quite satisfying. The skeleton and skin of a market-ready program was in place. Prior to departure, every participant was asked to publicly thank one other person for their contribution. This is a tradition borrowed from Outward Bound, the experiential learning organization. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged with warmth and respect. Participants departed with a sense of completion and personal satisfaction. The magic of Kayser Ridge was intact for the next cohort.

Through this experience, I witnessed the power of gathering thoughtful leaders together to explore what is important to them around “What’s Next?” There is real value in collectively building an individual Transition Map and Personal Balance Sheet for the Future. People who make decisions for a living and have the self-awareness to bring soul and role to their lives have the opportunity to construct a plan that speaks to the best of what they can offer the world moving forward. What may also happen is that while in the mountains of West Virginia, they may come to recognize and appreciate that an open exchange of ideas with peers can leverage their individual wisdom. Those learnings from conversations on the deck, over an evening beverage, looking at the ridgeline on the horizon may be the most long-lasting experiences of all.