My 2½ Hour Retirement Story

by Charles Kuzminski

Six years ago I retired — for all of 2½ hours. Here is how it happened.

While at lunch with a new superintendent I was mentoring, our roles suddenly reversed when he told me, matter of factly, I needed a change in my worklife. My signals must have been quite obvious because it was the third time within a few months that someone I was with expressed concern for my well-being. It was also the tipping point that set me on a fast track to retirement and my second act.

Later that afternoon I decided to pursue an opportunity that seemed to have everything on it but my name. A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation technology grant to New Jersey needed a coordinator. They said yes. So did my wife. Thus my life as a superintendent after 11 years became history. My second act is now in its seventh year and happily shows no signs of closing anytime soon.

Ends and Starts

Somewhere between my kindergarten diploma and doctorate I distinctly remember an “aha” moment when I realized the meaning of the word “commencement.” Before then, it just did not strike me that the end of something could also signify a beginning. Building on my previous learning, I imagined that retirement could trigger a similar beginning — not one filled with only hammocks and golf, but one overflowing with the challenges and inspirations that captivate us in our youth. I was right. However, there is old business to take care of first.

Leaving the superintendency, or any position to which you have devoted much of your adult life, represents a loss and must be treated as such. For better or worse, you are the center of attention. Effective the day you announce, you no longer will be.

Moving from the spotlight to the shadows can be a temporary relief, but it may create a chasm that will eventually need to be filled. Preparing one’s ego for the shift is important. Remember, the school district will go on without you so be prepared to spell your name for a new secretary somewhere down the road.

The social loss is also difficult. Your staff and your colleagues have shared laughs and tears throughout the years. They will still be there, but you will not. The relationships fostered by a team that has worked well together may remain, but not in quite the same way.

Then there’s the power thing. One of the real joys of the superintendent’s role is being the conduit, the strategist, the visionary who successfully unifies a staff, district and community around a common goal. For some it may have been that new school, for others, some meaningful manifestation that all the hard work has made a difference in the lives of children. Unless you move on to a position of similar responsibility, understand that when you decide to “take that hill,” you’ll be doing it, and probably your typing alone.

Some inner turmoil is common during this transition. Termed the “neutral zone” by William Bridges in his book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, the personal feelings during this period can be unexpected and disconcerting. However, out of our personal chaos emerges a creative push that frees us from old paradigms and opens us to new beginnings and possibilities. For me, it was the realization this new period really was about enjoying the journey and not about accomplishment. That has allowed me to move on from challenges that used to consume more of me than I should have been willing to give.

This revelation, by the way, was pointed out to me over dinner one evening by my wife, who, throughout my adult life, has lovingly cut through my tangled thoughts with remarkable speed, clarity and support.

Evolving Journey

So what is this “new retirement” we hear so much about? There continues to be a race to name it, but it really is full of possibilities there for the taking. One colleague motored 11,000 miles last summer, absorbing breathtaking beauty. Another continues service through his ordination as a deacon. There are many who enjoy the title “interim” applied to their work as principals or superintendents and some who have taken university positions. A few move on to the private sector.

My own journey keeps evolving. Leadership continues to be the thread that ties together my professional life. During the past year I coached aspiring leaders through their M.Ed. internship, worked with rookie principals learning to navigate their new waters and facilitated a practicum for new superintendents. For the past five years, a growing partnership has provided opportunities to explore entrepreneurship with a focus on leadership development. Two years ago, I was certified by visionary Howard Stone to facilitate small groups in the process of self-reflection, discovery and planning. These adventures and any that follow will satisfy my criteria for work in retirement — to learn, to support and to connect with people I enjoy.

Balance in one’s second act doesn’t necessarily come naturally. We are who we are, and we don’t magically change after the superintendency. However, without the excuses of career and finances, we can structure our environment far more easily to achieve the blend that allows our personal, family, professional, physical, spiritual and recreational lives to merge and flourish.

Charles Kuzminski, a retired superintendent, is a partner and principal consultant for Leadership Links, P.O. Box 642, Navesink, NJ 07752. E-mail: