Harvard leadership programme helps baby-boomer bosses to save the world

About a year and a half ago, Ken Kelley, the founder of Paxvax, a vaccine company which focuses on the travel industry, became afflicted with what he calls an “intellectual itch”. He wondered why certain diseases, such as Ebola and dengue fever, lack vaccine protection.

“I was curious and passionate about this problem because it seemed to me to be a solvable one,” says Mr Kelley, who worked for 35 years in Silicon Valley as a venture capitalist and biotech entrepreneur. By his own admission, he became consumed by this vaccine question and talked about it with clients, colleagues, friends and anyone who would listen. During one conversation, a fellow VC encouraged him to pursue a solution through Harvard’s Advanced Leadership fellowship programme.

The programme, now in its eighth year, is designed for experienced professionals who want to tackle problems such as poverty, global health and the environment. For the fellows — most of whom are in their fifties and sixties — it offers both an alternative to retirement, and an opportunity to develop new skills and relationships before embarking on a “second act” career in public service.

For Harvard, the goal of the fellowship is to create a class of leaders who have the expertise and connections to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.

“It’s been a transformational year intellectually, personally, professionally and culturally,” says Mr Kelley, who completed the programme last month.

In Boston recently, he unveiled his plan of action: a proposed Benefit Corporation focused on creating vaccines for preventable diseases, a public-private partnership devoted to the issue and a global fund that would finance vaccine development.

“I am going to try all three — my wife thinks I am crazy,” he says. “I don’t care which one works. We just need one.”

Mr Kelley’s can-do spirit is a common characteristic of this year’s class of 43 fellows, says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the renowned professor at Harvard Business School and chair of the Advanced Leadership Initiative.

“This is a programme for people who think big about problems and who want to put leadership to work on messy, complicated systemic change issues,” she says.

The school does not stipulate prerequisites for the programme but fellows often include former chief executives, foundation presidents, top attorneys and high-ranking government officials. According to Prof Kanter, fellows typically have 20 to 25 years of leadership experience, a proven ability “to work in an unfamiliar context” and a desire to work on a social issue.

“There are two main stages of adult life where people tend to stand back and think about big problems,” says Prof Kanter. They are roughly “the college years” and later “when you’re at the top of your career but you don’t need to be a careerist any more because you’re not struggling and striving for every last dollar”, she says. “In the middle, when you’re raising a family, you don’t necessarily have time.”

Surveys show that for the baby-boomer generation, members of which are either just retired or about to be, the impulse to give back is widespread. Many eschew old ideas of retirement — mornings on the golf course and travel to exotic destinations — in favour of so-called encore careers, jobs that blend income, personal meaning and often an element of positive social impact.

The ALI, which began in 2008 as an experiment, grows by about 10 per cent a year. Other schools and organisations have started similar schemes. Last year, Stanford introduced its Distinguished Careers Institute. “We’re not alone in telling people: don’t play golf — or don’t just play golf. Do good works. Tutor children. Serve on boards,” says Prof Kanter, who is in her early seventies. “We encourage other institutions to [start similar initiatives].”

The Harvard programme comprises a core curriculum organised around themes such as climate change and education, but fellows are encouraged to attend classes across the university to widen their knowledge. They also go on a guided field trip somewhere in the world — in June, they travelled to Mumbai, India; next year they will go to São Paulo, Brazil.

Throughout the year, fellows mentor undergraduate students, consult faculty members on research and participate in other activities, such as campus-wide summits. “The fellows are great connectors across the university,” says Prof Kanter. “We all get inspired by their enthusiasm.”

Lauren States came to the programme this year after a 36-year career at IBM, where she held a variety of senior positions. Her husband had retired in 2011 and was immersed in his own public service projects when she began thinking about her next stage.

“I wondered: what does my second act look like?” Ms States says. “I decided to become more engaged around an issue I was passionate about: bringing more women of colour into the technology industry.”

The programme, she adds, has been energising. “I looked at it as a way to pivot in a new direction and to leverage my corporate network in the social and public sector in a structured way.”

Many of the fellows arrive at Harvard with only vague ideas about the problems they want to address and how they will go about it. But by the end, they have developed an action plan. This might entail building a public campaign for a cause, launching a foundation or social enterprise, or writing a book.

In the case of Monty Simus — whose career has been in international business development and finance — it means starting a new company. His proposed technology venture, AgResilience, aims to improve water and food availability in developing countries.

Mr Simus, who also runs a water-related geopolitical risk advisory firm in Nevada, says he was drawn to the programme because he was “looking for the opportunity to be pushed. I can already write about this subject and talk about it at conferences. But I wanted to do something sustainable, measurable,” he says.

At the age of 48, Mr Simus is on the young side of the cohort. “Having enjoyed some success [in my previous career] I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be awesome to focus my energy and skills on water scarcity issues’,” he says. “This is the next step in my personal and professional life.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.