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Former BMO chief economist Sherry Cooper says she sees retirement as a series of new beginnings where opportunities abound. (Joanne Ratajczak for The Globe and Mail)
Former BMO chief economist Sherry Cooper says she sees retirement as a series of new beginnings where opportunities abound. (Joanne Ratajczak for The Globe and Mail)

LEADERSHIP LAB

To Sherry Cooper’s surprise, there’s life after retirement Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

I’ve always thrived on change. I love to redecorate and I never keep the same hairstyle for too long. Part of what I liked about my job as chief economist at Bank of Montreal was that no two days were the same. I travelled a lot on business, so the people around me and the issues I dealt with were ever-changing as well.

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Yet retiring from BMO earlier this year was initially terrifying. I hadn’t realized just how much of my self-perception was tied up in my work. It was my uniform and my identity; it was how I defined myself.

My natural predilection was to spend all day at my desk or in meetings. Sure, I spent a few weeks in Florida on holiday – longer than ever before. But the thrill of that wore off very quickly. Vacations aren’t really that much fun if they aren’t bookended by work.

Everything in my life was in transition. My husband and I were in the midst of moving from our suburban family home to a downtown condo. As well, I still had a fairly packed speaking schedule that required my keeping up with the economy and financial markets. But life without an executive assistant, not to mention technical and research assistance, was daunting.

In the process of the house move, I stumbled onto a metaphor that put my uneasiness into perspective. We had our 30-year-old ficus tree repotted. That beloved tree that we had toted from house to house over the years had been in the same small pot all that time. A tree specialist carefully extracted it and spread its roots into a much larger container, gently packing it with loamy soil. We were warned of leaf drop caused by changing locations.

A few weeks later, I was a keynote speaker at an annual executive women’s conference I had attended for years. Many of the women asked how I was adjusting to retirement and I realized that I, like my ficus tree, had been repotted. I had been far more root-bound than I realized, and my large new container was frightening, but oh how good it felt to spread my roots into a much bigger world.

The initial panic, I realized, was the normal leaf drop of a move out of my comfort zone, and before long I was sprouting hundreds of beautiful new leaves, just like my tree. Its new home is far brighter and bigger and overlooks a city of great possibilities.

This retirement of mine is no retirement at all, but a series of new beginnings where opportunities abound. I’m a student again and a teacher. I am using my old skills in an entirely new way and reinventing myself as I go.

Being repotted is now exhilarating. I am unbound and unleashed, which at my age, 63, is a wonderful thing. I realize that I am so much more than my job, as great as that job might have been. I am a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, and a friend. I am a mentor and a protégé, and I am happier than I have ever been in my life.

Sherry Cooper (@DrSherryCooper), former chief economist at Bank of Montreal, is now a professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton.

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