Michael Watson

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I am in my encore career
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My Encore Story

When Michael Watson told colleagues he was going to work for the Girl Scouts of the USA, some responded, “What? Are you going to sell cookies?”

In fact, Watson, then a human-resource executive at IBM, had been offered the top HR job at the Girl Scouts, where he is now responsible for finding the right people for 432 headquarters jobs and for helping Girl Scout affiliates fill another 10,000 positions around the country. The paid staff works with 900,000 volunteers to serve more than 2.6 million girls.

But Watson understood his colleagues’ confusion. His own response when he had first been approached by an executive recruiter was, “The Girl Scouts has jobs?” he remembered. “I had never thought about a nonprofit career in my entire life. I didn’t know anyone who worked for one.”

Now, Watson is one of a growing number of corporate executives who are using their private sector training to launch encore careers in the nonprofit world. “I’ve never had a second thought,” he says. “I’ve absolutely loved it.”

Watson, 49, has been in training his whole life for his current role in helping to develop young leaders. Raised by his grandparents in a tough neighborhood in New Brunswick, N.J., he defied the odds to get accepted at Yale University. “All of us were poor,” he says. “I was the first in my family to go to college. To come from that background and be able to go to college -- I was appreciative of the opportunities.”

He thought the field of human resources would enable him to help other college students launch corporate careers, but was mindful that sales might be a more marketable skill. He joined IBM right out of college and got assignments selling computer systems in Florida. Five years later, he jumped to General Electric, which offered him a slot in its two-year human resources management training program. Soon, he helped set up GE’s college recruitment effort. “Within two years, I had my dream job,” he says.

Watson moved from GE to Time Warner, but after 15 years in corporate life, he decided it was time for a break. “I just figured, ‘Why wait until you retire to take a break?’” he says. “I just had confidence. Or as some people said, I was completely crazy. But once you have the confidence you can take a year off and come back, and have your choice of jobs, your confidence increases.”

On his sabbatical, Watson volunteered at two elementary schools in New Brunswick, helping in classrooms and talking with kids about their career options. “That was one of the most fulfilling things I was able to do, because I was able to do it full time,” he says. He also traveled in Europe, and continued his work with Inroads, which helps develop minority youths for corporate careers.

After his sabbatical, he rejoined IBM, this time in human resources. “I was very happy at IBM, and I was going to retire at IBM,” he says. Then he got that call from the headhunter.

“I had to make a decision,” he says. “Do I want to squeeze in my volunteer work into my spare time and have a smaller impact? Or do I want to join an organization and work full time to develop future leaders? I thought, ‘If I want to really make a difference, I have to do this.’”

He said his base pay at Girl Scouts is comparable to his IBM salary, and that the chance to do work that’s meaningful to him compensates for the loss of stock options and other corporate benefits. “I feel good about what I do,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed every corporate job I’ve had, but there’s a level of fulfillment in this job that’s very different.”

His job is to find the talent so Girl Scouts can carry out its mission of developing young leaders. Watson says he began with a focus on recruitment of young employees but quickly recognized the value of older workers, including corporate career-switchers, and now calls himself “an encore convert.” In addition to him, Girl Scouts has senior managers from GE, Exxon, American Express, Macy’s and other companies; in March, Laurel Richie joined the Girl Scouts as chief marketing officer after a 20-year career at advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather.

“The needs of baby boomers and those coming out of college are very similar,” Watson says. “On both ends, we need to reinvent work so it’s more doable, so there are more options and more flexibility. We need to make work more attractive for both ends of the spectrum, as well as for those in the middle.”

With organizations increasingly crunched for talent, he said nonprofits have to overcome their longstanding skepticism of the private sector. The first step is letting corporate executives know that challenging, satisfying encore careers in the nonprofit sector involve much more than selling Girl Scout cookies.

“A lot of people in the second half of their career want to make a difference,” he says. “We have to be more aggressive about making those opportunities available to them.”

My Work History

Michael Watson, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, directs the development and implementation of strategies, policies, and programs in the areas of staffing, employee retention, workforce planning, diversity, compensation and benefits, organizational development, employee relations and succession planning for Girl Scouts of the USA.

Prior to joining Girl Scouts in 1999, Watson was a human resources partner for IBM Global Services, where he served as the senior human resources strategist for two businesses with combined revenues of more than $2 billion. Other positions he has held include manager – corporate human resources for Time Warner, Inc., and manager – staffing and cultural diversity for GE Capital’s 7,500-employee Retailer Financial Services business. He was awarded GE Capital’s Pinnacle Club for top performance. Before joining GE’s Human Resources Management Program, Watson worked as an IBM marketing representative and received an IBM Golden Circle Award for ranking among the top performers in sales for the year.

In 1997, Watson took a one-year self-financed sabbatical. He spent part of that year as a volunteer at two public elementary schools in New Brunswick, N.J. He has been a business coordinator and volunteer for INROADS and an Association of Yale Alumni delegate, and he is a graduate of Leadership Jacksonville and Leadership Canton.


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