An Early Retirement… Consulting Style
by Eric Krell
Consultants face two hurdles in retirement: All of the necessary components—the desire, the means and the conditions—were in place for former Arthur Andersen and BearingPoint executive vice president Gail Steinel to leave the profession at the tender age of 50. But none of those early retirement enablers were nearly as valuable as the consulting profession itself.
“Because of all the varied things you’ve done and the network of people you know, being a consultant affords you a lot of options later in life,” says Steinel, who invested 23 years of her consulting career with Arthur Andersen prior to BearingPoint. “I don’t think enough consultants realize the options they have.”
Steinel now thrives as a part-time public speaker and provider of leadership development seminars as well as “the world’s only hockey aunt.” She counts the Yale School of Management, BearingPoint and Deltek as clients, serves as a board member, assists the Shelter our Sisters charity with fund-raising and co-authored Excuse Me, Aren’t You in Charge? Insightful Snippets to Recharge Your Leadership Batteries (Emerald Book Co., 2009). Steinel’s profits from the book’s sale are donated to Shelter Our Sisters. Each of these activities, Steinel emphasizes, require her to flex the project management, public-speaking, leadership and research skills that served her so well as a consultant.
That Steinel, a two-time Consulting magazine Top 25 Consultant honoree, credits her career for enabling a successful early retirement seems appropriate. “I loved my job and was passionate about it,” she asserts. “It consumed me. I worked like a dog, particularly at the leadership component and at developing other people.”
As an Andersen auditor early in her career, the CEO of a client company confided in Steinel that he set aside a significant portion of his annual bonus in a colorfully named fund. The money gave him the freedom to walk out the door—an option he saw was not open to many colleagues and peers because they lived above their means.
“I’ve always been extremely outspoken, and I knew there was a good chance I could get into a position where I would need to either back off of my principles or stand up for them,” says Steinel, who immediately embraced a similar financial plan.
She consistently seeded her fund, and she ultimately became global managing partner of the firm’s business consulting practice, responsible for 10,000 employees. The magnitude of that responsibility became crystal clear in 2001 when Steinel helped plan and execute the arduous and complex integration of Andersen’s global consulting practice into the newly publicly listed BearingPoint. “I was extremely proud to be a part of Arthur Andersen and it was emotionally disturbing to see it not only end, but to end in disgrace,” she says. “It took an enormous toll on me in every way.”
The transition to BearingPoint was also bumpy, given the firm’s financial challenges following the integration. Mentally and physically exhausted as she neared her 50th birthday, Steinel used the milestone to reflect on her future.
She decided to retire in March 2007, upon which her CEO asked her if she would remain involved in the firm’s unique leadership development program (which all BearingPoint managers and directors attend) at the Yale School of Management. Steinel, who helped design the program, accepted.
Now that her working hours are less dog-like, she spends lots of time with her nieces and nephews. “I feel surprised and fortunate that I found the right balance between work and free time so soon,” Steinel says. “I feel like I work part-time and I’m retired part-time. That was my goal.”