Finding flexibility in your career

April 7, 2009, 10:40 PM UTC

Another powerful woman called last week to tell me she’s opting out. “I’m going to do what I want to do rather than what I need to do,” said Julie Fasone Holder, Dow Chemical’s SVP and chief marketing, sales and reputation officer

It’s the trend lately. If you’ve been checking into Postcards regularly, you’ve read about my conversations with high-ranking women choosing the good life vs. the grind. Susan Arnold quit the presidency at Procter & Gamble with not a clue what she’s going to do next. Former Pepsi-Cola North America boss Dawn Hudson phoned a couple of weeks ago to say that she’s going to work for a consulting firm three days a week. That gig leaves four days for tennis, golf, family, and board duties. Hudson chairs the LPGA and is on the Lowe’s and Allergan boards.

And now here’s one of Dow’s top women execs joining the parade. A 34-year Dow veteran, Fasone Holder had planned to quit next year, once she hit the 35-year mark. But when Dow acquired Rohm & Haas – a $16 billion deal that just closed – her bosses wanted to move her into a new post, and she decided now was the right time to go. “My husband retired five years ago,” she says. “He’s been living the good life. And I’ve been working my butt off.”

Now, at 56, what does she want to do? She doesn’t know exactly, but like many women who have climbed high in business, she says, “I’ve had a nice career and now I want to give back. How crazy do I want to go in that space? I don’t know. Do I do something in Kenya or Zimbabwe?”

Via a sustainability project, which Dow started in January and she oversees, Fasone Holder has met some not-for-profit pioneers, including Jacqueline Novogratz, whose Acumen Fund backs entrepreneurs who help the poor in Asia and Africa. (Read Novogratz’s Guest Post, “Building value in the developing world.”) “I don’t know whether my passion extends to Africa,” Fasone Holder says. “There’s need everywhere.”

Indeed. Yesterday on Postcards, in “The job crisis strikes top talent,” I mentioned that not-for-profits don’t seem to be doing a very good job recruiting the high-end talent that’s suddenly available. Nicole Russell, an ace communications consultant looking for work, has found volunteer work difficult to line up. What a missed opportunity!

If she doesn’t turn her talent to non-profits, Fasone Holder says she may join Heidrick & Struggles’ new Chief Advisor Network. The recruiting firm launched the network a month ago to place out-of-work execs inside companies that are seeking temporary help. Says Fasone Holder: “It could be an interesting way to work without the stress.”

Well, there’s stress in all work – even in these situations where an exec, through the Heidrick program, goes into a company as a special advisor or interim leader to work on a turnaround or restructuring or special project. But Lauren Doliva, the Heidrick partner who is leading the Chief Advisor Network, notes that it meets the needs not only of companies that seek flexible solutions but also people who want flexible solutions too. “Many executives prefer a ‘portfolio’ lifestyle that will allow them to have personal flexibility, while still contributing,” she says.

Flexibility is a luxury, particularly in these stressful times, and I realize that not everyone can do what Susan Arnold and Dawn Hudson and Julie Fasone Holder are choosing to do. But if you can find flexibility and still have a career, good for you. I’m looking for examples. Please let me know if you’ve found a smart way to keep your career on track and have that flexibility at the same time.

P.S. For more job tips, read Fortune‘s current cover story, How to find a job.