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The CEO challenge: Stretch yourself

Let’s break from the news — following yesterday’s Postcard on Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan getting the boot and Monday’s Postcard about Citigroup chairman Dick Parson’s idea for luring fresh talent to the sick bank giant. (Appeal to “patriotic duty,” he proposes!)

Too many strange doings and way too much going on, frankly, during what is supposed to be a slowdown into summer. (Btw, when will Manhattan get warmer?) Today, I want to step back and tell you about a topic that’s been front and center in every conversation I’ve had these past eight hours: the notion of defining your power broadly, beyond your company’s bottom line.

The theme surfaced at breakfast, when I met with Richard Edelman, the PR ace, and Nancy Turett, the president of Edelman’s Health practice. We talked about the ever-increasing onus on CEOs to be socially responsible — and, as Turett sees it, to recognize their company’s “health footprint” as well as its “environmental footprint” (while delivering a good return to shareholders at the same time). These CEOs have more to do than ever. Aside from the big-pharma chief executives, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo , Jeff Immelt of General Electric and A.G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble , who just anointed a successor, are doing pretty well at this, building mighty businesses that simultaneously help make the world healthier. A double bottom line, potentially.

Later this morning, Jackie Kosecoff, who heads UnitedHealth Group’s giant Prescription Solutions unit, stopped by to talk about driving down health-care costs. (“Generics” is her watchword.) Kosecoff and I noted a growing number of execs, particularly women, who are thinking broadly about their power and abandoning hotshot careers. Examples: Genentech President Sue Hellmann recently left to be Chancellor at UCSF; P&G President Susan Arnold quit with no clue about what she’ll do next; Linda Dillman, once the IT and later employee-benefits czarina at Wal-Mart , is leaving the world biggest retailer for places unknown (yes, unknown even to her — and voluntarily).

This “What Color is My Parachute?” revival is difficult for corporate America, obviously. But depending on where these women land, they’ll contribute to the world in other ways, presumably.

Over lunch today with Catherine Smith, the CEO of U.S. Retirement Services at ING , we talked about what it takes to build a satisfying career. Smith started in commercial real estate, oversaw IR and then finance for Aetna, before ING acquired her division. She, like many super-successful women I’ve come to know, fueled her career by expanding her skills rather than just climbing the ladder. In fact, when she was offered a promotion in finance in 2000, she rejected it, choosing a less prestigious job in sales in order to learn about customers. Then she jumped to IT, virgin territory (“my biggest and most challenging and most out-of-normal experience”). She says: “To me, a career is like a quiver with lots of arrows.”

Smith is now using her platform at ING to promote environmental and other causes that were her passion decades before she became powerful. She’s on the advisory board of Outward Bound, whose philosophy happens to be quite relevant to executives today: “Get out of your comfort zone.”