Peter Kaldes: Trust Your Vision and Be Nimble, Responsive, Resilient

Editor’s note: This past January, ASA surveyed its members about what it takes to be a leader in the field of aging, what members would like to learn about how to develop leadership knowledge, skills and abilities, and who best personifies leadership. ASA members identified respected leaders in aging—many of whom are well known to the ASA community and to the field at large. This following Q&A with ASA President and CEO Peter Kaldes marks the last in a series of leadership profiles we featured in Generations Today and Generations Now and is posted in celebration of the new ASA.

Peter Kaldes is President and CEO of the American Society on Aging (ASA), having joined in March 2020, at the start of the global pandemic. He’s the first former aging services provider and first gay man to have led the organization. His innovative leadership is transforming how ASA unites, empowers and champions its membership, who are working to improve aging. Before joining ASA, Kaldes was President and CEO of the South Florida Institute on Aging (SoFIA) where he led the transformation of a 55-year-old, community-based organization. Prior to SoFIA, Kaldes led a $20 million philanthropic economic development portfolio as a senior executive at JP Morgan Chase & Co. And he had a distinguished career in public service including as senior economic policy advisor in the Obama White House, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Senate.

Generations Now: How might you describe the way leadership in the field of aging differs from leadership in other fields?

Peter Kaldes (PK): Aging isn’t a monolithic subject area, so when you talk about aging, you’re talking about a huge variety of social and economic issues that one confronts as you get older. With that in mind, you need to approach leadership in the field of aging through a broad lens. You have to become a subject matter expert in a number of fields that inform aging. Leadership in the aging sector means having to understand the various segments of the field and being nimble enough to be responsive to their needs.

GN: How did you use networking to progress in the field of aging?

PK: I always see networking as an opportunity to learn and to fill in the gaps in my experience. Through networking you learn from one another. I found that the more I networked the more I discovered things I didn’t know. And the richest networking is with people outside my so-called bubble—those have been the most captivating.

GN: What sort of education did you find most helpful?

PK: I think education must be broadly defined. I’m proud of my studies as an International Relations major at Tufts University and legal studies at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. I began my career as an international lawyer. As a former litigator, I learned to research and understand complex global issues so that I was prepared to clearly advocate for my client’s needs—whether they be steel businesses, the federal government or Peruvian potato farmers.   

While my degrees have proven useful, it is my experiences working in business, government and the nonprofit sectors that I rely upon in my current role. Understanding how each sector approaches challenges and opportunities is extraordinarily valuable to me as the CEO of ASA. You lean on a variety of skills and lessons learned when advising the President of the United States or when teaching an older adult how to use social media. I would encourage everyone to consider career paths that are informed by rich and diverse experiences.

GN: What do you think is the most critical skill to have as a leader?

PK: I think listening. Listening not just to yourself and to your own ideas, but also having the wherewithal to listen to others and their points of view. But listening alone is useless if you also don’t have empathy—it’s a key skill to be able to blend listening with an empathetic response.

GN: Can you speak to one leadership challenge encountered on the job and how you met it?

PK: Leading an association in the best of times requires being nimble and responsive to members’ needs, but leading an association during the cancellation of its signature event, a stay-at-home order and a pandemic, plus an economic recession, requires a steady hand, resilience and trust in your vision. These past seven months have more than proven to me that those are the characteristics you need.

GN: What might you say to inspire younger potential leaders in the aging sector?

PK: Potential leaders should consider the fact that whatever work they do impacts aging. If you are a lawyer you could be working on matters that impact one’s estate or trusts or guardianship-related issues. Technologists should develop human-centered approaches to new products and recognize that while not digitally native now, many are learning rapidly. And if you’re in finance you need to think about where the next customer will come from, and design products and services that differ completely from the past.

I would also encourage leaders in the aging sector to check their own biases about aging. Take for example assumptions about consumers and wealth. Of course there are the Baby Boomers, but soon Generation X will be older as well, and the Millennials are following quickly behind and likely to be on the receiving end of the largest wealth transfer in history. They will become the largest consumer class, surpassing Boomers, so they need to rethink how they prepare to lead.

GN: Despite 2020 throwing us for a loop, what are you most hopeful for?

PK: Never have we had a moment in our history where all the things that make aging difficult have been exacerbated—whether it’s health or social and racial inequities. And never has aging been in the headlines to the extent it has been during this pandemic. If there ever was a moment for change it is now, and there is a generation of leaders who are rising to the challenge, recognizing the moment and ready to put in the hard work required to better prepare ourselves for 2030, when 1 in 5 people will be older than 65.

Because of this new generation of leaders, including many in ASA’s membership, I am incredibly optimistic about how we will overcome current obstacles and meet this challenge. ASA will do this by uniting, empowering and championing all those working to improve aging.

When you visit our new ASA website, you’re greeted with “We Are an Aging Society.” This speaks to the obvious fact that we’re a professional membership organization. But more importantly, we must acknowledge the fact that more of us are living longer and we must transform to meet these new opportunities. Thanks to the ASA and its members, I’m hopeful for the future of aging.