Sharon Hartung: “The future executor is a digital executor”

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Hartung. Sharon Hartung, Captain (Ret’d), PEng, MSc, BEng, PMP, CD, rmc is the Founder and Principal of Your Digital Undertaker. With over 30 years of experience in IT management, […]

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As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Hartung.

Sharon Hartung, Captain (Ret’d), PEng, MSc, BEng, PMP, CD, rmc is the Founder and Principal of Your Digital Undertaker. With over 30 years of experience in IT management, project management and consulting, she brings a multi-disciplinary approach to better understanding the role of managing digital assets in estate planning and estate administration. Sharon has built and maintained large enterprise systems for public sector and financial clients — starting as an aerospace engineering officer with the Canadian Forces before retiring as a Captain. Joining IBM Global Services, Sharon spent her career as an executive and consultant in Project Management. Sharon’s book, Your Digital Undertaker — Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada, has recently been published. Sharon holds an MSc in Management of Information Systems, as well as a Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification and is a Professional Engineer. Sharon is a Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) affiliate and committee member of the STEP Global Digital Assets Special Interest Group.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It all started when my mom died without a Will. I was amazed at how big a job it was to deal with her estate, and frustrated that I couldn’t find a basic how-to manual to help me do it.

As I dug into the information that was available, I realized that everything had been written for a pre-digital world. No one was writing about estate planning where financial records, photographs, and even some financial assets are in digital form.

I knew I needed to write the how-to manual I would have loved to have, and it needed to include information for estate planning in a digital world — not for last century! Because I’d spent years in the military and then at IBM using project management, charts, diagrams, graphics and checklists to make complex processes simple, I decided to apply this approach to the process of estate planning.

The result is my book, Your Digital Undertaker — Exploring Death in the Digital Age in Canada, and my consulting practice that provides services for the estate industry in the area of digital assets.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The leap from the military and corporate IT into estate planning is the most interesting turn of events in my entire career. Estate planning is not the most obvious place one would expect to find a technology management professional. The deathcare and estate industries are about to be transformed by innovation, technology and the deathcare movement. So one should expect to see more new players in the estate space such as technology advisors

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Collectively, society has spent the last 30 years using and accelerating the application of technology to our business and personal lives. We know technology touches all of us daily, but we really haven’t considered how our digital lives impact our death, and ultimately the deathcare and estate industries. The subject of death and how to prepare for it is a necessary subject that we all must face. With technology touching all aspects of our lives — and by extension our deaths, there are a multiplicity of laws that must catch up and deal with our digital profiles.

How do you think this will change the world?

There are three ways our use of the internet will transform the deathcare and estate industries.

1. We have a new asset class called digital assets that need to be considered as part of estate planning in addition to our physical assets. These digital assets have financial and sentimental value.

2. The role of the executor has quietly and fundamentally changed as there is no longer a paper trail. The tagline I have been using is the following: “The future executor is a digital executor.”

3. The deathcare and estate industry is about to be transformed by technology and the death-positive movement. The tagline I have been using is the following: “Technology is the new player at the estate planning table.”

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Quite the opposite. Talking about death and dying is generally not a conversation anyone wants to have. In North America, less than half of all individuals have a will and even fewer have a current one. But, all of us must have a Will because death is inevitable. If we want control over what happens to our physical and digital assets, or if we want to provide for our loved ones and beneficiaries, our wishes must be documented or the government will decide on our behalf what happens to our estate

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

My journey to the new career path didn’t start with technology. In fact, the journey started by simply trying to crack the code on my mother’s estate. It came about by the frustration of not finding the information I wanted in a clear and understandable form. I found myself asking, why the heck hasn’t someone taken this hodgepodge of information and created a basic how-to manual? Then I thought, hey, wait a sec, I can do that!

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

A simple recognition by every adult that preparing for death is as equally an important responsibility as any other. In my book, I implore every generation to get on with it for reasons that are not only unique to their generational cause but the equally important responsibility of taking care of our loved ones.

Excerpt Foreword Your Digital Undertaker: “The subject of death and how to prepare for it is a very important subject which touches us all. Baby Boomers, I encourage you to get your affairs in order, because it is hard enough in the digital age for the next generation to keep up and you might even find it is a liberating and uplifting experience. Generation Xers, for you, it means going through the death journey with mom and dad, and learning from it. Millennials and Generation Zers, it will likely mean a total rethink of how you want to approach death, the same way you are rethinking how you want to work, socialize, get around and communicate.”

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I was fortunate that my military and corporate experiences prepared me in many more ways than I could have ever imagined for my entrepreneurial life:

1. I knew I needed advice and even watercooler friendships and conversation. A friend of mine started a Mastermind group, called Byte Bright, and our monthly Zoom meetings over the past several years have proved to be invaluable.

2. I knew I needed lots of coaches on various topics, and wasn’t afraid to get some new ones. These individuals have been incredible sources of advice and encouragement. I can only hope I have been able to equally contribute value in the way in which I have received it.

3. I do wish that I had been told that creating a book is also creating a business. I understood that for my consulting practice, but not for the book. Writing a book is the easy part, getting out to promote, sell, and manage it requires all the same considerations as does running a business. Once I realized that, I took the time to write a business plan, and put all the pieces in place including the social media strategy required to run the book as a business.

4. I learned the same lesson that most self-published book authors learn too late; and that is the heavy lift required by authors to market and promote their books. Once I realized it was my responsibility to market and promote the book, I hired a book publicity firm to help me regroup and build a plan.

5. Having said all that, the one beautiful thing I have discovered being an entrepreneur, is the possibilities are endless. If one idea doesn’t work, you can try another because you are truly your own boss. Of course, you have to be reasonable and focused on how much you can take on. For example, when I ventured into this new consulting journey and the book writing effort, I never imagined I would end up podcasting, or discovering new clients in areas I didn’t expect, such as those in the deathcare or death-positive community.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Keep moving. If you have chosen a non-technology path, make sure you learn about how to apply technology to it or any other enabler or innovation outside the core competency of the role. A career in technology means finding the time to stay current — a foot always in two worlds: the world of today that pays the bills, and the world of tomorrow that might not. Any job or career path can always be enhanced with project management and communication skills because every effort involves a project of some kind and every outcome is dependent on the message.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

In the digital age, we are on the cusp of the largest wealth transfer in history due to the inevitable passing of the Baby Boom generation. As a result, the deathcare and estate industries are about to experience the same transformation that every other industry has seen. Within the estate industry, estate planning and estate administration companies and advisors will have to grapple with the digital asset class, and to deal with consumers who will want all the same ease-of-use that technology has offered every other industry. I don’t know where to start: estate tech along the lines of fin tech disruption, eco or alternative funerals, electronic wills, social media trusts, probate on a blockchain. The possibilities are endless……..

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Success in life, be that in business or in our personal lives is completely dependent on our relationships with those around us. I am grateful for all those in my life who have helped along the way and those who I have recently met along this journey who have provided advice, lent an ear, or tried to help out. I try to repay my gratitude by paying-it-forward, by being as generous as I can with my time and advice to others.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

I have realized that time is precious and is our most valuable commodity. Spend it wisely and often with those you love. And, that includes putting down our devices to make time for fitness, for health, and for the relationships in our lives that will live on long after we have left our jobs and changed our careers.

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