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Want A New Career? Take a Fresh Look at Your Skills

People ask me how I made the leap from the financial services industry to a full-time nonprofit manager and philanthropy consultant. After all, the two industries were so different; or at least that’s how many of us incorrectly see the gap between the jobs we have, and the jobs we dream of having. To use the inverse of an expression, we often cannot see the
trees for the forest.  We don’t look at our skills (the trees) in any context other than the work environment (the forest) in which we are currently employed.  Looking back, I can see a clear career path to my first job in nonprofit with the skills I used in financial services:

  • Decisive problem solver. Frequently, I had to decide whether to process transactions, sometimes for as much as a million dollars, that had missing or incomplete information, ten minutes before the stock market closed.  If I decided wrong, and it was not caught early, it could mean thousands, or hundreds of thousands, in losses to the company.  (And a lot of personal embarrassment. Everyone on the floor heard about this type of error. Walking between departments felt like the walk of shame.) It trained me to quickly evaluate a situation, weed out extraneous information, assess risk, and then act decisively.   I also learned the importance of timely follow-up by verifying the next morning that my decision was the correct one.
  • Comfortable discussing sensitive money issues with people.  When a problem escalated beyond customer service, or an important broker had a problem, I was often the person asked to guide him or her through the resolution.   Sometimes the people with whom I was speaking were very angry.  It was my job to regain their trust and deliver on my promises.
  • Skilled at simplifying complex financial matters and an effective communicator.
    Not only did I consult with brokers over the phone, I later became a technical writer who wrote guides for financial software and documented tax rules for phone representatives.
  • Comfortable supervising and working with a diverse group of people.  For some of the people I was supervising, this was one of their first jobs in the United States. English was second language, and the financial industry’s buzzwords were a third. We had several countries represented in one modest-sized department.  I was also attending
    meetings with senior management and speaking with high-net-worth clients.
  • Ability to multitask in a busy office. Some of the companies for whom I worked had low cubicles in very loud offices.  I learned to focus and block out noise so successfully that I later had to retrain myself to hear other people’s phones ringing to answer them.
  •  Comfortable meeting tight deadlines. See bullet number one!

You get the picture.  Just about everything I did could be reframed to prepare me to work in the nonprofit industry, although I admit even I didn’t see it at the time.

So how did I ultimately make the change?  I volunteered at a start-up nonprofit and began to realize that my skills were transferable. I documented procedures for accepting donations that I modeled after the IRA contribution processing I had learned at my first job. I redesigned the web site and rewrote the marketing materials. Perhaps most critically, I read everything I could get my hands on (mainly physical books because it was still in the days of dial-up Internet) about philanthropy including the IRS materials.  I demonstrated an eagerness and passion to learn, and I did what was asked of me as a volunteer with a positive attitude, whether it was stuffing envelopes or helping to rewrite a grant.  I was thrilled to use my skills for a charitable purpose so I was genuinely glad to help in any capacity.

Eventually, I was volunteering 30-hours a week while working 40-hours a week at my
full-time job.  The charity’s staff was calling me during the day to ask my advice.  Something had to give.  I shared my dilemma with the President of the charity.  Either I had to reduce my volunteer hours and limit calls from his staff to me during the day, or he had to hire me. 
After some thought, we jointly decided on my new title at the charity, Director of Special Projects.  It was a bit of an inside joke.  Director of Special Projects was a common title in financial services for someone who is doing just about anything that needed to get done but
isn’t already assigned; a life changing opportunity that resulted in a career change even I wouldn’t have foreseen a year earlier.

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