How to Navigate a Drastic Career Change

How to Navigate a Drastic Career Change

You’ve gone to school, done the internships, gotten the certifications, landed the dream job, and spent 10 years establishing yourself in the field…but eventually you become burnt out and miserable, for myriad reasons. Is it too late to change? What else could you do? How do you continue to support yourself while starting over, especially if that involves going back to school? How do you even find what you want to do instead?

Wendy Gilbert, HR Account Representative at Xenium, went through this exact experience when shifting out of the mental health counseling field into human resources. Listen in as she shares her story, including each of its turns and bumps and uplifts, and offers up lessons learned and advice to others in the same situation.

MP3 File | Run Time: 41:34

Brandon: Hey Wendy! Welcome to the podcast.

Wendy: Thanks Brandon! Great to be here.

Brandon: Good to have you back. Last time, you and I talked Ban the Box, and return to work after being incarcerated, right?

Wendy: Exactly. And why employers should not blanketly discriminate against people that may have a criminal background but may have done the work they need to get back to where they want to be.

Brandon: For listeners who may be joining us for the first time, go back and listen to that one. That was a good podcast and that was your introduction to Wendy. But today we’re going to talk about changing careers. You actually did this.

Wendy: Yes, I did.

Brandon: What’s your background. Where were you at before? Why and when did you decide to make that change?

Wendy: I want to start from the beginning. Since I was a young teenager, I knew I wanted to be a mental health counselor. It’s all I wanted to be. Once I figured out what that was, I was like, Oh! So that’s what I’m going to be later in life. All of my education, my student loans, everything was tied to that. I went to college, I went to graduate school, I practiced for 10 years and I was very active. I worked my way up in management, I was overseeing large programs, mostly dealing with crisis work in the county. Then I worked for a federal grant and in the middle of working for this federal grant, I was like, I don’t know that I want to do this anymore. I just became a bit burnt out and I had done some really intensive things for a really long time.

Brandon: And I’m sure it wasn’t all of a sudden too. What was going through your head to say now is the time for a change?

Wendy: Great question. I did really intense work, but every day I woke up and I couldn’t wait to do it. Even when it was really challenging and really difficult, this is what I live for. I loved it. It was my passion.

Brandon: Was that initially or even the last day you did it, you felt that?

Wendy: I felt that up until near the end. That’s what happened. Even going to school for it, it was my pure motivation. I had almost a 4.0 in grad school.

Brandon: So you obviously were passionate about the subject and even loved doing it. Why the shift?

Wendy: It started when I started waking up in the morning not wanting to go to work. We all have those days where you wake up and think, Oh, I just don’t want to go in today. But I started realizing that it was almost every day and I was doing things to not go to work. I was taking random PTO days, but more often. We all have the occasional mental health day that is totally necessary.

Brandon: A “me” day, as I tend to call it. Go do what I want and just not think about anything besides what I want.

Wendy: And just recharge. But I wasn’t recharging and the work wasn’t different. The work was the same.

Brandon: You changed.

Wendy: I changed, and I was becoming tired and I was becoming more stressed. I was starting to have thoughts that I shouldn’t have as a counselor. Being a mental health counselor and working with people that are in the poverty generational cycle, realizing that they want to make changes. That’s why I’m working with them. But they don’t necessarily know how to have those resources and that’s where I come in and all of a sudden I’m having thoughts of, What’s wrong with these people?

That was my big wake up call of I know better than to think like that. I know the intricacies of how complex this gets and it’s not a these people kind of population.

I had done so much training with other counselors on what burnout looks like and I started recognizing myself. I started to see the writing on the wall and knew I needed to go do something else. I also knew that it wouldn’t be overnight. You can’t just quit your job and walk into something else, unless you want to go be maybe a receptionist somewhere. But even then, they will have their misgivings about why you are really there.

So I went back to school and I kept my job. Portland State University has great programs.

Brandon: Go Vikings!

Wendy: And this wasn’t for credits but to complete programs and maybe get some certificates and completing some courses of study. I started off with what I loved. I had a boyfriend who worked as a project manager and had told me about his work. He was long gone by this time, but the information about his work stayed with me and when he told me about it I thought, I’ve done a lot of this, just in an unofficial capacity. There was no official capacity for project management at the time with mental health. But I thought, let me start with what I love and let me see what falls into place.

I took the certificate courses in project management and I learned a lot, mostly by talking with my coworkers and the professors. Project management was not something I could walk into. It’s something that you need to be promoted into and everybody else except for me was there because their company was paying for it.

Brandon: And you were starting over and paying for it yourself at this point.

Wendy: Yes. Completely out of my pocket. It was my savings that was going to these classes and they were not cheap. I loved them, but I still didn’t have a way to break in. There was no entry level project manager anywhere, or even a project assistant. I’d been a high level manager for years. They’re not going to want to hire somebody to do admin work necessarily. I was talking with one of my professors and he said, You know, I think you would be really great in HR. And something clicked, it just resonated with me.

So I went home and looked at all my contacts and said, Who do I know in HR? And I started holding informational interviews and people were so happy to do that. People love talking about what they do.

Brandon: People love that. I’ve talked about that on the podcast before. It’s like informational interviews, it’s untapped. People love to talk about themselves.

Wendy: Schedule some time, show up with some Starbucks, and just ask for 15 minutes of their time. It’s never just 15 minutes.

Brandon: No. It’s always an hour, an hour and a half.

Wendy: And they’re talking and you’re taking notes. You’re not taking notes like you’re in class. I mean you’re having a conversation. But write down some key things and I had a great informational interview with my former director of HR.

Brandon: At the company that you got burned out from?

Wendy: Actually the company before, because I kept the relationship with her.

Brandon: Don’t burn bridges, people. Don’t burn bridges!

Wendy: Not at all! I had actually helped her in an investigation previously. We had a sexual harassment thing come up in the larger department and I was one of the managers that helped her wrangle people together and ask questions and find out the story. I remembered that too and I really enjoyed being a part of that because I was helping my employees. Somebody was harassing them and I wanted to get to the bottom of it and we did. I remembered that I enjoyed that. I remembered that she was very helpful and very supportive and I remembered that my employees were all supported.

Coming from a mental health counselor career, obviously I like to help people. That’s a pretty good assumption right there. And looking at HR, it’s another way for me to help people and also make a living. That’s the other thing about working on non-profit. There was just not much of a living to be made.

Brandon: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Wendy: I looked around at the therapists that have been there for 20 years or more and they all had spouses that were bringing in the primary financial support, all of them. I was making so little and I knew that going into non-profit. I knew exactly what I was walking into. I had no misconceptions about that. But I got 10 years later to a point in my life where I was getting burned out in the work and I couldn’t financially afford to take care of myself to avoid the burnout.

Brandon: And I wonder if with the burnout, one of the underlying factors was the compensation. It’s like, I’m killing myself but yet the value I’m bringing and how hard I’m working, the money is not equal to the output. So it just perpetuates the burnout. Did you feel that a little bit?

Wendy: That definitely was a factor, not the factor. A lot of people think it was the factor. A lot of people in my life said—

Brandon: They assumed you’re chasing money.

Wendy: Yes. They went into their careers because they want to make a good living. They were chasing the money. That was their dream, to be able to provide a certain financial lifestyle for themselves and their families. That made sense. That wasn’t initially where my motivation was and I didn’t have any unrealistic ideas that I would suddenly appear and I would be great financially and I would suddenly find it. But I was getting to a point where I think what was important to me was changing and I was starting to look at my future, how little was in my 401(k).

But also I think that there are times in everybody’s job where you get kind of burnt out. Projects are going forever and you’re working late nights and seeing that paycheck sometimes can help keep that motivation going.

Brandon: Backing up to the burnout that you experienced, you know, I think a lot of people would say they need a sabbatical, to go on vacations. Just get away and recharge. It sounds like you did a little bit of that and tried to recharge, but you weren’t recharging. But switching careers is a drastic move. It’s a hell of a response to suffering burnout.

What was the thought process of hey, I’m experiencing burnout. The pay is a little bit of an issue as well. But I’m just not excited to get up anymore and then just saying changing careers is the move. A lot of people would probably just go the other way and just say, A couple of vacations and I will get back to it and then the burnout will come back eventually.

Wendy: There were some other factors. Very perceptive of you. So the licensing laws were changing a bit and I was at the forefront of that. I’m a former president of the Oregon Housing Association. Without getting too much into detail, there are a lot of issues around licensing and insurance reimbursement that were going on in the legislature. I had done crisis work and it became clear that in order for me to continue and maybe even build my career, I would need to get licensed. But because of the kind of work I did in mental health, crisis work and not necessarily the traditional office therapy, I would actually have to go back and do office therapy, which is not what I wanted to do. I’m pretty ADHD. I like to be out and about. Sitting in an office all day talking to people…

Brandon: It’s hard, yeah.

Wendy: It’s just not going to keep my attention. So instead of setting myself up for failure, I was looking at options.

I could have done that. If I had loved what I had done, it would have been a couple of years. I would have gone back, done some office therapy, found out what would count towards those hours and gotten my license and made that happen. Or I could have gone into administration. Neither of those things appealed to me. They just didn’t. I wanted to keep doing what I was generally doing which is be out and about, not necessarily just sit in an office all day. One of the things I like with the job now is that I get to be out with clients.

Brandon: So it took a lot to go from from point A, which is your old career, to point B, which is where you’re sitting today as a human resource manager.

Let’s talk about your fears. Everybody goes through fears when they change. It’s tough. Change is tough. There are a lot of fears, a lot of anxiety. People are talking at you and trying to force their opinions on you, I’m sure. What was that whole process like? You switched careers 10 years in, started all over, went back to school.

Wendy: And start from the beginning. That was the other thing too. In these informational interviews, I was like – well, I think I can walk in as an HR generalist. I’ve been a manager. I understand what’s going on in the workplace and I had no idea what I didn’t know. I was all ego at that point and didn’t realize it. So starting off with those informational interviews, they kept saying, Well, you’re going to have to start over. I was like, well, that’s cute, but I will be OK. I will find one in and it will be good.

What was really interesting is other people were way more fearful than I was. My family freaked out.

Brandon: Why? What did they say?

Wendy: They come from the generation of you find your work home. You stay there for 25, 30 years and you retire.

Brandon: Get your gold watch.

Wendy: Your gold watch and that’s where you belonged and that’s what you do. Here I was talking about changing careers, changing everything, completely uprooting myself and going into the huge unknown. I didn’t even have connections really in this field. I had a few and I already met with them. I had to do a lot more of mitigating other people’s fears.

I also want to go on record and say something really important. I didn’t have kids. I knew at that time that if I had had children, that I had to keep benefits for and a steady paycheck for and needed to be able to afford certain things, this may not have been possible or definitely not as fairly smooth as it went.

Brandon: Not as responsible is what I would say. The way I look at – I have two kids and I make a certain level of money now and I save at a certain rate and if I decided to take a career change and my income was cut in half or something, I would think, wow, that’s for one sort of irresponsible of me in a way. But what if I was super unhappy? What if I just needed that change kind of like you did? I think in order to make it a smooth transition, you have to either save a lot of money in advance or just be really smart about it and cut corners where you can.

Wendy: I was able to cut corners. I sat down and did some math and said, Ok, what’s my bottom? What can I go to? I literally had the job for a year and a half at $14 an hour.

Brandon: Oh, so you really started over.

Wendy: I really started over. I really went in. I was an executive assistant in a large HR department for an international company. It was great because I got to put my fingers in every task of HR.

Brandon: Great learning experience. There’s a huge benefit to that, touching various aspects of the business.

Wendy: I learned so much. And because I was supporting executives that were extremely high level in HR, I had access to all of their managers and all of their people. Being the executive assistant for these executives, I’m their main contact. So I do for them, they do for me, which means if I want to sit down and interview them a little bit about what they do, say, in benefits or in labor relations or any of those things, it’s actually in their best interest to talk with me about that. They need to keep me on their good side, so that I have no problem reconciling their expenses at the end of the month.

And in getting there too, I applied for some jobs, HR jobs I thought I could walk into. I didn’t get those. I thought a great cover letter would get me in the door, I was very naïve. I really thought that I will find that one in and I didn’t. So again, swallow your pride. You go back and I held this job for $14 an hour, but the experience I got out of it and the connections I got were incredible. I learned a ton about the field. I understood what it would take to get certification and I started making all these connections. I started to understand where in HR I wanted to go, where I belonged and where I didn’t.

Brandon: I want to make an observation, because I think this is an important distinction. You talked about your family and I don’t want to disrespect anybody who thinks this way, but I think for those people that think they should work for the same company for 25 years – and trust me, I would work for the same company for 25 years if I absolutely could. But I realize things change, right? People change.

For those people, the way they think is that their skills are finite, right? They can’t improve, they don’t necessarily have the growth mindset. You took a different approach. I think the way in which you’re articulating this is that you knew you could go develop those skills. You knew you could go get that new experience, you just had to start all over. But you could do it. It would be a little painful. I don’t think the other side necessarily thinks like that. They don’t think you could do that.

Wendy: That makes sense. Yeah, I knew it would be a good five years or so of getting back up to where I currently was. I think it also helped that I came from non-profits, so I wasn’t exactly making a ton of money to begin with.

Brandon: Yeah. The difference between what you were making and what you had to start over. It wasn’t drastic, you’re not talking about $150,000 to like $40,000 or something.

Wendy: Right. I’m not going to say how much. But it was down to $14 an hour and it was still a dramatic cut, don’t get me wrong. But it wasn’t $150,000.

But I did own a home. I was taking care of myself. I was worried about my future. You hit your 30s and you’re starting to think, What am I going to do next? And I was well into my 30s when all this happened. I was mid to late 30s.

Brandon: But I thought you were in your 20s?

Wendy: That’s adorable, thank you. So I knew that the experience that I had was an asset. I learned that HR skills and mental health skills are not that different from one another, but experience is everything. A big lesson I learned was I should have been more open to listening to people when they told me I had to start over, because I had met also with a couple of recruiters and, again, I did informational interviews and I still thought I knew best.

Then after not getting some jobs, I finally realized, ok, this is where I need to be. I need to start over. It wasn’t like an overnight, Well, I will just take $14 an hour and it will be fine and this and that. It was no, no, no, I can do this. I just need an in. And the in never came. Then I was starting to get to the end of my rope and I needed to find something. I just realized, Wendy, five people told you the same thing. Why are you being so resistant?

It is gradual and I think that you can’t beat yourself up for it being gradual.

Brandon: It’s a process and it takes a little bit of time.

Wendy: Yeah, it does and you have to allow that process to happen and that’s ok. And I hadn’t made any huge commitments in the meantime.

Brandon: I want to ask you about the economics of this whole decision because I know it’s always a factor. When you make a career change, not only are you leaving a type of career that maybe has certain future prospects. Maybe you have a ceiling as to where you can get in terms of money, position, all those things.

But then as you’re kind of looking at a new industry, through informational interviews you probably realize, ok, well, I could start an HR rep level, HR account rep, HR business partner. I could be on the executive team at some point. You see this possible progression as long as you get the experience and the skills whereas on the other side, supply-demand plays a huge factor in a lot of these things in terms of what you can make and your future prospects. What was your thought process around those things?

Wendy: I was really open. I knew that I had to start off as an HR assistant, which is what I did, and I landed in a good spot and it worked out. Then that spot came to an end. They eliminated the job and what they offered me was not necessarily in HR and it wasn’t where I wanted to go and still for very little pay. I wasn’t interested in doing that.

So I went back to some recruiter friends that I had made through temping and doing different things. Make connections with everybody. Build bridges with everybody. Oh my gosh, that came back to me in spades. It was amazing. I made friends with a particular recruiter. I talked to her and she said, I know you don’t have experience. But I know that you just need to be trained. I have a really great job as a recruiter and I think they’re going to love you and they’re willing to train you because we’re hiring a brand new team.

So because I kept that relationship, I got the phone call about the perfect opportunity. And for her, she got to place a very competent person in there who just needed to be trained. That was great because again, working for a large international company, they want to train you the way they want it done anyway. Anybody coming with prior experience would just have to be retrained on a lot of those things. So coming in fresh and then having the experience of having been a manager and hiring people, I was able to relate to my internal clients who are all hiring managers and so it worked out really well and I got world class training and I did that for a couple of years. Then I realized I did not want to be a recruiter! I love the HR facet of it all and I loved the experience. But it was pretty close to sales.

Brandon: Of course. You’re doing both sides of it. You’re selling but you’re also interviewing and placing people.

Wendy: Then again, it’s coming back to your connections and I made connections with some HR consulting companies in the area and again with recruiters. I started discussing with them. I was in no rush. I left myself time but I said to them, you know, I don’t think this is where I want to quite land. But this experience has been amazing.

For everything you do, you’ve got to take the positive out of it. What did I learn? What skills did I get? What connections did I make? I made some incredible connections and I even helped them. I made some referrals and I helped them make some great hires and so there was a lot of give and give on either side. Then I was looking at more HR generalist roles and then starting again more entry level with that. But I wasn’t quite an assistant anymore.

Brandon: You had the experience.

Wendy: Yeah. I was building my skill set and put more things in my bag. At that point, I had a better idea what I want to do. I know I wanted to be working with people, I wanted to deal with more employee relations issues. I like variety. So I know I want to be a generalist. So how do I get to there?

And it’s talking to people who know and say, How do I get to there? And it’s networking, which is something I do naturally. I know it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. But going to HR events and learning about different things and just always having business cards and talking with people. And LinkedIn, LinkedIn, LinkedIn. You’ve got to connect with people on LinkedIn.

Brandon: Don’t rely on it solely. But use it as a supplement in networking.

Wendy: And just keep reading what people are posting.

Brandon: You can find out a lot about what is on people’s minds by reading LinkedIn posts, I think.

Wendy: You can and you can also find out a lot about people and quality, about what they post, what they repost, what they say, how appropriate they are. Sometimes you can meet somebody at an event and they seem amazing and then they start posting all these really inappropriate for LinkedIn, maybe more Facebook-type stuff, on LinkedIn. And people are not giving them their respect.

Like, maybe I should give that person more space and go over here. I want to protect my reputation. I’m not being super judgy about it, but you know those people that stand out. The people that always post really great, thoughtful things versus the people that are like bashing the president, no matter which president it is. Even if I agree with them, I wouldn’t necessarily put it on LinkedIn.

But yeah, I think a lot of it came down to just networking and talking with people. And I had talked with some people that had switched careers too. I remember in one of my HR classes, I took a course and I went up to the professor and I said, Tell me your story. How did you get here? That’s what I kept asking people. Tell me how you got to where you are.

Brandon: That’s an interesting question to ask. Everybody has a story. It’s never a straight line either. It’s like oh, I had some low moments here. I had to struggle over here and then now I’m where I’m at.

Wendy: I thought executives and people that have worked their way up were just so untouchable, that they were somehow born into that.

Brandon: They go through a lot to get to where they’re at.

Wendy: Some don’t, some are born with all the skills and a great, supportive environment and they go into the Ivy League and then they get recruited from the Ivy League. Some people just have it. They work or it, don’t get me wrong.

Brandon: It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re also going to succeed either.

Wendy: No, but they have a little bit of an easier time.

Brandon: Sure.

Wendy: And then you find the people that are just, No, I worked my way up. I clawed and I did that. And then you find the occasional people that had also switched careers. It always comes down to I had connections, I kept in touch, and somebody gave me a chance.

So there were two stories. One was I was in one of my HR classes and it was the professor and he was in training. It’s funny because I didn’t think of him much as a trainer, I thought he did not a great job in the class, and he won’t remember me so I can say that!

But I remember asking him. Tell me your story. How did you get to be a trainer? It was I was doing this other career and the career was kind of going away. I don’t remember what it was. Something in the technical field maybe. And somebody who knew him approached him and said, I think you would be a really great trainer. Let me teach you something. So here he was training at PSU now!

The other thing that I always remember that brought me down to earth about how to get there was when I was in graduate school for a degree in counseling psychology. Super energetic, super passionate. This is all I wanted to do. My last year at grad school, I was working 40 hours a week, doing an internship for 22 hours a week and taking 15 credits. And I was fine. I was exhausted, but I was fine. I was so motivated and the executive director of our counseling agency was this really nice, approachable woman. We didn’t get to see her a whole lot, but I really liked her.

I was talking with some people and they said, You should take her out for lunch and ask their questions, and I’m like, No, she would never go out to lunch with me. I’m just an intern. Why would she give me time? She’s so busy. But I approached her and I said, I was wondering if I could take you to lunch sometime? I’m really interested in your story, how you got to be where you are.

Brandon: I think it’s the way you framed it up. It probably made her open to it.

Wendy: She brightened up!

Brandon: Yeah. Flattered.

Wendy: She loved it. She’s like, Oh, I would love that! And this is somebody who had to cancel a good 50% of her appointments at any given time. She kept her lunch with me.

Brandon: Interesting.

Wendy: We scheduled it for the next week, she looked at her calendar right then and there. She scheduled it and then went out for lunch. I was completely prepared to pay and everything. She didn’t let me pay and she made like 17 times more money than me. So that was really great! That was going to hurt, but it was going to be worth it.

I just said, How did you get to be where you are? And she didn’t have the straight line. She actually had that real squiggly line. You see a lot of memes about that these days that success is not straight up. She started talking about her story and I owned a business and that didn’t work out. So I sold that and I did this and I did that. I’m like, Oh my goodness. I’m on that path! I was just an intern but I was having my first mental health clients and doing them sort of first time. But I remember exhaling. Like ok, I don’t need to be on this straight path. My anxiety went down a bit.

I always remembered that because when it came time for me to change careers, I was like, no, this is ok. This is life and life is not a straight line and I have to kind of take my own anxiety down a bit about this and just be open to that. I have to be happy and being happy means making a living. It means having a life. And your career, your job, your everything, is part of your identity and I have to be ok with that.

I knew I wasn’t going to go work for Philip Morris, but I didn’t necessarily want to save the world anymore either. I wanted to help it, I wanted to help it a lot. The burnout kind of toned a lot of things down. What was something else that I could find passion for? Still work with people, help people make a living, but have everything focused around helping people because I was just becoming depleted, was what it was.

Brandon: You had no more to give.

Wendy: My own internal energy, I just felt that it was just being depleted. I didn’t have anything more to give and there’s nothing worse than a burned out counselor. I mean we’ve all seen them and they’re terrible to work with, they’re terrible to have as your counselor. It’s just difficult and you have to be passionate about what you do. We all go through peaks and valleys, some days are better than others. But my time to change came with the realization of I never want to get up for work anymore. I just wanted to avoid it and I was just so tired of it. I was starting to take it out on my coworkers. None of this was fair.

Once I made a decision to make a change, I became so much more energized. Knowing that this situation I was in wasn’t forever and that it didn’t feel as hopeless – and I didn’t even know that I felt hopeless until I started feeling hope again! That was crazy.

Brandon: Change is good. It reenergizes us. Hope is a great keyword in this whole thing, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and there is hope, it’s exciting.

Wendy: My dad actually worked in sales for most of my life and he was great at it. He made a good living at it and he reached a point a long, long time ago where he hated it. On his weekend, as a kid I’d say Hey, dad! and he just didn’t have the energy to give me because all of his energy was towards providing for his family. It’s a lot of energy. But I saw what it did to him to not love his job. And he didn’t feel open to change, we talked about it when I was an adult. He was like, I couldn’t have done this. I couldn’t have done that. He didn’t even apply for something else until all of his kids were grown and out of the house for a good 10 years.

I saw what it does when you don’t love what you do. It just killed him. He’s actually retired now a couple of years and he’s a completely different person.

Brandon: Really?

Wendy: Oh my gosh! He went back to college. He never had a chance to get his degree because of the way his life turned out when he was young and he had to work and support his family. So he never got to go back and get his degree. That was a huge regret of his, even though it just wasn’t possible at the time. He’s in school right now, close to his Associate’s, maybe going for his Bachelor’s. He’s taking his time, he’s retired. He’s living the retired life but also he’s volunteering and he’s working for SNAP, which usually we call food stamps, food assistance for people. But he is energized! And this is the person who was the most anxious about all these changes I was making. What are you going to do? What’s going to happen?

Brandon: And here he is! He’s making changes himself and he’s loving it.

Wendy: He’s incredibly different, incredibly different. I just remember being younger and thinking to myself I don’t want to hate going to work. He hated going to work and he had an awful boss for a very long time. But he just didn’t feel like he had the options and that generation didn’t necessarily feel like they had the options. You go to where you can and keep your benefits and you have family to support and if you make a change, what if it doesn’t work out? What’s going to happen to your kids? So I want to stress again, I didn’t have kids. But I don’t necessarily think that I would have just stayed. I think I would have made different decisions. I made some pretty radical decisions, I cut my pay more than half. I did a lot of things. I think I still would have made changes but they would have been different. You have to factor in everything that’s going on in your life.

Brandon: Maybe you would have just kept the job and went to school for the other career at the same time. I think a lot of people do that, especially when they have families.

Wendy: Or maybe I would have done something that was more of an offshoot of what I was currently doing. Maybe I would have looked more into administration. But if I had had a desk job and didn’t get to be out and about like I liked but I was getting the pay and I’d be able to support my family, it would have had different rewards for me.

Brandon: When did you realize you made that right decision and the change? Are you still trying to figure that out?

Wendy: Oh no, I know I made the right decision.

Brandon: I figured you’d say that because I just see the brightness in your face! You seem happy. Ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been very bubbly and very talkative and very friendly.

Wendy: Really I’m talkative? I have no idea.

Brandon: Yeah we’ve been going for 36 minutes already!

Wendy: And you’ve gotten through like three questions.

Brandon: Yeah. I’m in three questions and you’ve taken the whole podcast, it’s good.

Wendy: This is my next job by the way, doing a podcast. Kidding!

Brandon: You’re going to just take it from me!

So, when was that like aha moment where you’re like, Hey, I’ve made the right decision and this is my career path?

Wendy: Oh gosh! It was that first job.

Brandon: Really?

Wendy: Yeah.

Brandon: Even though you went to 14 bucks an hour, cut your pay in half, you were like, Yup, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Wendy: Yeah, once I started talking to other people and I started finding out all the different avenues that you could do in HR and the different things and I started not only talking with the managers but all of their staff too. What do you like about your job? Tell me more about this. I was helping people with projects and I became energized again. And I knew the $14 an hour wasn’t forever.

Brandon: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s the problem that people face is, Oh man! I’m going to start here and this is going to be forever. But it’s not really true.

Wendy: Nope.

Brandon: If you have the growth mindset, you keep growing your skills, you get experience, it’s not going to be forever.

Wendy: There are things worth going shopping at Winco and Grocery Outlet and doing all those things.

Brandon: Absolutely. You got to do what you go to do.

Wendy: You have to do what you have to do. And if it’s a lot of top ramen, if you can eat that, great!

Brandon: Been there, done that. I’m still driving the same car I have for the last 12 years. You cut corners where you can. You save because you know that the growth path is not that straight line.

Wendy: It’s an investment. What do I need to do now to get to where I want to be?

So no, I actually knew then. And when I went into recruiting, I still could have been a recruiter. I didn’t hate it. It wasn’t what I exactly wanted to do but I still knew I was really on the right path because there were a lot of facets about it that I still love.

And I love the people and I love talking with people. There were a lot of things about recruiting that I really liked. I liked making the right matches for hiring managers. If things went wrong, trying to figure out what went wrong so we don’t make those same mistakes.

Training hiring managers on how to properly onboard somebody, give people a good experience. When they say, I need to do this because I need to fire this person. Saying, ok, slow down. Let’s talk the situation through. Do you really need to fire that person? It’s funny because people think the worst part of HR is firing people.

Brandon: It never feels good.

Wendy: It should always be terrible. But usually when we’re letting somebody go, apart from a layoff or reduction in force which is just tough and you’re there to help cushion the blow as much as possible, it was going to happen anyway.

But a lot of times, people have been miserable in their jobs for a long time. It’s why they’re acting out, why they’re not doing their work. And it’s like go find what makes you happy. And I can tell you that you can find what makes you happy and it can work out, even if you’ve been fired. I mean we’ve all been fired from jobs at some point, some of us in a spectacular fashion. That’s another podcast!

I think that I went back and I just realized that even though I didn’t like exactly what I was doing, there were still huge facets of it that I loved and knew I could work into another career in HR. I knew I had options. And people change areas of specialization in HR all the time. So looking at all those things, it was wonderful.

I actually went back and thanked that professor who said, You belong in HR which set those bells off in my head. I emailed him and said, I just want to let you know that that little conversation over lunch was so meaningful. And now, I have this great career in HR. And I think I would have found it anyway, but you’ve definitely got me there a little quicker.

Brandon: And I think for anybody that’s thinking about changing careers or has, they would probably say to pick a profession that one, you’re going to be passionate about, has really good future prospects for money so you can have a standard of living that’s going to meet your needs, but something that has great future prospects, something that you’re not just like be stuck in.

And I think that was where you’re at with your first career is that you probably realized you were stuck. With HR, you got into recruiting and then another door opened. Went for something else, another door opened. There’s just a wide net of areas you can hone in on and you’re still going to be continuing to hone your skills and continue to progress. I think that’s the beauty of HR, there’s a lot of different areas you can get into.

Wendy: And it’s all experience based. My first generalist job came because I had recruiter experience because they didn’t want to do recruiting. So they could hire me to do recruiting part-time as part of my responsibility and they would teach me how to be a generalist and give me that experience.  It was a great trade-off all the way around. So it still led to a good fit even for a job that lasted for a little while.

What I think we should talk about which is a weird thing about changing careers is when I changed careers, all of my co-workers that were on the same level as me were all 10-15 years younger than me. That took some getting used to!

Brandon: So, you were coming into a new career and then everybody is 10, 15 years younger?

Wendy: Well, I’m coming in entry level and everybody else is right out of school. And so, here I am. I’m not only out of college, I had grad school, so that’s another three years, and then I had a 10-year career. I’m coming in with other people that are coming out of college and they’re walking in bright and fresh and I’m coming in sort of bright and fresh and a little bit more experienced and it was a little eye-opening.

Brandon: I kind of like that though because you’re fresh, you’re reenergized. They have no idea what they’re walking into because this is probably their first professional job, right? So my guess is that it’s different but you’d feed off each other’s energy and positivity and grow together even though there’s an age difference and your generational differences maybe apparent to both of you.

Wendy: Depends on the crowd you’re with. Along the way, I’ve definitely found a few people like that. They are happy to collate paper, so am I. You can’t have an ego. That’s the biggest thing.

Brandon: You can never be above any job.

Wendy: You cannot. There’s real truth in the advice of, if your job is making copies, make the best darn copies.

Brandon: Absolutely. And do it with a freaking smile on your face.

Wendy: Not only that, I knew how to work that copier inside and out! I became the go-to person for any toner issues, jams, you name it. So I became the go-to person for that printer. I became the go-to person of other things too.

Brandon: That’s my philosophy as well.

Wendy: That literally happened. I became the copy machine master! Work to your strengths. I was really techy. IT for this large company in my little office or my large department actually relied on me to troubleshoot problems before I sent them to them because they got to know me and they knew that I could tell them what above my head versus a cord was loose or something along those lines. Again, it’s making connections.

Whatever I could shine in doing, I mean I used to spend a day and a half reorganizing the supply cabinet! The supply cabinet is a problem in every single office in every single place, ever. No supply cabinet remains neat on its own and people leave things everywhere. I spent a day and a half coding everything, labeling everything, and it became, Wow! Did you see what Wendy did? Oh my goodness! She did the supply cabinet. It was the best thing anybody could do all week. I didn’t go to school for that!

Brandon: No. It’s more about energy and just getting it done.

Wendy: And don’t get me wrong. My desk is a mess like my desk will be always be messy! But I know how to organize a supply cabinet. Yeah, I think that you could actually have coworkers that are just as energized and just great to have you on the team. I don’t think I was always that fortunate. And so, I think it’s always about finding your best way to shine. And again, not having an ego with anything, which I think I was born with an ego, so it’s really difficult!

Brandon: Always got an ego to some extent.

Wendy: And that took me down about 17 notches and it was good and I realized how good it was.

Sometimes you’re placed in a situation that that’s also not of your coworker’s making or maybe there’s a lot of nepotism in the workplace. It’s always about who you know or who you were born from or something, and so they will get promoted above you two times before you’re even considered. Or they’ll look at you down their nose and saying, Really? You’re here? What have you done wrong in your life? And you just have to know who you are and what you’re working for and stay true to yourself.

And then I absolutely had co-workers that were much younger than me that we got along great and we had a really great time and they keep me young and fresh. It was a lot of fun. And then I also got to talk to them a little bit about wisdom and about like what they were getting into in the workplace and just how to maybe watch themselves politically. So for the people that were open to it, it was nice give and take.

Brandon: As we kind of wrap this discussion up, what would you tell people that are thinking about going through a career change, are currently going through it and are experiencing a lot of anxiety and fear over what’s to come, or maybe somebody like an HR Manager who is helping people through this process? What do you want to say to them, in closing?

Wendy: Separate your emotion from what’s the real world and what’s actually possible. Understand that you are going to have to make some sacrifices. Depending what they are, some maybe are long term or permanent, most of them are temporary. What can you do?

If you have a spouse, communicate. Allow for the initial reactions versus the ongoing conversation. You may talk to your spouse like, I don’t think I can do what I’m doing anymore. I think I want to make a change. And they might freak out because like, Oh my gosh! What if? What if is a very scary word. And what if is the cause of a lot of anxiety because there’s no answer. There is just no answer to a what if question. You can go round and round and round and round. It’s like a treadmill that never ends.

So take what if out of it and saying, Well, what can we do? What are my interests? And start doing your research. Don’t jump, start wading in.

Brandon: Yeah, so be thoughtful about the whole process.

Wendy: Talk to people. Find out where your support is. And, again, I understand decisions may be different if you have anybody just depending on you that maybe you need to make some sacrifices in that time and they are not necessarily forever. Take a look at what’s possible and then go for what you love. There is a lot of wisdom to doing what you love. Don’t take it to the extreme like if I like sitting in my pajamas and playing video games all day, that’s what I’m going to do. You can’t make a living at that, be realistic.

Brandon: There are jobs out there for video game testers.

Wendy: Yeah. But they go to work and they test video games.

Brandon: And they’re probably miserable doing it, they’re just testing bugs in video games.

Wendy: Or maybe that’s what their passion is! Maybe they love dissecting it. Maybe they have that analytical mind. If you find a way, kudos to you.

Make your decisions but don’t feel so stuck. Nothing is hopeless. Everything is hopeful and you just have to figure out what you’re willing to sacrifice for what you want.

Brandon: Good stuff, Wendy. Our guest today has been Wendy Gilbert. She is on the team Xenium and thank you for joining the podcast. It has been a lot of fun.

Wendy: My pleasure. Thank you for having me!

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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