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Getting Out of a Career Rut, with Nancy Halpern

Getting Out of a Career Rut, with Nancy Halpern

Episode 40: Getting Out Of A Career Rut With Nancy Halpern

Nancy Halpern is the Principal of KNH Associates, which offers skills in communication coaching, leadership development and team building. In this episode, Nancy talks with Kristy about the definition of success, how to survive and thrive in a challenging work environment, and what to look for in a career coach.

Episode Transcript

00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast, conversations with women changing the face of business. And now your host, Kristy Wallace.


00:14 Kristy Wallace: Hi and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast, we're so happy that you are joining us today. Maricella and I are still recovering from the holiday slump, I guess, or maybe it's the January slump after the holiday high. So...

00:29 Maricella Herrera: Yeah. It's the tough... Well, I mean we got through the first week of the year but it's always tough to get back and to start over, basically. And it's even harder when there is so much cold.

00:44 KW: We came back to a snowstorm...

00:47 MH: Oh God.

00:48 KW: And viruses.

00:49 MH: Snowstorm...

00:49 KW: So everyone's been sick and not during the snowstorm unfortunately because it wouldn't be so bad if you were snowed in and sick but we were sick and then we became snowed in.

00:58 MH: True, that snowstorm just... I could not deal with it, honestly. Coming back from the really warm weather, this is just not fun.

01:07 KW: But a positive to snowstorms, gives you lots of time to listen to podcasts.

01:11 MH: True.

01:12 KW: Like ours, so thank you for listening to the Ellevate Podcast, and we hope that you will tell your friends, rate it, review it, share it. It means so much to us and it does wonders for our ratings in iTunes. And also it gives you time to think about your career, which is something we're gonna talk a lot about today with our guest Nancy Halpern.

01:33 MH: Yeah. Nancy's great. I met her at a mentoring meet up once, she was helping our younger members of Ellevate Network navigate through their career. And if you're not familiar with our mentoring meet ups, they are events where we do sort of a speed dating format but for career questions and finding mentors. So it's really great, and Nancy is extremely passionate about helping a younger generation of female leaders come to terms with their careers.

02:05 KW: Yes, she is. And she's an author, a career coach, a consultant, does some fantastic things which you're gonna hear about in just a few minutes. But first, we want to talk a little bit about our community and how they think about their careers.

02:20 MH: As you know every week we poll our members and we ask them their take on many different topics. And you, Kristy, talked to Nancy a lot about how she planned her career or navigated her career. And so we asked our members, "How far into the future do you typically plan your career?" But before I go into the answers, what's your take? How far in advance have you been planning yours?

02:46 KW: Oh, gosh. I don't have tomorrow planned. No, I mean I would say it's interesting. When I was younger I was planning 10 years out and kind of, "This is what I wanna do." And then, once I accomplished that, I realized your understanding of what that goal is evolves so much as you evolve and focusing so far out, you lose sight of the short term and that short term can be so impactful. So I'd say I plan a year out.

03:19 MH: Interesting. Okay so our members, 36% of them plan five years out, a quarter of them plan two years out, 19% of them say they take things as they come, 9% plan their careers one year ahead, 4% 10 years, and then, only 3% say they have their life all planned out. And I wonder what is a demographic of that 3% 'cause that's a pretty big answer.

03:54 KW: I also think... And Nancy and I do talk about this on the podcast, but it's hard to plan your career so far in advance because it's not just this straight career path anymore. It's not like, "I go to school. I get this degree. And that's what I do for the rest of my life." I mean we bob and weave and learn as we go. It's always a learning experience. What are the skills that you like? What is happening in the larger industry? What are the opportunities that are opening up? So I would say a year. I'm sticking by my year, which aligns with 9% of our membership. But I could also see two years.

04:33 MH: Yeah. I mean I don't know where I fall into anymore. I've been doing a lot of thinking the last few weeks that I was home and I had... I was actually thinking about this because I thought I had it all planned out and I changed. And you change and your priorities change, and what you care about changes, and then, you start from scratch. So I think I'm gonna be more in the, "Yes, I try to plan out for like a year or two years." Currently, I need to plan for three years 'cause of visa issues but that's another deal. But I am very much in the "I take things as they come" camp a little bit, I would say.

05:18 KW: Great. Well, and that's the camp that Nancy falls into, so let's hear from her and how her career came about.


05:35 KW: Thanks for joining us today. We're really excited to have you on the podcast. Can you tell us a little bit about your career? Because it's about 10 careers in one. You've done many interesting things and I always like to hear about careers that don't follow always a traditional path because I think the way of a traditional career path is behind us and we need to start being a little bit more creative with our lives.

06:00 Nancy Halpern: I think that I realized, when I was in my mid-20s, that I really resented the idea of knowing my future. That didn't strike me as interesting. So I thought I had a career in nonprofit management. I was running a ballet company at the time. I had no clue what I was doing, and I was interviewing for a job here in the city with, at the time, a really hot emerging dance company, run by Eliot Feld. I knew I could get the job. I just knew it. I was really good, I was confident, we had a great connection. I thought, "If I take this job, when I'm 40 I'll be at ABT or New York City Ballet. I'm too young to know what I'm gonna be doing when I'm 40." 'Cause, of course, at the time 40 sounded as if I were Methuselah.

06:45 NH: So instead I decided I needed more options so I ended up going to business school. I only applied to one business school, I was really stupid. But I... Frankly, I developed a strategy, inadvertently. I don't wanna give myself credit saying, "I sat down and created a great plan." But I marketed myself in some ways. And it's a technique I still use and I use with clients, which is basically I read all of their material and I highlighted the words they used repeatedly. And I put those words into my essay without parroting it, but to mirror how they view themselves. And then, I went out and I networked my way into people who had a connection with the school. When I got out I thought, "Well, I really still don't know why a balance sheet has to balance, but I know that I'm much more analytical than I thought I was." And I didn't wanna go back into nonprofit work. I felt I needed to figure out what else I could do.

07:42 NH: I always... My son... Of course, it's a big put down when it comes from a teenager, but he told me several years ago that one of my many problems is that I'm a try harder. And I think... I know, right? I think it's a great thing. [chuckle] It's very female in a way. We always wanna see what else we can do. We always think there's something else we should have done or we always think there's something else that we could do, we just haven't tried it enough, or frequently enough, or hard enough. And I wanted to see what else I was made of, so I went into a field that I was actually not very happy in, but it was fascinating. It was the retail and retail support industries. So it's very unusual for someone with an MBA to go work the sales floor at Bloomingdales. It was absolutely the best laboratory for human behavior that I could have asked for.

08:30 NH: And I had to get Matthew, the stock guy from Barbados who frankly, got high in the parking lot every day, to work well with Millie, the 68-year-old Irish born sales lady with elevator shoes, to work together 'cause they hated each other. There was an age difference. There was a racial difference. There was every kind of difference, and I thought, "They don't teach you that in business school. But if I get them to work together, what's gonna be the impact on my sales? How am I gonna drive turn of that particular skew?" And I just became so fascinated. So when I ended up traveling to lots of countries, I was negotiating with garment manufacturers in Egypt and Taiwan. I thought, "Why... Why is the negotiation with Mister Oh in Taipei so different from the negotiation with Doctor Alla in Cairo, even though it's for the same amount of money?" And I thought, "Well, that's kinda cool." So I became really interested in how businesses communicate through initially national culture and then, organizational culture.

09:37 NH: And when Target acquired my company, and the company was huge, we were importing a billion dollars at first cost and this was in the early '90s. And I lost my job and I was sort of sniffing around for something to do, and someone said, "Well, there's this boutique consulting firm. They're looking for a presentation coach. Why don't you go talk to them?" "Alright. Sure." And they took me on part-time. They said, "We think we can train you." That was 16-17 years ago. And the owner of the firm said, after about two months, "Yeah, I really want you to start doing executive coaching." And I said, "I'm not interested and I don't wanna do that." She was like, "Why?" I said, "Because there's a huge power thing in it." There were very few coaches 16-17 years ago. "And I don't have any answers for people. I don't wanna tell them to what to do." And she said, "Well, your first client will be here at 2:00 today. So you [laughter] really need to get over that."

10:31 NH: And then, it just snowballed. And so I have had lots of different things I've done and some things... And like everyone's career, some things stand out. I never think of any of them as missteps, not that I didn't make lots of mistakes. There have been mismatches and there's been misinformation, and there's been fine tuning. But one's career isn't accidental, I don't think.

10:58 KW: Well, it's interesting because everyone's different, but for myself, I consider myself somewhat of a generalist. I know a little bit about a lot of things and I love learning, and I love being challenged. And so every day it's, "What else can I learn? How can I get involved in something?" I pull someone aside and, "Teach me about social media marketing, or SCO, or website development," or whatever it may be. But I want to know and be challenged by that and I feel like it makes me a better leader but it also keeps things interesting.

11:33 NH: Well, you know what's really intriguing about that to me? I think that... And I hope that there's been a redefinition of what it means to be successful over the length of my career, for example, or the times I've seen. For example, it used to be that being a generalist and kind of a hungry learner, was in some ways an impediment because generalists are harder to hire. Generalists have a tougher time talking about their unique selling proposition. Generalists really are flexible. They really are adaptable. But that sounds like they don't know themselves.

12:06 NH: Specialists, narrow nichers in a way, right? They rise much more quickly. "I'm a doctor whose specialty is surgery on the thyroid." Okay. We know exactly what you are. But as, I think, the world has become more easily global and throwing all these different things together in a big mashup stew of stuff. It is the generalists who can hop from thing to thing, who can float on the surface or go deep. Because now, I think the single most important career skill, especially at a leader level or a rising leader level, and that's the level I really like to... Most interested in is rising leaders, is adaptability.

12:51 KW: So tell me about rising leaders. Who... How would you define a rising leader? What are the characteristics? How do you identify one?

12:57 NH: Well, I think it's a little different. People used to call them "high potentials" and that means something different, I think. Right? A high potential is someone who people look at and say, "That's someone who we really wanna promote. That's a succession planning candidate. That's someone who we think we should invest a lot of money in." A rising leader is someone who's been pushed from a functional role into a strategy role.

13:21 NH: So I've worked with a couple of people like this, last year in one particular company, where they are subject matter experts. They are fabulous at what they do. And so you wanna put them into a larger, or I should say probably broader, role where they have impact over the whole organization. They haven't a clue how to do that. Why would they? And yet it's assumed that if you're good enough to be considered for that role, somehow you just slide into knowing how to be an enterprise player. Well, clearly that's not true.

13:54 KW: And so those are the type of people I love working with because they have all the smarts, they have all the self-awareness, they have befuddlement. They know what to stretch and have to learn some really important things like playing politics and being successful at it in a whole different way, messaging themselves and understanding the impact outside of their function, being far more successful in having... And confident in having a point of view, and bravely voicing it, and feeling okay about commenting on other people's business areas and functions which can be a little scary in and of itself. And it's a great population because they're still hungry to learn.

14:38 KW: Talk to me about internal politics. And then...

14:42 NH: How long do we have?


14:43 KW: I know...

14:44 NH: Over the years, I've had many clients who hate everything about this topic. They don't play politics. They have too much integrity, right? It is a game. They feel that they need to rise above it. It's not the best and the brightest who do that. And what I've tried to do is strip away this sort of implied evil in all these words, that are important words. Politics is an important word. Manipulation is an important word. Because frankly, those are the things that we normally have to do to make sure people see the best of us. So, I don't think of it as politics and this isn't just sugar coating it, I do think of it as strategic alliances. So one, perhaps, tip or maybe it's perspective, when you said, "Be kind to everyone," I mean, that's such a wonderful way to go through life. I am not that nice a person. I wish I could be kind to everyone.

15:32 NH: But if you're in a smaller organization where you're working in an open space environment, for example. Yes, you have to really be, not quite painfully aware, but always aware that you are seen in every moment, right? And so I don't want people to get nervous and think you have to be on your guard. But I do think you have to be conscious that you're visible. And so there, you do have to be nice. You have to have a baseline, and you have to know that stress or an emotional reaction that you haven't managed, is louder. And you have to figure out that no matter how well intentioned you are, yeah, your impact might be something very different and you have to own it. You have to know how you impact other people.

16:19 NH: In a bigger organization, and it's hard to define small versus big but I think we all sort of have a scale of what that means. Where you have lots more layers. You have kinda competition, you need to rise. I think there, frankly, it's a different charge. I think you have to be really strategic. You have to take a look at who has been successful in that organization and then, you have to ask yourself, "Well, what has made them successful? Did they figure out which boss would be rising? Did they always have a positive tone of voice and style? Were they... Is it because the people who were successful are the ones who saw a risk and were the first to say it?" Companies have cultures and being able to read your culture, and knowing how they define success, how they define leadership so you can bring out the qualities that you hopefully have that match those the best, is how I think about being political.

17:16 KW: So what if you look at the top of your company and the people that are successful represent qualities or traits that you don't respect? Is that, "Get out of that company," or what does that mean? Because I mean sometimes to get to the top, you really need to be a little ruthless and claw your way and fight for it.

17:42 NH: You know what? One of the... That's a really great question and I'm really glad you asked it because I think a lot of people struggle with that, right? And sometimes, it's closer to home. They don't even respect their boss and they struggle with working with bosses they don't respect. One of the things I liked in business school, even though I can't say I was very good at it, was decision analysis. Where you come to these nodes, right? On a tree, on a decision tree, and I think you do that at work and in life as well.

18:06 NH: You have to ask yourself, "What's good enough? I don't respect the values of this organization. I don't respect the senior leadership. But, I'm in my... " I'm making this up. "I'm in my early 30s. I have a very young child. My husband's schedule is even more killer than I am. Are we financially prepared for me to walk away? Am I so unhappy that I can't drag myself there? Do I think of this as a holding pattern to bridge a job and I should put out some feelers? Or how do I feel now?" Because we do tend to expand work. And I do the same thing to be... Oh, I don't know, about our own character, about our own value set, about our intellectual worth, about our contribution. It's also work. And I think you have to decide what role it plays in your life. If at the end of the day, you believe that you cannot be successful in that organization because there is such a disconnect with who you are, who you wanna be, and the kind of worker you wanna be, then, sooner or later probably you're gonna leave. You're gonna get out.

19:12 KW: And what if you look to the top of the organization, and there's nobody that looks like you?

19:18 NH: Do you mean in terms of diversity or value set...

19:20 KW: Diversity.

19:20 NH: Gender?

19:22 KW: Diversity, gender.

19:23 NH: There's always choices. And one of the things I fervently believe in, is you always have choices even if all of them are bad, right? So you can say, "Wow. This is an opportunity because there has to be a first. And I'm the kind of person who wants to be the first. I'm the kind of person who wants to try to be the first even if I fail." Or you can say, "I need to be at a place where more people look like me, where there are more women, where there are more family friendly policies because that matters to me." Or [chuckle] you could carve out your own little zone. It was very hard for me to realize that I'm a better... In some ways I never wanted to be a CEO. I wanted to be a number two to a CEO I really respected. It's hard to be out in front all the time, it really is. So I think, again, you can make a reasoned choice, but I'm very big on personal gap analysis for your own career.

20:23 KW: So let's flip it a little bit and look from the business leader, the manager point of view. How do you help your workforce, your employees, to have better internal communications, to manage the politics, to reach for the stars and want to really grow within the company? It's hard to motivate.

20:45 NH: Yeah. It's hard to motivate. It's true. And there are so many variables in that. So, of course, if you're managing, let's say, anywhere from six to 10 people, you have to take a look frankly at who's worth it. And the other thing that I suggest the managers that I work with do, is first of all, take out your org chart. Forget who's doing a job. Figure out which roles are A roles, which roles are mission critical, right? Which roles are B, significant support roles and which roles are just C, ordinary functional, human farmer kind of roles?

21:21 NH: Now, take a look at who's in those roles. Do you have a B player in an A role? You got a problem. If you have an A player in a B role, you have a different problem, right? Do you have a primarily young workforce that is doing very routinized work, right? Call centers, operation centers. Well, you're going to have to paint for them a picture, if they're ambitious, of what the next level looks like. Do you know... The best article actually... The best quote I ever read about this, was from a teacher in Mexico in high school who spent his summers teaching swimming at a camp in Maine. I know. How bizarre. It was this one...

22:00 KW: There you go.

22:01 NH: This one camp that only hired teachers from overseas for their counselors. And he said, "If you listen to your students, they will tell you how you need to be taught." And I think that's really wise. I'd also say that raising a child has been the best education I ever could have had in how to manage and develop people because you have to adapt, and many managers don't. You have to adapt your communication style, how you incentivize people, the messages you tell them while also always remaining consistent. So to be able to always be consistent about what do you expect from a team, what do you expect from a direct report, your standards of behavior. You're the duck sailing along very peaceful and underneath the water. Right? Crazy busy. And yet, being able to select out the real talent you have 'cause you see it and fashioning yourself to extract, to pull, to push, you have to adjust the whole time while being the same. I think it's... Managing people... Frankly, managing a boss is easier than managing your team.

23:14 KW: It is a learning experience because each team is different and it changes with the headcount or the personalities, and you're constantly, as you're saying, it's... You're always learning and you're always optimizing, and thinking about yourself as well and your career, and so there's many moving parts to that.

23:32 NH: There's something else tough there though that doesn't get counted in an awful lot, which is the external industry pressures. I have done a lot of work in book publishing. Now, there's an industry that has been going through seismic change. All right. And so it's easier, frankly. I know it sounds like a truism, but it's easier to motivate people, keep morale up, develop talent, make great hires, retain talent when your business is good. It's when business is bad, that I think leadership, real leadership is very rare.

24:02 KW: So you mentioned earlier being a parent and how that has been a big learning experience for you. And I read your article on how to treat a loser, and that really resonated with me on so many levels.

24:19 NH: You're not a loser. [chuckle]

24:20 KW: Well no, thinking... I always think about parenting because, in many ways, the interactions with my children and how we respond to that is very simplistic, but it has much larger significance in other situations. For example, we had a birthday party this weekend for my two-year-old and my three-year-old was very upset because she did not get any gifts.

24:47 NH: I don't blame her, I'd be annoyed too. [chuckle]

24:49 KW: But in the workplace that's often where someone has an opportunity and someone else is upset that they didn't get that opportunity. And how do you speak to both parties and how do you navigate that and add clarity, but then also stand by the decision and what happened? And it's like, "Well, she turned two. You didn't. Sorry, lady."

25:08 NH: And how did she take it?

25:11 KW: She was fine. We talked about why and she would have an opportunity soon when turns four. When she has a birthday she will also get an opportunity, but right now it's her sister's turn. But maybe her sister will share with her, so.

25:27 NH: Ooh, a little pressure on the sister.

25:28 KW: Yeah, yeah.

25:29 NH: You know there was a somewhat controversial article on the HBR blog the other day written by a couple of guys who are in... They teach leadership but they teach it in the Navy. And the military has actually been on the forefront of a lot of leadership development work and they don't get, I think, a lot of credit. Especially from women and from people in big cities. But I have a lot of admiration. I have no military background, no one in my family is. But it was controversial because they were talking about gender differences and they mentioned, "Well, if you're giving critical feedback to a woman and she starts to cry, you've just got to ignore it because women have... " And they went on this whole conversation about different biology and different hormones, and some women who made comments found this enormously offensive and stereotypical.

26:17 NH: But actually, frankly, I appreciated its candor. You know, that many people don't know what to do when someone is crying at work. And the best advice that I ever got from someone else was to basically, frankly, ignore it. I'm not saying in a cruel, cold hearted way, right? But you know, loss, people who do lose, these are all normal human emotions. I am not a big proponent of everything is happy. I'm not a big proponent of everything is wonderful because it's just not true. And I think if you can accept losing, and if you can treat someone who has not succeeded with compassion but realism. You told your daughter something true and very logical. I'm not sure if she... One time, right? And hopefully, her abilities to understand that will grow but we all have come to grips at some point with how far we're gonna go and that's not... Maybe it's a loss, but maybe it's also a realization of the things that you're really good at and that really matter to you. And I think that's a real sweet spot in people's leadership, and in their lives as well.

27:30 KW: Well, and if you get... Now I'll get a little in my head, but if you focus too much just on the finality of that loss and don't look into the accomplishments, or the successes, or the positive things that happened along the way, you really could start a cycle of self-doubt and you start to sabotage yourself.

27:52 NH: Totally. It's very depressing. And it's finding those small accomplishments, frankly, that I think get you going again and it's also interesting to keep a kind of tally. Sometimes it's good to do it in a written way. I find writing these things down helped me to see, "Okay, so... " It's sort of that old line, "What did you learn from this?" You probably saw something new, you learned something new. If you can, once you get past the emotional piece of it... All the time what I talk to my clients about is harnessing their analytical horse power, horse power, about things that are behavioral and emotional. Because I'm not a psychologist, and I can't necessarily help people transit through sadness or loss other than through taking action.

28:41 NH: So, when you can get back to action, you can figure out, what would I have done differently? Was there a misstep? Is there a soft spot in my background that I need to strengthen? Is there a skill? Am I not talking to enough people? And I think, for me at least, doing something has always made me feel better 'cause that I can control. As you said, "You can't always control." You can't control who else they're looking for, you can't control that you didn't do a specific project that they had really wanted. But to figure out what is in your control always makes me feel better.

29:14 KW: So when should someone look for a coach?

29:17 NH: Only hire a coach, only if you have something really specific you wanna work on because if you hire a coach with vague objectives, what you'll do is sink a lot of money into it with not necessarily a lot of output. I would say only hire a coach also if you're crystal clear on the distinction between a therapist and a coach because coaches are not cheaper therapists. Many people who have therapy backgrounds do coach, so maybe you get two for the price of one. And I would say, in terms of the process, if you decide, no, I have very clear goals. I know what the outcomes are that I want to achieve. I'm not interested in talking about my childhood. I'm not looking for a therapeutic approach, then I would absolutely ask for two or three referrals. I would talk to the referrals, and see what they got out of the process. I think whatever you can sharpen before you go into it guarantees that you'll be more satisfied when you get out of it.

30:16 KW: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining us today.

30:19 NH: My pleasure to join you.

30:21 KW: This was great.

30:21 NH: So much fun talking with you.

30:23 KW: Yeah. This was really great.

30:24 NH: I really appreciate it. Great.


30:31 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @EllevateNtwk, that's Ellevate Network. And become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller. She rocks and to our voice over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.


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