Lessons From Three Career Transitionists

These career transitionists have found a path forward in their work lives. Here's how they did it.

​1. Recover, Rethink, Retool

Helen Chamberlin, 54, Managing Principal, Helis Communications

Advice for transitionists: “Embrace it! If you feel a push from your employer and it’s time to move on, get ready.” After nearly 22 years with nonprofits representing the volatile cable and telecommunications industry, Chamberlin prepared for the inevitable: She devoted three years to downsizing her home, paying off credit cards, and building a financial cushion. When laid off from a deputy executive director position in 2014, she used the time her severance package bought her to consult, volunteer, and travel. Most important, she contemplated her outsourcing coach’s question: What makes you happy?

Insight: Stepping away from the C-suite “was very uncomfortable—I’ve always had an innate drive to leverage my career and keep moving upward. But there aren’t enough vacancies at the top. I had to have a Plan B, and Plan B became Plan A when I got laid off.”

Next move: What makes her happy, Chamberlin concluded, is “getting things done.” So this spring she will earn a project management certificate at Georgetown University. “There is something comfortable about working tactically at this stage of my life,” she says. She’s excited at the prospect that the in-demand credential will lead to a “downshifting career,” good for either full-time jobs or consulting if she becomes a grandmother and wants a flexible schedule.

​2. A New Path Back to Work

Carol Brown, 53, Manager of Constituency Programs, American Gastroenterological Association

Advice for transitionists: “Some people think it’s too late for them to switch careers. It’s never too late. There are so many skills a person gains over the course of a career that can be applied elsewhere. Get out there and look, use your connections, and be patient.”

Insight: Brown had an IT career before stepping away to raise her two children. In 2013, at 49, she decided to look for a new job and “stumbled into an association position I love.” She started as a temporary receptionist at the American Gastroenterological Association, where her key to success was to constantly ask, “Is there anything else you need for me to do?” She was soon brought on staff and, within the year, offered her current position. With two teenagers still at home, she likes combining professional challenge with work-life balance, including teleworking.

Next move: “Continue to improve my association and project management skills. Beyond that, I’m always on the lookout for interesting and challenging assignments. And I definitely plan to work past 65. Why not?”

​3. Not Ready to Retire from Pursuing His Passion

Rick Johnston, CAE, 65, Consultant and Former Association Vice President

Advice for transitionists: “The best time to look for that pinnacle job is in your 50s. As you get into your 60s, it’s very difficult to transition into the job you would most desire because people will question your energy and your commitment.” Although Johnston has reached traditional retirement age, “I’m not ready to retire,” he says. “I love working with associations and nonprofits to help them expand their capacity and prepare for the future.”

Insight: “Take some time to struggle a bit to find the job you’re going to find most fulfilling.” In retrospect, Johnston wishes he had stayed with consulting— advising organizations on planning and projects—rather than business development, which brought sales responsibilities.

Next move: Land a full-time job that uses his expertise in change management.

From left: Helen Chamberlin, Carol Brown, Rick Johnston.

Karla Taylor

By Karla Taylor

Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!