Career Change Success: From Hospitality To Nonprofit

If you are considering a career change, one of the smartest things you can do is study the actions taken by people who are career change success stories. Recently I interviewed Leah Krieger, Executive Director of the Centerpoint Institute for Life and Career Renewal in Seattle. Krieger made a career change from hospitality into nonprofit management. She took some big career risks that paid off. Here is my interview with her:
Leah Krieger

You moved from being a Spa Director in the hospitality industry to being Executive Director of a nonprofit that helps people with career and life renewal. Please share with us how that shift happened.

When I left my Spa Director job, I took a sabbatical that lasted several months. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do next but I knew I needed to leave the job I was in. I was lucky that I had a little bit of savings to last through the summer and I had a supportive spouse who was willing to make financial sacrifices if it helped me get to a better place.

I thought by doing daily yoga and getting quiet, the career answers would come and I could get some energy and focus back, but that didn’t happen. While it was purifying to walk away from my first career, I still didn’t know what to do next.

The whole summer passed and things were getting to the point that I was considering whether I needed to go get a job at Target stocking shelves or something, just to bring in some income. I knew I had a purpose, but I hadn’t found it yet.

My father-in-law was very concerned. He thought I was taking too much risk and that I should go back to school. I had gone straight from high school into the hospitality industry and worked my way up for 15 years. I didn’t have a college degree so he thought maybe I should go get one.

I had insecurity about lacking a college degree but I also felt that I had learned more through real world experience than I would in an education setting.

My father-in-law is a trauma counselor who refers people to Centerpoint for career counseling so he suggested I sign up for their career decision-making classes. I went to the orientation and I was in awe that a place like Centerpoint existed in my city but I didn’t even know about it before. I loved their mission and the group format of their offerings.

I signed up for classes and planned to start them when I came back from a three week trip. After I returned but before I started the classes, I received the Centerpoint newsletter and saw that they had a job opening for a Front Desk Manager. I applied and landed the job. It was way below my skill level and previous income but I decided to do it, anyway.

How did the job go?

It was humbling that I wasn’t earning the same amount as before. At night I parked cars when I needed extra money.

I got paid to get exercise because when you park cars, running is part of the job. I also got to drive some really awesome cars.

Some days I would park cars until 1 am and then come in to work at Centerpoint that same morning. I put my pride on the shelf and did what I had to do with the prize in mind of finding my true purpose.

I made mistakes learning a new career but I accepted that as part of the process. I took on more responsibility and evolved the Front Desk job into a Client Services Manager position but I knew I was capable of more. Within a year, I told Carol Vecchio, the founder of Centerpoint, “I either need to start excelling here or I will have to go do something else.” Vecchio replied, “I’m glad you brought this up because I’d like to talk about the possibility of you growing into the Executive Director role.” Vecchio had been serving as the Executive Director for many years but wanted to focus instead on public relations for Centerpoint.

What are your favorite parts about being an Executive Director? What are the most challenging parts?

Centerpoint has been open for 22 years but everything needed a revamp and rebranding. I treat this job as a start up. I’ve reevaluated the marketing, staffing, and operations of the organization.

I absolutely love this job. The creative process is my favorite part. If the organization had already been a well-oiled machine, it wouldn’t be nearly so fun. I love being challenged and creating something.

I have a 5-10 year plan for Centerpoint. I would love to franchise.

My biggest challenge was to change the way I think. I came from a corporate mentality and it took the first year of working with Carol Vecchio to strip that corporate mentality away. It is freeing to not be so corporate now. I don’t have deep pockets on which to draw. I have to be careful and effective with any investments made and funds spent.

But you know what? I love to go to Happy Hour with hospitality friends and feel gratitude for how different my career and life are now.

What were some of the cultural changes you noticed about going from a for-profit to a nonprofit work environment?

In my corporate life, I focused on making someone else money. In my nonprofit life, I focus on mission, accessibility, impact, and keeping the doors open.

Community is huge in the nonprofit world. Many corporate environments don’t have a strong sense of community because people are pitted against each other in competition. In many corporate environments, lip service is paid to teamwork, but then the compensation structure encourages backstabbing and blaming.

By contrast, in the nonprofit world, people help each other. I created a new Board for Centerpoint. First I spent six months reading everything I could about boards and best practices. Then I started talking to other Executive Directors, even people I didn’t know. I called them up and said, “You don’t know me but I’m a new ED and I would love to talk to you if you are willing.”

Without exception, the other EDs were lovely and informative. Some of them became true mentors and a huge source of support, giving me tons of information and help.

Nonprofit is a truly different world.

You’re probably convincing a lot of my readers! In your opinion, what are the best ways to seek nonprofit jobs?

There are recruiting firms that specialize in helping people find nonprofit jobs and if they are sourcing for something for which your background and skills are a good fit, that might be one way. Hagel Executive Search is an example of this type of firm.

Also, volunteering is a phenomenal way to explore possibilities and make connections.

What advice do you give people who want to change careers and are considering working for a nonprofit but they have no idea where to start?

You won’t have a full picture until you live through the change. You just have to get started. I took risks and it really paid off. I am the happiest I have ever been. I love my job and I am madly in love with Seattle: the diversity, culture, people, music, and food.

When you change careers, you are walking away from something and you could end up in greener pastures but you could also crash and burn. If that happens, you pick yourself up and keep going. Find your fit. I lived in Scottsdale, AZ, and Orange County, CA, before I moved to Seattle and the fit is much better for me in Seattle.

99% of my family and friends thought I was insane to leave my corporate career, but I was determined. I said in my exit interview, “I would rather bag groceries than not take the risk to find my happiness.”

At Centerpoint we tell people, “Take a B job to get to your A job.”

Get support from somewhere…if not from your family. Find a group of supportive people like we offer at Centerpoint. Negative feedback from family and friends can hold you hostage.

Even if you have only a vague idea of what you want to do, research, read, and talk to people. You won’t know in the beginning what the outcome will be but start exploring.

The two components needed are research and community. The career transition is all about how brave you are.

Are there any common themes you see in people who successfully change careers vs. people who don’t succeed?

I have a front row seat in watching hundreds of people go through a transitional process. They physically look different when they walk in versus when they walk out. I do the free introductory orientations where I talk about the program. When they walk in, they are lost, confused, and depressed. Their self-esteem might be really low, they seem defeated, and this feels like the last resort. I see anger and tears.

We create a very safe environment so people feel heard and understood. People sign up for one day or eight week programs or individual programs.

When they walk out, their head is up, they are making eye contact and their eyes are clear, they look more confident, and they are excited and energetic and ready to tackle the world.

I don’t meet many people who aren’t successful. The hard part is putting the action steps in place and implementing them. If people aren’t successful, it is often because they are trying to make progress in isolation, with no accountability. It is easy to get stuck or give up if you don’t find resources to help you. Even if you don’t have a lot of money, we don’t turn anyone away. You just have to be ready for it because it takes work.

In your experience, how long does it take for most career changers to transition from one path to the next?

The bigger the first career, the longer the transition. This can take years. These are the people who need support the most.

Some changes are quicker but people should be prepared for it to take awhile.

Centerpoint says, “We will help you find your passion and purpose.” But you might not be able to find either of these until you have grieved what you are leaving.

Our “Navigating Change” workshop is very good.

April 7 is the day I left my first career. Now I celebrate it like a second birthday.

Any other advice or observations you want to share with us?

Visit Centerpoint on the Web if you are interested in our services.

Thank you, Leah. Congratulations on your new career and for all the great advice in this interview. 

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