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Dear Shannon

Dear Shannon: How can I trace a path through my career leaps?

In this month’s column, Shannon offers a “portfolio careerist” a personal perspective on weaving through diverse career choices with catlike agility.

If you have a question for Shannon, send it to

Dear Shannon,

I’m a hard-to-define portfolio careerist with a working history that spans NGOs, private business, entrepreneurship and public sectors in FMCG, finance and development across three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa). I’m currently seeking a new role in sustainability and have followed the extensive personal branding and skills mapping advice on your website, but find myself struggling to identify the common thread through all my work and repackage it for a new role. Everything is so diverse that I’m starting to wonder whether I’ve wasted my life pursuing my various interests instead of following a "path." There’s a big brick wall in the way and I’m feeling very confused. Can you offer any insight?

Sarah, Durban/London

Dear Sarah,

A wise person once said, “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention” (the wise person in this case is Tom Peters, author of a management book called Thriving On Chaos — so he ought to know). But it’s true. We’re all confused, even the people we look to as bastions of reason and clarity. They just hide it better.

I can relate to your dilemma and thought it might help to share some of my own experiences so that you feel a little less alone.

I am on my own ninth life in career terms (at least I think it’s my ninth life — I’ve lost count). Like a cat, I’ve always had a knack for stalking, hunting and ultimately catching professional opportunities. My dad still teases me about never having lost an interview (at least for jobs I actually wanted).

Cat crossing sign by road
I’ve always landed on my feet. Like you, the places I landed were always interesting, often unusual or out of the ordinary. And, like you, I’ve had to work hard to define the common denominator that they all share, but eventually I got there: For me, the theme throughout has been helping people to convert their passion into purpose and pay.

My own approach to my professional life was a typical combination of “let my career happen to me,” followed by “take the reins of my career,” and finally “create my career outside the box.”  Here are a few examples of each.

Reactive career decisions

My “calling” was shaped by my first job out of university: staffing assistant at a management consultancy in Washington, D.C. My boss made me cry a few times, but I learned a lot and followed her when she left for another firm.

I loved getting the right people into the right roles, critiquing resumes and helping top candidates prepare to meet our management. I’d thought I’d become a social worker with my sociology degree, but this first job ended up being closest to what I do now.

Take the reins

In the following 10 years, I took various recruiting and office manager roles until I realized I loved crunching numbers. I enrolled in accounting courses and took over the bookkeeping at a small international trade company in Washington, D.C.

I loved the work but grew tired of D.C. I yearned to be in San Francisco, so got a job working with numbers in the fashion industry before moving to mortgage insurance and then investment management, where I did accounting, then database management and strategic planning.

I worked my way up to be two removed from the CFO of Barclays Global Investors. There I launched the first employee volunteering program and realized my next career calling was to make a difference on the ground in communities and link that to corporate responsibility (hardly even a term way-back-when in 1998).

Outside the box

It could have been a straight line. I could have followed the "path," as you say. But no. I had always wanted to learn fluent Spanish and needed to have something amazing to “sell” on my business school applications, so I traded in my car and furniture for a duffel bag and a one-way ticket to Patagonia.

There I volunteered for an outdoor leadership school, NOLS, for nine months while making local contacts. Not wanting to leave the fly-fishing rivers and the simple life, I created my own eco-tourism business bringing “gringos” on cultural and adventure trips to the remote region near the glaciers using “leave no trace” ethics.

An MBA in international management called me back to the U.S. for a year and then, as I finished year two in Geneva, Switzerland, I yearned to stay in the Alps. Still with a community investment focus, I found a role as project finance manager at WWF.

Now I was tasked with managing people, a team of nine nationalities — a great MBA+ job! This allowed me to see how “the other side” worked but I quickly realized I was a triple bottom line girl. Where were the profit drivers?

Meeting my Quebequois-French-speaking husband on the ski mountain lured me to the U.K. There, I landed my first proper CSR post as London benchmarking group manager at boutique consultancy Corporate Citizenship.

While there, I went back to reactive decision-making when one of my consulting clients, Deloitte, lured me away with more money. Before I knew it, I was working ridiculous hours with high pressure in a culture I didn’t understand or agree with. I had been seduced by the wrong things and, despite the credibility this experience would give me later in my career, I was miserable.

Taking the reins outside the box

I knew I had to be smarter about aligning my personal and professional goals and values with each other. So after having my first son, I didn’t return from maternity leave and instead launched my sustainability career coaching business, combining all of my talents, interests, values and needs into one — except a paycheck.

The risk was high but I eased in, starting with two days a week and going up by one each year while also continuing my corporate consulting with another boutique. I also partnered with a leading recruitment agency, Acre, who referred clients to me and gave me credibility in the early years. I had finally found a way to marry up all of my skills, knowledge, interests and personal flexibility needs into one “dream job.” And now five years in, I haven’t looked back.

So as you can see, I am also the typical “portfolio careerist,” with more than nine career lives. I've leapt into new sectors, pounced on different professions and lapped up the cream in various countries over my 20-year career. Like everyone, I made some mistakes along the way, but used them to fuel me to pursue my life’s calling — career coaching for the impact sector. So with all that in mind, have another look at your “career story” and see if your nine lives are pointing you towards your true calling.

Good luck! Feel free to contact me directly if you have specific questions and would like me to take a deep dive into your resume.

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