Dr. Jo Ellen Burkholder built an enviable career in traditional academia as professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, and also worked in instructional design, training and facilitation. After 20 years, she wanted a fresh
perspective. Jo moved to the West Coast, using her geographic move to push forward her desire to transition from her academic roots to work in the social impact sector.
After working hard to build new contacts and community, Jo recently started as Associate Director for Mission Renewal and Vincentian Support with the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul of Seattle and King County. “It’s a perfect role for me, helping people learn and grow in their heartfelt mission to know their neighbors and bring about a better society,” she reported to The Swing Shift recently. She walks us through how she built towards this role, with a steady income and benefits doing good work with and for good people.
Q: Jo, congratulations on your new role! You made multiple changes at the same time - you left a lifelong career in academia AND you relocated from the Midwest to Seattle. What prompted that big change? Would you do anything differently next time?
A couple of things converged for me. On one side, I felt like I had hit a dead end. There was one small promotion left that came with only a small raise and changing to an administrative track with more growth opportunities felt blocked. I’d hit a glass ceiling. At about the same time my personal life went through a major upheaval - a divorce, a traumatic injury followed by surgery and recovery, and an only child who went off on an exchange year and came home needing to be someplace more metropolitan. I came away with new friends, new interests, new hobbies, new needs. What had been a thought of, “Oh, maybe if I find a job I like somewhere else, then I’ll go,” became an urgent, “Why am I wasting time? I need out now!” Aging parents in Portland, OR made moving west very attractive and a blossoming romance made Seattle my first choice.
Ultimately, I have compared what I did to “throwing myself off the top of the ivory tower, trusting I would grow wings and fly before I went splat.” I took a leap of faith, trusting that I had marketable and desirable skills and was generally a great person to work with. I learned a lot in that leap, but I’m not sure I would do a lot differently other than plan for the transition to be slower.
Q: Many people who relocate report the lack of network and community as a barrier to their finding work. What were some of the first things you did to get acclimated in a new city to start building out a new network and meeting people?
I had good advice that networks could be crucial so I cultivated them intentionally. I spent most of my last year in Wisconsin spending almost one week a month in Seattle. I joined two different women’s business networks, a new professional organization, and subscribed to a diversity training series so I could attend their Seattle events, meet new people, and make connections. I took a few classes about LinkedIn and practiced my networking skills, reaching out to folks in a variety of ways. Plus, I am fortunate to have a brilliant alumni network from college so I joined the local chapter and found where they hung out online. Networking became like a second job before I moved, and a full-time job once I did and I WORKED that job.
I also joined in places where I knew, or at least suspected, I could build or find a supportive community. For me that was joining a local church and taking classes in aerial circus arts. I met amazing, creative, soulful, thoughtful people doing cool things largely unrelated to my job search, and by participating I became part of a community that had my back.
Q: Like so many people who are switching industries and roles, your career pivot journey had its highs and lows. Can you elaborate on what you did to keep moving forward even when it felt like your progress was slowing?
Three things made a big difference. One was finding great coaches who worked with me on multiple levels, always encouraging me to try something new and challenging me to take the next step. Joelene Ashker, who I met through the Swing Shift, has been an amazing support to my personal growth. I had made most of my advances in my career with a combination of white-knuckled fear and well-muscled determination, but with great coaching I’ve found new grace and ease that makes me better at everything I do.
Another was taking time for myself, because sometimes there is just a lot of waiting, or just not much I could do. I would feel very frustrated and anxious, but instead of broadening my search criteria on Indeed or trying to cobble together a proposal for work I really didn’t want to do, I dropped in on an aerial class, cooked a favorite recipe, or went on a hike somewhere new with my dogs. I did something that relaxed me and gave me a little bit of success to celebrate - I learned a new move, had some cookies or fresh bread to eat, explored a beautiful place and that felt better than frustrated and anxious.
Third, I suppose I can identify some of those low ,slow spots by looking at where I tried something new. I offered three, very different on-line seminars. I volunteered as the communications director for a non-profit and as a coach for a “pitch” competition. I took a part-time job cleaning and managing the studio where I do my aerial circus training. I bartered some work in exchange for taking a training seminar for something I wanted to explore. They didn’t always produce much money, but they broke the pattern of feeling stuck or slowed down and helped me refine my understanding of the work I wanted to do.
Q: Moving from academia, which has its own traditions and workplace norms, to the social impact sector is a big cultural shift. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered, and how are you working through it?
There is a huge difference between working with volunteers and working with students. A lot of the adult learning principles I know from higher education still apply, but the social realm is really different. Colleges and universities almost count on the fact that the student body is constantly changing and social memory, for good or ill, is short. Students come, study, and go away in a mostly predictable rhythm. If people don’t get along, or don’t like how you do something, you can usually wait it out and start the next semester or year with kind of a clean slate.
Some of my volunteers now have been with this organization for 10, 20, even 30 years. They have amazing depth of experience, but that also means they carry with them long histories of social relations I know nothing about and a strong resistance to doing things differently. There is NO clean slate. I get compared to my predecessors in this role, I get a lot of, “We have always…,” and there are days when the social field feels strewn with landmines I could never detect.
Meeting this challenge is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. I don’t enjoy the landmines but I have adopted a learners mindset. When I step on someone’s toes, wander out of what someone thinks is my lane, or ask for too much change too soon I take it as a cue to ask questions and listen, to be clear about intention and impact, and to hold space for the work I was hired to do. And the personal growth I experienced in the course of this search has given me a great depth of genuine resilience, patience, and compassion for being a servant leader and I love bringing that to the fore.
The other big difference is that I now have bosses who offer regular feedback in ways that are truly constructive. For 20 years my boss rarely came to my office or called me to theirs unless it was about something “bad,” a problem they wanted explained and fixed. It engendered a lot of defensiveness. I now work with amazing people who check in just to hear how it is going, to provide information, to strategize, to offer praise and affirmation. It has taken some effort to unlearn that cultivated, defensive reaction and just accept graciously when my boss says, “I saw what you did there today. You did great!”
Q: Now that you’ve found this new role and feeling like you’ve landed in a good place, what advice would you give those in career transition?
The untold part of my current job is how long it took to get hired. Start to finish it took about 6 months to land this job. I learned two things in the process.
One, is that the role feels “bespoke,” because what I brought with me to the first interviews influenced how my bosses thought about the role. The interview wasn’t a screening for qualifications, it was a structured dialog about how I might fill and shape the space available, how I might articulate with others. I had to let go of the mental model of interviews being about shouting, “I AM MOST QUALIFIED!” or feeling like I had something to prove.
The other is the power of persistence. This is the second job I have landed where someone in the hiring process looked at who I was on my resume and thought I might not be serious about taking the job because they imagined that I would naturally want something else or was soon to be offered much more compensation and a better title somewhere else. And while I will not snub my nose at luxurious pay and benefits, I applied to the jobs because they fit my needs and expectations and working with the right people for a great purpose was more important to me than a fancy downtown office. Rather than seeing a re-advertised position as a sign that I was “not wanted,” I took it as an opportunity to demonstrate interest and determination. Both times I was told, “you seemed too good to be true the first time you applied and we couldn’t believe you wouldn’t be snatched up by someone bigger and better than our organization. When you applied the second time, we thought about you differently.”
To connect with Jo you can find her here on LinkedIn!
If you or someone you know has a return to work or career transition story please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org!