Interview with Erin Noel by Michelle Alfandari
Intro: I first met Erin at the CAPP Program (Certification in Applied Positive Psychology at The Flourishing Center/Open Center, NYC), from which we both graduated. When she told me about her career change, a bold shift from the competitive and highly regarded world of brand strategy to—in her own words—the dubiously regarded field of recruiting, I knew her story of career change would resonate broadly.
Name: Erin Noel
What do you do now? I have been a Talent Scout for the advertising industry since November 2014.
What did you do before you retimed? I was a Brand Strategist in the same industry.
Married/Single/Divorced/Widowed? Engaged to be married in October 2015.
Where do you live? Brooklyn (Crown Heights), New York, USA.
MA: Do you consider yourself a retimer?
EN: Yes, in terms of being open to priorities, interests, occupations and obligations that evolve over time ; and to having a healthy work-life balance. I am consciously trying to allocate the appropriate amount of time to earning, living, and having fun, and making sure that I pay attention to all three domains. I do that, but I’m aspiring to do it more often.
MA: What motivated you to change careers from Brand Strategist to Talent Scout?
EN: In 2008, I started thinking more about my desire to help people. I found myself continually giving career advice to colleagues, playing the role of connector, counseling them through difficult situations, and helping folks with their resumes. I really enjoyed it, and I started to consider ways to integrate those activities into my career.
MA: Did you immediately start to take steps toward a career shift?
EN: I was working at Leo Burnett, a large international advertising agency in Chicago, and developed a friendship with our in-house strategy recruiter. We talked about the idea of a possible shift to recruiting, so I shared my desire to switch into HR with leadership. I would’ve had to leave a billable position in the company for an overhead role, so the idea was quashed pretty quickly, and at the time, I didn’t have the resilience or perseverance to seek out another route to my goal. I viewed the company’s resistance as a sign that perhaps I was knocking on the wrong door, and foolishly thought that if it were meant to be, it would have happened easily. When I left the company, I felt unsure of how to move forward in my career.
MA: It must have been difficult giving up on something you felt so strongly about only to end up feeling stuck. Obviously, you didn’t give up on the idea of recruiting entirely. What happened next?
EN: I had been working as a brand strategist for seven years when I first explored the possibility of doing recruiting. After the idea was met with a closed door, I moved to the next agency. With each passing year in this very competitive field, I grew deflated and insecure about my work. Meanwhile, the notion of working with “talent” persisted, but I kept telling myself it was something I was meant to do on the side, on my own time—not as a career. I was still grappling with the idea that my work had to be as meaningful as what I enjoyed doing in my spare time. I had never hated my job, although I just wasn’t satisfied with it, but I felt guilty about that, and wondered if every day should be a nine out of ten, or if feeling that achieving a six or a seven on most days was good enough?! It wasn’t lost on me that I got to be part of an awesome creative culture, working at some great companies with talented people, and that I was well paid. There were many days I felt ungrateful and spoiled for knowing all of those things, and still not feeling any happier for it.
MA: It sounds like you did a lot of soul searching. Although you had your doubts about moving toward something risky and unknown, you ultimately took the leap. How did that happen?
EN: In the end, I couldn’t ignore my doubts. In August of 2014, I left my freelance strategy gig, and took a sabbatical. I disconnected for a whole month, even though I had no idea what was happening next. I called it “Analog August”. I made a bucket list, and one of the items on it was to have coffee with five people I didn’t know. One of those people was Dana Siomkos, the founder of You & Them, a recruiting business with a wonderful reputation. I reached out to Dana via LinkedIn, and asked if she’d meet me for coffee so that I could learn more about her journey from account director to company owner. A couple of coffees turned into a job interview and, eventually, an offer, and just like that, on November 1, 2014, I changed careers from brand strategist to career strategist (as I like to call it).
MA: I like your term “career strategist.” You became the strategist of your own career change. Your sabbatical seems to have been part of that strategy—giving your brain a chance to recharge and gain some clarity. It took you seven years, from thinking about the change to making a move. What were the challenges or barriers along the way?
EN: The biggest challenge was self-doubt. I believe that everything has a purpose, and every moment shapes your character, agility, and adaptability, and so I really wanted a sign that would tell me I was on the right path. The sign should have been that my core was asking for something else, but I didn’t trust that at the time. If I had said yes to that little yearning inside of me, the path should have been very obvious.
EN: It was the debate between staying in an area where I knew I was capable, versus going into a field where I might not do well. I was skeptical about my ability to perform, and I had concerns about how satisfying the new field would be for me. I’d been doing brand strategy for so long; how did I know I would be happy in talent? Was I sabotaging a perfectly lucrative career? And then there was the doubt and skepticism that I heard from others who didn’t understand how I could go from strategy and research to recruiting. To them, it seemed like a career downgrade. “Why would you go from a well-paid, in-demand job to something that has a reputation for being transactional and sales-y?”
MA: Eventually, you cut through the mind chatter and moved out of your comfort zone. What was the defining moment?
EN: I got a job offer from a lovely company for which I had been working on a freelance basis. They offered me a leadership opportunity—the best offer I’d ever gotten—but it took me three months to say yes. The job made so much sense: working at a place where people want you, where you are being asked to lead and cultivate young talent and where the work is meaningful. I finally pressured myself into saying yes. It was the first time I‘d ever gone against my gut, and the next day, I felt terrible about it. About a month later, I arranged a meeting with my boss, and told him I had made a horrible mistake, and I resigned. That’s when I knew I was at the beginning of a new chapter.
MA: That took a lot of guts and grit.
EN: It was terrifying, but I had an amazing and compassionate boss who understood. He knew that if my heart was not in it, he shouldn’t want me working for him.
MA: After that you took your Analog August sabbatical and got your present job. How did it feel to go from the security of a big paycheck to an “eat what you kill” style of earning a living?
EN: It was terrifying. If you’d asked me how important money was, I would have said that it affords me a great deal of enjoyment, but it’s not very important. Cutting your salary, though, sure tests that theory.
MA: I love your candor. How were you able to make such a risky financial move?
EN: I’m in a good place now. I have a partner who is emotionally, spiritually, and physically supportive, so I know that I have a safety net in that regard. But the fact that my paycheck depends on me delivering—finding people and helping to make them happy in their jobs—definitely drives me to work very hard.
MA: Were there other significant adjustments?
EN: I had to overcome my pride. Before, my title was “Director,” and the strategy field is seen as a very lucrative intellectual discipline, whereas HR has a stigma associated with it. There was a famous article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “Why HR Sucks.” When I work with strategy groups to help them find their talent, I experience the snobbery of that world. The insecure part of me wants to declare, “I used to do this job—I know what it’s like!” Getting over that has been a bigger test of my character than I care to admit. And it’s tough knowing that my two other colleagues are “Senior” Talent Scouts, whereas I’m just a Talent Scout. It’s that sense of “starting over,” of knowing that you are only six months in, with no track record to prove that you are any good at what you do, and all the while, you are making rookie mistakes. It all boils down to ego. Oy!
MA: Even if you’re following your passion, changing careers can be a humbling experience. If you didn’t have your fiancé’s financial support would you have made the move?
EN: The dissonance between where my heart was and where my paycheck was coming from was so strong that I just couldn’t do it anymore. And when you have a boss who is a wonderful human being—someone who advocates for you—and you have to look him in the eye and say, “I don’t want your money, and I don’t want your attention or support,” then you know that something has changed inside of you. I’d like to believe that even without the financial cushion, I would have said, “I’m done.” But I’m definitely being tested now. Even though I’ve been working 60+ hours per week for six months, I’ve only earned $15,000, and at about four months in, I had to rely on my partner to pay the rent because I had used up almost all of my savings. If it were only up to me to put a roof over my head and food in my mouth, I’d be working two jobs right now. Thankfully, I have the luxury of focusing on just one.
MA: What does success look like to you?
EN: Living authentically—that’s been my drumbeat throughout my entire life. I can no longer work in a way that’s not true to my beliefs. That’s a very millennial thing to say, but even people in their 40’s and 50’s say the same thing. If you live your purpose, the money will come. I may not be rich, and I may struggle for a while, but every dollar I make (or don’t make) feels closer to how I want to spend my days working and living.
MA: What do you do for fun?
EN: I love health and wellness as a lifestyle. Food is definitely a focal point: making it, buying it, and enjoying it. And music is a big part of my life, too—going to shows, and watching and supporting the arts. I am a culturally driven person and a proud consumer. I kind of joke that artists, like your husband, put their vulnerability out there, and that is an amazing thing, but they also need people like me to appreciate them. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
EN: Well-being, hands down. While poverty absolutely affects well-being, I can’t imagine wanting money over being well.
MA: What would you do if you had one more hour in the day?
EN: I’d spend it consuming some sort of inspiration, breaking bread with someone, and disconnecting.
MA: What would you do if you had one less hour in the day?
EN: Hands down, I’d give up email. I’ve read all the articles about how to make email productive and efficient, but it is the biggest time suck. We even learned about that in class—how that ping and that boldfaced font fool your brain into thinking, “I need to respond now.”
MA: Do you dance?
EN: I used to dance a lot. Jon and I cook together a lot, and sometimes we slow-dance in the kitchen. Melts me every time.
MA: Thank you for such an inspiring and insightful interview, Erin.
“Life is the dancer and you are the dance.” ― Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose