Time for a Career Change? Four Oklahoma Examples
Photos by Quit Nguyen
What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?
Most of us remember that inevitable question adults asked when we were young. But the answers we gave then often don’t resonate with us later in life. When I was a kid, my usual response was “I want to be a disc jockey.” The thought of sitting in a room all day playing your favorite records seemed like a reasonable way to make a living.
So at 18, I traipsed off to college armed with my favorite records and set out to make that dream a reality. And I did. But wanting to be a disc jockey at age 18 may not hold the same excitement at age 45 or 50. So what do you do? Plug along until retirement or take a long, hard look at your life and make some big changes? As for me, I opted for the latter.
Big change may not always be easy, but it is worth it. Here’s a look at a few individuals who chucked it all and set out to re-invent themselves.
PR Promoter to Solo Social Specialist
A few short years ago, Leslie Spears was the director of communications for the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. It was a job she loved, but one that happened quite by accident.
“When I was young I wanted to be a dancer in MTV videos. Seriously. It was the ‘80s,” she says with a laugh. “That didn’t quite work out, so one of my first jobs was as a bank teller. But I got fired because I couldn’t balance my drawer.
“Then I landed a job as a receptionist at a printing company. I was the best receptionist ever,” Leslie says. “That job led me to an ad agency, which in turn led me to radio. I worked as a radio promotions manager where I coordinated a bus trip to Graceland for Elvis Tribute Week. I promoted classic rock birthday bashes at the Zoo Amphitheatre and so much more. I loved and sometimes hated radio, but mostly loved it. And radio is what catapulted me into public relations.”
After being laid off three times in the radio industry, Leslie was hired for her first gig as communications manager for a local engineering and architecture firm.
“They needed a loudmouth like me to promote them,” she says, “and they also helped me tone down my lack of professionalism. But I have always kept that crazy radio girl inside of me, and I’m proud of her.”
The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber followed, where she was publications manager. At the same time she was doing volunteer work for the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
“I lent my expertise on promotion and public relations to the museum and helped get them out of the red,” Leslie says. “They hired me, and I helped open the new building in 2002, and was there for 12 years. But one day I was in a meeting and I just found it to be pointless and a waste of everyone’s time. I started crying and stood up and said ‘I hate my job! I want out.’
“The meeting came to a standstill for about a minute, then they went right back to business. I got a pat on my shoulder, but I knew I needed to get out or I was going to drive my co-workers crazy,” she said.
Like many of her earlier professional incarnations, one thing led to another and she started her own business.
“There seemed to be a big shift to freelance in how corporate America was treating employees and I was upset by that,” Leslie says. “I was so taken with social media. People started offering me gigs here and there, and a friend suggested I start out on my own. I have never been one to sit down and plan much. I just do it and learn from ups and downs.”
And so Leslie’s OKC was born, where Leslie describes her position as a digital media specialist, including social media, web content and e-newsletters – with personality.
“I got about three anchor clients, including the Museum, which was a perfect solution for departing a job that I so loved. I continued to build clients, and today I am very happy. Sometimes I get scared and think ‘what have I done?’” Leslie adds. “But then I have more good days and tons of people cheering me on. So I know what I did was right.”
Far-Flung Hotels to Hometown Pharmacy
For more than 20 years Matt Cowden was a bigwig in the hospitality industry. A few years ago while serving as general manager of Oklahoma City’s downtown Sheraton Hotel, he decided it was time for a change.
Early on, Matt says he wanted to go into journalism and was focused on that as far back as junior high school.
“I had planned on going into the communications field, but it was during a side job I had in college that my career kind of took a left turn. I opened the Oklahoma City Marriott on Northwest Expressway back in 1985, and was enamored with the hospitality industry,” Matt says. “Next thing I know, I am assigned to the New Orleans Marriott as an entry-level manager where I spent two years learning the ropes. That was the start of my hotel career, which would take me to Dallas, El Paso, Memphis, Houston and ultimately back to Oklahoma City.”
About halfway through his 40s, Matt says he came to realize what is important in life.
“I had already done so much, and it was certainly an exciting career,” he says. “I met the President. We were the headquarter hotel for the NBA finals. I worked on a film with a major movie studio. But it all pales in comparison to being home, connecting with family and old friends and having my kids experience what I experienced growing up in this great state.
“I had been at the Sheraton about five years when I began taking a look at my life and my career,” he adds. “Up to that point I had reached all my goals and had been blessed to work in many different disciplines of the hotel world. So I began talking things over with my wife and knew it was time for a change.”
A mid-life career shift was just what he needed, he says, and apprehension or nerves never really came into play.
“I was excited about my next move,” Matt says. “The allure of a challenge and exercising my vertical learning curve were the main incentives. Make no mistake; it was a decision I did not take lightly. The goal was to do something I hadn’t done yet, something new. What could I contribute to a company or organization in the latter part of my career, yet still grow myself? It was quite a mission!”
Fast-forward two years and Matt is now settled in a new career. Together with his wife, he manages a retail pharmacy in his hometown of Guthrie.
“My commute is around five minutes, and I am blessed to work with a family of owners who have a vision to grow their existing business model to other markets. My goal is to contribute to that mission using the skills and infrastructure I’ve learned throughout my career.
“It’s just amazing that we each possess attributes that can transition and contribute to other fields,” Matt says. “The key is you just have to find out what it is.”
Instructing Youth to Expressing the Soul
As a kid, Lynn Mallett says she hated school. In fact, she used to hop on an oversized tricycle at recess and ride off to her grandmother’s house.
“I hated school so much, I told my parents I wanted to be a maid,” Lynn says with a laugh. “I remember asking my mom if I would have to go to school for that. She said she didn’t think so; that’s when I decided my goal was to be a maid in the White House. I had high aspirations.”
Ironically, in spite of her disdain for school, she chose teaching as her profession. It was only a few years ago she decided to get back to her roots and follow her true calling.
“When I was a kid, if we were going on a trip, my sister would always take toys along to play with. Me, I always took drawing pads. I loved art, and it came naturally,” Lynn said. “I went to college but dropped out after a couple of years. I was taking art classes, and as much as I love art, it was never any fun having to finish a project on someone else’s schedule.
“So I regrouped and thought about how I could make a living. I went back to college and believe it or not, I chose to teach elementary school. I ended up teaching in Oklahoma City Public Schools for 26 years. Some of the schools I worked in were made up of low-income children who lived in poverty. It was such a thrill to watch those kids with so many challenges learn basic things like their primary colors or learn how to read.”
Health issues prompted Lynn to take an early retirement, but she knew she wanted to stay active. It was a chance encounter with a friend that helped put her on the road to her new career.
“My friend Robert [Painter] was opening the new Iguana restaurant, and he asked if I would do some paintings for him,” Lynn remembers. “I got busy and never looked back. From that day on, I never missed teaching. In fact, I sort of felt I should have followed my passion years earlier.”
Today, Lynn has an active life. She has paintings for sale at Iguana, the Deep Fork Grill and Guthrie’s Blue Belle Saloon. She also does paintings by commission and loves every minute of her work.
“Sometimes I will paint until 2 a.m. and not even be aware of the time,” Lynn says. “I really did love teaching, and knowing I made a difference. But now it’s my time. I get to do what I am passionate about.”
News Reporter to the Face of Law Enforcement
Some folks still recognize Mark Myers as the “news dude” from his days as a television reporter for KOCO Channel 5. During a decade under the bright lights, he realized the glitz of TV really isn’t all that glamorous. In fact, a reporter’s life isn’t what he originally envisioned at all.
“At age 18 my dream job was to become a physical therapist,” Mark says. “In high school I suffered a torn knee ligament playing football, and as part of rehab I was just so impressed with my physical therapy team. The ability to see someone come in physically broken, and help them progress back to 100 percent healthy, I felt was an amazing career.”
Mark spent much of the ’90s at Channel 5. It was during the last few years there that he began thinking of switching gears.
“News just wasn’t ‘news’ anymore,” Mark says. “The platform had started moving toward what I call ‘info-tainment’ and a bit of ‘fear-casting.’ I understand the whole ratings thing, but how many vacant house fire reports, and running around doing live shots scaring viewers because it’s raining outside can you do before reporting on them isn’t fun anymore? I think a lot of news folk burn out after a while.”
His years as a reporter had helped him make some good contacts, so Mark says the transition to a new career was virtually seamless.
“I had been a crime reporter, and Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel had been looking to bring in a civilian to lead his public information office, and some people had recommended me,” Mark says. “I believe anyone thinking about changing careers should first think about what will make them happy and what talents or skills they have that will transition well.”
Embarking on a new venture was a life-altering decision, but Mark says he had no fear whatsoever.
“My new job made me feel rejuvenated by the opportunity to represent a law enforcement agency full of people who do incredible, heroic acts, and I get to tell their stories. I felt like the foundation for my new career could be based on the things I loved about being a news reporter.
“I just seized the opportunity and ran with it,” Mark says. “The pay is better, and I actually have holidays off now. The only regret I have is that I didn’t make the move sooner.”
What now? What next? Where to?
The recurring theme from Leslie, Matt, Mark and Lynn is “I followed my passion.”
So where do you start? A lot of mid-lifers ask that question, and the answer from the experts is almost always the same: trust your gut instinct.
A simple internet search reveals hundreds of pages on tips and guidelines for those thinking of making a change.
“Each individual is different,” says David Ferguson, president of Oklahoma City’s Career Executive Options. “When someone is unhappy with his or her job, then it is time to make a change. And I recommend doing it before it starts affecting your health.
“When the people you train start to move up and around you, then you know it is time to find another company,” he says. “You are on the wrong corporate ladder.
“If you think ‘I am too old for sales,’ then become the purchasing agent and purchase the products you have been selling. Just move to the other side of the desk.”
Also look at the particular skill sets associated with a job, not necessarily the title.
Starting over later in life may cause a few butterflies, but those who have done it say it is definitely worth it. Certainly an income is needed, but so is peace of mind.
January is here, and the dawn of a new year is upon us. Today may just be the perfect time to make a fresh start and decide what you want to be now that you’re all grown up.