What was your first job?

Telemarketing… and it was so fantastic. At 11 I’d bring home my lead list and I’d rush through dinner so I could go up to my room and make more calls (convincing people to buy coupon books to support wheelchair basketball). I’d start the next day with one or two sales in the bag before the others had a chance to take their coats off. (I’ve always been nerdy like that.)

Why in the world did you have a telemarketing job as an 11 year old?

Is that weird? It was a summer job, so does that sound less sweat-shopy? (I might have fudged my age to work there and they didn’t ask for documents. It might not have been all that legit, now that I think about it.)

Can you illuminate your career path, from the beginning to now?

Here’s the pseudo-condensed version (after the telemarketing summers): Restaurants throughout high school and college: SUCH great preparation for life–that combo of working hard and fast and fun. I met my husband toiling away in a restaurant kitchen, so I’ll always have a soft spot for Red Lobster.
I worked in the fitness industry for 17 years after college: starting as a personal trainer (that’s a long-faded memory of what it felt like to be young and fit), then fitness director of a club, then selling memberships because it was a step I had to take to get ahead, then GM of one club, then managing a chunk of them, then working in corporate roles at a national brand where I got to do cool things like plan customer care initiatives to retain members… oversee openings of new brands in new locations… manage different departments… oversee internal communications… create training & development programs… you name it. By the end of this phase of my career, I was SVP of Operations and looked back fondly on the smorgasbord of roles I’d fulfilled, somehow making a successful career out of a hobby. I knew it was time to make a change into something that excited me again, though…
Leadership coaching: helping people to be more effective and to be their best was the common thread in the years I’d spent leading teams. I took control of my career for maybe the first time ever, starting my own business of coaching leaders 1:1 and through a peer advisory group of CEOs (through Vistage). I wondered why I hadn’t transitioned sooner to this line of work. What was I waiting for?
Happy Work Spectacular Life was created last year in serendipitous splendor. While transitioning out of his perfectly comfortable spot in a consulting firm he had founded, John Philbin had conceived of the idea to help kill off the bad career. In my coaching role of championing him to Just Freaking Do It, I got swept up in the spectacularity of it all and the partnership was born. Dream come true kind of stuff.

Who along the way helped you get where you are?

No one; I pretty much did it all alone.
I feel like a successful career is the product of the people who support you at work and home. I credit the many inspiring bosses I’ve had along the way who taught me and then let me grow and go. I also learned from a couple of bosses/ co-workers what not to do, which sounds sarcastic but was actually super helpful. On the home front, I have a Dad who is unfailingly supportive (even though I left the country for a job and never came back– sorry, Dad), and a husband who’s my own personal career coach (who never once complained when I came home at 9 pm from work all those years).
I feel like that was my Oscars acceptance speech.

Keep it on file for the Academy just in case. Focusing the present, why did you want to become a coach?

I wanted to be a coach because I thought it was the most direct way I could find to help people to be happy and to maybe love their lives a little bit more. I also wanted something flexible after working for the man– an expression that totally has to change by the way– for so many years. Being a career coach means that we’re all just ready to talk about how our jobs matter and that they’re worth fixing if we want a chance to feel anything close to spectacular in life.

Where do you see HWSL going? What do you want people to know about it/us?

We want people to know that it’s not okay to have a job that you don’t like. Settling (let alone suffering!) just isn’t an option in a world full of so much choice. We know it’s scary to initiate a change in the very thing that ironically represents security in one’s life (the paycheck that a keeps us unfortunately anchored to disenchantment), and we want the world to know that we can help. We want to become a recognized solution to a problem that’s so scarily prevalent. And we’re going to do it one person at a time.

Do you have career idols? People you look up to, either people you know or from afar? Why?

I admire anyone who has started their own business without overthinking every step of it. I’m coaching a guy now who amazes me because he has an idea and then makes it happen without dragging all the pros and cons through the mud for months. I respect that bias towards action while suspending perfectionistic tendencies. (Maybe I’m attracted to that action-orientation now because I felt stuck for years and didn’t take action when I knew I needed to.)

Do you feel successful — like you’ve “made it” — and what does success look like for you?

I feel successful when a client is happy with what Happy Spectacular has done for him or her, even if it means they’ve decided to stay at their average job after all (because at least they’ve done a ton of work to get to the point of making that empowered decision, you know?). I feel successful when I’ve gotten a leg up on the week, which means I happily and willingly work on the weekends to make Mondays not feel evil. I feel successful when we partner with a stunning new coach who will help our clients do great things at work.
I admit that success (in general) feels elusive, slippery, always a few steps ahead of me (cue the “never enough” theme here). I need to do a better job of defining what it looks like so I can celebrate when I get bits of it accomplished.

What does it mean to you to be a woman and a co-founder in today’s climate? Do you feel like it affects the way you do things?

I don’t think twice about being a woman co-founder. I don’t even think once about it, to be honest. Maybe I should? I think the fact that I don’t think about it is because our genders are never relevant in our work partnership (although John does make fun of himself for being a stereotypical gray-haired white male a lot) or out in the market.

It’s probably good that you haven’t thought about it until this point. Maybe you don’t need to think about it for you then, but what about when it comes to supporting others? What’s important to you in the conversation around women in the workplace?

Of all the uber-important topics, the one that leaves me reeling is the compensation gap issue. The fact that women need one more degree than men to earn the same average salary makes me feel like I might have a blood pressure problem.

Did you ever feel particularly aware of being a woman in a corporate setting? What about in your coaching?

Early on I worked for a high-end group of health clubs where the two amazing male owners specifically hired women to manage their multi-million dollar locations– because they thought women made great managers. Very cool and inspiring to be a part of that culture as a 25-year old new GM. As I grew in my career I became a female leader within a male-dominated industry, but I was never made to feel weird for being one of the only women in the room, mostly because the men I worked with were class acts. (Don’t get me wrong– I worked with my share of male assholes, but they were assholes to the men, too. Equal opportunity assholes.) In the leadership coaching realm, where most CEOs are men, it’s rarer for women to coach the C-suite… but I’ve found most are open to being coached by credentialed and experienced people, regardless of their gender.

When work starts to feel heavy/overwhelming/bad what do you do?

White Russians and red Mike & Ikes (but not together, obviously). I press the pause button (usually a few days too late, ugh) and then have to get all analytical about exactly what’s wrong. It sounds odd that it’s not always obvious, but sometimes I have to forensically dissect my week/month and figure out where the problem is by looking at my calendar. Too many early morning meetings? Too many evening meetings? Not enough creative time? Not enough time for lunch? Am I acquiescing to something that really matters to me? Am I avoiding an important conversation? Am I not walking enough? I make decisions about what I need to change after I’ve assessed where the problems are.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever followed?

Moving to Chicago from Toronto was a big deal for us 10 years ago, and at the time we heeded the advice to go with our gut and know that it didn’t have to be forever. No job is permanent if you don’t want it to be (and even if you do want it to be, no job is permanent). Bravely trying something new with the attitude that you really can’t go wrong — you can always change it again — is always freeing.
There was a phase when I used to come home and rehash every gory detail of every gory work situation to my husband, until we agreed that that wasn’t any fun at all, for anyone. We made a policy that we could discuss meaningful issues where we wanted one another’s advice, but that venting for the sake of venting was out. What a life-changer. Evenings were no longer extensions of the nasty parts of the day… they became what they are supposed to be- wine-soaked Netflix binging-filled hours.

What’s the best career advice you’ve given someone else (client or not)?

Don’t let your career happen to you.
It’s funny because we’re never taught how to make work work in our lives, are we? We learn about isosceles triangles and the history of English literature, but we don’t learn about how to figure out what we really want to do for a living and how to go and get it. We don’t learn about how to be really good at our jobs, and how to create the path to get ahead or earn more money or work from home or start a company or become the CEO or (insert whatever you want here). We have to take control of our own careers, because no one’s going to do it for us. And life can be just so spectacular when the work part works.

Nora Philbin

Nora is a co-founder of Happy Spectacular, which she still can't really believe, and she's on a lifelong quest for the world's best cheeseburger (applicants accepted).