The Frustrated Human Resources Director who Followed Her Passion to Find the Right Path
Melissa Todd, a vivacious, stunning red-headed forty something HR Director, was making a great six figure salary at a law firm in Washington, D.C., but hadn’t been loving her job for years. It didn’t take much work on identifying her passions and values (Chapter 5) to figure out that Melissa is a bonafide dog lover–the kind of person who creates an immediate bond with any dog that she comes into contact with and not surprisingly, dogs love her too! But how do you make money out of a love of dogs? Of course she had two dogs of her own, but she couldn’t see how loving dogs could make her a good living. Melissa has another passion too, fine wines. Again, how do you make a lucrative career out of that?
One of her first coaching assignments was to start a business in the evenings doing something she enjoyed. Melissa’s first business venture was to create special dog packages complete with dog beds, hand-made dog collars, hand-painted dog bowls, special dog treats and toys for celebrity pets staying in luxury hotels. The problem with this business is that there just weren’t enough profit margins to make it a sustainable or lucrative career and, although the products were for dogs, it didn’t fulfill her desire for actual contact with dogs. She thought of volunteering at dog shelters in her spare time, but that wasn’t a money-making proposition either and she was too tempted to adopt the dogs herself.
Melissa then came up with the idea of running her own dog day care business in Austin. She calls it Hip Hounds. Again, Melissa knew that she required financial security so she started the business while still working full-time at the law firm. She used her evenings and on weekends, to take out a business loan, research the best location for a dog day care in Austin, buy a great facility, and hiring the managers and staff to run it while she carried on with her work at the law firm.
Needless to say, she didn’t have much spare time on her hands, but keeping her day job gave her the financial security she felt she needed to know she didn’t have to make an immediate or huge profit from her business. She knew she had the income to pay her home mortgage and other obligations. Far better to be busy than financially stressed! Working full-time also forced her to define the procedures and policies in a manual and train and hire a full-time manager and staff to run the place without her. This freed her up to work on the more interesting projects like marketing campaigns to get new clients (dogs) for her business.
What was your career like before starting Hip Hounds?
Being HR Director of a large law firm, required working with a lot of stressed out, busy people. That, in and of itself was a career change. I was an attorney before that and wasn’t happy with that so I went on to become an HR Director at the law firm, thinking it would be more fulfilling. But had I had coaching earlier, I would have realized that people were not my passion, dogs were!
How did doing the work on identifying and satisfying your personal requirements and needs make a difference?
It is so important to realize what it is in life that you actually crave—for me that was security and balance. I knew that financial security was a need of mine, but I had no idea about the balance thing. And boy, did I have an unbalanced life— constant travel, stress, not sleeping. I was totally in the wrong field for someone who needed balance. My corporate existence was always up and down. I was moving to places I didn’t particularly want to live in for a job that I didn’t particularly enjoy. It was total unbalance. Balance seemed so foreign—so boring to me. I want to be going going going all the time so why would I need balance? Now I see that I can’t be myself without it and that it was impossible for me to achieve balance while working at the law firm. How can you be balanced if you wake up in the middle of the night worrying about some personnel issue?
Doing the values work confirmed that one of my values is to contribute. It became glaringly obvious that my values were not in alignment with the law firm’s. I remember a time toward the end of my career at the law firm. I was disenchanted with the budget meetings, how many new clients, the money, the business was all focused on money. I have a strong sense of right and wrong and a need for justice, which is one reason why I became a prosecutor in the first place. I got thoroughly disgusted when our firm decided to represent a client who was charged with dog abuse—which I was disgusted by.
I expressed my disagreement with that decision to the partners. I suggested they survey the employees and ask them how many are dog lovers before they commit. The fact that I had worked there and was a director for 7 years made no difference. No one wanted to talk about it or even discuss it. It was all about the bottom line. The managing partner totally ignored it. It goes against my core values. I thought everyone here was better than that. Employees were so upset that we’d associate the company name with his name. This isn’t me. This is not what I wanted to associate myself with. We are a civil law firm. Why are we doing this for the money? Value-wise I was very upset. Things were pre-recession and slowing down so they saw the PR and money as a good thing. That was the final straw for me. It became very clear to me that my values were not going to be honored or respected working for this law firm. I resigned soon after that.
How does following your passions and values help you find the right career/business?
I used to make beautiful, hand-made dog collars to sell in a boutique. Just something I did because I liked to do it. My best friend was the director of sales at the Ritz Carlton in NY and she hooked me up with the other head in DC and I had lunch with her and we were talking about putting together a pet package for Billy Joel’s dog—a cute little pug– a nice bed, personalized Ritz Carlton dog tag to wear while they were there, some special dog treats. We did dog packages for a few stars. So I started putting together dog packages with hand painted bowls and special beds and collars. I made a little money doing it, but I soon began to think that there had to be a way I could make enough money in a business to quit my legal job. Although it was fun to create these dog packages, the business just didn’t have enough income potential. I realized that people need services and there is more mark-up in that. Soon all the corporate hotels started doing their own stuff so there wasn’t that much business. It was fun to do it for celebrities though. That was all part of my status phase. Now that isn’t that important to me anymore. I goofed around with that business on evenings and weekends. I was seeing more doggie day cares in NY and in DC and thought, hey, I could do this. When I was in college I used to volunteer at the dog centers. I always knew that dogs were my passion, but suppressed it because I didn’t think there was a viable business in it. Thinking back on it, when I graduated from college, I had two job offers for tiny salaries doing work as a news reporter. My father was worried it wouldn’t be enough money and encouraged me to go to law school because he thought journalism was a silly career. Funny enough, my dad didn’t even finish college himself! He said he’d pay for me to go to law school if I get in so I did. I was doing it for him, not for me. I had been on the right path. I was a journalism major and I wanted to be a TV reporter. I’m still fascinated with CNN. If I could I’d be a Diane Sawyer. My second fascination, after dogs, is news and current events. Who knows but that might be what is next for me now that Hip Hounds is running so smoothly.
But who works on these needs and values assessments until they are in their thirties? Guidance and career counselors don’t work through these exercises. All this time I didn’t know who I was or what was important to me. I knew I was missing something, but I couldn’t put a finger on it until we did all that work on identifying my personal requirements and values. I never in a million years would have guessed I needed balance for example. And spending time clearly defining my values was very important. Then I could see clearly what was missing in my work and what I needed to make me happy. Quite honestly, the Meyers Briggs stuff is interesting but the values and needs exercises are far more important. They are much more valuable tools. Life is all about values and needs. You aren’t going to be happy unless you met those needs (Personal Requirements) and are living those values. It’s as simple as that.
Law school wasn’t a total waste of time. I liked the criminal law and prosecution work—I saw it as a way to make a difference in people’s lives, make a little money and give back to society. But I wasn’t passionate about the law. I didn’t want to go to law school, but people said to go. So I did. Now I’d advise students to really get clear on their values before they go to school and to follow their hearts. Otherwise you’ll be on the wrong track and will waste years of your life trying to make someone else happy. It’s your life and you can’t make someone else happy by being miserable!
We didn’t use the envy exercise, but is there someone out there that you envy?
If I looked at people I envy it would be after reading an article about people who are doing dog rescue work or setting up foundations for dogs. The woman who started guide dogs for the blind– I’d love to be that woman, but on the other hand, when I was in my twenties I’d say I’d envy Diane Sawyer– you get to meet such interesting and fascinating people. Or Katie Couric. I loved the journalism. That is one of the things I’m passionate about and why I majored in journalism. I’ve always thought it would be great to be one of those people who do the pet segments and brings dogs in there for adoption. Being some kind of pet expert on TV. That is something I can still do…parlay my experience into media somehow…that may be the next thing.
What did you do for fun as a kid?
I used to write. I loved traveling so much. I kept a journal about everything we did on family vacations and wrote short stories when I was ten. I loved writing. That is why I went to journalism school, but then I got off track thanks to my well- meaning parents who wanted the first lawyer in the family. We always had dogs when I was growing up and one of my favorite memories when I was two and three was play with all the animals on my relative’s farm. There are photos of me kissing the dogs on the tip of the nose. Lots of pictures of me with animals. We had dogs, cats. As a child it was all about dogs, farm animals and writing–quite an interesting combination of bizarre things that make me unique!
What was the shift for you in finally quitting your day job?
After year one Hip Hounds was starting to break even and was even turning a profit ahead of time. I had budgeted it to be profitable by year two so this was a pleasant surprise. I was steadily paying back the business loan and my accountant was impressed with the prospects for the business. It was starting to look good, not just in concept, but on paper. Even then, I was very terrified to let go of my day job. I held onto my day job until I realized that in the past six months of working I had only saved $5,000. You reminded me that the point of the day job was to provide financial security and that if I had spent those forty plus hours a week for six months on marketing for new dogs, I would easily have made more than the $5,000. So all of the sudden, the financial reasons for keeping the day job had disappeared and it made sense to quit and work on Hip Hounds full time. You gave me the coaching assignment of writing my letter of resignation –an assignment that was really easy to do! It was turning it into my boss that was the hard part.
What was the turning point for you?
I just got to the point where I was so tired all the time. You told me something very important that really hit home. You said that time was something you can never get back, but money you can always make. I’m in my forties, I’m not getting any younger. I realized that I had to do this now because I won’t have the energy in my fifties. I was ready. I had all my finances in order. Actually, I always had the money, it was just a matter of realizing that it was going to be okay. My worst case scenario if things didn’t work out as planned was to find another HR job or legal job. That was my safety net.
What is your career/life like now?
Now that I’ve created so much free time for myself, I’m ready for the next adventure. What am I going to do with my time other than giving back to the dog rescue group and working out every day at the gym? Time to pursue another passion. Hip Hounds is now running as smooth as a clock and I’ve created a life with income coming in and free time to do what I want to do. It has all come true! Now I am afraid I’ll get a little bored…so soon I’ll need another project!
If you could do it differently now, what would you do?
You were always coaching me to save money and stop filling up my empty life with purchases—clothes, trips, drinks—whatever it was to fill up that void because I was working in a job that wasn’t making me happy. If I hadn’t been spending all that money, I would have had my dream earlier. I needed to recognize I was spending all this money to compensate for a job that really sucked. Now I don’t spend nearly as much as I used to. I used to think that if I couldn’t shop at Nordstrom’s then I wouldn’t be happy. I don’t care about a pair of Channel sunglasses anymore. I still have a few good pieces, but now I love shopping at Target—am just as happy with a cute t-shirt. I was caught up in the whole image/career thing where people are concerned about what you wear and what you drive. Now I don’t need a BMW or a fancy suit or shoes. I just need a big vehicle to haul a lot of dogs around. One of the most liberating things I did was give all my suits to the charity, Dress For Success (another one of your suggestions) –getting rid of all the trappings of my old career. Once I got rid of everything that didn’t apply to my new life I felt so free.
What do your friends and family say now?
Now that I’ve made it, my dad is really proud of me and the business. He brought his friend over, whose son is a lawyer, to see my business. But still to this day, I told him about my Vail sabbatical and my dad said, I just don’t understand how you can leave your business for a month. He just doesn’t get it, but he is proud of me. I knew that when he brought his friend over to see it. My friends now tell me I was so grumpy when I worked at the law firm. Now they say I’m the way I’m supposed to be—happy, relaxed, fun-loving. When people see me with the dogs, they say, “Oh my God, that is what you were meant to do—you just glow when you are out there with them.
What advice do you have for others?
Do it sooner rather than later. You said something that really stuck. You said, ‘Time is the only thing you can’t get back. You can always make more money.’ If you have a need for financial security, start your business on the side to give yourself the comfort level you need. I wish, when you started talking to me about saving money and making a bigger nest egg that I had started doing it sooner. I was in such a place where I was still buying things to fill a void. Why do something that makes you miserable every day? My fear was financial even though it wasn’t a real fear because I had a lot of money in savings and I could have found another job. The needs and values are so important. Now I know clearly what I need (my personal requirements)—what my mind and body has to have and don’t confuse that with wants.
Excerpted from Coach Yourself to a New Career: 7 Steps to Reinventing Your Professional Life by Talane Miedaner (McGraw-Hill, April 2010). Order the book