views her life as a series of major pivots. Some she initiated, but some she didn’t, including the latest, when she was laid off this spring.
Early in her working life, when she was getting started in architecture, a chance conversation with a colleague’s ex-girlfriend prompted her to leave her entry-level job at a New York firm and abandon her plan to apply to architecture school for an advanced degree. Instead, she enrolled in Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, where she studied product design.
For two decades, she worked at consulting firms where she helped clients formulate new products. Her last job in the field ended with a layoff six years ago, leading her to make the leap to human resources, a field where she could put her design thinking to use in a new, less tangible way.
That was a successful transition. But when she was laid off from her job in learning and development this year at Sonos, a maker of wireless home speakers, she felt paralyzed. “I still had a big crush on Sonos and I was really upset,” the 48-year-old says.
Ms. Green made a deal with herself: She would give herself the summer to shake off the hurt before she embarked on a job search. She increased the number of hours she was volunteering at local food pantries and got a third dog. “I was upset and I wasn’t going to make a good decision,” she says. “If you can take the time to heal, that will yield better results.”
There was another reason to take a beat: At 48, she knew she couldn’t afford to make a decision she would regret. “I don’t have 15 careers in front of me,” she says. “I don’t want to take a job I’m not enthusiastic and passionate about.”
In the end, Ms. Green says it was “a series of weak signals” over the course of a single week that led her to decide to hang her shingle as a professional organizing and productivity consultant. “Something I learned in design thinking is to invest in a discovery phase where you get lots of information,” she says. “I think when people make a choice that seems like it’s out of the blue, you’ve actually been listening to signals.”
The first signal came on a Monday, when a chef at one of the three food pantries where Ms. Green volunteers asked her if she would consider organizing the operation’s messy space. At the end of Ms. Green’s makeover, which took about four hours, the woman who’d tapped her to help out “was like, ‘You should do this for real. You’re really good at it,’ ” Ms. Green recalls. The second signal came the following day, when she volunteered to do similar work at another food bank in town. Later that week, a neighbor posted on Nextdoor that she was looking for a personal organizer, and Ms. Green responded. By that Friday, she had decided to set up an organizing business.
Going solo involved registering as an LLC, opening a company bank account and launching a website. Ms. Green joined the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, where she is taking online classes. When she has completed them, she will receive accreditation and inclusion in the association’s directory, which she hopes will help attract business. For now, her marketing mostly consists of posts on
Nextdoor and LinkedIn. Her clients so far are part of her “extended network,” which includes people she’s met at food banks, former colleagues, friends and friends of friends.
Having grown up in a small New York City apartment she shared with her mother and sister, making smart use of space is something Ms. Green has always done. “I have been an organizing person my whole life,” Ms. Green says. “It’s part of who I am.” Her graduate thesis was about, of all things, storage systems. She spent her final year in graduate school interviewing people and designing new objects to fill their needs.
Recovering from an unexpected job loss is also something she’s familiar with, having been laid off after 20 years of work at consulting firms where she used design thinking to help clients innovate. While helping a friend of a friend who was at a similar career crossroads, she looked at the Nordstrom website and saw a role in HR that looked surprisingly appealing.
“People shoehorn themselves into thinking they can only do one thing,” Ms. Green says. “In cases of people who practice medicine or have advanced degrees, there might be more narrow paths,” she concedes. But for most workers, “sibling roles”—her term for jobs that call for a mix of new and established skills—shouldn’t be ruled out, she says.
She got the job at Nordstrom, and her role evolved from innovation to include onboarding and leadership development. One of her greatest lessons from helping other people think about their jobs at Nordstrom, she says, was that “you don’t have to know every aspect of the job you’re interested in to do the job well. People are adaptable.”
As for her new chapter, the pay doesn’t compare to her salary at Sonos, and she misses working with a team. It’s early still, and her clientele is still building, “but I’m hopeful,” she says. “I’m an optimist, and that helps.”
Name: Valerie Green
Education: B.A. in architecture studies, Yale University; MFA in design, Stanford University
Former job: Learning and development program manager, Sonos
New job: Founder of Pivot Organizing
Aha moment: Organizing the pantry at a local soup kitchen and realizing she has a gift. This was underscored the same week when a neighbor posted on Nextdoor about needing a personal organizer and she offered to help. “I’ve always been an organized person,” she says.
Most important piece of advice for changing jobs: Don’t think about your professional life in terms of either-or propositions. “When people set up these scary dichotomies, I tell them to think of a third possibility. The minute you think of a third path, it breaks you out of the framework of something being either ‘the thing I know’ or ‘the scary unknown.’ There’s always overlap, and there are several paths.”
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