Looking for inspiration to navigate a career transition? On this episode of If Money Were Easy, we’re joined by special guest, Susan Olson, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst at Abacus Wealth Partners. Susan shares her inspiring journey of making a career pivot and finding success in an unexpected field. From taking a significant pay cut to feeling overwhelmed in her new role as a financial advisor, Susan’s story reminds us of the power of embracing change and learning as we go. Join us as we explore the importance of skills accumulation, the value of diverse experiences, and the impact a career pivot can have on both personal fulfillment and professional success. It really is never too late if you’re looking to make a career change. Tune in today!
What You’ll Learn in This Episode:
- Where Susan’s career journey began and the twists and turns it took along the way
- The challenges and skills Susan experienced as a school principal
- A career change’s value and what you can take from a previous career
- How research is important when exploring a new career
- Why you have to invest in yourself
- How to take skills from one industry and apply them to others
- Where Susan got her passion in each of her careers and when she knew it was time to pivot
Resources Mentioned on the Show:
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport
- Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified by Tara Sophia Mohr
- Playing Big by Tara Mohr
- Reach out to Susan at Susan@AbacusWealth.com or connect with her on LinkedIn.
- Join the Abacus community by connecting with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on LinkedIn
- Connect with Mary Beth on Twitter, Instagram, and on LinkedIn
- Connect with Neela on Twitter, Instagram, and on LinkedIn
Transcript of the Episode
Hey there. Welcome to the If Money Were Easy podcast, the show where we teach you how to expand what’s possible with your money. We’re your hosts, Neela Hummel –
Mary Beth [00:00:22]:
And Mary Beth Storjohann –
Certified Financial Planners and Co-CEOs of Abacus Wealth Partners. Today on the show, we are going to be talking about the power of the pivot. But before we jump in, a brief disclosure from our compliance department. This podcast is for educational purposes and is not intended as investment, legal, or tax advice. Any opinion shared is not the opinion of Abacus Wealth Partners.
Mary Beth [00:00:48]:
So today on the show, we are very excited to have Susan Olson as a guest. Susan is a Certified Financial Advisor, Certified Financial Planner, and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst. Susan has a Master’s degree in both Geography and Human Resource Design Organizational Psychology. She is a financial advisor, partner, and board member at Abacus Wealth Partners. Based in Sebastopol, California, Susan enjoys helping her clients experience financial freedom through comprehensive financial planning and values aligned investing. She also hosts women’s circles, dedicates time to Pro Bono Financial planning, and is a contributing author to the Abacus blog. Outside of work, Susan’s passions include gardening, fiber arts, hiking, and traveling. Susan, welcome to the show.
I’m so happy to be here.
Mary Beth [00:01:38]:
So very excited. So in reading your bio, I would just like to make a quick detour very quickly to talk about geography. Geography was very surprising to see here. So please tell us more.
Tell us more.
Yeah. So it’s actually a degree in geography and African Studies from UCLA, and I did research studying women’s businesses in Northern Nigeria.
Mary Beth [00:02:01]:
That is fascinating, amazing. And so you took that all the way into a career in financial advising.
Natural step, natural second step.
With many detours along the way, which I can share.
Mary Beth [00:02:15]:
Yes. So we’re really excited to have you on the show to talk about you and your career. And I think you embody the idea of not really reinventing yourself, but moving and transitioning along the way and accepting things that life throws at you. And so can you talk to us, basically start from the beginning and how did you end up here at Abacus and share with our listeners where your journey began?
Well, kind of a long story, but I’ll try to be brief. So I feel like I’ve been really lucky to have some careers that I’ve loved, aside from a few jobs that were just jobs in high school and college. My adult careers sort of happened organically by me being involved in things that I loved or being noticed by others who thought my skills could be tapped in a new position. And so maybe I can share a little bit about that journey because it did happen in a kind of funny yet organic way. So I was doing academic research in grad school, which I shared just now. That was super interesting, by the way. I was working with women who were secluded, not just veiled, but they couldn’t leave their homes without a male escort, so they would spend many months without leaving their compounds. And yet they had these thriving businesses. So I was studying, how did they do that? How did they have these businesses without leaving their homes? So, yeah, if you want to read my master’s thesis on that, I can share that.
Mary Beth [00:03:35]:
Can we link to it in the show notes? I’m fascinated and I would like to learn more.
I feel like that should have been pretty widely disseminated during COVID Lockdowns because I think a lot of people had questions.
Exactly. We could have totally checked in with these women.
Tell us how to do it.
I started when I had young children. I was just finishing up that work around African women’s businesses, and I had a couple of kids. I went to Nigeria, which has the highest birth rate of any country in the world, and then came back and promptly got pregnant. So I had a couple babies, and I got involved in school. And I also have an undergrad degree in education. And so I was just super volunteering at my kids’ schools. And I had the background to run a school essentially without even knowing it. And I didn’t even actually love teaching all that much. I like being the boss rather than being the teacher. So I was just volunteering at my kids school, and basically they needed a new school director. And I found out later that they sort of created the job around my skills because they saw me being super involved at the school and they had a need, and so they kind of wrote the job description around me. Apparently. It taught me that you may not have all the skills you need, but it’s okay to get them as you go via school and mentoring and peer groups. That’s when I had that first job as a school director. I went back to school and got a Master’s in HR at the same time because I was like, “Oh, wow, I know nothing about this.”
Mary Beth [00:05:17]:
Can we pause one second? How old were your children when you went back to school and got a Master’s and also a new job? Career?
Age four and seven. And that’s actually sort of single parenting because my husband was working out of town Monday through Friday during that time, though it was actually easier to do school and work full time and raise kids without my husband there all week. One less person that I had to figure out, making sure he was happy, come on the weekends, and I’d cram studying. And so we had this crazy life for a couple of years.
Mary Beth [00:05:50]:
Wow. Okay, continue. Sorry. Yeah, wanted the full picture.
Yeah, I went on and I was a director at two different schools, a private school in the L.A. area and then a public charter school in Northern California. Both of them were Waldorf schools. And my last school, I felt like was a giant family. And I knew everyone’s name, all the parents, all the kids, all the grandparents. And I think in that process, I witnessed many joys and difficult life events. Sometimes I had to bring hard news to families or staff, had to do a ton of difficult decisions around budget during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and all the funding was cut for schools. So just juggling things as we do in many careers. But in that sense, I was planning for the future of the school while trying to keep current programs intact. So I’m doing these budget projections and trying to figure it all out, hiring people, letting people go, all the things that I was actually the plan administrator for the 401(k) program, all these things. I didn’t realize I was doing finance at the time. I was just running a school in my mind. And then I left that job after eight amazing years. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to leave on a high. The school’s in a good place, plenty of funding, all the things and all the teachers are in place, everything’s great, it’s a great time to leave.” And I thought I would continue to just do some coaching of other school leaders. And one of the founders of Abacus approached me. He was a parent at my school. That’s how I knew him. I didn’t really know anything about Abacus. I just knew he did something having to do with money, didn’t really know what. And he said, “Oh, you should come and be a financial advisor next. That should be your next career.” And I just laughed. I mean, I think I actually, the real story is I think I spit my drink in his face. “You want me to what?” And he said, “You can learn all the technical things,” many of which I guess I knew how to do. I just didn’t realize it. But he said, “The thing you can’t always learn is the human side of how to talk to people. And I’ve seen you talk to people about their children sometimes when it’s difficult. And I know if you can do that, you can talk to them about their money.” And when he said that, I was like, “Maybe this is a job I could do,” because I thought it was just like white guys selling annuities or something, right?
Mary Beth [00:08:29]:
There’s a good chunk of that.
But I hadn’t thought of finance as a helping profession because I’d always seen that side of it. And then when I really started to learn what advisors, good advisors and financial planners do and what they do as advocates, I was like, “Okay, I’m in.”
This is just so fascinating. We’re talking about the power of a pivot. Now, if we follow the thread of your history, we basically kind of started in academia and then moved to, literally Nigeria, working with secluded women, and then into parenthood, which is a whole other pivot. Then into the educational system, which then you simultaneously completely crushed, and then into a completely different arena, which is financial services. And so if you look at that, they all seem very unrelated, maybe to the naked eye. But I think what you’re pointing out is there were a lot of interesting nuggets that you kind of got along the way at each of these different crossroads that allowed you to maybe pivot to the next thing.
Exactly. Exactly. And I needed help sometimes to figure that out. Like, at first I didn’t see it, but Spencer saw it, and I’m so glad that he did because it wasn’t easy. I went back to do my CFP when I was 50 years old and that was amazing. And it was really hard. I’m good at school and it was hard, I won’t lie. So I feel like I was really proud of myself and I would love the support that I had. But just doing the job day-to-day kind of got me through that because it brings me so much joy.
Mary Beth [00:10:11]:
Yeah, tell us about that. I think that the really interesting part is going from being at this peak of your career, right. Like you said, I wanted to go out at the top. I wanted to go out on a high. That’s a blessing to so many people to be in that position, to go out on that high. And you did. And then you started at the bottom again of something completely different. And you said there was some stuff that you pulled over, but at Abacus we have an associate advisor program. You started at the beginning of where all advisors start at. So talk about that.
Yeah, I took a big pay cut. I was humbled by – I was kind of thrown into it. Like, here’s a bunch of clients. I felt like I learned that I knew more than I thought and a lot of life experience with putting things kids through college, buying and selling homes, refinancing – all of the choices that one makes, financial choices that you make in life. I realized I had a lot of experience that was really relatable to clients and I learned the things I didn’t know. And there’s a little bit of fake-it-till-you-make-it always with the job. And this is something I wanted to talk about because I feel like you need to be open-minded when you’re switching careers. I mean, going from a school principal to a financial advisor is crazy making. But Abacus is full of career changers and I think that is why they are so great at what they do. I mean, my entire team now – I’ve got a teacher, somebody who is a farmer, somebody who worked in sales and business development in the wine business, somebody who worked in Middle East peace conflict resolution. I mean, they bring so much because of their experience. And so to me, it’s really exciting to know that those skills that you have, you bring, whatever your career changes, you can bring skills with you, and they add so much color that somebody who’s just stayed in that career, they don’t have that.
Mary Beth [00:12:17]:
That perspective, that real world experience, I think. Yes.
You know, it makes me think of – there’s a book out, Cal Newport writes a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. And it’s all about skills and that it’s so easy. When you see from the untrained eye looking at you, you’re like, “Oh, well, okay, I can follow the path of your story.” Or seeing somebody at the top of their game in any area, it’s easy to look at it and say, “Oh, that was easy. Or of course, they had all those things.” But you had to connect with people in a very interesting capacity. In Nigeria, you probably honed some communication skills that then made you a great educator and then that made you a great advisor. And it’s all about this idea of accumulating these skills and that those are the things that really matter and that allows you to kind of make that pivot.
Yeah. And I think it’s important to research. The power of the informational interview is amazing because you can learn so much about other people’s careers, even if it’s something you don’t think you’d be interested in and learning about those paths. So I say go for it and research. But you have to not be afraid to take a bit of a leap because you can always learn the factoid pieces. You can go out and you can say, “I’m not really sure to answer your client’s question or whatever. I’m not really sure. Let me go research that.” And then we have such a deep bench at Abacus, there’s lots of people I can go ask if I don’t know an answer. But it reminds me, this topic, especially around women, reminds me of Tara Mohr’s article. It was in, I think, originally in 2014 in the Harvard Business Review about women not feeling confident applying for jobs they’re not qualified for. And I think the stat was men are confident about their ability at 60%. So if they have 60% of the skills listed on a job posting, they’re like, “I can do that.” But women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked off every item off the list.
Mary Beth [00:14:17]:
And I think the obvious advice is women need to have more faith in themselves. But Tara Moore wrote all about that in Playing Big. And I think it’s still such a powerful book because we all bring more knowledge to careers than we think from the other parts of our life.
Mary Beth [00:14:38]:
Giving ourselves credit, I think, is really overlooked. We forget to do that. One of the things that stands out across your story and that I know by just knowing you today, it sounds like you follow a lifelong learning model. And it sounds that you potentially, I don’t want to assume, find joy in learning and experiencing new things. So talk about that knowing. I believe during COVID you took French classes. Casually.
You like, causally became a French speaker.
I love school so much. I went to a concert last night at a university campus, and driving through, I’m like, “Oh, I need to sign up for a class again.” I actually took so many French classes during COVID that the career counselor at the junior college said, “You know, do you have a bachelor’s?” I’m like, “And then some.” She said, “You could submit all your GE credits, and you can get an associate’s degree in French.” Like, sweet, so I did.
You’re like, “Don’t threaten me with a good time.”
Mary Beth [00:15:39]:
Did you do it? Did you do it?
Oh, yeah. Please tell me I got to get that one framed. So, yeah, I think it’s really important, but yeah, learning is big. I think, though, you can learn from each other, too. It doesn’t have to be formal school. Creating and finding peer groups is really important, especially if you’re in a leadership role. It can be lonely at the top. I’m so happy you have each other.
Mary Beth [00:16:09]:
Yes, so are we.
Yeah. It’s so great to have study groups, peer groups of some sort, and who you work with is as important as what you’re doing. So make sure – what I would say to people who are thinking about changing jobs – make sure you’re working with awesome people who lift each other up. Do not waste time in a workplace environment that brings you down a fair amount of the time. You have too much to offer to just be in a meh.
And that could be kind of the push to pivot. If you kind of feel like you’re stuck, if you feel like you’re not growing, if you feel like you’re around people that maybe aren’t inspiring you, that could be an indicator that it’s time to do something different.
Yeah. And sometimes it’s the work, and sometimes it’s the people, and maybe sometimes it’s both so that’s, I think, something to really consider as well.
Mary Beth [00:17:04]:
So one of the things I’m realizing as we’re sitting here, three financial advisors talking about a career pivot is, what advice would you have, Susan, for somebody on the financial side looking to change careers? How can somebody prep for this, whether it’s pre-retirement or post- that career transition?
Oh, yeah. Great question. I mean, it can cost money. You may have to take a pay cut. You may have to go back to school. Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself, though. Having some padding is great. I was fortunate that when I did go back to school for this career and was earning a little less for a while, my husband was earning, and so I was fortunate. Not everybody has that spouse as kind of a backup. So I think one of my pieces of advice to everyone is have yourself a bit of a little nest egg for money, because you may need to change careers, you may need to take a break. You may need to go back to school. And don’t be afraid to maybe ask at a new job what kind of educational benefits are included.
Mary Beth [00:18:14]:
Or negotiate as part of your offer.
I think the other piece to note, too, is that it doesn’t have to be a 100% jump. You don’t have to go from one career, and then the next day you’re getting started on the other. There could be kind of a transition period where maybe you’re starting the education while you’re still in a previous career as you’re kind of ramping yourself up to that switch to maybe give yourself a little bit more running space.
And that’s where I think peer groups, informational interviews, that kind of thing can really be helpful. I just ran a women’s circle a couple of weeks ago on career change or retirement and figuring out what is it that you want for your next step and how do you get there? And you have to do a little asking, doing some inner work, as well as kind of external research about what’s going to be the best choice.
Mary Beth [00:19:05]:
Tell us about your research, what you did. So Spencer approached you for Abacus. There was the drink situation and then what? I’m assuming it wasn’t happily ever after immediately and that you did a lot of research, but what did that look like for you?
I did. I looked into what the CFP program was, and I was like, “Ooh, school sounds fun.” Definitely. I don’t feel like I did adequate research on how hard that would be. It worked out okay. But there were definitely times in the first couple of years of being an advisor where I thought, “What am I doing? This is really different, and it’s really hard.” And it took encouragement of people in a wonderful workplace to say, “You’ve got this. You’re better at this than you think.” And that, to me, was huge because if I had been in a bad work environment doing a cool job, it wouldn’t have worked because it was hard. That was such a drastic change that it was difficult. And I felt so supported that even when I doubted myself, I felt people around me patting me on the back going, “No, you’re doing really well, actually,” and that really helped.
So we talk a little bit about this growth mindset. So that’s a little nod to the educators listening now. Growth mindset, Susan’s got that in spades. You know, if we think about the role that passion has now come into your different careers and who you’re loving working with now and maybe how this might be relevant. So in addition to being just an incredible advisor and working with all kinds of different people, you’ve really developed a specialty in working with widows and nonprofits. How did that come to be and why does that light you up?
Yeah, great question. The nonprofit part was sort of a no-brainer because I spent such a long career in education, which was completely the nonprofit realm. I had spent a lot of time asking for money and I don’t love doing that, but that was my job in a way, too. The nonprofit piece, I can really relate to how much help nonprofit organizations need from financial advisors. Even people who are in CEO and CFO positions at a nonprofit haven’t had a lot of administrative business training. They’re just passionate about that place and they’re good leaders, so they got thrown into that job. And so for me, I feel like helping them design fiscal policies that serve their organizations for the long term, things like that. Educating their board about why investing their endowment in a certain way is a good idea is really gratifying because they are so thrilled with that assistance and what it can do for them long-term for stability.
Mary Beth [00:21:48]:
Just thinking about the impact that you’re making on those organizations and ensuring they still exist, right?
Yeah, and being a helpful partner, filling a role.
Yeah. And then my other kind of favorite clients are really philanthropic clients and that’s just sort of me loving to help people give their money away. Years of asking, just having people identify and figure out exactly what their values are because everyone’s always asking you for money. So how do you figure out how to discern the right thing to do? Because there’s a billion causes that are all wonderful out there. So how do you figure out how you can make the most impact with your philanthropic dollars no matter how much you’re giving? So that’s really fun for me. And then working with widows has just been something that kind of fell in my lap. I inherited some clients who were widows and divorced women and working with these single women and serving as a financial decision-making partner with them and a sounding board for them because they don’t have a spouse that they can bounce ideas off or make these big decisions with is really fun for me. I just love it. It’s just being there for them as this friend, in a way. I’ve also often helped them make decisions around helping their children. Sometimes, I found that people who’ve lost a spouse are extra protective of their children, even adult children, and sometimes wanting to give away money to the point where it’s not really sustainable for them and help their kids because they’re concerned their children lost a parent. Helping them find that, helping them be like another mom who’s been through it and has young adult children also and can say, “Yeah, I hear you about making that decision, about paying for this wedding or paying for this or how much you can afford and here’s some thoughts of how you might want to approach this.” And so kind of having those conversations as a fellow mom/financial advisor is really gratifying as well. And I found that some of my clients, that’s really helped them.
Yeah. Which, again, the experience you had in having tough conversations as an educator, but also being a partner as educators and parents, knowing your kids get the best when you’re partnering up with your educators, not when it’s us against them. And it’s kind of those same skills that come through and are probably just so well received from your clients because they’re saying, “Oh, my gosh, I’m filling this void with somebody who can really help in this particular area.”
Yeah, it’s really gratifying.
Mary Beth [00:24:29]:
So before we pivot to our wrap-up questions, is there anything else that you would share in terms of making a career transition that we haven’t covered?
I just reiterate – don’t be afraid to take a leap, and don’t be afraid to as things come your direction. Take them seriously. Think about them. Because if I hadn’t taken the offer to become a financial advisor seriously, I wouldn’t be here today and having this really amazing, what I consider capstone, career. So you have to be open-minded. And I had to be asked way more than once to consider that idea. Spencer was very persistent and I thought it was a pretty nutty idea, and it’s just been terrific. I think it’s like the perfect final career for me.
Oh, love it.
Mary Beth [00:25:21]:
We’re very happy to hear that.
Very happy to hear that. And feeling very privileged to be behind these microphones with the people that we’re getting to talk with. I mean, Susan’s a complete titan in what she does.
Mary Beth [00:25:32]:
We raved about her for 20 minutes before we even hopped on to record.
Yes, that’s true.
Mary Beth [00:25:35]:
Yes. But we’re just very grateful and now want to pivot to our closing questions. If you’re game.
What is the best financial advice you ever received?
To buy life insurance. It definitely eased our mind, my husband and I, during those years when we had children under our roof and dependent on us. Fun fact – I actually remember balking at the cost of a term life insurance premium that we’d never see again. And our financial advisor at the time said, “Yes, and I hope you don’t die for many decades, and therefore, this is the worst investment.” I use that line all the time now with my clients. Bad stuff, hopefully bad things don’t happen to you, so you never need this safety net that you just put in place and spent good money on.
Mary Beth [00:26:29]:
Mary Beth [00:26:31]:
Very good. What is your favorite money mistake you’ve made and why?
So, when I was 22, I bought a Vespa style scooter when I lived in San Francisco after college. And you should also know that as a kid, I was actually hit by a car while I was on a regular bike, and I’m not very comfortable on bikes of any kind, let alone a motorized one. Know what I was thinking? I didn’t know how to ride the scooter. I drove it off the lot and promptly crashed it. I sold it for much less than I had just paid for it, and I went back to taking public transportation at the time, living in the city. So, yeah, just be careful about impulse purchases.
I love that.
Mary Beth [00:27:19]:
I feel like my goal would have been to have a Vespa, but I specifically didn’t buy one because of that reason.
Because I just have this image of going through the streets of Rome on a Vespa, but then it crashes, and it’s like, here comes the fantasy.
Mary Beth [00:27:33]:
Crashing down feels very reality.
Okay, final question. Fill in the blank. If money were easy…
If money were easy, we’d all relax and feel confident in every choice we made every single day. I mean, imagine the peace everyone would feel and how that would ripple if everyone had enough information around their financial plan and what is some of the right choices for them? I mean, heck, it could seriously impact world peace if we could take away the fear and avoidance that comes with money.
Mary Beth [00:28:13]:
Money should be easy.
Mary Beth [00:28:15]:
It really should be.
That should be the name of a podcast.
Mary Beth [00:28:18]:
That’s what we’re working on. I think that’s what we’re doing. All right.
I like it.
Mary Beth [00:28:20]:
Susan, thank you so much for being on our show. Tell our listeners how they can get in contact with you.
Oh, you can email me at Susan@AbacusWealth.com. I’m on the Abacus page. And love to help just about anybody who needs help and working with helping take away that fear and building that confidence. And it is such a pleasure to work with you two ladies.
Mary Beth [00:28:42]:
Delighted to have you. Really appreciate you coming by today.
Mary Beth [00:28:46]:
Thank you for listening to today’s episode of If Money Were Easy. If you’re looking for more information on how you can expand what’s possible with your money, head to AbacusWealth.com. That’s AbacusWealth.com for more analysis and resources created by our team.