How to Make A Career Pivot - A Masterclass with Emily Tisch Sussman
February 27, 2023
Emily Tisch Sussman is a podcast host, women’s empowerment and family policy advocate, leading democratic political strategist, contributing editor to Marie Claire, and mother of three. Emily is the host of the award-winning podcast She Pivots, which features women, their stories, and how their pivot became their success.

After leaving her fast-paced job as the Vice President of Campaigns at the largest democratic think tank in DC, the Center for American Progress, she learned to redefine her own idea of success when she left the career she thought she would have forever. Emily is a seasoned host, interviewing countless leaders and influential women

including Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary Hillary Clinton, Stacey Abrams, and Sophia Bush, to name a few.A New York Giants fan and a life-long musical theater enthusiast, Emily considers her experience as a camp counselor for girls in Massachusetts amongst her most fulfilling roles. She lives in New York with her husband and three children.

Emily Tisch Sussman

Emily Tisch Sussman offers a three step process for those thinking about how to pivot careers.

So what qualifies me to be in this conversation about how to make a career pivot? I'm doing it. I'm still doing it.

I was the lead full time lobbyist on the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. I worked on amicus briefs on the DOMA case in the Supreme Court. And that was just a piece of it. I had a great political career doing political strategy, and I was great at it. My last job in politics, my last full time job in politics, was as the vice president of the largest democratic think tank. That was a job they had created to bring me in.

So what did that mean? That meant that it was created for all the things that I was good at, like being able to multitask, being able to see numerous things at the same time, being able to run for long periods of time, being able to work long hours, and just grind it out. I'm guessing that may be resonating with some of you guys. And if you can fast forward, you're thinking, yeah, it didn't really work out.

What am I doing? I'm back at the White House. What happened is that when I left the think tank, I did some political consulting. The reason that I left is because I had three kids in three years. I can't even remember it because it was so nuts. I had my first the first year right before Donald Trump was elected, my second before the midterms, and third going into the 2020 presidential election. So that's three kids in three and a half years and do you know what is not synonymous with having three kids in three and a half years? You guessed it. A job that was created for you to use many parts of your brain at the same time and see big picture and small picture and run on different levels. It doesn't work. It can't work. It was crushing for me. Because the only version that I knew of success for myself was professional success.

Maternal did not factor in for me. That was not a version of success. It was not just professional that was defining success for me, but it was political professional. That was the only way that I really even knew how to evaluate success for myself. The world changed, three kids in three and a half years, and a global pandemic. It all changed.

Now I'm a magazine editor at Marie Claire, and I host this podcast, She Pivots, talking with women who redefine their careers for personal reasons, so something personal, and then it changed their career, and they found a different version of success. I like to think I'm doing it, here is me, doing an interview for the podcast. And also, I got invited back to the White House as a reporter to cover the President of the United States. It's an opportunity I never would have gotten had I stayed at the think tank and had I stayed on that straight linear political career. So today, we're going to be really specific. We're going to be actionable. The first thing here.

Don't spiral, evolve.

We need to distill and define what is success for us in this moment, and just for us. It's not what anybody else's version of success is. But that's going to take a little bit of a shift in mindset for you. Clearly something is not working if you're thinking about a pivot. So distill it down to what is that actual thing, and then you can redefine your success.

Do the Landscaping.

The first step in any kind of pivot is going to be doing a little bit of a landscaping:

  • What kind of field do you want to get into?
  • Who's in that field? What are opportunities?
  • Maybe you don't know what the field you want to be in, and so you're thinking, what's interesting right now, what's interesting out on the market, doing your little coffees tour. So maybe work in like one exploratory coffee a week.
  • Maybe you do some chit chatting at drop off with somebody who you know is in that field and has an interesting perspective.

But figure out what is realistic for your bandwidth right now. And that will help determine how quickly you move out of your landscaping and into an actionable phase. But don't beat yourself up about what is realistic right now. And also give yourself that long time to do the landscaping.

That's going to take a while and if you can't dedicate all day every day to it, and by the way, who can do all day every day, you've got to give yourself a little bit of time and a little bit of grace for it to figure out what is out there and what's realistic right now.

A friend of mine got laid off last week and texted me at 10 o'clock at night and said, what kind of business around kids do you think we need here? And I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's back this up. Do we think we're finding your next career like within three days of getting laid off, and in this moment? Like, yes, she has the bandwidth. But she needs to do a little bit of landscaping and like a little bit of marinating on it. And also a little bit of figuring out what kind of bandwidth does she have? What does she have to offer?

I can also give you an example that I'm doing right now in my very life, as we speak, I have the podcast, I write for Marie Claire. I'm thinking about this as slowly building out a media company. And I say slowly, in almost a defensive way because my inclination is to go hard in anything I do and think about how I'm going to blow it out.

Find the right experts.

People are experts in their field and want to help you, want to reach out to you. I am here in this picture with my friend Omi Belle, who started Black Girl Ventures as an opportunity to be funding Black women in their small businesses. And the way that she built it was not just with funding, but with pairing them with experts. That was the model and they've had huge success.

So I would go to her if I want to talk about building out a network building out something like this. But something that you should think about, and I know that you all give this advice to all the younger people who are coming to you, but think about what level ask you are making for a person.

  • If you are in the landscaping phase, if you are thinking about entering a new field where you don't know the language, the rhythm, you just kind of have a gut feeling about it, go to somebody that has more time on their hands right now or that you know really well, who's willing to share that time with you.
  • If you think you're at a more advanced phase where you're ready to start taking product to market, maybe you're raising money or you want to meet some specific people, then you can go one step removed to make that introduction.
And I know it's something that you guys do in your lives and it's advice that you give, but think about it for yourself as well. You are bringing a ton of background and information from the fields that you've been in. So you just need to learn the language and the flow and the rhythm of the new industry that you're in. That takes a little bit of brainstorming a little bit of working with somebody that you trust to be able to say, I know that you have these skills, I know that you've honed them in this industry you're in before. Here's how this new industry works. And this place you call it one thing, we call it something else.

I'll give you another example of this. My background, my educational background, is as a social worker and as a lawyer. I've worked in organizing. I designed campaigns. We did a lot of focus grouping. We did a lot of messaging. We did a lot of distribution to organize around campaigns. My sister is actually quite different than me. My sister is very business-minded. She's very straight edge. She does not have purple hair. My sister has an MBA. Her job has always been global marketing. When we actually kind of got into it and started talking about it, we realized that we had very similar functionalities within our industries. The way that she was looking at market research, the way that she was looking at community building and distribution was actually quite similar to the way that I was doing it in politics. But we came from different industries, and we had different language. And when I say rhythms and understanding of the industry, I think I am trained to think about everything in terms of a political calendar, like you better not be trying to get married, by the way, if you are in the fall of an even year, because that is either a presidential election or congressional election. No one's going to show up to your wedding. Last week was the State of the Union, every bar in DC has on the State of the Union. Everybody's watching it, everybody's talking about it, right. Like, that's how I think about a calendar. And those things become second nature to me, and would be very easy for me to tell someone. Now I'm working in lifestyle media. When we were first thinking about launching She Pivots the podcast, and looking at time, we're thinking about trying to get into some fashion publications, different kinds of publications, our publicist at the time said, well, that's Fashion Week. I mean, if you asked me to point to fashion week on a calendar, I certainly could not do it. I would probably have pointed somewhere around May on the Met Gala, which I'm not even convinced is not wrong. But I don't know the rhythms of a new industry. So getting that information from the right expert is going to be key so that once you start having more advanced conversations, you sound like you know what you're talking about, you can talk with people on the inside, and you know how to take the experiences that you have built, and apply it to this new industry.

Investing in your pivot.

You know that you don't know it all. You know that you don't know this new industry. But if you're taking it seriously, this is not an Etsy shop, right? You are your greatest asset. If you think you need a career coach in that space, invest in it. But again, this balance is again, thinking about your bandwidth.

Thinking realistically:

  • how much time do you have?
  • Where are you in the process?

Through the last year and a half of launching a podcast and a small to growing media company, I've had different consultants at every step of the way. Because I need to know something, I need to know different things at every phase. And I try it for a little and then I try the next one. And I know that the biggest most valuable thing that I have is time. I want to be using that time to be getting the best information that I need right now for this phase. It may be that the best thing for you to do with your limited bandwidth right now is take a course, take an educational course on something, attend a conference on the field that you're thinking about getting into, maybe it's actually traveling to go talk to the person who is your icon in this field. Who is your idol? The good news is people love to talk about themselves. So they are very willing to to spend time with you and brainstorm on your idea. And maybe actually just getting in front of them, which is something that is valued more I think now even more than it had been before because so much is over zoom and you just lose so much by not being in the room with somebody.

I would consider getting up and traveling to go meet someone in person, a pretty big investment about stepping into your pivot. And also thinking about yourself in terms of time and investing in your pivot. Is it time? Are you ready to leave your old job? Is it ready to just go all in on it? Because halfway is just not going to do it. But if you're thinking about yourself in terms of, can I financially take the leap at this point? Can I build the business on the side big enough to become financially stable to then go off on my own? If you've thought about it in steps that's not halfway, that's going in steps to make sure that you're being realistic about it.

Here in this picture I'm interviewing, this is the first in-person interview that I did for the show, a wonderful jeweler named Joan Boyce. Joan went from being a school teacher and selling jewelry on the side, and she got this opportunity when she was still young and a school teacher to have a piece of a counter. Someone saw her jewelry and said, I want to carry you. A piece of a counter in the Hamptons for a summer in the 1960s. And she said, I have to be able to take this opportunity. She was unable to find housing because Joan was in an interracial marriage, and nobody in the town would be willing to rent them a house. But she knew this was a huge opportunity that she had to take to get her product in front of them. So she persisted and persisted, and after two years, they finally found someone who was willing to rent them a house. The town council held a meeting to try to prevent the landowner from renting to them. And they stuck with him and persisted. And now she became a huge jewelry sensation, including becoming the number one seller on HSN the first year that she entered the market. So making that investment, knowing that that was something that she had to really do and find it because she had this opportunity and couldn't pass it up, was the thing that took her to the next level.

Taking action.

We've got to just move and you've got to make the ask. I did an interview for the podcast last season with two business partners who are friends of mine. Sophia Bush was a well known actress, and Nia Vats, who works in finance and in Viacom for a long time. And I wasn't sure if I could make this ask, I wasn't sure if I could ask them to be on my podcast. Would they be willing to take that investment in me, when I didn't know if they would be willing to utilize their platform for an unknown show. But making that ask, taking the action and going for it. Like I said, if we're going to do this interview, we're going to do it in person, and we're going to leverage all the video we can, all the capture we can, everything we possibly can to blow it out so that they feel like they were happy about saying yes to me and moving on and taking action. So just going for it.

Think about your bandwidth. Think about how you're defining success for yourself, measuring out your steps, finding your network of experts, that you should be going to and investing in to really get it out there.

Bonus question: How do you identify and prioritize which pivot is right for you mid career?

I think in the question was the answer, what is right for you? There's not one answer. I'd be really crystal clear about what is the thing you want to preserve in your work? And what is the thing you want to let go of?

Is it that you want to be creative? Maybe that's the thing that you want.

Is it that you want to be among peers? That's the letting go of, but you know, maybe managing your time is the thing that you want?

Is the thing that you want to be able to do something by yourself? Under your own name? That was a big piece for me that when I left the think tank, I wasn't sure that anybody would want to work with me. Like maybe they only wanted to work with me. I was very insecure about that. Because I've been at this very well known think tank, but I wasn't sure if I was enough on my own.

So you know, figuring out what is the thing that you want? And then you may have to keep recreating around that. Figuring out what do you want to let go of. Do you want to let go of being in a large structure? Do you really want to let go of being the boss? Do you want to go work for someone else? I think that figuring out what you don't want is just as important as figuring out what you do want and that will help you hone in on where you should actually go. There's not like one perfect industry to be in right now, or one perfect level. It's figuring out what are the things that you want. And then recreating around it.

I mean, I can give you an example of how She Pivot started is that I thought I wanted to have these conversations with women who had changed their careers, because I needed those stories of inspiration. And this was right after people that just started getting vaccines in 2020, so all these high profile people had their calendars cleared, and were itching to go places. So I thought to myself, what if I make this an award, in person, they'll show up. People are dying to show up places, and that's how I'll be able to score all these high profile interviews. So I initially structured this as an award. And then part of the award would be doing the podcast with me, the interview, and I would release it. Well, after a couple of months working on that business model, I started to realize I didn't have the right people in place. The person who I thought was going to be really leading the in person ended up dropping out, and so I took a step back, and I thought, I need to rethink this. I need to rethink my version of success, like what am I chasing? Why am I trying to produce a large scale, high profile event, when I have no idea how to do that? That is not the thing that I need to do. I need to reshift the thing that I want to hold. I want to hold the interview. What do I want to let go of? Doing things that I've absolutely no idea how to do.

So I would really be clear in your own mind with that. And that might take some long walks, some conversations with the kitchen cabinet to figure out what those things are. But be very, very clear about those, and then it'll come. You'll be able to work through it.



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