We’ve all heard the phrase, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. But we’ve all got to pay the piper at some point and so often, work we love is not aligned with our job.
But what if no matter where you worked, you worked from your strengths? What if you were able to cultivate work into something that not only got you paid but also sat firmly within your sweet spot?
In this new episode of the Think Tank of Three podcast, Allison Tivnon shares insights on cultivating a career, putting your best strengths forward, and taking chances that are well worth the risks.
This is Audrea Fink, here with my cohost, Reischea Canidate-Kapasouris and Julie Holton. We are your Think Tank of Three. Our guest today is Allison Tivnon and we’re talking about cultivating a career you love.
I have been watching Allison’s career for a couple of years now because I know how thoughtful Allison has been when it comes to her job choices. I’m really thrilled that she’s joining the podcast because I know that she’s going to inspire and encourage all of our listeners and I can’t wait for you to learn more about her.
It’s really important that we dive in and talk about some of these career choices that Allison has made. First of all, right now she is a pursuit strategist at Middle of Six. It’s a woman owned marketing agency focused on the architecture, engineering and construction industry. She is also a city counselor for the city of Beaverton, Oregon, elected in 2020 for a four year term. Previously, and I can’t wait to talk about this one, she was a partner and the marketing director at the economics, finance and planning consulting firm EcoNorthwest.
Allison is also the author of the book, Marketing at Low Tide: How to Recession-Proof Your Marketing Department, available on Amazon right now. Cool. Allison has a master’s of science and writing from Portland State University and a bachelor’s in English from Cal State University. We are so excited to have you here. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us here on Think Tank of Three, Allison.
Thank you. I can’t wait to dive into all this content that you’ve got in front of us.
Allison, we met a few years ago and I will never forget our introduction because I was so impressed. We were having coffee somewhere downtown and I had asked you how you ended up in your role at EcoNorthwest and your story for crafting that job was so amazing.
And in my head, I was like, this lady is such a boss and also now she’s going to ask me how I got my job and I’m going to be like, I applied on the internet, which was nowhere near as exciting as how you built it.
Will you please share with us the story of how you kind of crafted not only your marketing director role, which was not what they were advertising for, but also how you became a partner when that’s also not the job they were hiring for?
Yes. Well, this is a little bit like lightning striking, perfect time, perfect moment, perfect firm. And I think I have to go back and say it wasn’t like I didn’t know who this company was before the opportunity came along. I’d started my career at an urban planning firm and stayed there for two years where I really just figured out what the heck marketing coordination was. At the time I didn’t even know.
That was my introduction into this industry and I quickly learned that it was all about building what are essentially little mini books, these proposals for your consulting firm as they team with others and you go after projects together in a very competitive field, mostly for publicly funded projects around really, really exciting things like building bridges or new parks or whole new redevelopments of centers of towns or playgrounds, all sorts of stuff. But you almost never go at it alone, so you bring other firms on.
That’s where I learned about EcoNorthwest. They were this weird little appendix in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry where they were focused on economics and policy but as it relates to planning and growth. And it’s this amazing space to think, how is the population forecast going to affect where you build schools or where you start developing out into green space or how many hospitals you’re going to need? How many lanes of traffic or pedestrian malls or bike lanes? Super, super cool. And I just really liked looking at their resumes as I was laying out proposals.
And so cut to two years in and I loved this company but I had to go. And so I found a transportation engineering company, which seems really different than urban planning but they’re actually very attached at the hip to each other and moved over there.
I learned what an RFP was in the first place. And here I started learning about the aquarium in which we were operating. All the key players. And I started to be able to talk intelligently about the subject matter. And again, a very frequent teaming partner was EcoNorthwest.
And so three years in, I’m miserable, It’s a flat structure so there are no leaders in marketing. And so I start looking at the job boards and there is a marketing coordinator/receptionist position at EcoNorthwest, which is an awful job.
Nobody wants that job. It’s it combines two critical pieces inside a company and makes it so you can’t do either well. You can’t be an administrator and be a coordinator at the same time. And to think that you can is basically someone writing a job description who has no idea what they’re doing. I was like, that is not the job I want but I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that it was EcoNorthwest. And I also knew they had never had a marketing member of their company.
I wrote them a letter and I sent in my resume and I said, “First of all, I just want to congratulate you on putting this job announcement out there in the world because it means that you are installing marketing in your firm and that means something big must have happened there. I don’t know what it is, but whatever it was, congratulations, I’m really happy for you guys. And the reason why is because I love your firm.”
This is all in the first paragraph of this cover letter. It’s just like when you’re submitting a proposal, you never ever start with, ‘we are excited to submit on….’, Which is the way almost every cover letter does start in this industry.
You start with a declarative sentence that is centered around them. You make this about them because the proposal is about them. It’s not about you. It’s about how you can help them but you don’t start with you right out the gate. And that’s good advice for everything in life. It’s put the other person or the other thing first and then learn how you inform it.
And then said, “I saw your job posting and I have to tell you, I think you’re thinking too small. I think that you are onto something really important here but I think that this role is not going to get you what you want. I would love to come in and talk about that.”
Okay, so I just want to recap here. You saw a job posting that you didn’t actually want that role but you loved the firm so much so then you drafted this cover or with your resume, offering them the opportunity to change this job. Is that what you’re saying? This actual job posting that they had. How did that go over?
This is my favorite part of this story. I have to segue into talking about a different person. Her name is Helen and she was at the firm for 30 years and she was for all intents and purposes, the marketing coordinator, the administrator, the chief of staff, a technical writer, she was everything. I’d never met her before. My phone rings that night. I said, “Hi, this is Allison.” And the very first things out of her mouth were, “We’ve had this posting out on the street for six weeks where the F have you been?” I was like, “Who is this?”
I love it.
That’s awesome! Awesome!
She’s like, “This is Helen at EcoNorthwest. We were making a decision today to hire someone for this role and your resume comes in and you just upended everything.” And she’s like, “I’m not saying I’m mad about that,” she’s like, “but why did it take you so long to reach out to us?” And I started laughing. I was like, “Honestly, it seemed like such a shot in the dark.” And she goes, “Okay, well, never mind that. Tell me why you want this job.”
But I told her, it’s like, “I’m at a point in my career now where this is about it being more than just a job. I love what my job helps facilitate. I love that we’re trying to make the world better one little thing at a time to help society function better. And this is starting to get into legacy territory for me. I want to do stuff that really, really matters. And it’s not just the work itself that the firm does, it’s the role that marketing plays in it and to do it really, really well. And to go into a firm that doesn’t have a marketing department and be able to help build one is something that it just doesn’t come around very often. And I thought I’d take a chance.”
She was retired, but she was kind of their head hunter because she knew so much about the firm. She called the president of the firm and said, “Stop everything. Put every single other resume aside, bring her in and talk to her.” They set an hour-long meeting. It was me, the president, and two of the partners. All of them were second-generation. The president, since he was 18, he was driving the founder around in his car as a chauffeur and picking up his dry-cleaning and now he’s the president of the firm. And these two others, well, they had just bought the company and they doubled down. They mortgaged their homes. They scraped the money together because the first-generation owners were on the cusp of selling out to a bigger firm and they didn’t want to see that happen.
And so they bought the company and then it was they bought this gorgeous classic car, beautiful, shiny and then they popped the hood. They’re like, “Oh no.” And this thing was held together with bubble gum and duct tape and rubber bands and there was no infrastructure. The accounting department was in shambles. There was no administration, there was no marketing. And they realized that they were never going to make a return on this investment and get themselves into a place where it actually made sense for them to completely upend their financial lives unless they fixed all of this. And that’s why they put that job announcement out there.
I’m going to stop you right there real quick. You go into this meeting recognizing, them also recognizing we need to do these changes of the three pillars that you were just talking about. You already made it very clear that the job posting they have is not the job posting they can do because those don’t work. How do you let these people know? How do you tell these people, “I see the job you put out there. That is not what you want. Here is what you want.” Take us there.
I got in the room and I read the body language. I started asking them questions and they were talking to me. They’re describing the firm to me as they know it. And I started asking them, “Well, so you just bought this place. What do you want to do with it?” And started to get them to open up about their dreams essentially. We call it strategy, the long-term, short-term strategies, their dreams. It’s the thing you’re chasing. And they were pretty ambitious in what they wanted to do. Big stuff. They wanted to expand. They wanted to get bigger in terms of staff. They wanted to break a lot of ground into areas that were really, really hard to break into in AEC back then, especially around diversity and inclusion and up
It was right around the 60 minute mark when the meeting was supposed to end that we really got started. And I said, “You need to have,” and I started listing off all of these things to do it right. And the amount of time and effort it would take to not only be able to build the templates and the processes and the house style guides and get a leads tracking engine in place and being able to start identifying teaming partners and that building the relationships with clients, there’s all the internal marketing and the training of staff and making them good marketers and really aligning ourselves around vision and those core statements that we wanted to be at the very center of our messaging, all of that.
And pretty soon their body language completely changed. I remember the president of the firm is leaning elbows in on the table with one hand covering the bottom half of his face, looking at me so intently, like he was listening with every single synapse in his brain. We just hit marrow in this conversation. This is resonating. And it wasn’t just like, I’m going to get this job. I wasn’t even thinking about that.
You had the room.
I had the room. And we were onto something real. And so the meeting ended up lasting three hours. I finished it by saying, “I know that what I just threw out there costs more and it’s a real leap of faith. I would need some things coming in to do this. I would need my own staff. I would need the Adobe Creative Suite. I need to be able to blow up every single system that you have in place right now and I would need three months without anyone asking me how things are going so that I can get to know the company and your systems and most important thing, I would need you walking me into this firm with my hand in yours, fully supporting me and mirroring that, modeling that for the staff so that they trust what I’m going to do because a lot of things are going to have to get disrupted around here to really get this in here.”
And I said, “But like I said, I’m not interviewing anywhere else. I would love to do this so just call me if you want to talk about this more.” The phone rang 5:00 o’clock that night, “We’re in. Tell us what you need.”
This is not the typical job interview. First of all, you were in a situation where you didn’t need that next job. You wanted it because you weren’t in a great environment that you loved so you were ready for it. But when you walked in there, how did you get to the point where you were going to sell them? It’s almost like you walked in a consultant role that you were going to sell them what they actually needed. How did you get to that point?
Well, I think it was two things. One is that I knew their firm. Even though I had seen the resumes and I knew their name and I knew some of their projects over the years, I also took it a step further, went online, and researched absolutely everything I could find out about them. About the people in the room, about the founder, and there was news about them out in the world. I got myself so excited about the firm and I think that really showed through when I got into that room. The whole point of it is to learn about them and how you can fit together so it’s a two-way street.
And if you’re constantly just talking about yourself and me, me, me, I, I, I, here’s my quals. Here’s what I can do for you. It’s so one-sided and the resume that’s always going to win out is the one that puts them first, that recognizes appreciation for them, the role and is curious about what they want to achieve. Even if you don’t have as many quals and experience on your resume, you’re going to find a way closer to the top of that pile. And so getting into that room and convincing them was about me convincing them that I cared. And that was number one.
The second thing is that I had had six years in the industry at that point but I had come to a conclusion two years in, I love publishing. I love books. I love reading. That wasn’t what I was going to do with my career. This is what I was going to do with my career. And so I committed to it and that meant learning about it from not just a marketing coordinator position, proposal coordinator, a step above entry-level. It was like, what does senior marketing coordinator look like? What does a marketing manager do? What does a marketing director do? What the heck is a CMO? I wanted to know all of that because the system’s in place. I was fascinated by it.
And by the time I had gotten to that six-year mark, I was like, I bet you I could do this. I had no proof that I could, I just had a feeling. And so I went in there demonstrating and posturing in a place of experience and expertise. And in some cases, it was all showmanship because there was some stuff I had never done. I just had a feeling I could do it. I might fall on my face. They didn’t know that.
That’s that confidence factor. And ladies, we’ve talked about this many times on most shows. Let’s put this in the perspective from a man’s point of view where they may not have whatever it is, whatever that list of qualifications but it doesn’t stop them going for it anyway. They’re like, “Yeah, I could do that.” Or like my girlfriend, Jinah, who we had on the show, she’s like, “Yeah, I edit this. I edit that.” She goes, “I’ve never done it before. And then you just go and you just do it. And I think that that confidence factor is so key and vital and important.
You have really revamped the approach to doing a job search and resume perspective. We constantly hear that what you said was true. We always hear in a resume, make it about them. But I don’t know if people ever understood how to properly do it because they do it by bringing it back to themselves. You literally did it totally about them. You were like, put me aside. You’ve got some great things going on. You left yourself out of it and I don’t think people have perhaps thought of it in that manner.
Well, and I got great advice from a mentor of mine named, Steve Walker, who’s been in this industry for a very, very long time. And he said, “Marketing is not about convincing people to buy what you’ve got. True marketing is about figuring out what people need and want and showing them how to get it.”
That’s the same with sales. Is a really good salesperson and marketing fits into sales, is not there to sell you tchotchke or something. It’s there to solve problems. It’s there to find a need and to solve that need or to solve that problem. And in order to be really good at what you’re doing, it’s got to be about listening and hearing what they need.
Yes. This is the craziest, craziest part of this. I got the job and they’re like, “We want you to start as soon as possible.” I’m like, “Well, let me get two weeks at my firm.” And they’re like, “Yeah but we need to start hiring because you said you need a staffer.” I was still at my job, I hadn’t put in my notice yet and I am interviewing, I’m leaving the firm at lunchtime to go and interview candidates for this other job I didn’t even have it yet. I didn’t even have an employment agreement in place yet. I was working at a different firm and I’m sneaking away to interview people to be my marketing assistant at another firm that I’m not even working at yet. It was surreal.
I love it. Your big summary takeaways are when you’re approaching a position and you’re not doing the traditional route, you got to start off really knowing the company. You can’t walk into a company you don’t know anything about and try to be like, “I think this is what you need.”
Lots of research, lots of digging in. You have to show that you’re really passionate. You have to show that you care. And then you had to be really committed to staying in that space. Not so much because you had to commit to a space but because you really had to find your sweet spot in it. You had to have that curiosity, that commitment, and that confidence. And that’s how you think you were able to do this.
Yeah. And I think it’s when you get to a place in your career where the lines start blurring between your personal life and your work life, and I don’t mean in a, you don’t know when to turn your computer off at the end of the day. I mean that the people that you work with start becoming your friends and that when you go out to a networking event when you first start going to those, you’re hiding behind your coffee cup or your glass of wine because you don’t know anyone in the room.
But there’s this magic point where you start showing up at those things and you see people and you cross the room to hug each other. You’re like, “Oh my gosh. It’s so great to see you. And you got to meet so and so.” And you bring them over and that is networking.
And you start really understanding what networking is and your job stops becoming a job and it starts becoming a career. And you think of it in bigger, broader terms.
I think when you get to that point, you can start thinking in terms of strategic planning. It’s dreaming about what’s going to come next. And if you can visualize it out there, I think you can drum up the confidence that you would need to actually chase it because you know enough.
And I was just reading on LinkedIn, which is my happy place since the pandemic started. Someone I know, her name is Jess Colombo. She’s an amazing social media expert. And she said, “Put your foot out and the step will appear.” And I could tear up right now. I’ve thought about that for the last three days, put your foot out and the step will appear. It is such a leap of faith to put yourself into a place of the unknown where you don’t know everything. You just have a belief in yourself that you will figure it out.
Once you got the job, then you went for partner. What does it mean to be a partner at a consulting firm? And it is really uncommon for the marketing director to be a partner at a firm like that. Tell us how that went.
Well, remember how I said, I told them, “You need to give me three months with no meddling, no coming in and yanking the steering wheel.” It ended up being six months of deep intensive work. I was putting in 65, 70 hour work weeks. Not because I was being made to but because I was choosing to.
I was exhausted, physically and mentally but not spiritually. I was all in and we were seeing gains almost immediately in all sorts of ways. At the six-month mark, I called a meeting with the president and one of the other partners, a female in the firm and we went downstairs we are in a big tower office in downtown Portland. We went down to the ground floor where there was a restaurant and sat in the bar and they both looked really concerned.
Their eyebrows are knitted together. And I think they thought, she’s going to quit because I was working 65, 70 hours a week. They thought, no, this isn’t what she wants. She’s going to quit. And so I leaned in and I let them kind of sit in that space for a second of alarm and worry. And I said, “How am I doing?” And they both immediately relaxed, “Oh great. Oh, couldn’t be happier. You’re doing great.”
Love it. Power play.
Yes. And then that’s when I dropped it. And I said, “Good because I love it here and I’ve decided I never want to work anywhere else in my career.” And they start laughing. And then I fill in the last part of that sentence, “I want to start talking about how to make this a really meaningful relationship and if there’s a pathway to becoming a partner in this firm.” And they stop laughing.
I bet. I love it. “Say what now?”
They went from thinking you’re going to quit to, oh, oh. Partner. Okay.
Now we have to create a path that hasn’t existed before, again.
And they hadn’t thought about it for anybody. There were five of them. They had barely bought the company themselves. They were not thinking of third-gen owners yet. And certainly not marketing, that was for the Ph.D. economists and the real technical leaders of the firm.
And so I said it and I let it sit out there for a second. I let them sit in that place of ‘whoa’ for a minute. And that’s a really important thing is when you put something big out there, don’t talk over it. Don’t barrel through it. Be quiet and let them absorb what you just said.
And so they’re looking at me and I gave them a very, very pregnant pause.
And I said, “Look, I’m not expecting you to say anything right now. I’m not expecting you to say anything in a week or a month or even a year. I just want to know that this is in the realm of possibility at some point down the road. Because I still have years to prove myself here you need to know that I’m going to stay but also that what I’m doing is of value to the firm.
But I do need to know that there is a realm of reality where me becoming a partner in this firm someday could happen.” And they looked at each other and they looked at me and they said, “I think so.” And that’s all I needed on that day. And they went out on a limb because they had three other partners that they had not talked to yet.
But one, they didn’t want to lose me so they knew if they said no, at that moment, they could lose me and they didn’t want to at that point. They were like, they say, “Oh gosh yeah, we’re so happy. Oh, doing so good.” They couldn’t immediately then follow and say, “No, there’s no way.” They opened the door. I asked them, I knocked but they opened it.
And then I said, “All I need is to have a check-in, say every six months. And it can be that we just talk about it five minutes during our check-ins.” And they say, “Yes.” And so cut to three years later, I’m signing my name on the dotted line. I’m now a co-owner in this firm. And it wasn’t like, you just sign your name. I had to refinance my house. I had to pull money out. It’s expensive to become a partner in a firm. And it was my husband and I holding our breath, like, oh my gosh, what are we doing? You feel dizzy. And you’re going to have a panic attack because you’re leveraging at the age of 40, not that much money.
You’re leveraging your life.
Yes. And signing your name on the dotted line. And as soon as I did that, you had asked about like, what does it mean to be a partner and a firm, the weight of responsibility on your shoulders shifts immediately. And you look at the staff, all the employees differently.
Now you are responsible for making sure that they have a job and the future of the firm and thinking about your successors and yes, you need to grow it because you want to be able to make at least the return on everything you just put into it. But you have to put yourself in a good financial position when you’re in that role.
More importantly, you have just signed on the dotted line that you’ll be a steward of the firm and make sure that it continues to be a healthy, sustainable environment for the work to get done but that it can live on beyond you.
And so it was a very humbling moment. And the day that it happened, I sat there and I felt like I had just got to the top of a mountain. I climbed this mountain of my career from entry level, not knowing what an RFP was, to sitting on the top of this thing and looking out at the view and being so, so happy and seeing countless other mountains out there because I couldn’t see them when I was climbing it.
And now I’m sitting on top of it. What else can I do? If I could pull this off, what else could I do?
What an inspiration to hear your story and to know that there are other women listening that are going to be inspired by different pieces of your story and how that might resonate with them and their career path or where, and even just in dreaming of where they want their career path to go. Just what an incredible story.
I love the idea of taking the model as is, you submit your application, you go through the interview process, you take the job. I love flipping that and saying, you approach a company and you say, “This is where your pain point is. Let me help you. Let me show you a new way.”
I think that’s awesome. Thank you so much, Allison for being here today. So insightful. I can’t wait for others to hear this podcast. Before we go, though, we always collect advice from successful women in our communities and we share it out in our think tank forum. We have three rapid-fire questions for you.
Number one, is there a lesson that you’ve recently learned that you wish you had learned earlier in your career?
That you will fail miserably on occasion throughout your entire career and that’s a really good thing. It’s when you start to feel 100% confident in anything, you’ve stopped learning.
Isn’t that the truth? From the many lessons that you’ve learned, what one piece of advice would you offer to women in any career?
I think the one piece of advice is that it is only a job and it is everything. It has to be both.
I always told my staff and myself that at the end of the day, when you go to bed at night, you are not thinking about your job. If it’s working right, you are not thinking about the next day and all the stuff you have to do and all those emails you haven’t answered and that horrible person that you work with and all of that. You’re thinking about your next vacation. You’re thinking about the book you’re reading. You’re thinking about the person lying in bed next to you or that next big dream on your bucket list.
In the morning when you wake up and you get up to brush your teeth, all you’re thinking about is that email you’re going to send, that proposal you’re working on, that next thing at your job. And you’re raring to go.
You give everything you have at the start of the day and when you get to the close of it, you put it away and you give everything you have to your life.
And if you can achieve that kind of balance to where both of them matter equally, then you will find, I think, the resonant frequency for both sides of your life.
And that’s from, I’d say your twenties to about your fifties when you have those two things in perfect harmony with each other and then you can start to twist out the professional and maybe just focus on the personal as you get older in life.
I’m still kind of figuring out what that’s going to look like for me. But I think as women, we tend to feel like it’s all or nothing in everything that we do. You’ve got to be perfect at every single thing that you do at every moment. I don’t see it like that. I see it as this giant dance floor and you are dancing your way through it. And you just try and do it with grace and look good. Don’t trip over your shoes, wear comfortable shoes. Keep your head up.
What a great explanation of balance. That is a really great explanation of balance.
In today’s professional setting, what do you think is the most important skill for a woman?
I think it’s the ability to find humor and laughter. It’s the ability to connect with whoever it is that you’re talking to. It’s to assume good intent on the other side until you know otherwise and coax it out of them. And I think it’s also the ability to grab onto something with both hands and hold onto it, whether it’s a steering wheel or a job or a dream that you’ve got and know that no one has to give it to you. That if you want it, you can reach out and get it. And if you take that step, the step will appear. Put your foot out, that step will appear. Have confidence in yourself. Do your homework. Really, really understand what it is that you want and the rest of it will kind of figure itself out.
Thank you, Allison, so much for joining us. Can you really quickly share the best ways for our audience to connect with you if they have any additional questions?
Oh, absolutely. And please do. I love talking to people, so don’t feel like that’s ever an imposition. Reach out to me on LinkedIn. It’s Allison Tivnon, A-L-L-I-S-O-N T-I-V-N-O-N. You can also email me at email@example.com.
Thank you so much, Allison. This has been such an inspiring conversation. And that’s all for this episode of Think Tank of Three.
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