How Lisa Petkovsek (CPA, CMA, MBA) Pivoted from a Promising Finance Career and Became a Career Coach | A Leader’s Journey Interview

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Lisa Petkovsek has a lot of letters after her name, especially for someone her age. She was building a strong career in a well-regarded and lucrative field. In the end, it wasn’t enough to make her stay.

Despite going down a long, challenging academic and professional path, she discovered that life was just too short to be unhappy at work. A couple of years ago, Lisa came to a stunning realization: what she really wanted to do was become a career coach. This massive shift would lead her to exchanging the world of money and numbers for that of personal growth, self-discovery, and helping others create careers they could be truly satisfied with.

We lose track of what we imagined our lives to be. When you’re a kid, you have this grand view of how life is supposed to be, and…it’s important to go back to that and remind yourself that life can be amazing and incredible and exciting. Settling is a choice, which is really difficult to come to terms with when you’re in that place.

Lisa Petkovsek, on losing sight of what we really want to do and be in life

After attending the Institute of Professional Excellence in Coaching and completing their flagship Coach Training Program, she has since switched gears to become an entrepreneur. Her company, Career Balance Coaching, helps high-achieving professionals make life-changing transitions (much like her own). She recently sat down with me to discuss her previous career in finance, the tough moments she experienced including a significant decline in her mental health, and the pivot to becoming her own boss in a whole new field.

Note: anything written in bold represents my own emphasis of the transcript. These words really struck me as I heard them, and they may strike you too!

MB: Tell me about your journey so far?

My journey started when I was a really young child. I’ve always been interested in starting a business, I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship. But, that wasn’t the path that I ended up taking. When I was a kid, I used to do fun fairs to raise money for charities. My friend and I started our own newspaper for our neighbourhood when we were 10 or 11 years old. I always had an interest in that, but when I got into high school and started to think about what my path might be, that was never really an option. It wasn’t talked about as something that people should do coming out of high school. It was kind of like, “you go to university, you get a job, and that’s how your life works.”

I come from an entrepreneurial family. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, my brother’s an entrepreneur, and at the dinner table we used to talk about it all the time…coming up with new ideas and what not. When I was starting to think about university, the thing that stuck out most for me was business, because that seemed like something that [gives you] a good understanding for any job that you end up getting into.

I always really liked working with people. I had a really big interest in psychology, as well. When I was in high school, I did a project where I was looking into what it takes to become a psychologist. And it turns out that you have to go to school for 12 years, and when you’re in high school you’re like, “there’s no way I’m doing that!” So I nixed that idea completely, and ended up going down the human resources route.

I took business with a concentration in human resources in university, and it was a great starting point, but I graduated and wasn’t really sold on the human resources side of things. I got a job at a mortgage company doing pretty much everything as their office manager – I was doing marketing, human resources, and one day they came to me and asked “do you want to do our bookkeeping?” I had taken a couple of courses in university, but I didn’t rally know a lot about it, so I ended up going back to night school to take that piece on. And, I ended up really enjoying it! I’d always been a big math nerd – when I was in high school I did math competitions and all that fun stuff. So, logically, it made sense that I’d be going into an accounting field.

When I made the change, everybody around me was basically saying, “you’re not an accountant, why are you doing this? This doesn’t make a lot of sense for you…” which made me want to do it more. It was almost like I wanted to show people that I could do it. So I went down this path, ended up quitting my job and went back to school full-time. I did an MBA with a concentration in accounting. It was a year of pretty intensive work through that, and then another three years working to get my CPA (Chartered Professional Accountant) designation.

It was a long journey, doing the MBA, then three years of the schooling while working and also doing exams. I basically didn’t have a life for about three years. I missed a lot friend’s birthdays, and all that kind of stuff. But it was really important for me to get to this place; I felt like becoming an accountant was a little bit of a status thing. I had this idea that moving into that role would somehow make me happy. And I worked in it for eight or nine years and had a lot of really good experiences. I was really blessed to work with a lot of really interesting people and I had a lot of managers who really helped me to grow and become the person that I am today.

The work itself didn’t end up being what really resonated with me. Part of my story that I talk about is that I am an introvert. Going through school, I was always told that being quiet wasn’t really a good thing, and when I decided to become an accountant, I was like, “OK this makes sense, I’m quiet, so I probably shouldn’t work with people.” But I really started to miss it [working with others], and working on a computer at a desk all day wasn’t making me happy anymore. So that’s where I decided to make a big shift.

I’d been unhappy for a couple of years, and not horribly unhappy, just not feeling the best that I could. And so I started to think about what the next steps might be, and ended up having a conversation with my mom. We went out for dinner one night, were talking about what it might be, and she helped me to brainstorm some ideas, and then she said, “life coach!” And I was like, “meh, I don’t know about that…” I sat on it for a couple of days and went to a career coach myself, because I was curious, and looked up the path to get there and what it entailed and I was like “oh my gosh, this is exactly what I should be doing!”

That was back in the summer two years ago. I signed up for iPEC [the Institute of Professional Excellence in Coaching and their renowned Coach Training Program], graduated with my [Certified Professional Coach] certification in June. I started my business in March, and that brings us to today!

MB: Would you say that you naturally enjoy school?

No. It’s a bit of a funny thing because after I graduated university the first time, I said, “I am never going back.” It wasn’t something that I ever enjoyed. Being an introvert, it tends to not really sit well with my [personality]…I don’t really like speaking up in class, I don’t like that large group learning style.

So even in university a lot of the time I would study on my own – I wouldn’t necessarily go to class that often. [giggles] I never expected to do as much school as I have done. [more giggles]

The thing that I like is learning. So I think that that component has really stuck with me. And there’s various ways of learning, but it tends to be the structured way that ends up getting me where I need to go.

But I would definitely say that the status with accounting was the first part of it [the drive to keep pursuing formal education] when I was looking externally for happiness, and eventually realized that internal happiness is really what drives everything.

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MB: What was life like in the financial industry for you?

Life in the finance industry for me had ups and downs. For the first few years it was exciting and I felt a lot of pride in what I was doing. I also had the opportunity to work with very high-level executives which was challenging and fun. My bosses and coworkers were amazing too – I was able to learn from so many intelligent women and men.

It was a ton of work though; short timelines, heavy workload, long hours and a lot of stress. Eventually it started to wear on me which is when I started to see what else might be out there.

MB: What do you think has brought to where you’re at now as a career coach?

That’s a very good question. I think that the biggest thing is having worked in the corporate world, and seeing the amount of unhappiness, and seeing that everyone accepts it as being OK.

There’s a lot of people who are working in jobs that they’re settling for, because they don’t think that there’s anything better out there. And without that guidance, without that somebody who’s there to kind of bounce ideas off of and do that self-discovery piece, a lot of people stay there for their entire lives. They end up looking back and saying, “why did I waste all those years working 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, and missing out on life?”

"There's a lot of people who are working in jobs that they're settling for, because they don't think that there's anything better out there."-Lisa Petkovsek Click To Tweet

MB: Where do you see this going, as you build your business?

Right now I have a program offering; it’s a self-discovery program that’s eight weeks long, that helps people figure out what they want to do as their next steps. So that I see becoming a bigger portion of my business.

Ideally, I would like to get into some speaking. One day, I’d like to have a number of coaches within the organization to be able to reach as many people as possible. I know that there are some companies that already do something similar, mostly in the US, and I’d love to bring that up to Canada.

MB: What do you think is going to take you forward toward some of your ultimate business goals?

I really think that it’s goal setting. I’ve been trying to do a little bit of this as of recently. Sometimes you can get so caught up in the day-to-day tasks that you end up not really seeing the bigger picture.

But I would say that goal setting is going to be one of the major things that drives me forward, and making sure that I am looking at the bigger picture instead of just the coaching meetings that I have…making sure that I keep my eye on that vision, to help move me forward and keep me motivated.

MB: What are the habits or skills that have really brought you to where you are now in your career? What do you hang your hat on?

The first one I would say is not being afraid of hard work. Not being afraid to sacrifice certain things to be able to move forward, and keeping that determination even when things are tough.

One of the other really big elements for me is having a support network. Having people around you who are motivating you and who are able to push you further than you think that you can go. Even if it’s just having people to call up and say “I am having the worst day, and I just need to vent for a minute…I feel like quitting.” Having them be able to listen to you and say, “yeah, you probably do feel like quitting, but, I know you and you’re not going to.” I think that was a huge thing that pushed me through [challenging moments].


MB’s comment: Lisa’s point about having a support network reminds me a lot of what what Nate Saunders, the FIBA basketball referee I interviewed back in January, mentioned in terms of what allowed him to reach the top of his own field.


MB: How do you think your clients or potential clients view you as a career coach?

I think they perceive me as having experience in the corporate world. I think they perceive me as warm, and that I come off as quite bubbly, especially when I first meet people.

I would hope that they see that I’m very caring. When I have a first conversation with somebody, I really want to get to the bottom of what’s been holding them back. I genuinely care about where they’re headed.

MB: It sounds like there’s a lot of empathy in your approach?

Definitely!

MB: If we’re all products of our belief systems, what is your belief system?

The core of my beliefs is that we all have the power to change our circumstance.

Thinking back to the hard work component, we are in charge of our destiny, we are the ones who get to create the outcome. So, if there’s something that we’re doing that isn’t working, only we have the drive and the resolve to make it happen. Nobody else can do that for you – nobody else can go through the hard work to make you successful.

Having that empowering thought that you have the ability to change things is really what drives me forward.

The core of my beliefs is that we all have the power to change our circumstance.

Lisa Petkovsek

MB: You mentioned the word, being “successful.” What’s your view on that word?

It’s definitely changed over the past few years. I think that originally when I was looking at the accounting path, I viewed status as being something [that was really important]. I saw myself as a CFO, leading a company, having people look up to me. Even the money side of things was part of it initially.

I don’t think I’ve necessarily lost the financial component of success: I think that it’s shifted a little bit. I’m making less money now than I was when I was an accountant, but feel more successful every day than I did before because I’m working toward goals that I’ve set for myself and I’m enjoying every day.

I’m happy to wake up in the morning; I’m excited to be helping other people. So, success for me is having a positive impact on the world around me. I think that it’s having set goals for myself and being able to reach those every day, not only longer-term, but also smaller-term goals.

And, also, having the flexibility to enjoy life outside of work! Having the flexibility to spend time with friends and family is really important to me, and I had kind of put that to the side for a while. I’m finding so much more fulfillment now that I’m able to do that.

MB: In shifting away from the vision of leading a major organization, to leading your own enterprise, what’s evolved for you in terms of how you see yourself as a leader?

Career Balance Coaching founder Lisa Petkovsek helps professionals make significant and satisfying career transitions.

I think that I’ve become more comfortable with my authentic self. I used to want to try to move into this vision of what people saw as a leader. Specifically in the accounting world, it seems somebody who is very strong-willed and able to get things done, and takes one for the team – those are all definitely still aspects of leadership.

But my own personal leadership style now is really centered around helping other people to succeed. I think that having that impact on the people around you, and being able to motivate them and inspire them to move forward is more my view of leadership at this point.

MB: Who have you looked to for guidance along the way?

Definitely my family – my parents and my brother.

My dad started off as a computer programmer a long time ago and then he started his own technology consulting business. He started that when I was a baby, and not knowing how that was going to turn out for him was definitely a risk. He was able to do what he needed to do: network and find the contacts that he needed to make himself successful.

I’ve always looked up to him from the business side; we’ve always had great chats about how to get things done in the business world and how it all works. So he’s been a huge help on that side.

My mom, too, while she was raising us she was always starting businesses. She was a consultant as well. She’s run her own event management company. So being able to bounce ideas off of them has been really helpful.

And then my brother has been a big motivator for me – he’s younger than me, but he found his path at a pretty young age. He’s always been pretty authentic in knowing who he was. He was able to follow his passion early on and it’s always been really inspirational to me, knowing that he just does whatever needs to be done to get to where he needs to go.

Having the courage to take chances has allowed me to leave this job that I had and pursue something that can be seen as kind of risky.

MB: If you encountered someone who didn’t have that kind of family support or if entrepreneurship wasn’t ingrained in them from an early age – what you say to them?

It doesn’t have to be family that can support you. I’ve had some really amazing mentors along the way as well.

Whether it was through school…I has some really amazing professors that I connected with who helped me find my path in various ways. I had somebody from the CPA organization that really impacted my path as well. He was supposed to just be helping me with resume organization and it ended up turning into a mentorship that lasted a number of years. We’re still in touch.

Friends as well – surrounding yourself with people who have that same kind of drive, same kind of hope for their lives. My friends are all incredible people and I love being able to get together and talk about where we’re going and having that motivation from other people as well.

And my boyfriend, too: he’s gone through a number of different career changes. It’s really helpful to have support from all areas – it doesn’t just have to be from family.

MB: Tell me about the most challenging moments for you in the journey.

There’s definitely been a number of them. When I was going back to school to become and accountant and get my MBA, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease [where the body is unable to process gluten]. It was a really difficult time because I was dealing with the loss of my old lifestyle and it was a pretty big transition because [gluten-containing ingredients] are in so many things that you don’t really realize.

So I was getting sick a lot, going to the doctor’s and getting all these tests while trying to do my MBA, and mentally it was really difficult because I just wanted to give up. I wanted to not deal with everything – it felt like it was too much. And I don’t mean “give up” in the life sense, I mean give up on my MBA.

Career Balance Coaching founder Lisa Petkovsek helps professionals make significant and satisfying career transitions.

I remember specifically a conversation with my mom on the phone. I went to Brock University, and my parents were in Toronto, so I called my mom bawling one day, and I just didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think that I was going to be able to handle the emotional side of things. I ended up seeing a psychotherapist and working through that side of things. I’m a big supporter of psychotherapy and a lot of people don’t talk about it. It really gave me the tools I needed to be able to get through that difficult time in my life.


Even now, the skills that I was able to develop through that have have helped me to be so much stronger in getting through anything else that has come my way.

MB: What did you learn about yourself as you went through that particular point in time, balancing all of those really difficult demands?

It’s really important to take care of your mental well-being before it gets to that state. I think that I was trying to do everything. I was working, going to school, dealing with this illness, and I was trying to not tell anybody about any of it.

My professors had no idea, my job had no idea, and it wasn’t helpful. Once I got to this breaking point, I was able to actually go to my professor and say, “this is what I’m dealing with; is there any way that you can support me through this?” Everyone was more than happy to help out. Whether it was having alternate deadlines, or being able to connect me with a tutor…I ended up quitting my job at that time because there was just too much going on.

When you try to do too much, you get to that breaking point. So I learned my limits – I learned it’s important to not continue pushing yourself past the breaking point.

MB: Talk to me about the word “failure.” What does that mean to you?

Being a coach, you learn a lot about failure and how to view it.

When I was doing the CPA schooling, there were three tests that you had to do in order to get your designation, and the very last one was a group project. As a group, we were all trying to get through it, and we failed. And it felt like…the end of the world!

You get to do it again, but it’s a very long process – it’s very intensive – and it can be difficult to decide whether or not you want to keep going. At that point, I viewed failure as not knowing what to do at that time. What that experience actually taught me, and what being in the coaching world has taught me as well, is that failure is really just a learning experience.

If you stop, then that’s your decision, and that doesn’t mean that you’re a failure either. You may decide that whatever it is [that you’re attempting] isn’t right for you and that’s why you decide not to keep going. But I think that no matter what, you will always learn from failure.

In that circumstance, I learned how to better work with other people, how to better manage time, how to coordinate…also how to just keep going when it seems like it isn’t going to work out. It’s keeping in mind that failure really equals learning.

"What that experience actually taught me, and what being in the coaching world has taught me as well, is that failure is really just a learning experience."-Lisa Petkovsek Click To Tweet

MB’s comment: Lisa really recommends Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. The book introduces the concept of a “growth” versus a “fixed” mindset. The mindset we choose to adopt has a profound impact on how we respond to setbacks in life. You can check out Professor Dweck’s talk about the two mindsets right here.


MB: How did it feel going so far down one career path (finance), and realizing, “I want to get out of this and do something different?”

It was tough – it was definitely very tough. I remember wondering if I did everything for nothing? Was all that time I spent working long hours and studying…was that a waste? [During my coach training] I ended up connecting with a lawyer who was going through something similar, so I was able to talk about it with her and discuss how to reframe it [the transition].

My late grandfather told me something that’s always stuck with me – “no education is ever wasted.” And I believed it in theory but was actually able to start to put that into practice.

It felt like a loss. It felt like I’d gone down this path, put all this effort into it, missed birthdays, wedding showers, baby showers, times with friends. I definitely went through an emotional period where I was kind of like, “did I waste part of my life?”

It’s been a journey for sure, and seeing it as an opportunity…it’s a bit like looking at it as a failure [based on her comments above]. A lot of people would look at it and say “I didn’t get to where I was supposed to be going on that journey; I didn’t hit the endpoint that I had set for myself.” It wasn’t a failure in any way in my eyes now because it was all an experience that led me to better understand my clients.

If I hadn’t gone through that experience, I don’t think I’d be able to be a career coach in the way that I am now, in that I can empathize with my clients. I can understand their perspective and what they’re going through. I understand the politics of finance, and the feeling of not being happy. I had to experience that in order to impact other people’s lives.

MB: What would you say to someone who is starting out in finance?

Set personal boundaries, and try to understand where your motivation is coming from. If you do have that internal motivation in that you love numbers, and love helping people figure out where they’re going in terms of finances, then 100% put everything into it.

Try things out. Experiment with different roles and different jobs, and don’t be afraid of the hard work if that’s really what you’re going to do.

MB: What would you say to someone who is just starting out as an entrepreneur?

Build a good support network. And in this sense, I’m talking about finding people who are doing the same thing as you.

It has been incredibly helpful for me to be able to connect with other coaches, who are going through the same thing and have similar issues, because your family and friends aren’t necessarily going to understand your journey. And there’s things that you might really want to talk about that they won’t understand, so having someone who understands the ups and downs of entrepreneurship has really helped me.

MB: What would you say to someone who is really unhappy in their career, but they haven’t yet moved across that line to the point where they’re going to make a change?

I would ask them if this is what they pictured their life being like?

We lose track of what we imagined our lives to be. When you’re a kid, you have this grand view of how life is supposed to be, and sometimes we might be a little bit off-track, but for the most part it’s important to go back to that and remind yourself that life can be amazing and incredible and exciting. Settling is a choice, which is really difficult to come to terms with when you’re in that place.

MB: In ten words or less, what’s one message that you’d like to leave with the people who are reading this?

You are actually capable of anything you set your mind to.

MB: Where can people find you if they want to reach you?

They can find me on LinkedIn!

(If you’re thinking about a career change and would like to see if Lisa might be the person who helps you best achieve that change, go check out her site: Career Balance Coaching).

Final thoughts

Our mindset is the main driver behind our choices in life. If we allow ourselves to imagine what life would be like in a completely different career field, then we’re taking the first steps to actually making a significant shift. Lisa’s story proves that no matter how far down the rabbit hole we go in our professional lives, we can always pull ourselves back out and dig a new hole somewhere else. We hold the ladder that gets us out, and the shovel that puts us in a new game!

The pain that Lisa felt (between the unhappiness at work, the events she missed throughout her career, and of course the hit to her mental health with all of the overwhelm going on) is a really important part of her story. The reason that most people don’t redraw significant parts of their lives is because the pain of staying the same isn’t yet greater than the pain that will be experienced in the transition. It’s natural for humans to move away from pain: if the sting of the status quo isn’t big enough, why would anyone make a move in a new direction? When the pain balance shifts, we shift.

I highly recommend Lisa to anyone who is looking to make a really big, but probably really tough, career move. We trained as coaches together and I’ve experienced first-hand her presence, intuition and ability to create clarity in muddy situations. She can help you get to the bottom of what is holding you back from leaving your rabbit hole, as well as set you in motion (with confidence!) toward a new phase in your career journey!

(Disclosure: I do not receive any compensation whatsoever for recommending Lisa). 🙂

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