Boomer Career Pioneer: Started Her MBA at 55

Each handicap is like a hurdle in a steeplechase and when you ride up to it, if you throw your heart over, the horse will go along too. Lawrence Bixby

I’d like you to meet Lauralee Barbaria, one of the most inspiring people I know. In her fifties, Lauralee took the risk to reinvent herself and change careers, and she has just landed the job of her dreams. She’s just started as the Director of the Green M.B.A. program at Dominion University.

Lauralee and I spoke recently about her transition. She talked about her obstacles and breakthroughs. And she offered encouragement to others who want to cap their working lives with new challenges, synthesizing all they’ve learned in their careers to make a difference.

Here is Lauralee’s story:

“There were times in my transition I felt pretty lost, and the process took me more than two years.

“As I reconnected with my passions I realized what I care about most at this stage of my life is what I’m handing on to children and grandchildren, my legacy, but it’s not a legacy of money.

“I want to feel really good about how I’m spending the rest of my life, and that means two things to me. Making sure that what I do with this part of my life validates how I spent the first part of my life, and acknowledges the things that I hadn’t done – and wished that I had.

“Part of what helped me figure out what I wanted to do was reflecting on my history and becoming clear about my gifts. I started out as a teacher, which is one of my ‘true gifts,’ the gifts that bring the greatest satisfaction and growth. I sorted my ‘true gifts’ from my ‘near gifts’ which are the things I do well, and got rewarded for, but which aren’t my true gifts.

“After teaching I was a professional athlete which helped me learn about teamwork, being competitive, and not being afraid to try things.

“Then, I had a long career in information technology where I learned problem solving skills, how to work collaboratively and how to be a change agent, to change the way people think.

“Then I trained as a mentor and coach, and found another ‘true gift’ which is to help people find their way in what they’re thinking. When people think about finding a new career, often they don’t know where to start. I didn’t and coaching helped.

“I have passions for travel, learning, and adventure, and I found a deepening passion for the environment, particularly in sustainability. This is where I decided I wanted to make an impact. So I went back to school, at Dominion University, in the Green M.B.A. program.

“When you start school at the age of 55, it’s easy to believe that your skills aren’t relevant and transferable, and the idea of interacting with much younger students was daunting.

“It was heartening to realize that my career and life experience – that the traditional age students didn’t have, is a great mix with the technical experience that they have – that I was behind the curve in learning.

“Boomers definitely bring talent and valuable input to the class room. We just have to share it in a thoughtful way. Just because we did it ‘that’ way in the past, doesn’t make it right for now.

“Sometimes I felt afraid. A big learning for me was that it’s OK to be afraid, and it’s OK to show weakness, because people will reach out and engage with you when you’re authentic. You can learn techniques to deal with fear so it’s not debilitating, and the support system you’ll build by asking for help will help you though the hard times.

“I also can’t emphasize enough how important that is in moving forward to talk about the value you bring. When you leave your familiar role you forget the satisfaction of doing something well and being validated for your work, and it can be really hard to overcome that barrier. What I did to ‘capture my value, believe in my value’ was to ask people about where they saw me bringing value, how I was doing it, and how they could see me bringing value in a new role. I did a lot of questioning.

“Lastly, I told myself ‘Go for it. What do you have to lose?’ Well, I had money to lose, and I had stature to lose. My family might not understand. But, really, when you think about it, Phyllis, when you think about the worst thing that could happen, you can find a way around those worst things. If you take the time to critically approach those questions you’ll find solutions. You’ll find ways around the road blocks.

“When you’re ready to job hunt have someone help you with your resume because you can’t see the best in yourself as well as somebody else can. Put your personality into your resume, write about the things that make you shine and get excited.

“Networking with other Boomers brought unbelievable support. Boomers in business, out of business, retired, newly retired; they all offered to share information or contacts.

“Also, practice interviewing in front of a video camera, over and over and over. I’d spent many years as the interviewer and had forgotten what it’s like to be the interviewee – much to my chagrin. For my new job I interviewed with four groups through four levels and it was quite arduous. The video interview training helped.

“The biggest change in me though participating in the Green M.B.A. program was in my thinking about leadership – and I think this is where Boomers can have the biggest impact. If you want to make change on a local, or on a global level, the new way of thinking is that there is no silver bullet or single magic answer.

“What you’re looking for is a holistic view of all the pieces of a problem and how they interact so you can put together strategies that are dynamic and flexible. Leaders help look at all of the interactions of a system, systemic thinking, so that we don’t have unintended consequences. Leaders need to be relationship builders and collaborative. This is a transformation for those of us who grew up protecting our turf, because now it’s everybody’s turf.

“Participating in the program was an awesome experience. Now that I’m leading it, I’m excited about increasing the scope of the Green M.B.A. program to impact wider and wider circles – to bring sustainability around the globe.”

Recommitting yourself to making a difference (in whatever area calls to you) is a way to gain enthusiasm – as Lauralee abundantly illustrates.

One of the challenges of growing older can be the ‘been there, done that’ feeling, the sense of dryness or ‘going through the motions’ that can come from long spells of doing your duty without joy. Whatever you choose to do, whether it’s in your career, or as a volunteer, if you throw your heart into it, you’ll find new passion, and the energy to overcome whatever obstacles you run into along the way.

Phyllis MufsonAbout the author…

Phyllis Mufson is a career / business consultant and a certified life coach with over 25 years of experience. She has helped hundreds of clients successfully navigate career transitions. You can learn more about Phyllis and her practice at PhyllisMufson and follow Phyllis on Twitter @PhyllisMufson.
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