Off the ladder with a leap of faith

A monthly feature on people who change courses to pursue the career

For Valerie Williams, the only downside to a dream job is that the pace of work feels all too real.

"You can still burn yourself out," says Ms. Williams, who gave up her career as a Prudential executive four years ago to launch an executive coaching business.

She now spends her days working one-on-one with business leaders to develop a vision for their firm, boost their career, change jobs, even find balance in their lives.

While the work is intense, she runs her business from home and has carved out a four-day work week.

Williams has always loved coaching people, helping them define goals and overcome obstacles to achieve them. But she never thought she could make a living - at least a good one - doing it.

"I was born to do this. I love doing it," she says. "My work is important; it matters to people. I'm not pushing around papers."

Yet none of this happened overnight.

Williams, a Boston native, spent most of her working life, 15 years, climbing the corporate ladder at insurance giant Prudential.

Before joining the company she started out in occupational therapy, but left after three years to earn a master's degree in counseling psychology.

"Then I took the big detour," she says.

Prudential recruited her out of grad school for its two-year management training program, and she started work as a payroll supervisor.

"That means angry people calling you because their checks are wrong," Williams laughs.

"I enjoyed dealing with angry people, and I enjoyed working with my staff on the best ways to handle those situations," she recalls. "I had minimal interest in the payroll system itself."

She spent the next seven years in facilities management, traveling the Northeast looking for office space to lease.

"My negotiation skills were right out of psychology. I was very good at it," she says.

She left the company for a two-year stint at the Massachusetts tax department, but Prudential wooed her back in 1985 with a promotion. She became manager of facilities planning and relocated her to Edison, N.J.

Two years later, she was promoted to executive, a move that, to most people, would look like the reward for lots of hard work.

To Williams, it looked like a reason to find a new challenge. "I just maxed out," she says. "There was nothing wrong with the job, but I could do it in my sleep."

So in 1990, after extensive training, she eventually became director of training, where she managed 700 people.

"My job was to train managers on how to train their staff," Williams says. She enjoyed helping her managers work through problems with their employees.

"I found it very exciting and easy. I could do it all day long."

Then came the big evaluation.

"As far as I was concerned I'd made it," she says. "I had a big job, lots of money, a secretary, an expense account, but not a lot of time to enjoy it.

"I grew up poor in the inner city in Boston. How could I leave this money? And if I did leave, what was I going to do?

"Prudential was like my home." Her friends worked there, even her husband was an executive at the company.

But despite the success, something wasn't working for Williams.

"Your whole life becomes that executive fast-track life," she says. "I didn't know who else I was beyond an executive. I didn't have fun clothes any more. I didn't even wear jeans anymore."

Williams started working with a career counselor and taking assessment tests. Soon she decided to take the plunge.

In April 1994, she gave Prudential two weeks notice that she'd be leaving.

The only drawback? She had no idea where she was going - no job, no plan.

Within two weeks, however, she heard about the coaching profession. "I almost cried. I thought, 'This is for me.' "

She called a coach in Texas and hired her on the spot to teach her how to coach. They talked once a week for a year.

A month into the training, Williams started coaching friends and associates for free. "I'd call and say, 'I'm doing this new profession and I need people to practice on.' "

It took two years to get the business off the ground. Now, it's full steam ahead.

"Last year was my absolute break-through year," she says. "I far exceeded my salary at Prudential."

Most important, she's doing something she loves. Williams coaches 20 to 25 executives at a time, meeting with or talking to them by phone weekly. She also coaches teams of executives at companies.

Her advice if you want to change careers: Start part time, even if it's for free. "It will help you get over the fear," she says. "You need to experience the joy of what you want to do and let that pull you forward."

And for people who feel constrained by the monthly mortgage payment, she has this challenge: "I don't think that's usually the real reason. The real reason is, 'Am I up to the task? Am I good enough? Can I do it?'"

"My mother always says, 'Sometimes you have to step out on faith alone.' "

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