Alumna Lesa Berec may have just taken the cake for “the road accidentally taken” (co-op) and the road blithely not taken. You have to read her fantastic interview to find out what the latter was, and what she might be doing now if she had taken up that offer! Lesa’s interview is also full of great insight about what it means to be freelance, and how to succeed at the same. –JLH
JLH: When you think back to your time as an undergrad at UWaterloo what stands out?
LB: I still remember various people in my life asking me why I was getting a Bachelor of Arts, why on earth I was studying English literature, and what kind of job I could possibly hope to get when I graduated! I didn’t have good answers back then. I studied English literature simply because it was what I enjoyed most.
I discovered the English Co-op program by accident. I learned about it from a young woman I chatted with in a lineup while waiting to get into a pub. Some weeks or months later, I ran into that same woman again in a cafeteria and she just happened to be on her way to apply for the program, so I tagged along and applied too! I have no idea who she was and I never saw her again.
Co-op ended up being a huge part of my experience at UWaterloo. There were some gut-wrenching hours sitting in an area we called ‘the pit’ while waiting to be summoned for Co-op interviews. During my work terms I worked as a technical writer and to my surprise, discovered that I liked working with information systems and writing technical content. It made for an interesting combination – studying English literature and working as a technical writer.
My last year was the best. By then I’d made deep and lasting friendships that endure to this day. I remember taking a course in rhetoric and getting really turned on to communication design that year. Just as I realized how deeply I was enjoying myself, it was over!
JLH: Do you think selecting UWaterloo shaped your career path? Is your education applicable to where you are now?
LB: Yes and yes. Just reading English lit taught me about history, religion, culture, and so much more. In my classes I learned to absorb and analyze material, evaluate information from a wide variety of viewpoints, make sense of ideas in different contexts, and communicate in a clear, coherent manner. By the time I graduated, I already had two years of work experience through Co-op and had lived through my first merger. I knew how to adapt to shifting employment situations and find ways to add value wherever I landed. And I had business contacts.
All that set my career in motion. Immediately after graduation, I got a technical writing job in a division of Reuters. Then I moved to a technology consulting firm and took to consulting like a fish to water. My degree had set me up with the right combination of research, critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. Co-op had taught me to be flexible and comfortable with ambiguity and change. My company was rolling out a lot of bleeding edge technology that changed people’s jobs and that created a lot of spinoff work in the areas of instructional design and change management. I had a highly transferrable skill set and got a lot of experience in both fields.
Eventually I teamed up with another consultant to launch a boutique firm and have since expanded into organization development. I’m currently exploring the tools and practices of ‘Emergent Learning,’ which involves helping groups in complex environments learn their way through challenging or new situations. I can trace a pretty direct line from UWaterloo to here!
JLH: Can you talk a bit about what it means to own a consulting firm, versus being an employee of a corporation?
LB: It’s entirely different but here are a few thoughts that bubble to the top. Being a consultant means being a thought partner. It requires a particular mindset, skill set, and tool kit. To get work, you really, really need a solid network and a proven track record. You want clients to call you, not vice versa. Otherwise you spend all your time banging on doors. Once you have the work you have to seek out opportunities to showcase what you can do, build deep trust, and add additional value for your clients. Satisfied clients don’t always call you again but delighted clients do, so you have to find ways to delight them over and over again.
JLH: You’ve also been teaching at Schulich, at York University, and are involved with Bracelet of Hope. Are these opportunities you actively sought, or did they come to you in other ways?
LB: They came to me through my network. Early in my consulting career someone told me to touch base with every single person I knew once per month as a way to stay top of mind. I did that for years. I met people regularly for coffee or lunch and I blocked off one Sunday afternoon each month to send short, personalized emails. It worked. People remembered me and contacted me with opportunities, including the ones you mention. The Schulich opportunity came from a previous boss. The Bracelet of Hope opportunity came through a colleague I met in a professional development course and with whom I stayed in touch.
JLH: Is there anything you know now, that you wished you had known when graduating?
LB: Shortly after I graduated I got a call from a UWaterloo friend who’d moved to Seattle to work for a technology firm. I’d never heard of it before but it was called Microsoft. (This was before Windows.) My friend had lined up an interview for me but I said I wasn’t interested because I was having a great time at Reuters. Today I comfort myself with the notion that in a parallel universe, I went to work for Microsoft and retired at age 30.
JLH: Finally, what are you reading for fun?
LB: I used to be a fiction addict but somewhere along the line I started gravitating to nonfiction. Right now I’m reading Collapse by Jared Diamond, about factors that contributed to the collapse of various civilizations. I bought it in 2008 to read the chapter on Easter Island before I travelled there and I’m just getting to the other chapters now! I’ll admit it’s a little doomy and gloomy. For comic relief I’m also reading a book by Jessica Grant called Come, Thou Tortoise. It’s playful and some of the chapters are narrated by a pet tortoise that reads Shakespeare. Cheers me right up!
You can learn more about Lesa’s freelance business, Userproof, here. Thanks to Lesa for participating!