Find Your Dream Job, Bonus Episode 40:
Moving Forward After a Layoff: Blair Denniberg’s Job Search Success Story
Airdate: May 3, 2021
This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.
I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.
One of the best ways to get good at job hunting is to talk to people who do it well.
That’s why once a month, I interview a Mac’s List reader who found a job they love.
Our guest today is Blair Denniberg. She’s an executive assistant at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare.
Blair Denniberg believes in the power of knowing what you want. And after an unexpected layoff, Blair didn’t apply everywhere.
Instead, she focused on a few employers whose mission excited her.
In a story you can find on the Mac’s List website, Blair also says she made a point of tailoring every application.
And her careful targeting paid off. Blair received interviews at four of the five places where she applied.
Now, Blair, why do you love your job?
I love my job because it really allows me to support nonprofit organizations whose missions I believe in, as you alluded to earlier. I’ve been able to work at some great Portland nonprofits, different types of missions, but all very much rooted in education or social justice or social services, and that’s really where my interests lie. And so, the fact that I get to do that and I’m also a pretty detail-oriented person, I like organizing things…so yeah, that worked out really well with my skill set and the fact that lots of nonprofits need executive help or admin help, it’s been great for me because that role is needed a lot. So, it’s been great to support those nonprofits that I really believe in.
Well, you’re at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare now and your journey actually started about a year ago, didn’t it, Blair? When, after the pandemic, you were laid off unexpectedly from a nonprofit here in Oregon, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. How did you feel when that layoff happened?
It was tough, and it’s funny, it’s almost to the week when I found out that I would be most likely losing my job due to downsizing, because OMSI is almost totally reliant on donations from donors and then, of course, admissions. And when admissions wasn’t happening, that was a huge thing, and I totally understood it, but I had worked at OMSI almost 7 years. Prior to that, I worked at a Science Museum in Tampa which was actually called MOSI, oddly enough, and I worked there when I was in college and really fell in love with working in museums.
It was pretty devastating, to say the least. It took me a while to get over it but I found purpose elsewhere, which, I think, really helped me in my job search, just by kind of taking a personal inventory of why I loved working in the museum so much and seeing how I could transfer that into another type of industry that was still in the nonprofit industry.
I want to talk about your search but tell us, how did you manage? What did you do with those feelings when you got the news that you were being laid off? How did you…
Yeah, it was, to be completely honest, I remember the day very vividly when I had to go turn in my badge and my keys and the credit card and the laptop and all of those things. And no joke, I’m going to be vulnerable here, I sat in the parking lot in my car and cried for at least 30 minutes, and the type of crying where I’m like, “I can’t drive,” because it was so bad, just really devastating, but I let myself feel those feelings. I think there’s a thing in this society to just pick up and move on and what can you do, and I definitely did want to pick up and move on, but I did want to give myself time to feel bad and reflect and not only reflect on my time there but on what I learned because I was an executive assistant there but I actually started at the front desk.
I was able to have a whole…not a cycle, but a career of moving up. And especially as a young person, learning so much from so many different people, it’s a great organization and I still love it very much. So, yeah, I just tried to focus on the positive. I let myself feel those feelings but also focus on all of the great things and all of the amazing people I not only met and still are friends but all of the great people that I got to learn from.
Well, thanks for sharing that, Blair.
Layoffs are always hard and you were laid off at the start of a pandemic when everything was shutting down. How did you do a search and look for work when so many places were closing?
Yeah, that was also tough. As you mentioned earlier, I really wanted to focus on organizations whose missions really excited me. And so I thought, especially in working at a big place like OMSI, I got to learn so many other nonprofits, like foundations and even accounting firms, because I worked, technically, in the finance office. So, I worked with our accounting firms. I worked a lot with our property development that we were doing over there, so I got to meet a lot of people through companies there in the city, so I got to think of places that are probably hurt by the pandemic but aren’t completely decimated like attractions like OMSI or service industry or things like that.
I thought of places, I remember one of the very first places I applied to was Meyer Memorial Trust. They’re great, I love their mission so much, and I couldn’t believe it when I actually got an interview with them, and it was great. That was my first one out of the gate, the first thing that I applied for. I took time doing my cover letter.
Yeah, so I looked for those allied organizations who I knew would be still looking for folks, maybe they’re doing some downsizing but not too much, maybe a little bit of reorganization, and yeah, that’s how I was able to find some places to apply to.
On Mac’s List, of course.
Okay, great. Thanks for doing that. I do want to ask, so many people, they sit down at the computer and there are so many choices, Blair, and they send out applications to a large number of places. What’s your best advice for someone who struggles with getting clear about their target employers? How did you do that?
Yeah, and it’s funny that you say that, because one of my former colleagues I saw posting about their job search saying like, “Ugh, I hate that I have to apply for these jobs that I don’t like instead of focusing on the ones that I do.” And I understand that people have to do that, especially now, as the pandemic continues to really hurt the job market, and as I said earlier, I kind of took a personal inventory. Like, what made me so happy about working in museums, and yes, working in a science museum is super cool. I got to see all of the exhibits before anybody else.
I mean, where OMSI is located, right on the east bank esplanade, it’s a beautiful place to work and it’s just great and I worked with a lot of great people. But what I really loved about it was that it let me, even though I was an executive assistant, I was able to work on a lot of different employee committees. I was the leader of our rewards and recognition committee for about 5 years, which was the committee that put on the holiday party and all of the fun staff events.
I got to do a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion work, which is kind of what really grabbed me and made me want to stay in museums forever. And I really loved working at not only anti-racism work but I helped facilitate a book club that was just for white folks learning about anti-racism. I also got to facilitate a group for LGBTQ+ staff, so that’s where I really found my drive and for some reason, I got it in my head that I could only do that work in a museum.
Which is not true, so I convinced myself it was untrue. I don’t know why I originally convinced myself that it was and started looking for places that I knew had great commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and most places, especially nonprofits, have that pretty apparent on their websites now or even on their job board itself if they’re really serious about it and I was able to narrow down the search a little bit through that as well.
You had that list of criteria that was important to you and you applied it as you looked for both target organizations and open positions.
Correct, yeah, and sometimes you see a place that you would love to work at and they don’t have any job available, so you either, sometimes they’ll have where you can send in your resume anytime or I would just put it on a list. My personal laptop has a million tabs of various organizations, just to their career page, and I would check it every few days, even just to see if there was anything new, or get on…some places allow you to sign your email up and they’ll let you know when jobs become available.
One of the points that you made in your article for us was that virtual interviewing was challenging for you. How did you overcome that, Blair?
Yeah, my personal laptop that I just mentioned is just a little tiny Chromebook that I think I might have paid $100 for years ago, so it has, like, zero bandwidth. I even got a little adapter to plug my ethernet directly to it hoping that it would make my bandwidth better and it just didn’t. And I live in this basement apartment so that makes it even better, reception-wise. The interviews that I did have, they were always…something went wrong it seemed and I just prepared for that after the first time it happened. I just prepared for it.
You know, sometimes I would even say, “You know, I’m having internet issues right now, do you mind if I turn off my camera just so I can make sure that you can hear me?” Because, even though it is good to see people’s faces and body language, I think that it’s also super important that they can hear you clearly, so if you have any of those issues that I have of a not so great computer and bad internet reception, just do your best to prepare for those things. And just any awkward thing that could even happen in a face-to-face interview, just roll with it and try not to let your nervousness overcome what you’re trying to do which is show those people who you really are and how you can help them.
Well, speaking of preparation, one thing that also stood out in your article was that you customized your application materials for every application. How did you know how to do that, Blair, and was that time-consuming?
Yes, it is time-consuming, and how I learned how to do that was just reading various articles or even podcasts similar to this that talk about how you really need to not do a boilerplate cover letter, and also just making my resume stand out in some type of way visually.
I am definitely not a graphic designer in any way, but I did my best to make it pop as best I could as far as formatting-wise. But as far as cover letters, I would have a template and I would start with a little bit of my personal story, and then the middle part would literally be taking the job description, pulling things out of the job description and saying how I could do those and why I could do those things for them. And not only can I do those things and those things are second nature to me but I also have all of these other things that I’m really passionate about that I know will fit in really well with your organization, and then I’ll talk about all of the equity and diversity and inclusion stuff I am passionate about and yeah.
I think that people notice that and yes it is time-consuming but hey, when you’re unemployed, what else are you going to do? And I find that you get better and better at it and people really notice it and they’ll definitely look at your resume and give it that second chance if you don’t have all the qualifications right off the bat.
Now, you’re currently working at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, but you took another job after you left OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Tell us about that choice and why you decided to make a change after spending a number of months there.
Yeah, so, I was unemployed for about two months and I was able to find a position at New Avenues for Youth, which is another amazing social services, nonprofit in downtown Portland. Actually, they’re all through the Portland Metro area and they do a lot of great work helping young folks that are experiencing housing instability or homelessness; help them get on a better path, whatever that path is that they choose for themselves. I loved that organization, it’s great, it’s a lot smaller nonprofit than I came from at OMSI, the position was an executive assistant role but because it was a small nonprofit, it was also some development work and some reception work because the desk that I sat at was right at one of our downtown locations.
I was there for 6 months. I started at the end of June and it was great, and I just realized early on that it wasn’t the perfect fit. Being an executive assistant, the people that you work with really make or break the job, and I would never say anything bad about my former employer. He was a great guy. I really enjoyed working with the team. It just wasn’t the environment for me and one of the things that was hardest was I almost felt like I was getting empathy fatigue having to go into work downtown. And you know, I have my little problems like, “Oh, I’m going to be late for work for X, Y, or Z reason.” And then I would come in to work and I would get to know the young folks that lived around the block and anything that was going on in my life was not in any way, shape, or form, close to some of the populations that we served.
I just realized early on that I didn’t want to get that empathy fatigue and I was there just long enough. I didn’t want to leave immediately, that’s not really the person that I am, I really wanted to give it a good shot and the role at Cascadia came up and I was like, I’m just going to try it. I wasn’t dead set on getting it and I just thought I’d give them my materials and see if they’d call me back. And that position actually happened and it’s a much better fit for me but it is scary making that decision. I didn’t want my employer to feel like I was a flake, so many things go through your head.
You’re like, “Is this a bad choice? Am I going to look bad? What if I don’t like the next job? What if it’s an even worse fit?” All of these things go through your head but I did my research, I said why not, let’s go for it and it’s been great. I love it so much at Cascadia. I actually just met with one of my older coworkers at New Avenue for lunch last week. I still have great relationships with all those folks. I just helped one of my friends get a position there.
I have nothing but amazing things to say about New Avenues. And sometimes, it’s okay to say that this job wasn’t for me and to own that and to not be scared of it because on the flip side, if you stay somewhere that you’re not happy, that’s never going to be good. You’re eventually going to roll into some resentment I’m sure, which is never good, so I’m happy that I was able to make that decision for myself even though it was not an easy one.
What’s your best advice, Blair, for someone who might be in that situation? Who took a position, realizes after 3 or 4 months that it’s not the right fit, but thinks, “I can’t leave. I’ve got to stick this out because it’ll look bad if I leave.”
My advice is to, this might be the executive assistant in me but I like to make lists, to do an old school pros and cons list. What are you thinking will be good at a new job? What are you thinking is not working for the position that you’re currently at? And just doing the old-fashioned weighing it and some people prefer stasis and nothing changing over happiness and I’ve known some of those people and there’s nothing wrong with those types of people, but I want to be happy, and sometimes, you’ve got to make that choice for yourself. And you know, there are all kinds of things in society, we get all kinds of messages saying that we have to be a certain way but sometimes you’ve just got to do something for yourself.
The other thing that I’ll say is, when you’re in a position that you don’t like, I mean, everybody around you is going to notice really quick. No matter how much you try to hide it, so what’s the point of trying to fake something when you’re not happy? Just go try to be happy.
Finally, what’s your number one job hunting tip?
My number one job hunting tip would be to do your best to be authentic, not only in your cover letter, because that’s obviously your first point of contact, so you want to be as authentic as possible there, but also once you get to that phone screen, once you get to that in-person interview, to just never stop that energy of…I feel like the person that I come across as on the phone, the person that I am in real life, is the person that I am all of the time, and of course, there’s professional me and at home me, but I try my best to be one person and if you show…if you are really enthusiastic about a job, it’s going to show if you’re authentically enthusiastic and that’s going to show in that cover letter that you write and then hopefully carry on through the rest of the process.
Well, Blair, thank you for sharing your story.
To learn more about Blair Denniberg ’s job search, visit macslist.org/stories.
And check out the Mac’s List website for dozens of other success stories.
On the second Friday of every month, we add a new interview with a Mac’s List reader who has found a dream job.
Go to macslist.org/stories.
In the meantime, thank you for listening to today’s bonus episode of Find Your Dream Job.