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Episode 203: Relaunching in the Private and Public Sectors After Two Career Breaks, with Alison Cormack

Alison Cormack headshot

Episode Description

Alison Cormack serves on the Palo Alto City Council and chairs its Finance Committee. She has relaunched twice - once at Google where she worked for almost five years and then in politics. During a 10-year career break, as a volunteer, she was behind the approval of a $76 million bond measure to rebuild Palo Alto libraries and was the President of the Palo Alto Library Foundation, which raised $4 million in private funding. She took a second career break of 3 years before running for office. Hear how Alison’s work and volunteer experiences in the private and public sectors led to her decision to run for office, helped her run her campaign, and prepared her for her current role. We’ll hear about what she does on the City Council as well as her advice for anyone interested in relaunching in politics.

Links to Episode Content

Asking by Jerold Panas

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath


Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today, we welcome Alison Cormack. Alison has relaunched twice, once at Google, where she worked for almost five years, and then in politics. She currently serves on the Palo Alto City Council and chairs it's finance committee. Her first job after college was on Capitol Hill as a junior analyst with the United States Senate Budget Committee. After business school, she worked at Hewlett Packard for seven years in finance, sales and operations.

While on a ten year career break as a volunteer, she was behind the approval of a $76 million bond measure to rebuild Palo Alto libraries, and was the president of the Palo Alto Library Foundation, which raised $4 million in private funding. At Google, Alison worked first in communications roles, and then as a head of the online support content team. She took a second career break of three years before running for office.

Alison graduated from Stanford University where she also got her MBA. She and her husband have two adult children and one dog and live in Palo Alto.

Alison, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Alison Cormack: Carol. It's great to be here. It's so nice to reconnect with you. I'm looking forward to this.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes, me too. And I should tell our audience that Alison was a speaker on a panel at an event that we had at Stanford GSB, the business school, a few years ago. We were trying to remember exactly what year we had alumni from Stanford, and I think it was also from Kellogg, talking about their experiences returning to work after a career break. And at that point, Alison was talking about her Google experience. So there's a lot to cover today.

And I want to know Alison, if we can start with your work history leading up to your first career break, and then what precipitated that career break?

Alison Cormack: Sure, when I was in college, I didn't know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be. And a friend of the family suggested that I move to Washington, D.C. And get a job.

And so that's what I ended up doing. Well, first I moved to Washington, D.C., and lived with my aunt and uncle. I think the “getting the job” story is probably relevant for people, and I often use it when I'm coaching younger people or people who are interested in making a career change or getting a job in government.

First, I should say, and it's hard for probably people who are younger who are listening, this was before the age of the internet, cell phones, email, LinkedIn. So it's probably hard to imagine, but you had paper resumes and you had phones that had cords, right?

And you had an actual, what do they call those planners where you wrote down your calendars and things? Yeah. So I ran out of people to find jobs from, and I looked in the newspaper. And finally, my father said, "I really want you to talk to my," and at the time we used the word secretary, so I'll use that word instead of admin. "I really think you should talk to my secretary's brother's girlfriend." And I was like, that doesn't seem like it's going to go very far. But I did eventually, and that led to my first job on Capitol Hill, which I loved. It was really a translation job between numbers and words, people and policies, and it was an excellent introduction to the federal government. And frankly, how to communicate the numbers. So, at the end of that time, I decided, what did I want to do next? I wanted to go to graduate school. I chose business school because I thought it would give me the most options and ended up coming back to the west coast for business school, thinking that I was going to go into nonprofits.

Our nonprofit professors encouraged all of us who were interested in that to actually go to for-profit businesses first, learn skills there, and then bring those back to the nonprofit sector. That sounded like a good idea to me and also I had some student loans. So I ended up at Hewlett Packard for a number of reasons.

We'd done a case study on their finances, and it seemed like they had a really good understanding of it. I thought I'd learned a lot there. We also had the ability to bid on things and I didn't bid enough on marketing, so I ended up with a finance interview. And then also it was important to me they had and have such a strong philanthropy focus in the Bay area and the other communities they're in. So, I get to Hewlett Packard, I'm in finance, and I figure out why HP is really good at this. Numbers. It's because their systems don't talk to each other and so they would hire people to do all the analysis. But I learned a lot. And one of the key things that I was doing was forecasting our two product lines, 1-X and 5-X.

Now I'm not an engineer. I didn't even know what these products looked like. So I said, "I'm going to go take these sales classes so I can learn a little bit more about these forecasts that I'm doing." Well, it turns out, and I didn't do that to advance my career, I did that to do my job better.

At the end of the two years in finance, they came to me and said, "Hey, do you want to be a sales rep?" I was like, that's not a usual path for someone who has an MBA. I'd never thought of it, but it turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done. Because the training was spectacular.

And I have never, ever since then gone to an interaction, and this one is included in that, where I haven't taken a moment beforehand to think about, what does the other person want from this? How is this going to go? So that was fantastic. I had my first child, came back to work part time, four days a week.

And that worked out great. I was in a different role by then. And then we had a family medical emergency, and it was while I was pregnant with my second child. So that ended up being the source of my first career break. So as I've been taught, it was resolved and it had a happy ending. It's important to say that.

But that was what precipitated my first career break. And I had no idea how long it would be. I just knew that I needed to spend my time at home.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. You know, we've had this conversation with a number of our podcast guests and much more broadly with our relauncher community. And sometimes people say, "I only thought I was going to be out a year or two." And the next thing you know, 10 years have gone by. But you're saying you went in, you didn't really know how long it was going to be.

Alison Cormack: Certainly, if you'd told me 10 years, I would have been shocked. I never expected to leave the workforce, but there were a lot of people I was responsible for and some of them weren't very big.

So that was a big shock though, I'll say.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. So can you tell us a little more about how things evolved while you were on career break, and you ended up with some incredible accomplishments that in the private sector, you probably would've been paid a lot of money to do. But can you walk us through how you got involved in raising a $76 million bond offering to improve the libraries in your city? And also, you were head of the Palo Alto Library Foundation and raised a few million dollars more there. Did that happen after a few years? Was it just natural? How did that all happen?

Alison Cormack: It was very natural. I was on the playground of my kids' elementary school. My younger one was in kindergarten and a friend said, "Hey, do you want to be on the Palo Alto Library Foundation board with me?" And I said, "Yes, because our libraries..." and I won't repeat what I said, just weren't in great shape, especially the one in our neighborhood.

And so that was the beginning of me thinking, "Oh, I'm going to be on this board. That's great. I have a little bit more time." And the more I learned, the more we had a problem, and it turned out at a meeting with the library director, she said, "Well, you know, someone's going to have to step forward to lead this bond."

And I looked around the room and there weren't that many people there. I'm like, "Well, I'll do it." The timing was right in terms of the kids being in school. I had been in sales, so that turned out to make it easier to do all the communication work, and the fundraising that was required for the bond.

And, there was a cohort of people who worked together. And to this day, I think that is the best job I ever had, and possibly will be the best job I ever had, even though I got paid $0 for it, which was running the bond. It was a great experience. I had a great team of people, not everyone agreed.

Learned a ton about the city and that of course comes into the story later, but went to many board and commission meetings and city council meetings and got a much better understanding of how our city runs. And frankly, up until then, I had just been getting through my day focused on my own family.

And so that was really the way that it opened up. And I really like a challenge. When I met with the mayor and I brought forward the thousand signatures on the petition, which was the first step, the mayor said, and my kids were like, you can't see because this is radio, but they were not very tall, they were in elementary school. And she looked at me and said, "Your kids are going to be in college before we get this library thing sorted." So at the Tall Tree Award Dinner a few years later, after the bond had passed and I was receiving this lovely honor from the community, she was there.

I looked at her and I said, "I just want you to know, one's in middle school and one's in high school." So we got those libraries before they went to college. It was a challenge. I loved working with the team and I was able to bring together my finance skills and the sort of sales, communication skills for a reason that was really personally meaningful to me.

So, that was the bond. And then the fundraising really was part of it. It was run, of course, we ran that through the foundation, not through the campaign committee. But I really got disciplined about the idea that fundraising isn't a chore, it's a gift, right? You literally are giving an opportunity to the person you're asking to support, because they may not know about your organization and they're busy and they're going to trust you.

So I learned a lot and I've used it ever since. Don't think of fundraising as a chore. Think of it as a gift.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's it. Right there. So very instructional for our relauncher audience in so many ways. And I also just have to comment on how very significant things can happen that start with a conversation on the phone.

Alison Cormack: That's right. That's right. Actually, I'll just put in a plug for the book that was really helpful, and that I continue to recommend to people. It's by Jerold Panas, J E R O L D, Panas, P A N A S, and I think it's called Asking, something like that. It's a very short book. You can read it in under an hour. And so anyone who needs to raise some money, I encourage you to go read that before you get started. It was very instructional for me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's great. Maybe we'll include that in the podcast notes too, a link to that. Whether you're doing that role fundraising and development as a volunteer or whether you're doing it in a professional role when you relaunch, it sounds very relevant. Thank you. So, at what point after these incredible accomplishments did you decide it was time to go back to work, and then how did you end up getting the job at Google? I really want to know if you'd give us a play by play to the extent that you can, I'm just so interested in what that timeline looked like and how you did it.

Alison Cormack: Absolutely. I'll start with a personal part and then we'll shift to how I eventually got a job at Google, which is a little foreshadowing hint. So my kids were now in middle school, and the library bond had passed.

We'd raised most of the money and people were saying, "Hey, you're really involved with this city, maybe you'd like to run for city council." I'm like, "Oh, that's a good idea. It looks really interesting." I have this background in the federal government. I now understand more about how our boards and commissions work and what the council's work looks like from the outside.

But also at that point, my husband decided to leave the private sector and go to the public sector. So we had both been in the public sector when we met, and I decided it was time for me to go back to the private sector. That's what made the most sense for our family financially. So, kids were getting ready to go to college at some point.

And so rather than remain in the public sector and the nonprofits, since he was switching to that, I decided it was a good time for me to go back to work. And honestly, I did a wonderful program that was offered at the business school at the time by a woman who's from the Darden School at UVA.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh, yeah.

Alison Cormack: There was a lot of interesting preparation and tasks that we did, and I really enjoyed it. And there were three kinds of women in that group. There were women who had just had their second child, like, "Oh my gosh, I did not sign up for this. I want to go back to work."

There were women like me, who had done a lot of work in the community, stuff that used those skills that they could get paid for, kids were in middle school, they're like, "Okay, now is the time." And then there were women whose youngest had just gone to college. And I was like, "Ooh, I don't think I want to wait that long."

So that particular process really helped me say, "Yes, this is the time for me to go back to work." And the other thing is, all of the tests and scans and the little activities that they had us do, I landed on communications, and realized that was the way to describe what I'd learned in sales, and the work that I'd done as a volunteer, and that there was a market for it.

I can remember where I was sitting. It was in a portable that's no longer there on the Stanford campus, and the table. And I was like, "Oh, I think that's it." So then I focused on Google. I had a few friends who lived there, or worked, sorry, it feels like that sometimes, but worked there. And I really was focused on what's going to be next, in the way that I'd worked at Hewlett Packard, which was
a premier company then, Google certainly was and is one of the premier companies in the area.

And, I did not succeed. I had a friend write me a recommendation. I applied for something in communications, we'll call it a level, I think, four or five. I didn't understand the levels, that computer spit me right back out. It didn't know what to do with me. And I think I applied for a few other things. It's very hard from outside. All of the job descriptions sound the same and it's just hard to figure things out. So I'm walking along the street with my dog and I run into a neighbor who works at Google, who had been with me on the Palo Alto Library Foundation.

He's like, "How's it going?" I'm like," I can't get in." And he goes, "Let me ask the person who's in my office. She works in a different area." She called me that night. We spoke for 15 minutes. The next morning I had a sort of phone interview with someone in the communications area, and ended up getting that job. The job was the exact job I'd applied for except at a higher level. And I'm shortening it a bit. But the key is, again, many young people these days think, "I just apply on LinkedIn or Indeed, I sent in my resume." I'm like, "Listen, I never got a job by sending in my resume."

That's only the beginning of the process. So that's how I ended up getting my job and frankly, the people who hired me took a risk. Someone who had been out of the workforce for 10 years, that's a lot, but, they were people who knew and appreciated my experience at Stanford, and could see how the work that I'd done as a volunteer would translate into success there.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. Just so many things that you're saying, first of all, that milestone moment, when all of a sudden you had the language to describe what you're interested in doing, that's a really big moment, and sometimes it takes a long time to figure that out. And then other times, there it was in front of you. So I thought that was really interesting.

And also perseverance. So rejection, rejection, and then you run into that someone in your neighborhood. The reason that he could vouch for you is that you were volunteers together on that board.

So your volunteer experience was actually relevant, not only for what you accomplished, but also that there were other people there who saw your capabilities in that context.

Alison Cormack: Absolutely. So two things to add, one is another book recommendation. I guess this makes sense from someone who worked on libraries, Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. So that was really transformative for me when I read that, and I use sort of versions of those principles when I'm communicating important things. We did it with the library, I certainly ended up doing it with my campaign. I'm working on it now with the city, as we try to explain our climate action and the changes people need to make.

So I would recommend that. And then there was one other thing I was going to say about perseverance and getting the job. It'll come back to me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. So in the meantime, you got this great job at Google. I love that it was at a higher level than when you were rejected for originally. That's awesome.

So you were there for a few years. And then can you talk to us a little bit about the evolution that led to your second career break?

Alison Cormack: Sure. So I had worked in four different organizations at Google. Most of my time was in the third organization. It was a combination of communications and strategic work.

Loved it. What an incredible opportunity. So many hardworking, smart, nice people, really. And to have so many resources after having been working in the nonprofits, it was lovely. And, I think I'm probably the person who appreciated the lunches more than anybody ever, because I made my own lunch and my kids' lunch for 10 years. So I was like, "This is awesome!"

So it was extraordinary, I did a lot of international travel with it, and was positioning myself to move, actually did move from a staff role to a line role. Because Google, like any other organization, is always looking for and needing more women in leadership positions.

And in order to move to the next level that I was at the time, it was important for me to have a line role. So I moved from a staff role to a line role. I had about 40 people and I was hoping at some point to be a director, which is a big deal at Google. And so that was intentionally done on my part.

I did training classes, and I made it clear to my boss what I was interested in doing. So it was intentional. But, during that same time, unfortunately, one of my parents had lung cancer and it got progressively worse. And I hit a stage where I just wasn't able to be present for my family and manage a really demanding job with international responsibilities at Google. And, it was hard to leave. It was really hard to leave. Not going to lie. There were some tears over that and they didn't want me to, and they said, "You just take a break. Take six months." I'm like, "I really need to go," because by then both of my parents had cancer. And, that's what I felt I needed to do. And I have no regrets about it. I'm sorry I didn't get the opportunity to do more at Google, and I would've liked to do that. But about a month after I quit, retired, left, whatever you want to call it, I was at the chemotherapy center with my mother and I was back to joking with the staff and helping others. I'm like, "This is what I needed to do." So that was why I left. And people did ask me to run the next year, for council. But at that point that didn't work, because both of my parents were ill and I wanted to be there.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And so that means right when you left Google people already were like, "Run for city council, run for city council." And so you had to put them off. And so did that then put the idea in your head, "Oh, maybe this is what I should be doing when the timing is right." Or something else...

Alison Cormack: Yes, I'd thought about it before, before I went back to Google. And then our elections are even years, so it was 2016 and people were like, "You should run." I'm like, "No, no, I'm going to do this first." But I did work on a candidate's campaign, and that was a way to participate in the process without running. And then at the end of that year, by then we had lost my mother, and my youngest was headed off to college, and then there was an election in November of 2016. I woke up the next morning and said, "Okay, I'm gonna run."

Then I spent the next year actually preparing. Now this is a luxury not everyone has. But any time you're thinking about making a change, I think if you can practice and work on it over time and anticipation you're much better prepared by the time you do. So I had the ability to use that year to do a program called Emerge, that helps train women to run for office.

I visited all 36 of our parks, and it finally went public on Facebook. It had always been a private setting. I met with city council members, current and former. I went to city council meetings once a month, beginning to end, and they're long. And I went to one of each of the board and commission meetings to really get as full a picture as I could, of what it would be like. That's what I did to prepare.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And was that all part of the Emerge program or something you were doing?

Alison Cormack: That was just my own. Yeah.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Alison, how did you learn about how to run a campaign? You said you worked on a campaign maybe a year or sometime before. Is that how you knew or did you have to bring a campaign manager in? How did you manage, I guess the business of your running for office?

Alison Cormack: Well, the good news is I'd already run the library bond campaign in 2008. So I already had that whole, it takes a year, you have to raise money, you have to file forms, you have to work with newspapers, both on the editorial side and the advertising side. You have to canvas, you have to have lawn signs.

I already had the structure there. And then the thing that I think that had changed between the 2008 campaign and 2018 campaign, is the use of social media. That's probably the one thing that had changed. Fortunately I already had some of that to rely on and some of the people who had worked with me before also worked on my campaign.

So the structure wasn't that hard. It was quite different though, to be a personal candidate than to be talking about an issue.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And I'm always in awe of campaigns. They're so entrepreneurial. You're creating something where nothing existed before to have this whole infrastructure around you to propel you forward and hopefully to victory.

It's very entrepreneurial. So I think that's really interesting. So can you tell us a little bit about what it's like to be on the Palo Alto City Council? And do you run for election, or how long the terms are, just a little bit about your current relaunch?

Alison Cormack: Sure. The terms are four years and our meetings are Monday nights, and they're six or seven hours, and sometimes we have meetings on Tuesdays also. There are seven members of council. One of the reasons our particular city is interesting is we own and operate our own utilities. So that's like a $400 million business enterprise, and that's a whole different set of work that most municipalities don't have.

Even our libraries, which we've talked about a little bit, we own and operate our five libraries. Many communities have their libraries as part of the county system. And I think I mentioned our 36 parks. We just have such a wonderful breadth of things here in Palo Alto that the work is quite expansive.

But, we have a council manager situation where basically, obviously the staff does most of the work. We're part time people, we're really there to set policy and the staff does the operations. And then of course we had COVID which changed everything, not only how we do our work now, it's on zoom instead of being in person. Although we hope that changes soon.

But also, Palo Alto has always been fortunate to have a high sales tax and high hotel tax and high property tax, but the first two were pretty badly hit. So we had to make a lot of budget changes, the most, I'm pretty sure, in Palo Alto's history. That's been a tough experience. But I'm certainly glad to be serving during COVID, and with the pandemic, it's been a difficult time for everyone, personally and professionally. So I was glad to have the opportunity to help.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Any recommendations for relaunchers who are thinking about relaunching by running for office?

Alison Cormack: Sure. The first actually, so two: One is, consider a board or commission. So these are not elected positions. These are appointed within a city or municipality or a county. That's a really good way if you're interested in one particular thing, I think we have seven. So for example, we have our Utilities Advisory Commission, people who really care about climate change and electrification of buildings and vehicles, that's a great place for them. And then they can decide if they want that to be a launching pad to council. So that's one. And then the second one, this is just how I do my work. Just go. Just go and sit at that council meeting from the beginning to the end and watch what happens. Do it a couple of times and think, is this what I want to do? Is this something that I would enjoy? Is it something that I would be able to bring my skills and experiences to? I've sort of been a hands-on person that way.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, that's great advice. And actually, that leads me to our final question. The one that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, more generally, not specifically about running for office, but more generally, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?

Alison Cormack: So I think I will use a sanitized version of some advice that a VP at Google in communications always used to give, and it was, "Pick up the 'blank' phone." And you can fill in the ‘blank’ with whatever you'd like to pick it up with.

I think that matters, and it matters even more now today when so many things are electronic. "Pick up the phone" means if something's going poorly, pick up the phone and call someone, don't send an email. If you haven't heard back from a job interview that you're really excited about, pick up the phone and call them, don't send an email. If you want to take a moment to thank a donor. Pick up the phone and call them. If someone has, I could go on and on, we have evenings sometimes with council where someone, a member of the public, or perhaps a member of council or other staff will say something and it will be quite harsh. And every now and then I'll pick up the phone the next day and call the person who that was directed to, and just say, "Hey, I just wanted to let you know. I heard that. I don't think it was fair and I think you're doing a great job." So that is my advice: Pick up the phone.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's great advice. And, as you're talking about in so many different situations, it's applicable. So thank you for wrapping up our conversation with that. Alison, thank you so much for joining us today.

Alison Cormack: Carol, it's been an absolute pleasure. And, maybe someday I'll come back after my third break.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I am very excited to see what happens going forward, especially given everything that you've done in so many different contexts, private sector, public sector, volunteer, through all these different phases of your life. So great to hear about all of it.

And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to iRelaunch.com.

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