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EP 288: Relaunching and pivoting via Vanguard’s Return to Work Program, with Felicia Williams

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Episode Description

Felicia Williams spent over 20 years as a director in accounting, finance, and audit at a major US railroad before electing to take a career break. In 2022, she relaunched her career and made a significant career pivot when she joined the Return to Work program at Vanguard. Hear how Felicia determined that a side interest should become the focus of her relaunch, and learn about the training she received through Vanguard’s Return to Work program in order to attain the licenses needed to provide investment and advisory services to Vanguard clients. We also speak with Felicia about her career progression since joining Vanguard as she recently accepted a promotion as a high net worth advisor.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co founder of iRelaunch and your host. Before we get started, I want to remind our listeners who are actively relaunching to make sure to register and upload your resume to our iRelaunch Job Board. This is where we go to share relaunchers profiles with our employers that are hiring for career re entry jobs and programs. So it's important that your profile and resume is in there. Today, we welcome Felicia Williams. Prior to taking a career break, Felicia spent over 20 years as a director in accounting, finance, and audit at a major US railroad. In 2022, she relaunched as part of the Return to Work program at Vanguard, where she provides investment and advisory services to Vanguard clients. Making a major career pivot, she recently accepted a promotion as a high net worth advisor, and we're going to talk with Felicia about her post break job search, her experience relaunching through a career reentry program, and her post relaunch career progression.

Felicia, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Felicia Williams: Thanks for having me, Carol. I'm so happy to be here today.

Carol Fishman Cohen: We're so excited to have this conversation with you, and we should really begin, before your career break, and I want to know if you can take us through your early career progression before your career break, and then tell us a little bit about what prompted you to step away from the workforce.

Felicia Williams: Absolutely. You covered a little bit of it in my background. My background is in audit, accounting, and finance. I started my career at one of the big four accounting firms doing audit. I got my degree from the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. I'm originally from Kansas City. I went to work big four accounting firms in Kansas City, and my largest audit client was one of the largest US railroads. They were originally headquartered in Topeka, Kansas, then through a number of mergers, ended up relocating their headquarters to Texas, to Fort Worth, Texas. And so at that time, when they merged, they were looking to fill a number of positions, and they asked me to cross over and from being an auditor to come work for them.

So I worked, I crossed over, came to work for the railroad here in North Texas, relocated to Texas, and have been living here for the last 23, 24 years. I worked at the railroad in a number of leadership roles, primarily in the space of auditing, accounting, and finance. And to answer your question, your second question about what prompted me to step away, I would put it into three buckets.

One, long hours. I was working in accounting and finance. The railroad is a 24 by seven operation. Even in the supporting capacity, we would work a long, a long, several long hours, weeks of long hours. And the second thing I would say was lack of flexibility. Being a mother of four with a very demanding job just didn't have the flexibility that I needed to be successful on both the personal and professional front.

And the final thing I would say is the proverbial glass ceiling. I, at the time that I stepped away, I had pretty much done every position that I could do in the accounting and finance department as well as in audit. And I didn't have any insights that I would be progressed or have any additional opportunities to go upward.

And so that, glass ceiling was part of it as well.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So there are a whole range of reasons that led to that decision. And then, how long were you on career break and when did you start thinking about what you might be doing after your career break? Because you took a pretty major career pivot and it'd be interesting for our audience to know a little bit about what was some of the thought process behind that.

Felicia Williams: Sure. My total break ended up being about two and a half years. I would split that up to say the first year of it, I did nothing work related. I didn't look for another job. I self, I did a period of self reflection and decompression coming off of that long career of demanding hours and working long hours and just spending time at my kid's school.

And through that process of self reflecting, I looked back on what gave me what I was passionate about and what was fulfilling to me over the years. And the things that resonated with me were the time that I spent in my church teaching financial stewardship classes to the adults and to the youth.

Also the time that I spent working with not for profits specializing in women and children and finances and, we would do boot camps and other things like that to help women, especially those coming out of difficult situations like domestic violence. So when I reflected back on those things, that was what I was passionate about, helping my family members develop a plan to get out of debt and pay off their houses and their cars.

And that's what brought me joy. So I just. I decided to start looking into a career in that space, in the financial planning and financial stewardship space. So that's kind of the process I went about.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's a, that's very interesting process. And we don't often hear that someone is doing something as sophisticated as you were doing, teaching about financial stewardship and advising people in a volunteer capacity, essentially, in, about, financial planning and wealth management. So I see how you came around to it. Now, once you determined that was the area that you wanted to go forward in for your relaunch, what happened next? Did you try to look around at all the different employment opportunities right away?

What steps did you take?

Felicia Williams: Once I made the decision that it was financial planning, I started researching and, of course, I used Google and I Googled everything I could find out about financial planning. I quickly realized it's a very complicated and fragmented industry. There's banking, there's insurance companies, there's independent investment advisory firms. There's all the gamut, it went across the whole spectrum. And so I realized quickly that I was getting into something I knew really nothing about other than what I described earlier that I was doing on the, on my personal time. And so I went up about, finding out more about what the options were.

I realized with making a complete career change that I needed to get more understanding of the financial planning industry. So I started looking into designations. On the accounting side, I am a certified public accountant. I'm a CPA. And so that is the license that I obtained to show that I was competent and capable as an accountant.

On the financial planning side, I stumbled upon the certified financial planner designation, the CFP. And so I started to embark upon finding out what it would take for me to become a CFP. And I realized quickly that I would have to take about six or seven college level courses, and then a capstone, which is kind of like a thesis at the end, and then a six hour exam.

And then, after you pass the exam, you have, that you have some work experience requirements before you get your license from the board. So I started down after taking that year hiatus, I started down the path of pursuing the CFP certification.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. It's, it's pretty demanding what you're describing in terms of how you get that designation.

So you start this process a year into your career break. And then you said you were out for two and a half years. So you progressed for the next year and a half working on it. And how long did it take to, to get the CFP designation?

Felicia Williams: From the moment I started taking the coursework to get the designation, I started like in a July, and I finished the coursework about nine months later, which is a pretty fast pace, but I wasn't working so I was able to keep up with that. So nine months to take those courses and the capstone, then I started a review course for the CFP exam and sat for the CFP exam the next July. So from start to finish, my process was one year. I passed the CFP exam that next July, and that would've been July of 2021, which was about a year.

Almost two years after I stepped away from working.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. Well, I'm, I'm really impressed that you were able to pursue this at an accelerated pace and also with everything else that's going on at home and you're on your career break. But the idea that you used education, in a sense, a certification, in order to help enable your career pivot is instructive for our audience, because I know a lot of the people in our audience are thinking about a pivot and exactly how they would go about it.

So the idea of using some sort of an educational experience or a, an official formal designation or certification like you did, is a great way to, to take that first major step. So you're in the process of getting your CFP, what's happening in terms of the job search, did you wait until the end of, to receiving the CFP to start that piece of it?

Or were you looking around concurrently?

Felicia Williams: I, personally, because I knew how taxing passing the exam is, many people don't pass on the first try, I didn't want to have the distraction of trying to find a job. So I waited until I was completely done. And even after that, I took another break. I am a big proponent of doing what's best for you, and as a mother of four and a wife, and having gone through that roller coaster of working long hours, I was very intentional about making sure that I wasn't overstressing myself. And so after take passing the exam, I took a couple more months of just deciding what did I really want to do and being very selective in the companies that I even chose to interview with afterwards. I launched my career search through the CFP board. They had a diversity forum, that they offer each year.

And at the end of that, there's a career fair. And so I utilized that career fair, because it already brought all the different companies that I mentioned earlier, the insurance companies, the larger financial firms like Vanguard and Fidelity and Schwab and even some of the smaller independent and regional independent advisory firms to us.

I didn't have to go looking for them. So I launched my career search through the CFP board's career fair.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You know, we have partnered with the CFP board in the past and, I was involved with it myself and I think I, I even attended one or maybe two of the diversity conferences. So I know exactly what you're talking about.

And that's another benefit of relaunching and getting a designation or certification as part of your process. Because as you're saying, you then utilize certain job search benefits that were specific to the CFP.

Felicia Williams: So I quickly realized even with all that, that I still, there was still so much that I didn't know and that there were still more certifications and licenses that I still needed to obtain.

So that was an epiphany for me going through the process.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And so can you give us a few examples of like, who were you looking at? At what point did you find out about the Vanguard and the fact that they had a return to work program?

Felicia Williams: I found out through that career fair, Vanguard was one of, you could like set up interviews, virtual interviews with companies, submitting your resumes and Vanguard was one at the top of my list. So I, through that process, I met with Vanguard or Vanguard representatives, ask questions, told them about my background and they had some different postings out there. And through talking with the representative, she actually recommended, she said, we have three different pathways or entry points, and she said, From what I can glean from your background and experience, I think the return to work would be the best of the three pathways for you to consider. And then I talked to some other firms and through that process, I realized even with Vanguard, that there, the CFP is the pinnacle of the licensing, but there's other licenses that you have to get in order to trade securities and be a registered agent and things like that, that Vanguard would support me in obtaining after I successfully completed the Return to Work program. Whereas other employers, some of the employers I looked at would support me in that same way, others expected you to already have those as well.

Carol Fishman Cohen: All right, so you get accepted to the Vanguard Return to Work program, which is a competitive program. So you went through a process, a competitive process to gain admission to the program, and then, can you tell us a little bit more about what it was like to relaunch as part of this program?

You're referencing some of the training and additional exam prep that was part of it. Are there, were there other aspects of it that were helpful to you in transitioning back? And were you with a group of people or were you on your own during this process?

Felicia Williams: Sure, I could talk a little bit more about that. It was a, what we call, what they called a cadre of us. There were 14 other ladies, a total of 15. At the time, it was all ladies. A few, some of our future cadres actually had some gentlemen in them. But my cadre was all women who were returning to work. Some had been out of the workforce as long as 20 years like me.

They basically assigned us to immediately let us start shadowing advisors, calls, sitting in on team meetings, getting acclimated to systems and technology, which for some that had been out of the workforce a little bit longer as you can imagine was a bigger, more uphill learning curve. For me, it was a little bit easier in that I had only been out of the workforce for a couple of years, and I had still had to use technology in my pursuit of the CFP. And they also allowed us after a few weeks to start studying for the first of those, I had to end up taking three additional exams in order to fully launch as an advisor, and they allowed us to do the 12 week program to take one of those.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's a lot of exam taking and studying.

Felicia Williams: It is.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. So you go through this program with a group of people, you're studying for these exams, you're taking them, you're shadowing, and then when the program ends, what do you do right out of the program and is there a community of people who have been going through the Vanguard program who you're in touch with, because we know, we've been involved with this program since its inception, so it's been running for a long time.

Felicia Williams: So at the end of the program, for those that met the criteria and passed that first exam, we were given offers through the company, we were able to reach out to former return to workers at Vanguard, talk about the experience, talk about a day in the life, and they had come in actually during the program and had one on ones with us, lunch and learns, and things of that nature, but we were able to basically vet the company a little bit more.

I personally, took upon myself to talk to some of the leaders. I wanted to understand, the pathway of going what I'll call the individual contributor route versus even potentially with my leadership experience, if there were any avenues that I could consider on the management side of things, and if that would still allow me to get the work experience requirements that I needed to get my license, because remember I said just passing that exam was just a one part of the process. I still had to get at least two to three years of work experience that was relevant to the financial planning industry in order to get my actual license. So I just obtained my license on Valentine's Day of this year of 2024.

It was a long process.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's a multi year process. Well, congratulations. That's a huge milestone.

Felicia Williams: And after talking to, just to finish out the answer to that question, I don't know if I answered it fully, but after talking to former return to workers, we were allowed to accept our offers and pick a start date.

And I'm going to sound like a broken record, but I do think it's important for those that may be re entering the workforce. I took, instead of starting right away, I took another month off and that was again, just making sure that I was taking care of what I needed in this relaunch process.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And so you take the month off, you come on board. I know that you continue to take these exams, but are you interacting with clients or do you have to wait until you have passed all the exams in order to do that?

Felicia Williams: So there were a couple more exams. We were actually able to shadow calls and go through acting like we were on a team, but not officially taking client calls for another, I started in May of 2022, I wasn't able to start taking calls until September. Because I had to train, and they gave you like a month for each one. You have to take those tests, pass them. And then I, so I started in May of 2022, and I didn't launch into the what's called, new to advice training, until August of 2022.

And then a few weeks after training started, even though we were still in training. I was able to start taking client calls in September of 2022.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to be a wealth advisor and when you're taking client calls, what are the conversations that you have and why do people come to you to help them with their financial planning?

Felicia Williams: That's the most favorite part of my job. And that's why I do what I do is to help clients in meeting their financial goals. Everyone's goal is different. It depends on their life, their history with money, their financial biases and other things that they might come to the table with, but I basically, it's, think of it as a discovery.

Our initial conversations with clients are discovering, they want to discover more about Vanguard and what the personal advisory services offers are that we have at Vanguard, and I want to find out more about them, what their goals and objectives are, and then, if the two seem like a good fit, then we progress towards building financial plans for them and walking them through that and then getting them to sign up for the service.

But a lot of that initial conversation is discovery and finding out more about what their goals are and if they're a good fit for our service.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And you just got a promotion. So I want to know.

Felicia Williams: I did.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes. Congratulations.

Felicia Williams: Thank you.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Can you tell us a little bit more about that? So what, how long were you in your other role and what is the new role and what is different about it? What does it mean to be, to get this promotion?

Felicia Williams: So I started officially as an employee in May of 2022. One of the requirements to get promoted is that you have to have your CFP license. So you have to be certified by the board in order to go to the high net worth group. And the reason that is, is essentially, on the, in the other group that I launched into, it's called our Mass Affluent group. You are servicing clients that have anywhere, and this is all public on our website, a minimum of 50,000 of assets. So those clients, we serve them on a, service them on a team model. So anyone on our team can service those clients.

In the group that I got promoted to on April 1st, I'm a dedicated advisor. So a lot of the methodology, the discovery, all of, a lot of what I described to you before is similar, except I'm now working with higher net worth clients that have a half a million dollars or more invested with us and managed by us at Vanguard, and I'm servicing them in the capacity as their dedicated advisor.

So to be that dedicated advisor for that family or that individual, I have to be as the advisors on our team have to be certified financial planners. So that's primarily it. I'm just working more personally with clients and I am their advisor as opposed to when they have follow up meetings on the other team, you could get assigned to whoever was first available.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I see. All right. Thank you. That's very helpful. I just want to jump back briefly to the community of Return to Work alumni inside Vanguard. Are you all viewed as ambassadors for the program, internally and externally? And, are you now in a position where you're one of the mentors or advisors to the new people coming in?

Felicia Williams: I would say, internally we're definitely ambassadors. We have internal chats that we welcome all new return to workers as they're coming on board and it's a way that they know they can reach out at any time. If they're struggling with a client situation or have a question and they don't feel comfortable asking someone on their team or their manager, they know they can chat on that our team's channel and they can get help instantly.

We're, we are, we are our brothers and sisters keepers. We help each other out. It's a community. So that's internally. I also served in the capacity of return to work, we would have office hours for people going new to launch that had just gotten through the licensing and we're launching as new advisors on the team.

We would, I would me and another peer, we served as office hours, the co chairs of that, and they could come in once a week and ask questions. We would show them how to do certain things in the system and so it was a support group that we did for about six months and based on the current capacity and needs of the company we don't know.

We don't have that anymore, but we still have our internal channels that they know how to reach out to us and we can take the time to help them. So I definitely serve as a support in that capacity, being a former office hours leader, and this is my first external opportunity to be an ambassador for the Return to Work program.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh, wow. That's awesome. I'm glad that, that we are the first opportunity to do that. Also, I love the idea that the entire community is connected with each other through teams. I think, that's so important for the newer relaunchers as they're coming on board, and even, as you're moving through the organization, it's almost like having an employee research resource group because you have this common experience together and, and help each other at different points. Felicia, we're running out of time now, and I want to have time to ask you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?

Felicia Williams: Well, I think I may have sounded like a broken record when I talked about the various breakpoints that I mentioned during this relaunching process, but that's what worked for me. So my best piece of advice would be what I would tell my cadre members. Ask for what you need. When you relaunch, it is a major pivot in your life.

It affects you, your family, even your company that you're going to work for. And it's a transition. So your transition may look a little different than mine or your coworker next to you. But remember to ask for what you need. And I'll just give you a personal example of what that looks like for me. So for me, one of the things that I did to ask for what I need, besides taking those intentional breaks that I mentioned, is that, I, about six months ago, because I'm one that naturally likes to help people, I found myself doing all my work and then helping everybody, and it was becoming to be a drain on me.

And so one of the things that I asked for what I needed was to ask for a modified schedule. I'm still working full time. My schedule is still actually the same number of hours, but as you can imagine, being a mother of four, trying to fit in doctor's appointments and other things in between your work day when most of those things like schools and doctor's offices are only open two during working hours during the week and not on the weekends.

I asked if I could flex my schedule on one of the weekdays to move my lunch hour and get off a few hours earlier and then work an hour later on two other days so that it balances out. Like I said, I'm working the same number of hours but you wouldn't imagine the benefit, I mean the, the benefits that that has given me and my family.

I'm able to schedule my children's appointments with their teachers or parent teacher conferences or doctor's appointments on that afternoon each week that I know that I'm going to get off early and can accommodate those things so that I'm not torn in multiple directions. And then I'm still, it actually benefits my clients too because on those other two days I work a little bit later for my clients that are in different time zones and may need to meet after work.

So that's an example of how when I say ask for what you need, ask for what you need to be successful.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I love that advice. I hope everyone's listening closely to that and really takes that to heart, it's so important. Felicia, thank you so much for joining us today. Awesome.

Felicia Williams: Thank you so much for having me, Carol, and thanks to iRelaunch. This is a great idea.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Thanks, Felicia. We really enjoy this podcast, and it was wonderful to have the conversation with you. And thanks to our audience for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co founder of iRelaunch and your host.

Be sure to visit iRelaunch. com to access our many return to work tools and resources. And receive our weekly return to work report featuring career reentry jobs and programs. Make sure to get on our mailing list so you can receive that. Thanks so much for joining us.

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