Figure Out What's Next

Using Her Sense of Humor to Build a Portfolio Career

alfred gingold career change May 22, 2009
woman laughing

by Alfred Gingold

photo via pixabay

Sue Burton Kirdahy left her successful career as a financial marketer to follow her passion for laughter

After some twists and turns, she has built an exhilarating portfolio career as a humorist and creative consultant.

Right out of college, Sue Burton Kirdahy fell into financial-services marketing and, from the get-go, she loved it. She loved the intellectual demands, the brokering of big deals, the extensive travel, and the chess-like challenge of climbing the corporate ladder. But she also craved creative pursuits—writing, theater, humor—that had less of an outlet at work, so at night she took classes in those areas. One class was a course in stand-up comedy. For the class final, she had to prepare a five-minute stand-up routine and perform it in a comedy club. To her surprise, “the exhilaration and endorphins I felt coming off that stage were like nothing I had ever experienced.” She had always been “the kid who cracked up all the others at the bus stop,” but she had never imagined that doing comedy intentionally as an adult would provide so much pleasure.

Over the next thirteen years Sue thought about that experience repeatedly, but she never took it any further. “I can’t be performing at midnight at some Chinese restaurant and then go into a big meeting the next morning,” she said. But nonetheless, she put “stand-up comedy” on every resume. It seemed an important part of her identity, and often a hiring manager’s reaction was a good barometer of whether or not she’d fit into that company’s environment.

A Realization: Time for a Change

By the time she was in her thirties, Sue’s enthusiasm for her career had begun to wane. She’d gotten married and had children and was cultivating other interests. Although she was busier than ever—traveling, working sixty hours a week, leading a staff of twenty-five—she began taking more and more classes, even retaking the comedy class she had taken thirteen years before. The mismatch between her “real” self and her work self was becoming starker. In late 2003, in an effort to build its female leadership, Sue’s company had her work with a career coach. “As part of the coaching I went through a process to uncover my core values and look at how my life was in or out of line with them. Well, the values I uncovered were creativity, acceptance, and humor, and when I matched that to my day-to-day existence at the company, I was pretty far out of alignment.” Sue realized she had to leave.

But how could she leave? Her salary provided 85 percent of the family income as well as the medical benefits. She couldn’t just go off and start a business or find a low-paying job in the arts or social services. Hoping for a compromise, she proposed that the company create a new role of “innovation catalyst,” which would allow her more creative freedom and positive impact. But ultimately the company wasn’t able to meet her request. Instead it asked her to lead an employee engagement campaign that consisted of trying to boost employee morale while strategizing downsizing alternatives and reviewing lists of people who were about to be laid off. It was the antithesis of what she wanted to be doing. So in March 2005 she handed in her resignation. She had managed to negotiate a severance package that would pay her salary and benefits for six more months. That gave her a six-month runway to get a new career—whatever it was—off the ground.

The Challenge: What Change?

What could that career be? For a businesswoman with an interest in creativity, what kind of jobs were even available? Perhaps TV production? TV producers brought together resources to bring creative ideas to fruition. That might use her expertise and business skills in a new context—but she didn’t know the first thing about it. So she reached out to friends, family, and colleagues, asking if anyone knew any producers. Remarkably, several did and she was able to set up informational interviews to learn about the field. A friend of a friend was even able to get her an interview with a high-level ABC executive producer who met with her in his New York office. “If you were twenty-two,” he said, “I could hire you as my assistant, but you’ve already had a very successful career and we’ll both feel extraordinarily awkward if you’re making coffee and dubbing videos.” She left discouraged—too old and needing too much money to start over in the world of TV.

Then she learned that she could vocation at Brave Street Productions, a TV production company in New York. Thrilled that she could experience a TV career firsthand, she signed up, and for two days worked with producers Russell Best and Tammy Leech, developing pitch treatments, preparing interviews, editing videotape, reviewing concepts, and setting up location shoots. It was exhilarating and it was exhausting, and by the end of the second day she knew it wasn’t the job for her. She had loved the front-office work—writing pitches and packaging shows—but she had no interest in the mechanics of production or in being on a shoot. Helpfully, Russ brainstormed other paths she might pursue that would use her business experience and creative talent: perhaps she could be a development executive; perhaps she could package shows and take them to Wall Street to find investors. She was grateful for his suggestions; those were ideas she never would have thought of.

Rekindling a Passion

Meanwhile, Sue had begun actively pursuing comedy again. Shortly after she quit her job she had worked up her courage and gone to an “open mike” at a local comedy club. It was terrifying to get up onstage, but once again, coming off, she felt that endorphin high. In the weeks after that, she had gone to other clubs, met local comics, and begun doing semi-regular stage time. As a result, when Russ suggested that she go to a “boot camp” held by the National Association of TV Program Executives where she would be able to pitch an idea for a program, she knew exactly what she wanted to pitch. Working with the comics she had met, she wrote a pitch for a TV sitcom called Open Mike, about the trials and tribulations of a band of small-town comedians. To her surprise, when she presented it at the boot camp, executives from two cable networks asked her to create a demonstration pilot. With further advice from Russ and help from a local cable access director, she and her comedian colleagues taped a ten-minute pilot. Ultimately it wasn’t picked up, but she was thrilled to have experienced the development process firsthand. She’d been out of work for eighteen weeks, she wasn’t close to finding a job—but for the first time in a decade she felt she was following her heart and moving ahead under her own creative power.

The Network Comes Through

When there were two months to go before her salary and benefits ran out, she got a surprising phone call. She had made a point of staying in touch with people from her former career, letting them know what she was doing, and now the marketing director at another financial-services company called to ask her to help produce TV commercials on a freelance basis; the pay would be close to what she had been previously making. Sue leaped. It wasn’t her dream career—the work was about financial services rather than her own creative product—but it was a perfect opportunity to combine her former experience with all that she had learned and it was less than full-time, which would leave her time to continue to explore other options. 


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