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Four Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was Starting Out

After a hard workout at the gym, I hit the sauna. A young kid sat next to me. Turns out he was twenty-seven years old, about half my age. A couple of minutes into my steam session, he turned and asked, What would you tell your younger self who is just starting his career? Great question, but one about as easy to answer as the infamous What’s your favorite movie? That said, here are a few things I would tell the world-is-my-oyster younger self.

An image of a deserted road with the word 'success' painted on it

All Roads Can Lead to Successful Careers

Seldom is the road to a successful career a direct route. If you polled those who defined their life of employment as a successful one, many of them would tell you tales of winding roads, alleyways, backstreets, detours, dead ends, U-turns, and redirections. The route they took to get where they are was paved with right and wrong moves, directionally positive steps, and efforts that actually took them further from the destination they hoped to reach. But all these career heroes have one thing in common: they just kept moving toward what they envisioned for themselves. They refused to let a “wrong” move stop them from making another move. They believed missteps are never final steps. Allow me to illustrate my point using my career, which, if I don’t say so myself, evolved in an atypical fashion.

1. My career path commenced with nine years of studying and preparing for the ministry. I obtained a Bachelor of Arts in New Testament Studies and a Master of Arts degree in Theological Studies, learned how to read biblical Greek so I could interpret Scripture for myself, served as a youth minister, hosted countless bible studies, and taught in Sunday school. Eventually, I pastored a church, albeit that was short-lived.

2. Next, I worked as a manager at Bank of America and oversaw a vault operation in its corporate trust division. After a few years there, the bank sold that business unit, and my job was relocated to Minnesota. I chose not to make that move.

3. With my ministry aspirations in the rearview window and my job at the bank being relocated to Minnesota, I began to look for another job. I interviewed with one of the largest staffing companies in the country and accepted a position as a sales associate, finding jobs for those seeking accounting and finance positions. I have remained in the staffing industry ever since.

Careers Are a Complex Web of Components

It’s important to remember that careers are complex, made of a cluster of components. Your career will be comprised of a composite of decisions made over a span of years---jobs you take because they pay more than the job you are in, an opportunity that promises greener grass on the other side of the hill, or an unexpected phone call from someone you once worked with, for example.

Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines complex in a nuanced fashion. It derives from a Latin word and means “to weave and to braid.” In other words, that which is complex consists of interlaced strands that form a more intricate pattern, like a stylish hair braid or boat rope. Another way to look at it is like this: careers are Frankenstein-like, stitched jointly with various parts to form something greater---and stronger---than each part can be separately.

As strange as it may seem, maybe even improbable, my preparation for the ministry and time at the bank were strands woven into what has now been a thirty-year career in professional services. Sometimes I ponder the evolution of my career and wonder how someone with a Master of Arts degree in Theological Studies ended up finding jobs for CPAs and MBAs. In my case, someone saw the progression before I did.

You Can Build on the Past/Skills Are Transferrable

A scenario like mine can happen when, and if, you recognize in yourself---or someone recognizes in you---transferrable skills. The staffing industry stage of my career kicked off because Michelle Patterson, Branch Manager of Robert Half International’s downtown Los Angeles office, saw a relationship between the skills I cultivated for the ministry and selling professional services. During my interview with her, she deduced having a “message” to share with others was important to me and convinced me to make RHI’s service offerings my new message. So I did, and after a period of time, became the top producer in the office. Michelle’s genuine curiosity about my backstory led to the discovery that parts of me---the skills, talents, and gifts that had blossomed and been bestowed on me---could be applied elsewhere, within another role.

My encounter with her forever changed the trajectory of my career.

A busy office atrium with people rushing around

Never Underestimate the Importance of Encounters

My career path was blazed by a combination of hard work, providence, luck, and intuition. Along the way, I did my best to ascertain why certain doors opened, and other closed, and I gave thought to why, at particular moments in time, certain people entered my life. Were they chance encounters?

Were these people 'sent' to me?

I’m not smart enough to answer these questions, nor do I fully understand that unseen powers may be at work behind the scenes. All I know is I am grateful for the encounters that significantly contributed to the person and professional I have become.

My achievements were not solo efforts, and my story would read differently if not for the input and influence of a small crop of people: George Davis, a youth pastor extraordinaire; the aforementioned Michelle Patterson; Ken Montgomery, a former co-worker who recommended me for a job that changed everything; Enola Lipaz, a preeminent recruiter who convinced a group of CPAs and MBAs to hire a theologian to do business development for them; Sandra Bensworth, my business partner who called me one day and suggested we start our own firm and call it BF Consultants; and Joe Amella, the former CEO of Accretive Solutions, who purchased BF Consultants.

If you forget everything else I’ve written, remember this:

It only takes meeting one right person for your career---and your whole world---to change.

Chris Fontanella is the founder of Encore Professionals Group, a professional services firm specializing in the identification and placement of accounting and finance candidates in temporary and full-time positions. He previously served as Division Director for Robert Half International and Client Service Director for Resources Global Professionals. Prior to entering the staffing industry, Fontanella spent years studying theology and preparing for ministry, having received his bachelor of arts degree in New Testament Studies from Oral Roberts University, and his master of arts degree in Theological Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Jump-Start Your Career: Ten Tips to Get You Going, and Tune Up Your Career: Tips & Cautions for Peak Performance in the Workplace. Learn more at


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