Career Q&A with Tami Forman, Chief Executive at Path Forward (#11)

The next Career Q&A is with Tami Forman. Tami offers great insight into the power of setting low expectations (yes, you read that right), how our obsession with “passion” can lead us astray, and how having a child helped give her confidence in her career.

Tami M. Forman is the chief executive of Path Forward, a nonprofit organization that creates mid-career internship programs to ease the transition back to work for women (and men) after taking a break for raising children or other caregiving responsibilities. Before founding Path Forward, Tami spent a decade as a tech marketing executive with data solutions provider, Return Path. Before that she worked in book publishing at Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin and held senior-level web editorial positions at iVillage and News Corporation. She is a frequent speaker on issues related to women’s participation in the workforce, writes a career column for Forbes, and was named by Flexjobs as one of the top 20 career experts for working moms. Tami lives in New York City with her husband and two kids, aged 10 and 12. 

What’s a book that has influenced your career or life, and why? 

I am a big fan of Laura Vanderkam, especially her book on working women titled I Know How She Does It. She offers different ways to think about our relationship to time which, especially in a knowledge job, is really helpful for breaking out of old habits around work and life. I don’t believe women or men should have to choose between a fulfilling career and a life. Vanderkam’s work offers frameworks that help you figure out how to make that idea a reality. 

Was there an experience you had before age 21 that shaped who you are? What was it? 

My parents are not college graduates so, for me, college was a very disorienting experience. It was very apparent to me that many of the kids around me had access to a set of unwritten rules and practices that I had to figure out. And that carried over when I entered the corporate world. Because my parents didn’t have professional jobs I am not a native to the folkways of corporate culture. Much like an immigrant to a new land I’ve had to learn the customs and language without the benefit of having grown up in it. I think it’s made me resilient and given me the confidence to take a leap into the unknown—I know I can figure things out.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours? 

I started out my career in media—book publishing and then digital media—and I didn’t do great in that field. Part of it was loving books and writing is not enough to carry you through a career. But also, it was a world I just didn’t fit into. Part of it was being a corporate “immigrant”—I didn’t understand how the white-collar world worked in general. But media, specifically, is an industry where a lot of emphasis is placed on where you went to school, what neighborhood you live in, and what connections you have. Some people are able to overcome that and find a way to fit in—or find a way to stand out!—but I couldn’t really do either of those. Took me awhile to figure out that it just wasn’t the right fit. 

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? 

I would say, “Just start somewhere.” So many of us starting out want to pick the “right” job to lead to the “right” career but there’s no way to really know if you are good at something or will like it unless you start doing it. Take a job that seems aligned with your interests and then go from there. I generally tell people to ignore the advice to “Find your passion.” If you really have a passion you will know it and you really won’t even have a choice but to follow it. But most of us have a lot of different interests and could fit well in any number of careers. Our obsession with “passion” can lead people down dead end roads. 

What are the bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

Along the same lines as “find your passion,” I really hate when people say “Do what you love and the money will follow” and “Love what you do and you will never work a day in your life.” First, there are lots of things people love doing that simply do not pay well. Second, I love my job and there are days that are hard and awful. Work is still … work. Expecting to love every minute, and get paid handsomely for loving that super gratifying, totally fulfilling work, is just setting people up for massive disappointment.

I believe in keeping relatively low expectations. You can have big goals and still not have such ridiculous expectations that you are almost guaranteed to be disappointed. By the way, this is also where I think my upbringing helps me out. I have already far exceeded all expectations I could have imagined for my life—at this point everything is really gravy. 

If you could go back in time to when you were entering the workforce and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be? 

“Your first job won’t be your last job.” I knew that, of course. In 1993 there was no longer an expectation that you’d spend your whole career at one company. But I still think I was too worried about making a bad choice. I wish I’d embraced the idea of exploring different jobs earlier in my career. The idea of design thinking—trying something, figuring out what is working and what is not and then tweaking—is something I came to later. But if I’m being kind to my younger self I have to admit that it’s easier to feel comfortable with the idea of experimenting when you have had some success and seen things work out!

What’s one of your proudest professional accomplishments? 

I’m really proud of starting Path Forward from scratch. We’ve now worked with 70 companies, including large employers like Walmart, SAP and HPE, we’ve seen more than 400 people employed through our returnship program and we’ve truly established ourselves as experts in our part of the workforce development space. And everything I’ve done in the last 4.5 years is something I had never done before which makes these accomplishments feel even more incredible.

I think part of the courage to do that came from having to figure out a lot in college and my early career. But the final push that convinced me that I could really do anything I wanted to do was having children. Babies are the ultimate start-up experience. The hospital sends you home with one and says “Good luck!” And as soon as you start to get good at your job, it changes. More moms should start businesses. We are experts at figuring things out and learning on the job.  

What’s something unexpected that has happened in your career, and how have you responded? 

I never expected to start and run a nonprofit! I was working in corporate communications at a private software company when the HR department decided to start a returnship program to bring former stay-at-home mothers back into the workforce. I thought it was a great idea and as the head of PR I also felt it was a great story! We got an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. That led to other companies becoming interested in what we were doing and looking for support and consulting.

Eventually our CEO, Matt Blumberg, felt like the program could have a big impact as a nonprofit to work with employers to create more of these programs. When he told me his idea it was as if a light bulb went off over my head—I thought “I have to be a part of this.” I’d never thought about becoming an entrepreneur. But the cause felt so important to me. And I like the challenge of doing things I’ve never done before. 

Since entering the workforce, how have you changed or transformed? 

There is a scene in the third season of The Crown where the Queen is lamenting the new image of her as an older woman and someone refers to her as “the settled sovereign.” I found that to be such a compelling phrase, noting the complete lack of humility I may be showing by comparing myself to the Queen of England! But that phrase is a good way to explain how I feel now—I feel settled. I know what I know, I know what I don’t know and can figure out how to learn it. I also know what I’m good at and feel far more comfortable not trying to be “perfect.” I don’t feel the need to “appear” confident—I am confident. I feel like I have a firm foundation on which to build the next phase of my career—which feels very exciting. I know I can make mistakes and recover from them. I don’t feel as focused on what I might lose so I can stay more focused on what my team and I can win. 

When have you felt stuck in your career? How did you break out of it or push forward?

I definitely felt stuck when I was in media. I’d love to tell some great story about having a grand epiphany, quitting media in a dramatic fashion after having landed a great new job and riding off into the sunset. In fact, I got laid off. It was the beginning of 2003, the economy was still rocky after the dot-com bust and I lost my job at News Corporation. I spent six months looking for a job—any job—in media. But it was a rough time and I actually ended up losing out on three jobs to people I knew! It felt like the walls were closing in. I then landed at Return Path—a small software company where I ultimately became the VP of Corporate Communications. The rest is history! Sometimes the universe really does need to give you a shove. 

Who is one person, dead or alive, who you admire? Why do you admire them? 

Julia Child. I’ve read her biography and also the autobiography that she started and was finished by her nephew. Interestingly the biography is much more hagiographic. But I have a few reasons I love her. First, she is a late bloomer. She didn’t even take her first cooking class until she was 38 years old! She was in her 50s when she became the star we all came to know and love. When I was struggling in my early career I kept reminding myself that not everyone is a wunderkind. Second, she was an unapologetically ambitious woman. That really comes through in her autobiography—she was very driven and she wasn’t always nice about it! I admire that—we don’t expect men to be “nice” on the road to success. In the waning days of my media career I was working as a food editor and I got to talk to her on the phone. It was late in her life and she wasn’t well but it was such a thrill to talk to her! And she was quite humble. She said she “got lucky,” in her career, which, while true, is clearly not the whole story. 

What habit or practice helps you manage stress? 

I get up early every morning and go on a 3-mile walk. It gets me moving, clears my head and gives me an instant feeling of accomplishment. I also have dinner every night with my family. This is much easier now that we are in quarantine, but even when I commuted I prioritized getting home for dinner. Sitting around the table and reconnecting over a shared meal recharges me. 

For more Career Q&As, click here, or you can check out my monthly newsletter and podcast.