Damian Birkel is a Certified Career Consular and Life Coach. He has built a successful career in marketing management over a 22-year period with leading Fortune 500 corporations, including Sara Lee Corporation, Dillard’s Department Stores (Higbee’s), and Macy’s (The May Company). He’s also the Founder of Professionals in Transition ®, which is a national non-profit organization founded in 1992 to assist downsized employees. Over the 30 years of the organization, it’s estimated that Professionals in Transition ®, has served over 10,000 people both online and in-person.
Nationally recognized for its unique program, Professionals in Transition® has been highlighted in numerous printed and electronic publications including AARP, UpJourney, Fortune, MSN, Forbes, Tribune Content Agency, The New Yorker, Chicago Tribune, Investor’s Business Daily, Melbourne, Australia TKR News, Local affiliates WGHP – Fox News; WXII – Hearst/NBC, and many others national and international media.
Damian is also the recipient of the National Jefferson Award for outstanding public service. He has also written widely about career topics in numerous publications and is the author of three books. You can see him broadcast on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter weekly with Mark Anthony Dyson every Friday at 1:00 PM.
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Table of Contents
Thank you so much for giving us your time! Before we begin, could you introduce yourself to our readers and take us through what exactly your company does and what your vision is for its future?
Damian Birkel: In my career, I literally have gone from: “Pots & Pans,” to “Mops, Brooms, & Brushes” to “Bras and Panties” and finally to a “Career Counseling, Author, and Nonprofit Founder.” It all started in a small trailer outside of a new May Company Cleveland (now Macy”s) with a sign that said: “Now Hiring.” I got the job, and over a 7-year period worked myself up from a Cashier to Cookware Buyer.
After 7 promotions in 7 years, my newly minted boss put me on probation and said he was going to fire me in 90 days. He had been quietly documented what he perceived were performance issues for several months. In most cases, they were either personal, provoked, passing the buck, or exaggerated. He conveniently waited until a Friday night at 6 PM. When he explained that there was nothing I could do to change my performance or the outcome, he ended by saying: “and I just wanted to tell you tonight, before you went on vacation.”
The funny thing was, that while I was on “probation,” I received Buyer of the Month for selling the greatest number of one product in the entire department store and Outstanding Buyer for the highest increase in sales. As things turned out, my job loss had very little to do with me. Over time, every Buyer that I worked with and had the same boss lost their job. However, 12 years later, who do you think called me looking for resume and career advice?
All of the developments above were of little comfort to me. I had only known hard work, excellent business relationships, continuous improvement, and ongoing success. I failed about after losing my job. I had a wife with a very young child, 2 car payments, credit card bills, utilities, and a mortgage, Confused, Angry, Ashamed, and Deeply Wounded, I realized that I needed to find a job quickly, but didn’t know how.
After 3 months of intense struggle, a vendor called and arranged for me to interview at Higbee’s (now Dillard’s). I Got the Job!
After only 3 years, I was recruited by the Sara Lee Corporation to join Fuller Brush. But then, after only 3 years, Fuller Brush was sold, and ** I found myself looking for a job AGAIN. ** But, this time I was in a new city, 500 miles from my home. I had traveled 60% of the time and other than my workmates didn’t know a soul. Now all of us were out on the street.
I quickly mailed out 500 letters, got 50 responses, 5 interviews, and no job. The Emotional Impact of my job loss was devastating. It seemed like I could do nothing right, and boy were they talking about me back in Cleveland. I felt like the Village Idiot and a laughingstock; with “Loser” tattooed to my forehead and “Will Work For Food” tattooed to my chest. At my lowest point, I went to church and promised that I would never forget what it was like to be unemployed. After an excruciating job search, I was invited to interview in a different Sara Lee Division, which is how I got into bra’s and panties. Professionals In Transition is that promise kept.
At Professionals In Transition, we provide Hope, Help, Networking, Emotional & Job Searching Support fueled by state-of-the-art tips, tools, and techniques. We meet on Thursday nights, so our volunteers (who all have jobs) can return to the local Red Cross return to help and support those who are out of work. We are fortunate to have a wide and diverse member base. In addition to our core client (40 to 60 years old; college+) we’ve had forklift operators, security guards, lawyers, nurses, retired army colonels, and many more, Over the years we have had husbands and wives; mothers and daughters; fathers and sons; grandparents and grandchildren.
Our plans for the future?
Continue to increase in-person attendance over the next 12 months, while maintaining our current Zoom audience. We have found that our “secret sauce;” which is the emotional support, care, love, empathy, feeling of community, networking, input, assistance, loneliness busting, and the weekly energy boost members receive when they attend in-person; doesn’t quite translate as effectively online. The emotional “secret sauce” does make it through the internet, but it’s diluted significantly.
Zoom has been fantastic throughout the pandemic and has been a great way to pump out much-needed job search tips, tricks, and job opportunities. It has allowed us to preserve and serve our members. In addition, it has brought back to the group members from throughout the organization’s history, including one Florida-based alumni member that was at our first meeting in 1992! We are also planning to improve and expand services including rebuilding our website https://www.jobsearching.org
NO child ever says I want to be a CEO/entrepreneur when I grow up. What did you want to be and how did you get where you are today?
Damian Birkel: I grew up during the 60’s. I vividly remember when John Glenn make history. Both he and I were from Ohio, That day was when I wanted to become an astronaut. I hungrily watched the Apollo program and the landing on the moon. Then I started to find out how much math was required. About then I realized that I probably wasn’t going to make it into the NASA program.
I got to where I am today by embracing what my favorite boss taught me when I was a Junior Executive. Iv’e added to them as I have matured. Ed’s Rules:
- No Excuses
- No Whining
- What goes around; comes around
- Life is not an exact science
Tell us something about yourself that others in your organization might be surprised to know.
Damian Birkel: I enjoy both watercolor and acrylic painting. I’m also a “news junkie.”
Many readers may wonder how to become an entrepreneur but what is an entrepreneur? How would you define it?
Damian Birkel: An entrepreneur sees a need that others don’t. Then, provide answers in the form of a new product to address that unmet need.
However, sometimes the product is intangible. I don’t see Professionals In Transition as a product. Rather, it is the outcome of the need for a job search organization that provided information, networking and job leads in a safe and confidential environment. There was no such thing in our region, so I started the non-profit organziation.
What is the importance of having a supportive and inclusive culture?
Damian Birkel: Diversity and Inclusion are a Lifestyle Choice; not some corporate platitude. Establishing, Supporting, and Empowering Diversity creates a unique differential advantage and creates a corporate culture that becomes the most critical element for long-term success.
How can a leader be disruptive in the post covid world?
Damian Birkel: I’d say:
- Listen to your people. Know their names.
- Manage by walking around.
- Say what you mean. Mean what you say.
- Watch for trends way outside your industry. Then ask: “what does this mean for our industry?”
- Get away from your computer and into the community.
- Show up when least expected.
- Allow your people to experiment and “fail forward.”
- Award creativity on every level.
If a 5-year-old asked you to describe your job, what would you tell them?
Damian Birkel: I help people find jobs faster.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Damian Birkel: The American Red Cross closed all buildings and provided less than 2 weeks’ notice. Everything was closing down in town, and we had to scramble to convert all in-person activities to Zoom. Many other support groups went out of business because of Covid. What made the decision(s) so difficult was the short time frame, the need to inform all constituents that we were going to begin meeting online, making sure the office was set up safely/correctly, and learning all of the new programs (like Zoom) to be able to do business. The positive impact is that we were able to stay in business and convert to Zoom support group meetings.
Leaders are usually asked about their most useful qualities but let’s change things up a bit. What is your most useless talent?
Damian Birkel: My most useless talent is anything doing with complex Excel sheets. I can read them, analyze and interpret them, but could never create them.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, we do have one more question. If you wrote a book about your life until today, what would the title be?
Damian Birkel: “My Great Adventure”
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Damian Birkel for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Damian Birkel or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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