Escaping the 9 to 5 with Valentina Coco
As a former corporate leader at Fortune 500 companies and with over 15 years of managing teams, Valentina helps leaders and managers create support systems for people to perform at their best — driving results and innovation. Her goal is to create inclusive teams, support real connections, and lay the groundwork so change can happen. She also believes in continuous learning and the power of mentoring, coaching, and reading as much as she can. As a runner, she sees inclusion and diversity in the workplace as similar to the last 10KM of a marathon. The goal is almost unthinkable when you start. But it’s achievable.
*Resources mentioned during the episode*
Level up with The Outsiders Business Accelerator – This is a mastermind for entrepreneurs, freelancers and small business owners who want to create a long-term sustainable brand and business. www.onestepoutside.com/accelerate
Anna: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to this month’s career transitions interview, which is with Valentina Coco. Now, Valentina and I have been working together for some time. I know her from my previous life, and I’m really thrilled to be able to share her journey with you today. So, Valentina, why don’t you tell us what were you doing before and what are you doing now?
Valentina: Well, first of all, thank you, Anna, for having me on the podcast. And well, we’ve known each other for a while. What I was doing before. So, I started my career in Procter & Gamble where we met. And well, when I started, I was doing data analytics and insights and reporting, and then I transitioned more into a corporate finance role. So, for about 15 plus, almost 17 years, I’ve had different position and different roles, of course, at different level, you know the famous corporate ladder in finance, in corporate finance, planning and analysis, supply chain finance operations, and all of that in different corporations, usually mid to big size American based corporations here in Switzerland or abroad for a while as well. So, that’s what I used to do.
And as I said, I transitioned, what was it? Last year officially? I mean, we’ve been working together for about two years, because initially I was more thinking about following my purpose and my passion as a side hustle, as a side job, as you often do. And spending a lot of my time mentoring and coaching people and organisations and student groups and startups, you name it, in different faces and in different programmes with regards of leadership. So, I’ve always been supporting teams in terms of team engagement and team effectiveness, and then people, when it comes to leadership, inclusion and diversity, especially it’s the area that I’m more passionate about. So, we’re not talking about leadership, as in how to get the next promotion, although that’s very important as well and I understand that.
But for me, it’s always been about how can we make our team feel psychologically safe. How can we make the team feel included? How can we make them feel engaged? How can we can create balance? How can we eliminate those famous microaggressions from the workplace, our unconscious bias, and all of that? I guess, before it became a trendy important relevant topic. And then since the end of last year, I’ve actually, as I said, left the corporate world, the step, and now I’m doing this as my full time job, basically on my own.
Anna: Yeah. And as you said, very important and timely. Yeah. So, you mentioned, and I think a lot of people do initially think maybe it’s a side hustle and you even, I believe, looked into changing internally to a role that was closer to your passion. So, what was it that led you finally to go, no, actually I’m going to take the leap and I’m going to try to pursue this as my full time passion and purpose?
Valentina: A few things. First of all, I tried internally and I have to say, I don’t know that I would’ve gone out of the corporate world if my internal change would’ve worked. Because I wanted to do something similar internally and it didn’t work, because I didn’t have the right profile and several other things. And again, If that had worked, maybe I would’ve stayed. I don’t know if I would’ve taken the risk to say no, I’m going to go and do it myself, because doing it internally for an organisation, it would’ve been closer to what I wanted to do right. But I didn’t get it. And for me, the real change has been during the pandemic. And I have to say, I’ve been one of those people that during the pandemic rethought her whole career and priority and got a dog, as you might hear some barking in the background. So, I’m too out of free on the pandemic bingo.
And for me, it was really this thought about if I’m spend so much time at work in my 9:00 to 5:00 job, which realistically speaking at a certain level in corporate, it’s not 9:00 to 5:00 anymore, it’s more of a 9:00 to 7:00, 9:00 to 8:00, sometimes 8:00 to 8:00. And then I was spending regularly a good 10 to 15 hours a week pursuing my purpose and my passion through volunteering and all of this no profit. Pro bono for free consulting I was doing. It left no time for my actual life. And during the pandemic, I had to reevaluate. I mean, what am I doing here? What are the priorities? What do I need to let drop? Why am I exhausting myself with all of these hours of work, plus volunteering of free work, let’s call it however we want, and family and studies and every else? I mean, if something is got to go, what is the thing that gives me the least fulfilment in life?
I did the whole find your why coaching. That purpose, it’s really important to me. And I just look back and I’m like, well, actually my current desk job is what leaves me completely unexcited. It doesn’t meet my purpose. Yes, it provides a very good salary, but it doesn’t add any value to myself as a person, not anymore. It was really a opposite direction of what I wanted to do, also, because being in finance, I guess, during the crisis usually implies a lot of hard decision. You are the person in finance, working on the unpleasant project, the restructuring and those things. And I just was tired of doing that.
Yeah, I can do it and I can do it very well, I just don’t want to. And reevaluating my priorities and the time, as I said, the pandemic made me realise that it wasn’t worth it just for the so-called financial safety, to spend all that time doing something that really wasn’t where my purpose was headed.
Anna: And that’s so interesting, as you said, because work is such a huge amount of our energy and time. So, to be able to uncover that, that then isn’t, as you said, giving you energy and excitement. So, no amount of volunteering and family stuff and running, exercise, whatever can compensate for that. And I thought it was interesting as well, as you said, it was hard to transition internally because I think a lot of us, if we could find the dream role internally, that would tick all the boxes for us maybe. But as you said, it wasn’t possible.
What’s exciting is when we build our own brand and business, we don’t have to have the typical background because actually we’re establishing our credibility and demonstrating that in other ways. We don’t have to necessarily have followed the exact kind of robotic career path. I guess, what were the challenges then? Obviously, this has been a long time in the making and it’s interesting, as you said, that you’re part of the big trend of the pandemic, but what for you, would’ve been the hardest things about this process so far?
Valentina: For me, the hardest thing has been my internal subeditor, let’s say, so my internal mindset. I could have taken my business seriously from the very beginning. And I think fear of failure, fear of success, I don’t know what fear it was, but there was definitely an element of fear there that basically led me to procrastinate a lot of work and focus on other things. Because the situation is that given my family situation, I couldn’t necessarily just say, I’m going to be doing this and this only with zero income. So, I had to look for freelancing alternatives to get at least some sort of income, which wasn’t a corporate job, as well as building my brand and the work that was coming with it. And I looked for freelancing activities, which again were closer, maybe not to the exact dream job that I had, which is what I’m doing now, the coaching, the consulting, the mentoring, but still in areas which I enjoyed the most.
And so, I’m the CEO of a startup consulting company for startups, which is fun. But at the beginning, I took two jobs plus mine, both in areas which I really enjoyed and were close to me and my purpose and my values, to create a bit of a stable income and reduce my panic, let’s say, my fears. But that left me without enough time to actually focus on my business. So, basically, I had left the business, I had left the corporate world to say, okay, this is not a side hustle anymore, it has to be a business, but I basically treated it like a hobby for a good seven months afterwards. And so, that shift in mindset from this is not a hobby, this is not something I do for fun. I need to take it seriously. This is a business, I have to grow it.
The same thing I do and the same effort I put on growing other people business, I need to put on mine. That’s been the big change. So, it took a six to seven months until I realised I couldn’t keep three jobs. I had to let one go to be able to focus on mine. And the other one that it’s more organically closed, there’s a lot of referrals and things like that, and then start. And then the second, I think biggest thing has been how to position myself and price myself, I think in a way, because again, as you said, I have a specific set of skills which come from not having the classic profile.
I don’t have the classic profile of the diversity consultants that know about psychology of people and teams or sociology or HR or things like that. My knowledge is in, yes, team management and strategy. I do have my MBA and all of these things, but mostly it’s leafed. It’s from mental health, first aid courses that I did. It’s from managing teams, it’s from leading team, it’s from my own experiences, it’s Ad Hoc courses I took here and there, and then I tried them on other people in those pro bono and free assignments I was doing.
So, how do you quantify that experience? How do you price it? How do you compare yourself to other agencies that maybe have 50 years experience in HR or in people and communication? And what I do, it’s not exactly that. So, finding that niche, as well as finding the way to communicate and understand what it’s worth, it’s been a really steep curve, let’s say.
Anna: There are always the two sides, aren’t they? Because there’s the amazing, distinct uniqueness of you, because you have that background, as you said, which means that there’s no path to follow because you are pioneering by definition, which makes you completely unique and worth so much. But at the same time, because there is no blueprint to follow, you can’t just look to other people. And so, and that makes it hard. And as you said, that kind of catch 22 of I either have the stable income, but no time, or I have a lot of time, but not the income. And we think maybe we’ve taken that decision once to leave the job. But as you say, we quickly latch onto other work, which is good because we need that stability in order to have the creativity and the freedom. But then how do we navigate those choices to balance the purpose with the fun, with the money and so on?
So, I think that’s something that will resonate with a lot of people as well, and certainly has for me. And of course, it’s something we work on in the accelerator. With this internal saboteur and these challenges you’ve had, how have you found the support and the strength to overcome those things and to continue and to learn from that and to move on with the business?
Valentina: Well, mostly through groups and coaching, I mean, to be honest, there were moments where I was about, and you know there were moments where I was about give up and I don’t know how many WhatsApp messages you got from me saying, this makes no sense and I will never succeed and I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m going to give up. And the answer was take a breath and reevaluate in one step at a time, and it’s not going to work tomorrow. And just because it’s taking longer and have you really done this and that. So, I think community has been really good. I mean, having the coaching and the support, it’s been great, I think without I wouldn’t have done it, I would’ve given up, I would’ve latched onto the freelancing work because in a way it gives me that freedom to not be in corporate.
But again, it’s not what, it’s not necessarily my company, my brand, or a hundred percent my passion, but it’s fun. So it would’ve been easier to latch onto that and then realise maybe three years down that I hadn’t grown anything on my business that I had fun and, or I would’ve just given up and just look for a corporate job. Right? So the code coaching has been, I guess, instrumental to not give up and the group. I mean, and by the group, I mean, the people in our group in incubator and accelerator group, knowing that I’m not the only person that is struggling knowing that sometimes I can share the struggles because the struggles I had two months ago and that I have not yet overcome, but I’m working towards, or I’m working to improve are the struggle someone else is having. And so, you know, even that little bit of progress that I’ve made can help someone else.
It, for me, it’s really powerful and really important because, you know, I, I see a, the connection, I see that other people got successful with their definition of success after some time and of years. And even the people I look up to and I admire, and you introduce me to actually one or two of them that I was following on Instagram and things like that had similar struggle at the beginning. So, you know, no, not, not all hope is lost, as you say. And then that’s it just, I mean, some times it’s as simple as having the accountability. I think for me, yes, I’m a very self-driven person. I can give myself my own deadlines and, and stick to it at the same time. I feel like after 15, 16, 17 years in corporate, when you really have to do something, which is something you don’t like, and I’m, I’m open here.
I don’t like all of the aspects of running a business. I mean, my dream is to make enough money so that eventually I can outsource some of them are aspects of running the business, which are really not what I enjoy doing. No, I’m not going to say, but no, but we all have differents of genius. It’s okay. We, we have area of geniuses, you know, and some stuff it’s just, just like, maybe it’s also a limiting belief. I never see myself as a markety or whatever, but, you know, I don’t necessarily love all of it. And think there is the, the corporate mindset that comes, which is, you know, you’ve gotten deadline and you’ve committed to this deadline to someone, so you have to do it. But if that someone is just me, when it’s about giving up hard times or things, which I don’t necessarily enjoy doing it, it’s easier to find reasons not to do it, or I’m really be easy with that other contract.
Or I’m, I’m really busy here and there, but then having a coach or having an accountability partner or something like that gives me that kick that says, well, I never blew off a deadline when I was in corporate. I’m not going to not do the homework because I don’t like it. You know, I think it, it stays with, with you a bit that you have a, that line that comes from above and, and you do it and you do it even if you don’t like it, as opposed to maybe some people which are more entrepreneur and a hundred percent self-driven and self-motivated, I’m, I’m not like that. I do need that accountability, that line from, from outside to, to motivate me when there’s things, which I don’t enjoy or are
Anna: Difficult for me, there is that external accountability and sounding board. And then as you said, what I hear from a lot of people is that they miss the team from working in an organisation and having those mentors and coaches around you, because that’s inevitably built into an organisation. Right. I worked with marketing directors who had decades of experience. So I think it’s, we forget. And we somehow take the leap because we want the freedom and so on, but that it’s so valuable to surround ourselves with those people and to kind of recreate some of those structures that we’re working yeah. With the changes. And I know you said you kind of re really reevaluated everything through the pandemic. What is the best part of the changes you’ve made so far? What are you really enjoying about the lifestyle
Valentina: That I can go running in the middle of the day whenever I want, and I don’t have to schedule my runs and my marathon training at four o’clock in the morning or whatever it is, because I can just take a break when I need to, to go for two or three hours and okay. As long as I’m upfront with the client, and I just schedule the, the calls at a different time, nobody’s going to be wondering where I am. The things are getting done, which they always did even before. Right. And so that, it’s, it’s fun. I have to say, I’m also enjoying the flexibility and the lack of stress from managing the household and the work. And I think this is something which I think in impacts maybe more mothers than, or single parents and than others. I don’t know whoever is the main caretaker in the house.
So I don’t want to be biassed here. But if you are the main caretaker of your kids or your kid in my case, or you’re a single parent, I feel like no matter how flexible your workplace says that they are your company or your, or is when you get the call from the daycare or the school that your kid is sick and you have to go pick them up and you are in the middle of, you have a budget, you have a day, you need to ask. If you can leave the office, all of that, or they’re sick and you can’t go into work, you need to ask, if you can stay at home, you may have the most flexible workplace ever. You still have that degree of stress because it’s still up to someone else to decide, right? And are you then looking less engaged and other employees, which don’t have this type of problems with the family and things like that.
And right now, I don’t have to, you know, report to anybody on this. Most of my clients are any way remote, but even the ones which are in town. If I tell them tomorrow, we’re going to have the meeting remote, sorry, I can’t make you. They don’t need to know if my dollar is sick. They don’t care necessarily the work is getting done as it was even before, but that anxiety level of, oh my God, it’s winter. If one person gets sick, my whole work week is going to get thrown off. You know, I don’t have that. And so it’s a lot easier for me to manage that.
And then I think just as you said, I mean, for me, especially because it’s such a different type of work, I mean, you know, yes, there is a certain satisfaction of finishing a finance project or closing a budget. But for me, person, it’s much, it completely different that when I can run a good workshop with a company about inclusive hiring practises, and then I see how they’re running their interview for the next position open and how they’ve changed their job descriptions and how they’re behaving towards the employees. And they changed its bringing it’s a different level of satisfaction and impact that I see. And that gives me the motivation to just, you know, keep going,
Anna: Do you know, without meaning to do so. You’ve touched on the three things. I always talk about the freedom, the flexibility and the fulfilment. So it’s, you know, the fulfilling work, the freedom to, to run your day and the flexibility. There’s so much important work and I’m following so many people now here on the working on flex appeal and flexibility, and there are changes being made. But as you say, we’ll never have that full autonomy and freedom. And to, to be able to set our own boundaries, to not have that guilt and so on, that comes with really managing our own time or business and choosing clients who respect those boundaries as well. What advice would you give to someone who’s maybe a few steps behind you who is thinking of giving up, who doesn’t see the potential of going all in with their business? What could you give them in terms of advice that they don’t give up so that they follow their dream as you have?
Valentina: I would say, get a coach. Well enough. No, I mean, I didn’t.
No, no, she didn’t tell me to say that, but I mean, call Anna and or if the time zone doesn’t work, which I don’t think that happens ever, but whatever you want to do, I mean, what I’m saying is get support. Yeah. Because sometimes the reason why you think it’s not working, it’s not because it’s not working. It’s not us. The concept is not working. Maybe it’s the marketing. Maybe it’s the words you’re using. I mean, maybe I had a good concept and I was putting it out there in a way, in a way that was making my main, my main target, ideal client as we call it completely defensive. And so they would’ve never, ever clicked on that. Find out more about this because just the way I was talking about it was rubbing them in the wrong way. Again, as I said before, I’m not the marketer, but again, maybe it’s not your concept.
That’s not working. So get a coach, get somebody that can help you with the steps of your business. It’s not, I mean, one of my other coaches used to say, we eat an elephant a piece at the time, love it. It feel, it feels overwhelming, but it’s not. And again, having an ex an expert that can help you fix the things that are not working, your copy, your message, maybe the client, the niche, whatever it is, it’s it can make a, a complete difference. Mm. And then the other thing I would say is though it can, it might feel conflicting, but I’m also really stick. And I’m saying, look, there is no don’t follow under peer pressure on either side. Meaning there’s a lot of talk about entrepreneurship these days because of the crisis, because of whatever, you know, it feels like when I go on, on social media, on Twitter, on, on women networks, everybody is an entrepreneur right now.
Right? And sometimes you can feel like you are not a real entrepreneur. If you are not dropping your job, your side project, you’re freelancing, whatever else you’re doing and going a hundred percent in. And you know, I don’t know, eating Ram noodle, I, whatever it is that they say, right, that this mythology, they becomes almost like uurben myth of, you know, Jeff bases run Amazon out of his, out of his garage for many years, make no money and yes. Okay. But you might not be able to afford it. So don’t fall under the pre a pressure of going all in or all out. I mean, if realistically speaking, you can’t go a hundred percent in because you have a family and you have obligations and you have a market or whatever it is, then find the portion of time that you can dedicate and a way to make the money that you need, but be real with the money that you need. Don’t be like me and say, no, I need X. And X was taking 90% of my time. When in reality I needed half of X. Okay.
And I could free up half of the time to work on the business. So again, it’s okay. If you don’t have the capacity to be a hundred percent immediately find what’s the minimum that you need to cover and ways to cover, which maybe is not your corporate job where you’re not flexible. So find a flexible way to cover for that. And then really stick to the time though, to your business. Because again, I, I, I had a lot of peer pressure of about, you’re not going to, you’re not a real entrepreneur because you are still working for somebody else. And I’m like, you’ll be faster. You’ll grow a hundred times faster. If you can, can do a hundred percent only your business. And then I had to look back and say, yes, and I have also family obligations. And so I’m okay at growing 20 times, fast, 20 X and not a hundred X or 10 X or whatever it is, as long as I’m dedicating the time. And I’m seeing the growth and I have something stable. My mistake was that, as I said, I wasn’t dedicated the time, but I, I also had to go against that kind of bias and, and, and mental limitation and peer pressure that if I don’t do it a hundred percent, I’m not a real business person. I’m I am everybody is. So that’s what I would say.
Anna: Yeah. That’s really not very helpful advice is I think that’s, that’s a really good reminder mean mean when we reject one definition of success in terms of the corporate, the full time job, we’re exploring something else we don’t want to kind of then succumb to this other, the hustling entrepreneur who never sleeps, who risks, everything. It’s just mad on the other end. And as we’re saying, we’re looking for taking those steps and it’s also the black and white thinking. We’re either over here doing our passion, but not only any money all over there doing soul destroying work, but, but really rich, you know, there are so many nuanced steps along the way. And the whole point is for you to design something that works for you and also to, to be in it for the long haul, knowing, yes, it will take time. But in the meantime, you are earning enough, as you say, to take care of you and your daughter, and to, to have the freedom to explore what you actually want to do.
So, yeah, that’s a really important reminder. The point about the coaching now is interesting too, that as you say, it’s easy to just go, oh, nothing’s working. And then you give up entirely and take a job and that’s fine. If that is something you want to do. But as you said, it could be that you haven’t done it long enough to see if it’s working. It could be that there’s something with messaging. It could be that someone who has, you know, is a few steps ahead of you at least can see that externally. So that’s an important reminder too. So don’t give of up just because, you know, we’ve talked about this, we do one webinar and we don’t quite get as much as we hope, but you know, do another webinar or, or tweak the messaging, try again and, and so on. And so really good advice there. Thank you so much. So just
Valentina: Please go ahead. No, I was just saying, or you do a webinar and you get absolutely zero. That’s also happening and it’s happened. And it’s okay. And it’s, as I was told, so please don’t do my don’t. Don’t be like me. And don’t call your coach crying after you do webinar and you have zero signups for the first time. It’s normal, you didn’t get zero,
Anna: But it is, we’ve all been there. And it’s something that we don’t see in the social, because what we see as we see is the tip of the iceberg. We see the so-called overnight success. Whereas people have been, you know, failing for five, 10 years, which we haven’t been seeing. So really important, not you, but obviously to know that it’s happening for others and to yeah. To get the help we need to get there as well. And so be saying, where can we read more about the amazing work you’re doing now, the leadership work that you’re doing?
Valentina: So you can find me at https://www.cococonsulting.ch/ that’s my website. Or you can find me mostly on LinkedIn. So on the website, you can find all about the type of work I do all my interesting blog posts and some of my reflection on teamwork and all of that. But if you want to maybe hear some more random thoughts on team Widing and ideas and whatever latest article I’m reading, I’m mostly active on LinkedIn as well. So you can find as well on LinkedIn.
Anna: Okay. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story and for being so honest. And if, and then as you say, you know, it’ll help so many people who are even just a few steps behind you. So thank you so much for your, your, yeah. Your transparency and your, your wonderful story there. And I look forward to continuing to work with you and to seeing what the next phase holds. So thank you, Valentina.
Valentina: Anytime Anna, and thank you for your support over the years.
If you’re ready to start to reimagine what success could look like for you, here are some of the ways in which Anna can support you:
Get private mentoring for your business – Partnering with a business coach can help you see those blind spots and get both external accountability and expert guidance to take your business to where you want it to be. www.onestepoutside.com/freeconsultation
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Join the One Step Outside the 9 to 5 Business Incubator – This is your roadmap to transitioning from a corporate job into setting up a meaningful business that will bring you more freedom, flexibility and fulfilment outside of the corporate 9 to 5. www.onestepoutside.com/9to5
Level up with The Outsiders Business Accelerator – This is a mastermind for entrepreneurs, freelancers and small business owners who want to create a long-term sustainable brand and business. www.onestepoutside.com/accelerate