The physical limitations of aging, a desire to downsize, and a newfound passion led Sharon to shift gears from residential organizing to productivity training. She now runs fun and informational programs in companies, with the goal to share time-saving strategies her participants can implement immediately.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Woodmere, NY, which is on Long Island. I am the fourth child, with three older brothers. Growing up, my parents always made me feel that I could do anything my brothers could do. We were all competitive swimmers and my father used to tell me that if I put forth the effort, I could be the best swimmer in the family. As you can imagine, as a tween and teenager, getting into a bathing suit and getting soaking wet in the middle of winter was not my idea of a good time, so I would usually try to get out of swim practice. Oddly enough, I am now an avid swimmer and can’t get enough of it (so, thank you Dad for pushing me!)
My dad was an endodontist and my mother a “career volunteer.” She was very active in the National Council of Jewish Women and would travel around the country doing leadership training. I have vivid memories of her preparing workshops, writing on flipcharts while I sat on the floor of her room talking to her. My parents were lifelong learners and went back to school at night when I was in junior high school to earn their MBAs.
Fast forward… I graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987 with a BS in Economics and a major in Finance. After graduating college, I moved to New York City. While I initially pursued the Wall Street analyst programs, I recognized that I was not cut out for that kind of intensely competitive environment. Instead, I went to work for the Prudential Insurance Company in a training program on the investment side of the insurance company.
This ended up being a great decision for me; I made great friends and had the opportunity to rotate through a number of areas including Pru Securities, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Commercial Real Estate. While I was there, I took advantage of the incredible training programs they offered to all employees and, to this day, I utilize the skills I learned in the business communications course and the workshop on facilitating meetings.
Pru was also very generous in paying for continuing education, so while I was there I earned the CFA, CLU, and ChFC designations as well as a Masters in Real Estate Finance from NYU. It was a great company to work for and I learned a lot, but I also recognized that I was not really cut out for corporate America. There was an entrepreneurial spirit in me that did not relate well to a huge company with an elaborate hierarchy.
My husband, Neil, and I both graduated from Penn but we did not know each other as students. A mutual friend from college introduced us at a Jewish singles dance in NYC in 1990 (this was pre-Internet and before JDate!) We were married in September of 1991.
After nine years at Pru, the company relocated the real estate department to Atlanta, and I was laid off. This was a blessing in disguise. Over the two years prior to leaving Pru, I had four miscarriages. One month after leaving, I became pregnant, started seeing a recurring miscarriage specialist, was put on bed rest, and gave birth to my first child later that year.
Through the miracle of modern medicine and science, I was able to have four beautiful, healthy kids between 1996 and 2002. As a strange, noteworthy coincidence, I have three boys and a girl (in that order), same as me and my brothers. Making it even more unusual, my mother also grew up with three older brothers. So we now have three generations of three boys and a girl!
I chose to be home with my kids when they were little and became very active in our local Jewish Community Center (JCC), serving on many committees and joining their Board of Directors. When my daughter started Pre-K, I decided I wanted to go back to work, but I was no longer interested in working for a large corporation. I wanted flexibility and more control over my workday; I wanted to run my own business and be my own boss.
At my mother’s urging (and due to my natural skill set), I founded Control Chaos in 2006, at the age of 40, and became a professional organizer. Turning 40 was a turning point for me. My kids were not as physically needy and I finally felt like I could spend some time developing myself. I took piano lessons for a few years, art classes, and tons of one-to-one classes at the Apple store to hone my computer skills.
Becoming a professional organizer made sense to me as I have always been a big planner. As a kid, I would lay out my clothes each night to avoid the stress of switching outfits in the morning and getting to school late. My first clients were people I met through volunteering at the JCC, which was an unexpected surprise. My business grew through word of mouth and expanded into new areas based on client needs.
Here are before and after photos of a desk project I did:
When did you start to think about making a change?
As time progressed, I recognized that I was not getting any younger (surprise!) and the residential organizing can be physically taxing. I also had the epiphany that the thing I was best at and most passionate about was corporate training.
I also knew that while we live in the suburbs of New York City now (in Northern New Jersey), I really wanted to move into NYC when my youngest graduated high school. I started thinking about this when she was in 6th grade—she’s in 8th grade now so I still have 4-5 years before moving. Knowing that we are planning to downsize from a house into an apartment is helping my husband and me get rid of things we really don’t need.
Planning to live in NYC also meant no garage to stockpile plastic bins for organizing and no minivan to schlep stuff to a local thrift shop to make donations for clients. With that in mind, and my passion for corporate training, I made the decision in the fall of 2013 to see if I could put together productivity training programs to promote to companies in the New York area.
What is your next act?
I am a corporate productivity expert with my own company, Control Chaos. In addition to one-on-one coaching, I offer training programs that enable participants to feel in greater control of their time so they can be more productive, less stressed, and happier. My sessions can be as brief as a one hour lunch & learn or as long as a half day. People attending my programs typically feel pressed for time (which is why they are interested in attending!), so I try to make my programs very content oriented and engaging. The concepts I present are all based in research and science and I enjoy sharing this information so that individuals recognize how easily we can make small changes that have a great impact.
One of my favorite examples of this is a study that was done in England that showed that the pop-up box on your computer that indicates you have a new email is VERY distracting. Even if you don’t click on the pop-up, if you are working on something else, the appearance of the notification has the effect on your brain as if you’ve been up for 36 hours or as if your IQ has dropped 10 points. This usually gets people to shut off their notifications. Simple, right?
What sets my programs apart is (1) they are fun, (2) they engage the audience through technology, and (3) participants leave with specific, easy-to-implement strategies that will make a difference immediately. Using anecdotes, video clips, live polling, and audience participation, I have been able to keep people engaged. I scour the web for current information so my programs are always up-to-date and relevant.
The concepts I cover cut across industry and level which enables me to provide relevant programs for financial service firms, pharmaceutical companies, non-profits, museums, and universities (both staff and students.)
I love that I can take concepts people find inaccessible and simplify them in such a way that it seems so easy, individuals want to give it a try. And I am able to help participants feel in greater control of their time so they can do more and stress less. It feels great to be leading a session of anywhere from 15-200 people—to hear them laugh, to see them engaged, to watch them learn from each other, and to answer their questions.
Why did you choose this next act?
On some level, I don’t even feel like I chose this next act. I never could have planned my current career. It’s more like a culmination of all of my experiences combined. I think a lot of things led me here: my mother was a trainer, I really enjoyed the training programs at Pru and, although I still get nervous speaking in front of a group, I love to share really useful information with people.
How did you get started?
A few months ago, I decided to give 100% to the corporate training and stopped taking on new clients for residential organizing and estate services. When I removed those pages from my website, I thought, “Yikes! Am I really doing this?” These two areas provided a significant part of my income and I definitely felt (and feel) the pressure to make the corporate training a financial success.
I began marketing my corporate training program in 2014 by asking friends and family for introductions to anyone they knew responsible for training. I was really fortunate to have companies hire me right away and most have had me come back multiple times.
Like my parents, I am a lifelong learner. I take a lot of classes on Coursera to gain new information to share in my programs, help build my business, and for fun. I have Google alerts set up for every topic I cover (productivity, time management, focus, distractions, mindfulness, etc.) to make sure my information is as current as it can be. I have been known to update presentations the same day if a new study is released or an interesting article appears.
I also spend time honing my technological skills. My audience often consists of young adults in their 20s and 30s who are highly distractible. As the presenter, it’s my job to keep them engaged and interested. So I learned to use Prezi (instead of PowerPoint) because it looks and feels a little different; I search for videos that are fun and illustrate a point and then edit them down to 30-90 seconds; and I use live polling.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband, Neil, has always been supportive of my wanting to build a business. He helps me brainstorm on new ways to deliver training, is great with tech support, and is the best person for me to bounce ideas off of. My friends are also a great support, especially when I experience frustration and disappointment! When I get stuck on the failures, they are there to remind me how far I have come and encourage me to persevere.
What challenges are you encountering?
The greatest challenge is in sales and marketing. Doing the actual training seems easy by comparison! Some people are really difficult to get in touch with; they simply don’t respond to emails and voicemails. I often worry about crossing the line between being persistent and being a pest. I recognize that scheduling training programs is the lifeblood of my business, but to my client, it’s just another item on their to do list and, more than likely, it’s not urgent.
Last year I had an interesting website challenge. I attended the Women’s Enterpreneurial Festival in NYC in January of 2015. Waiting for the keynote speaker, I was chatting with a dumpling maker from Boston who was in her late 20s. She asked if I blogged and I responded, “Well, I write a monthly newsletter which is kind of the same thing, right?” A few minutes later, she had me convinced that I needed to convert from a newsletter to a blog.
This five-minute conversation led me down a surprising path. I had just had a web designer update my website and discovered that I could not have a blog integrated with it. Ugh! I did not want to invest more in my website, so I played around with WordPress to see if I could figure out how to build my own site. That didn’t work, so I spoke with a web developer who suggested that, based on what I was looking for, I should give SquareSpace a try.
I gave myself one day to try and figure it out. If I couldn’t do it, I would bite the bullet and spend the money on the web developer. With a large cup of coffee in hand, I sat down and got to work. To my surprise, within a few hours I had figured it out. What an incredible feeling!
My website is not perfect, but it looks professional and does what I need it to do. More importantly, it gives me control, which I love! I frequently update my website and do not need to rely on somebody else or wait to see results. Ultimately, I am a Do-It-Yourself-er for many things that could otherwise be outsourced but I feel empowered when I learn a new skill and I like the challenge (especially with the technology stuff.)
As I learn more about social media marketing, I push myself to learn about different plug-ins—I even injected code to use pop-ups for content downloads. When I get stuck, I have to remind myself that YouTube has videos that can teach you pretty much anything. A minute or two of searching usually results in a tutorial that gets me the answers.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Sometimes I question if I should bother… Maybe it’s not worth it. But then I run a training program and it’s so energizing and the feedback is so positive that it makes me realize that I’m really on to something that can add great value. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to describe my program to people without them actually experiencing it.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
One of the most important things I am still learning is that it’s okay to fail. My whole life I have been extremely risk-averse and would only pursue something that I was sure would succeed. Now, I am pursuing many different avenues for my program (webinars, entrepreneurs, universities) and am okay with the fact that some will work and some won’t. But if I don’t try, I’ll never know. It helps that the investment is primarily time and the financial investment is usually minimal. I’ve never been afraid to work hard and commit time but I am still averse to losing a lot of money.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I am certainly happy with where I am (although it’s uncertain and stressful at times). One thing I learned from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, was that I definitely “left before I left.” I knew I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, at least for a while, and so I did not give my career everything I had while I was in it. I left before I left. In hindsight, I wish I had focused completely on my career while I was in it and then decided, after having a kid, how I wanted to proceed.
I think if I were giving advice to my daughter, I would suggest that she always keep options open. There are so many ways to have a career working remotely; I think it’s important to develop marketable skills so you can keep your hand in the game, at least a little, while you raise your kids (if that’s what you choose to do.) It’s nice to keep your skills current so re-entry into the workforce doesn’t seem so scary.
Shonda Rhimes’s book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person also provides some great advice. For women thinking about starting families, if you decide to be a working mom, don’t take crap from anyone about it. The point of women’s lib was not for women to judge one another, but to give us choices and decide for ourselves what works best for us as individuals and for our families. How fortunate we are to live in a country where we have choices!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Have confidence! You have so many skills that can be applied in ways you may not have thought of. If you feel unsure about your computer skills, do yourself a favor and take a class. You will feel so empowered!
I recently watched Carol Fishman Cohen’s TED talk that pointed out that women who leave the workforce to raise kids assume that people think of them driving a minivan, wearing sweatpants with their hair in a ponytail. The reality is that they perceive you as the working woman you were before you left the workforce. Wow! That was such an eye-opening revelation for me!
Also, if you choose to stay home with your kids, volunteering is a great way to keep your skills sharp and do something meaningful and intellectually engaging. Being involved in the community opens you up to meeting really interesting people and making great friends. It’s nice to connect with people who have a common interest (not just kids the same age.)
What advice do you have for those interested in getting into corporate training?
To be the best in your field, you need to dedicate time to studying—recent articles, books, and blog posts are an easy way to know what’s going on. From there, you can establish your own thoughts and ideas and share those as well. I write a blog post every two weeks and curate content daily to share with those who follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Google+. This helps to build credibility and reputation. It will also build your confidence because you will know so much about your area of expertise.
I spend a lot of time to understand the needs of each audience so that my training program will be interesting and relevant for them. I want the customer experience to be great from start to finish so I take extra care in making it as easy as possible for the people hiring me (I will talk to the tech people directly so they don’t have to and I get them handouts well in advance so they feel no pressure.)
I would also advise someone entering the field to start by “giving it away.” It gives you a chance to practice and hone your skills. I provide free programs for organizations I’m involved in and look to speak at conferences that provide a marketing opportunity. It’s not always about getting paid but about getting out there and making connections—letting people experience what you have to offer. Sometimes it results in business, but don’t expect it.
What resources do you recommend?
Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin
Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant
Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte
Pixabay: Free photos to use for blogs, posts and websites
Canva: To create visuals with content that look great (free)
Hootsuite: To manage social media posts (free)
Piktochart: To create infographics (free)
SquareSpace: To build a website (not free but really affordable)
Coursera: To learn from professors at top universities
What’s next for you?
I’m still on a steep part of the learning curve as a Productivity Consultant. I suspect that my business will take some twists and turns that may lead me in a slightly different direction. I’ve been thinking about writing a book on productivity, so that would definitely present a new challenge!
I am open to another next act; I like building something from nothing.
Most importantly, I love what I’m doing right now. It is a great feeling to be able to provide simple strategies to people who are feeling overwhelmed so they can maximize their personal productivity with less stress.
Contact Sharon Feldman Danzger at Sharon@ControlChaos.org or 201-321-4425
Twitter – @SDanzger