Success Story: Carrie Kirk

Company: Campbell Soup Company
Position: IT Project  and Portfolio Management Analyst

Carrie Kirk took a 13-year break from her career as an athletics director and lacrosse coach, a job that involved long schedules and weekend travel, when she had her first child. When she was ready to return to work, Carrie decided to pivot into a corporate role, and realized that her skills made her a great fit for a project management returnship at Campbell. She completed her returnship and now works there full-time as an IT Project and Portfolio Management Analyst. Carrie talks about her return to work experience, how her coaching experience translated into project management, and how the Campbell Returnship Program helped her transition back into the workforce.

Tell me a bit about your career break. What type of work did you do before taking a break? What prompted your break, and how long were you out of the workforce?
Before I took my break, I oversaw 26 college varsity sports as Assistant Director of Athletics, as well as coaching the lacrosse team. I loved my job, and being able to influence my team to grow into strong independent young women who were ready to launch their own careers once they left college. But the hours were difficult, from 6am practices to traveling on the weekends for away games. When I was pregnant with my first, I realized that this kind of schedule would not be conducive to raising a child. My husband and I decided that it made more sense financially for me to be the one to step away from my career. I left about two months before my eldest child was born, and I was out for a pretty long break of 13 years.  

What prompted you to return to work?
During my break, I did a lot of volunteer work to keep myself engaged in something outside the home. As challenging as it is to raise kids, I wanted to do something that was for myself. When my youngest was about to enter middle school, it really felt like the right time for me to get back into the workforce. I thought of returning to my coaching career, but decided that the reality of the job would put my family and me under too much strain, especially if I was gone in the evenings and weekends. So I started having to fine-tune what my skill set was, and determine what skills from my old career I could transfer into a new field, preferably in an office role where I could have more regular hours. I had started applying to corporate jobs, but I wasn’t getting any traction. 

Then I found out about the Campbell Returnship Program. They were looking for a Project Manager, and I realized that running an athletics program and coaching – dealing with all the changes and challenges that happen every year – had given me the project management skills that could transfer well into a Campbell returnship. 

Did you take any classes or complete any training in preparation for your return to work?
Once I identified that project management was the field I wanted to return to, I started taking online courses on project management. I wanted to have a sense of how projects are run in the business world as opposed to the higher education and athletics world. 

What was your experience of returning to work at Campbell?
When I joined Campbell, they were in the middle of a very large project of moving all their applications to the cloud. My project involved upgrading the application for the testing and validation space, which was an application that all of the departments touched. It allowed me to interact with more people within the company. My manager was fabulous, and encouraged me to come to meetings that didn’t involve what I was working on, just to give me a better taste of how the department functioned. I was able to run a full application upgrade during those 16 weeks, which I’m really proud of. 

What was your on-boarding experience like?
Campbell treated us like we were employees of the company from day one, and on-boarded us as regular employees, which I thought was a really valuable experience because it gave us a chance to see what being a full-time employee at Campbell would be like from the start – how the company operated, how they treated their employees, and their general culture.  

The onboarding really gave me a love for the company, and the mission really hit home for me. My manager was great. She gave me the space to run with the project I was managing, but was there every step of the way for support. She was an open book, and made sure that my returnship was not just about this particular project, but that I had a chance to get exposed to as much of the department as I could. We sat down and set up a plan that would allow me to connect with others within the organization, and I had a chance to hold one-on-one conversations with some women in leadership positions, to pick their brains a little bit, learn about their experiences, and get any nuggets of advice about my career path. 

What is your current role at Campbell?
I’m the IT Project and Portfolio Management Analyst, with the responsibility of overseeing all of the projects and portfolios that the IT department runs. I also now coach and mentor our own project managers! 

Are there any skills from your pre-break career that you use in your current role? What about skills you gained during your career break?
I think being a coach helped me with project management the most. Every season is different, with kids graduating and new ones joining the team – same with the opponents you play. So you have to learn how to adapt, and stay current and relevant in terms of your strategy. You have to deal with varied personalities and playing abilities, so the more flexible you are, the more you’ll succeed. My coaching career taught me to be open and come from a place of “yes” – open and ready to learn and adapt. I learned how to jump in and think on the fly. All of those are valuable project management skills that will help ensure a project runs smoothly, on budget, and on time. And there are also important soft skills that have helped me succeed after a career break. Because the workplace has changed so much, coming back with a mindset of welcoming change and being open to trying new things is really helpful.  

As for my break, being a mom definitely makes you into the ultimate multi-tasker, and that’s definitely a skill I use in my job. We always have multiple projects in flight, and I have to know about all of them – what’s going well, what’s not, what needs to be adjusted and managed. 

What did you find most helpful about being part of the Path Forward program?
The workshops really drove home the need to keep our eyes on the prize – returning to work full-time – and gave us the support and resources to do that successfully, by teaching us how to make the most out of our returnships. 

I loved that when we got together as a group, we began trading stories about our experiences. Just hearing that someone else is going through something similar to you is both helpful and empowering. I’d go back to work knowing that others were currently going through the same struggles and challenges, and that some of them were just normal aspects of returning to work after a break. The cohort was a big source of both companionship and advice, both on any issues that came up at work, and on how to manage the changes to family life. It just made the transition smoother by providing a great support network. 

What was the transition of being a full-time caregiver to going back to work like?
My kids were already in school, so the biggest transition was having them coming home from school and me not being there. I wasn’t far away, but it was a new regimen for them to get used to. Meanwhile, I had to adjust to a new schedule, too. My days did feel long at first. When I was coaching and directing athletics, I’d sometimes work for 14 hours straight, from a 6am lacrosse practice to a basketball game at 6pm. I might get home at 9pm and that was a normal day for me. And when I was on my break, I spent a lot of time volunteering outside the home. But there was still a learning curve to being in the office in work mode every day for five days a week. It was a bit mentally taxing at first to use those muscles again, but I was able to get into the groove of working again.  

Did the work-life culture at Campbell help make your transition back to work smoother?
Absolutely. Campbell culture is very family-friendly – there’s even a daycare on site! My managers have been very supportive of me, and understood if something came up and I had to leave in the middle of the day to get my daughter from school. They’re flexible with hours, and the prevailing attitude is that, as long as you get your work done, the hours you’ve been working don’t have as much significance.  

What are you most proud of accomplishing during your return to work?
I’m proud of being able to completely shift my career without any prior training. If we think of the working world as a playground, I’m proud of the fact that I climbed on a whole different jungle gym than the one I was on, and that I’ve even been able to not just stay on at Campbell, but keep climbing, too.  

Do you have any advice for future returnees?
For those who want to pivot their career, a big lesson I took from my career transition is the importance of looking at your skill sets and seeing their value outside of a particular career. The key to making a pivot is first taking a transferable skill set, then becoming a product of daily learning so that you can adapt yourself to a new field. The business world is so different from higher education, and I spent a lot of time learning all of the components and technical aspects of my job.

I remember one thing we discussed in a Path Forward workshop was that careers are not a straight ladder anymore. There’s some parallel movement, too, so you can’t expect to return and climb up exactly where you left off. And I had jumped into a whole new sector, so I think that coming back to work, you have to be a little bit fearless. You need to take a leap of faith and put all of your existing experiences and skills out there, and it will work itself out. 

Just go in with an open mind. No matter where you’re stepping, the most important thing is that you’re getting back in the game, and you can find your way from there. Don’t worry too much about whether this returnship is exactly the right place for you – just make sure that you’re getting the most out of it. No matter what, a returnship will be a great springboard to get you where you want to go.  

Thanks for sharing your story, Carrie! We are so happy you’ve found success and balance in your career. You can learn more about Carrie on her LinkedIn page.
– The Path Forward Team