Celebrating Our Unique Differences Through Career Coaching


Lisa Thomson has worked in higher education for over a decade and currently works with 500 students annually as a university career coach. From creating niche development programming to having in-depth conversations with students at all stages about their career goals, Lisa is well-versed in current trends and global industries. Read more about how she navigates the ever-changing world of coaching and development, her take on the idea “there is no best version of ourselves”, and what she learned in 2020 that she’s taking into this new year.

Lisa is part of the Fink Development Coaching Network, in addition to her role at Duke University as the Program Director, Weekend Executive MBA and Master of Management Career Services. Lisa specializes in working with individuals from all backgrounds, industries, and has vast knowledge in the international job market.

JF: You’ve been involved in the education realm for over a decade in various roles, what inspired you to make the jump into career services? 

Lisa Thomson: Within all my roles in education, students would mention career goals or want to have discussions about their long-term plans. Engaging in these discussions, even informally, allowed me to see the interconnectedness of every experience within education and how they all link to that big question of what am I going to do with my life. Eventually, I realized that those discussions were what inspired me the most, so I moved to career services to go more in-depth in those conversations. 

JF: As a career coach, is there an ideal client or industry you enjoy working with most?

LT: The clients I enjoy the most are those who are open to that blend of support and feedback because every career change is a journey. Clients who are open to learning and growing are the ones I see get the best results - there are seemingly endless options when you focus on having conversations and keeping an open mind. I see this happen across most industries within business.

"Clients who are open to learning and growing are the ones I see get the best results - there are seemingly endless options when you focus on having conversations and keeping an open mind."

JF: What are three potential takeaways your clients walk away with when working with you? 

LT: If I’ve done my job well, all clients will have an expanded view of how they can achieve their goals. The takeaway being you are never as stuck as you think you are - sometimes it just takes some creative thinking to craft the next step. Additionally, clients will have tips and tricks to maximize how they present their stories on LinkedIn, in resumes, and in their pitches. Lastly, they will have confidence in themselves and what they can bring to the next opportunity that they choose. 

JF: You manage the comprehensive career coaching and programming experience for over 500 students annually, how does this help you stay on top of current career trends? 

LT: Working with such a variety of individuals, I help students coming from a variety of industries and those students seeking roles in a variety of industries. So, I learn interesting tidbits about companies and industries from every conversation that I have. Also, I follow trends on LinkedIn and listen to podcasts to catch any new big trends or headlines.  

JF: In your day job you are a Program Director working with students early in their management career to executive-level MBA students from all around the world, what are the major differences you see between these populations of students you work with?

LT: Honestly, the major differences are understanding the politics that can be involved in interviewing or managing your career and the resilience that comes from having been knocked down a few times before. Early career students that come to a prestigious institution have typically been very successful in virtually all of their past endeavors, so they often have to adjust to the competition. Based on backgrounds, if business is a new area to study, there is a learning curve for both groups about industries and functions and how to describe your experiences within that mindset, but more experienced students tend to have some knowledge of how it plays out in the workplace. 

JF: What is your “special sauce” when it comes to helping people with career development and transition? 

LT: My experiences working with thousands of students from different countries, industries, and life stages paired with my knowledge of education and research allows me to approach coaching with a blend of research, anecdotes, and tactical techniques. I’d say this combination is my “special sauce” as I know how to tailor and adapt the blending of those three concepts based on the client. 

JF: In 2018, you graduated with a Doctor of Education degree, what’s your take on the recent “Dr.” debate, and what does this education mean to you? 

LT: I think this is a great question. Overall, I think the comments related to Jill Biden were uninformed and unnecessary. Essentially, the majority of college professors and education leaders are doctors, and no one tells them not to use that title because they aren’t medical doctors (nor are they claiming to be medical doctors). I know the work that went into obtaining my degree, and I have a dissertation to illustrate my work, so I’m not bothered if someone tries to question it as I know I can defend it. Earning a doctorate was a goal I set for myself as a child, so I earned it as much for myself as I did for my career. To me, I had devoted time to study deeply into my field of interest, to produce original research, and gain a network of colleagues - it was definitely a worthwhile endeavor.  

"I know the work that went into obtaining my degree, and I have a dissertation to illustrate my work, so I’m not bothered if someone tries to question it as I know I can defend it."

JF: What most excites you about the coaching and development industry? And, what is one thing you’ve learned recently that’s helped you grow?

LT: This industry is exciting because it is always growing and evolving. Because those individuals in the workforce are ever-changing as are key industries and jobs, this industry has to stay dynamic and nimble to stay relevant. Given my love of learning (learner is my top strength from StrengthsFinder), it’s a great fit. Recently, I have been revisiting the Designing Your Life materials while preparing for their coaching certification. One concept that helped me grow personally and in my coaching is the concept that there is no best version of ourselves - we have many possible, equal but different, versions. It was a great personal reminder as I think about how I interact with my kids and try to encourage their varied interests, and it was a reminder for coaching to make all my clients get creative and explore multiple options for their next moves.

"One concept that helped me grow personally and in my coaching is the concept that there is no best version of ourselves - we have many possible, equal but different, versions."

JF: If someone were to see your LinkedIn profile, they would read that you also have experience in career coaching program design. What programs have you been most proud to design and why? 

LT: If I were to group my programs into categories, I would say I’m the proudest of programs I designed that targeted specific groups of students. Our office tends to present the same information to all students to create a baseline. While that works for some topics, other topics really need to address the unique differences within certain student groups. So, I created a series of workshops presented to our students from China to help with their Chinese job search. I utilized alumni and the sessions were presented in Mandarin for ease of communication. Additionally, I have designed separate programming for our veteran population and for student-athletes. I’m proud of these concepts because they help students form networks and allow for a more tailored approach to the career search for certain groups. 

JF: If someone feels stuck in their career journey, how can working with a career coach help them? 

LT: I believe that talking ideas and thoughts through with other people always brings up new perspectives and ideas. So, talking with a career coach is an extension of that process - albeit more targeted based on the situation. It’s nice to get reassurance that there are options from an unbiased source, get constructive feedback, and learn about career trends from a coach who is more entrenched in what’s happening in various industries. 

"I believe that talking ideas and thoughts through with other people always brings up new perspectives and ideas"

JF: Outside of the office, what inspires you to live a fulfilled life, personally or professionally? 

LT: I find personal fulfillment in many everyday activities - a hug from my kids, playing with my dogs, enjoying nature, and cooking a delicious meal. I volunteer with several organizations as a way to give back to my local community. Having a career that focuses on helping others keeps me fulfilled professionally - knowing that my work can put a client in a better place keeps me motivated. Basically, I am fulfilled when I am busy with activities that I enjoy, and I have been able to craft that bridge in my personal and professional life. 

JF: With universities being virtual for the majority of 2020, how did you adapt your role/business? Did you learn anything new that you’re taking with you into 2021? 

LT: Such a great question - 2020 taught me so much about the need to be adaptable and creative. Essentially, I completely shifted all of my programming earlier to help students stay engaged in the school and start to form connections. Additionally, I sent more personalized notes to follow-up with students to replicate the quick check-ins that used to occur within the building. I am going to continue to offer programs earlier for incoming students, but, more importantly, stay focused on personal connections and outreach. I clearly saw the need and significance of connecting in 2020 and will continue those practices in a strategic way moving forward. 

"I clearly saw the need and significance of connecting in 2020 and will continue those practices in a strategic way moving forward."

JF: At Fink Development, we’re big believers in the power of connection and community. Who are you most hoping to connect with in 2021? 

LT: Based on the craziness of 2020, my goals for 2021 focus on reconnecting - with colleagues, friends, and family, and volunteers from my church and community organizations. In terms of new connections, I am hoping to connect with more individuals focused on addressing diversity and inclusion issues within our country to learn ways to incorporate these ideals into all aspects of life. 

Contributor Bio: Lisa Thomson is the Program Director, Weekend Executive MBA and Master of Management Career Services for Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. In this role, she manages the comprehensive career coaching and programming experience for over 500 students annually. With over seven years in higher education, Lisa has expertise in program design and implementation, creating innovative training solutions, and leading teams.

As a career coach in the Fink Development Coaching Network, Lisa specializes in helping individuals discover and realize their potential, regardless of their industries, life stage, or background. Lisa is passionate about helping professionals articulate their next step to finding their purpose.