From Commercial Manager to Massage Therapist

“I’d felt like a square peg in a round hole for a long time.” Kimberley Pledger was a commercial manager in interactive media. Despite doing well, she needed more – to do something that made a real difference to people’s lives. Here she tells her inspiring story.

What was the job you had before you made a career change?

I had worked as a commercial manager in interactive media. I was responsible for developing and marketing third party businesses behind the red button at ITV Digital and then BSkyB.

What was it that made you want to change career?

I’d felt like a square peg in a round hole for a long time. I knew that I was a creative person, but I was in a role that didn’t really accommodate that. I kept thinking that if I’d been run over by a bus and was standing at the pearly gates looking back on my life, I’d be hard pressed to say that I’d done anything of any real value. I think that we spend so much of our lives at work that it’s really important to find something you enjoy doing and that feels meaningful. I don’t think I realised it at the time, and it sounds horribly clichéd, but I wanted to do something that made a real difference to people’s lives. 

What was it that made you finally take action and make your career change happen?

Interactive television was a volatile and ultimately dying sector, but I thought that if any company could make interactive TV work it would be Sky. It turns out even Sky couldn’t overcome the problems inherent in the technology, and the division restructured three years after I joined. I took voluntary redundancy and thought that if I was going to do something else, this would be the time to do it. 

Did you know, even vaguely, what you wanted to do?

Not really. I’d started doing a diploma in holistic massage the year before, just as a hobby, and I’d been really surprised to find I was the only person on the course who wasn’t doing it because they wanted to change career! At that stage, it had never occurred to me to become a massage therapist. If I thought about changing jobs at all, it was to do something in web content production. 

How did you figure out the career that was right for you?

I studied with Clare Maxwell-Hudson and her course uniquely involved a clinical placement at a hospital. I went to the Royal Free in Hampstead. I was completely blown away by the work that Keith Hunt and his team do there. They work primarily with cancer patients, offering hand and foot massages as people receive chemotherapy. I was amazed by how a 5 or 10 minute massage changed that person’s day. People would say that the massage service was the only good thing about being in hospital and to be part of that, to be able to give something so special to people was extraordinary, quite unlike anything I’d experienced before. I knew then that being a massage therapist was meaningful and something I could feel good about doing. 

Where did you find your inspiration?

I was inspired in different ways by Clare and Keith. Clare pretty much single-handedly pioneered the use of massage in clinical settings in this county and wrote many books on massage which really contributed to it becoming mainstream, not only for relaxation, but as an adjunct to healthy living. As a female role model, she is second to none, having reached the top of her field, she is world renowned for her work in massage, yet she is graceful and modest about her achievements. Keith is as passionate about massage as Clare and they both believe that it’s important to have fun in your work. This comes across so clearly watching Keith at work, where his people-skills and humour immediately put patients at ease. I suspect those skills have also played a part in winning over the sceptics and securing the support of the Trust for the massage service (I expect the fact that he volunteered for eight years at the Royal Free before he secured funding for the massage service also helped!) I feel privileged to have been trained by Clare and to have worked with Keith, both of whom set such good examples of how to follow your dream and make it a reality. 

Where did you find help, guidance, and support?

My sister has been a fabulous source of advice and guidance to me, as she switched from working in marketing to become a counsellor and life coach. She gave me loads of tips not only on working as a therapist, but also on the practical side of setting up your own business. I’m also fortunate to have a good friend, who is in a very senior commercial role, who has been my business mentor and has championed my work at every opportunity. I’ve also worked with life coaches at different stages of the journey and this helped me to be really clear about what I want to achieve long term. As big a change as this has been, it is really only the first stage of my new career. I hope to retrain again as a body psychotherapist, which will consolidate the work I’ve done already in working with survivors of trauma – I am the first massage therapist to be accepted onto the British Register of Trauma Specialists. 

What has been the hardest part about changing career?

The most difficult aspect has been the drop in salary, which really required a complete change of lifestyle. I’d been in a fairly well-paid job before and the adjustment to was really hard at first. The second challenge is something that has emerged with time - I’m quite an intellectual person and I’ve missed not using that side of my brain in this role. I’ve found that the mind-body connection fascinates me, but it is largely beyond the scope of massage therapy, which is one of the reasons I’ve decided to retrain as a body psychotherapist. 

How have you handled finances?

In a word, badly! I’ve never been very good with money and I’ve found it very challenging to stay on top of things. Without the support of my family and friends I wouldn’t have been able to continue, but there were personal reasons for this, so I don’t think my experience should put people off from making the switch. One very positive thing is that being self-employed has forced me to be more disciplined about budgeting and I’m much more aware of the value of money than I ever was before. 

What has been unexpected?

One thing I’d forgotten which seems really obvious, was that I was starting a new career which meant that I was right at the beginning again. In practical terms, this means not having any experience in your new role, which can be daunting when you’re used to having a certain level of seniority gained from years of experience and suddenly you’re the newbie again. 

I’ve been surprised by the way some people in my peer group respond when I tell them what I do for a living. I think because I don’t work in an office and I do a form of 'manual' labour, people sometimes struggle to connect with me. People rarely think of massage as being part of healthcare and always think it’s about spas and pampering, so I sometimes struggle to be taken seriously. I think there’s a sort of snobbery about it, as if it’s perceived as a slightly bimbo-ish thing to do, which saddens me. But, I love a challenge and these people inspire me to spread the word about the health benefits of massage.

I’ve also been surprised by the pleasure that I get from making people feel good. I’m quite a selfish person so to find myself in a people role and to be enjoying it has been rather unexpected. Practically speaking, I don’t think I’d properly estimated how long it would take to build a solid practice or how much work it would take. In an established company, people are employed to fulfil the various roles required to make that business a success; when you’re self-employed you have to do everything yourself so you put in a lot of hours of work before you earn a single penny. 

How has your life changed now that you’ve changed career?

I’ve found my niche and I feel so much happier within myself because of it. It’s such a joy to be doing something I know I’m really good at. In my previous role I was plagued with doubts about my ability, which were unfounded and probably stemmed from the square peg, round hole syndrome. I feel confident in my role as a therapist, though not complacent because every client is different and that means I’m always adapting to them and learning from them. Being my own boss is also very rewarding because everything I do is for me and not someone else. 

What advice would you give to someone that wants to change career?

Take the plunge and do it! If you feel unhappy in your current role, chances are your inner voice has been talking to you for a while and there may come a point where it is too loud to ignore. No matter how fulfilling your personal life is, you still spend 40 hours a week at work and if you’re doing something you hate, or even something you just don’t enjoy very much, eventually that strain will take its toll. So for the sake of your health and well-being, listen to your inner voice, be bold and make the change. After all, you only live once. 

What advice would you give to someone that wants to get into your new career?

I’d suggest doing a few introductory courses in different kinds of massage to begin with, to get a feel for it and to see if you like it. If you enjoy receiving massage, that’s a good start, but remember as a therapist you’ll be offering massage all day and although it can be very meditative, giving massage is not the same thing at all. I’d also think quite carefully about the area of massage you’d like to get into and this is where a life coach can help because choosing how you’re going to work taps into your values, as well as your skills as an individual. I’d also suggest having lots of massages to see how different practitioners work and to ask them about their experience of the job.

The question of whether to make a gradual transition or to jump straight in probably depends on the kind of person you are. I’m an all or nothing kind of girl, but other people might be more cautious so I think it’s important to be really honest with yourself and understand what your strengths and weaknesses are before making the decision.

What lessons could you take from Kimberley's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below. 

Plus, if you know someone who's made a successful shift into work they love, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at hello@careershifters.org.