Grand Coach Stephanie Movahhed on the advantage of not fitting into existing career boxes

November 3, 2023

"I don't think that any of the existing boxes of career really work for me personally, so I feel that I have to create the career that is the best fit for me."

Stephanie Movahhed joined The Grand as a coach in March 2022. As a coach, she helps people find more joy, fulfillment and success in their work and lives. Prior to becoming a coach, she worked across tech strategy and operations and management consulting, and received her MBA from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

As told to Claire Zhang

As you know, I really relate to your story, as a person who wanted to go to grad school once upon a time too. I thought you told me a great story when we last caught up about how you landed on coaching as your calling and what you wanted to do. So I wonder if you might share a little bit of that with our future readers here.

I have always been someone who’s loved learning and reading and writing. In my early days, I thought that might manifest into becoming a professor. I spent my undergraduate career studying literature. I love foreign languages, I love to read. I thought that researching and teaching would be that perfect combination of getting to learn myself, but then also getting the interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects that come from being in dialogue with other people about ideas.

I started doing some teaching internationally after I graduated from college. I had a Fulbright scholarship, so I had the opportunity to teach at a university and in South America. Then I came back to the United States and I thought: “Before I go into a PhD program, maybe I should just get a job.” I did get a job and I found that actually, I liked working.

A lot of the ideas that drew me into academia were tied to the idea of trying to make an impact on people's lives, so I thought: “Well, maybe if I'm in the right mission-driven corporate environment, that might be actually a thing for me.” What I see now is that both of those things had their appeal, but neither one was really a perfect fit—I see you smiling and so probably that resonates with your own experience!

After my first corporate job, I ended up going back to business school, thinking that the nagging feeling of “this not being the right fit” was something about my background. I thought: “If I can get more training, more degrees that help fill in the gaps, this will feel like a better fit for me.”

So I went to business school. I joined the Boston Consulting Group, thinking that would really help me build up my business skillset. Both of those things were amazing experiences, really formative. Then I transitioned back into corporate work, but still that nagging feeling of “this isn't really exactly what's right, this isn't exactly what I'm meant to do,” was always there.

I'd had a coach at a certain point when I was looking to work some things out for myself, so I was a fan of coaching through that. Then, I was working on a project at a tech company where we were talking about bundling coaching with some software we were building. I was asked to map the landscape: what are all the schools that are training coaches? What are all the programs that certify coaches?

Through that I became acquainted with the CoActive Training Institute, or CTI. I found their materials and thought: “Wow, this really resonates with me. It feels like that perfect combination of doing something that would be mission-driven and helpful to people, but I could also learn and grow myself.”

I did their training program and their certification program, but I wasn’t sure exactly how coaching would manifest in my life and how I would monetize it. But I knew it was my calling and I felt like the most alive, most present version of myself when I coached. So I started coaching on the side in 2019 and then in 2022, I decided to make coaching my full time work. I put aside what I now see as limiting beliefs—that coaching wasn't a career where I could thrive and be successful—and just give it a try.

The way I did that was asking myself: what's the worst thing that could happen?

I don't like coaching, or it's not a fit, I'm not good at it.

I thought, “Well, then I could just go and get a job at a company again. I have nothing to lose by stepping out into this riskier place, when I know that where I'm at now is something that I'll always have in my toolkit and that I can always rely upon.”

So I decided that I would just take the step.

The other thing that I did, that I encourage my clients to do, was to tell myself: “This is just a trial, I'm gonna try it. Again, if it doesn't work, that's okay.” That really unlocked for me the courage to try something that was riskier than something that I'd ever done before.

Here we are almost two years later, and I'm still working as a coach and just loving it.

What were you doing before you decided to jump into this full-time?

I always tell people that I've done everything at tech companies except for engineering.

My most recent role before becoming a full-time coach, I was an early employee on the business side of an identity verification startup. It was a classic startup experience. A very good friend of mine had gone over to lead all of the business teams. She's an amazing person that I really admired, so when she offered me an opportunity to come and join as one of the first people in her leadership team, I jumped at the chance. Within that startup, it was such a small company. I wore a lot of different hats, but I started out leading all their go-to-market operations, helping them with pricing and sales enablement. In my last role I led a team of customer success managers. So I was working directly with customers in that role.

What would you say was the biggest doubt or fear that you were facing that was preventing you from taking the step to become a full-time coach?

I think there were many things tangled together, but I think it was fear of failure, and then also comparison to others. Looking at other people in my life and thinking how they had some of the same opportunities that I had, and whereas I had perceived those opportunities to not really be rich with opportunities for growth, I looked over and saw: “Oh, other people are enjoying and thriving in these roles where I haven't done the same. What is it about me that is causing me to feel a lack of engagement?”

I think both of those emanate from a scarcity mindset—there's not enough, whether it's enough success or financial reward or something else. It was this sense of, “If I try this, I might fail and what would happen to me then?”

Something that I believe, but it is difficult to really internalize is: a lot of us early on in our career, if we have an achievement orientation, haven't experienced a lot of failure. But if you're not failing, then that probably means you're not taking enough risks and you're missing out on opportunities to grow.

That’s the tension — a lot of us pride ourselves on: “I'm someone that doesn't fail.” But then, what does that really mean? Maybe that means that we're not stretching and we're not growing.
I want to dig into those feelings about not feeling like the jobs you were taking were the right fit. Being a professor as you originally intended was not quite a fit. Then your first job didn't seem like quite the right fit. It sounded like you were on this journey to try to figure out what is this—what is the right fit and what do I need to do to find this thing that is the right fit?
So a more specific question to start: before you came back from your Fulbright, what prompted you to decide to get a job before you applied for that PhD?

I was fortunate to have been educated in the liberal arts tradition and I love the liberal arts and I don't want to be disparaging of them, but you don't have a lot of exposure to different types of jobs when you're educated in the liberal arts tradition. In fact, the liberal arts is actually deliberately not pre-professional in any way. I likely thought about becoming a professor because I had seen these other professors in the academic environment, and those were my mentors and the people that I aspired to be like.

But I think it just occurred to me that I had only seen a very narrow slice of what was available professionally. It's sort of like when you're a kid and you say, “I'll be a doctor or a teacher” because those are the adults that you know. My mom was a teacher, and then you can kind of add professor onto that, because that's the group of adults that you know. So I just had this suspicion that my worldview was limited by what I had seen and I wanted to challenge that.

At what point did you realize that also your original plan of being professor might not have been the right fit? Was it during that first job and why?

I actually don't know if being a professor wouldn't have been a fit for me. I think that it probably would've been a fit, but there are certain things about it that I think could have been challenging. So for example, I've always enjoyed really great geographic flexibility in my career and I think if I had gone the route of going into academia, I wouldn't have had that.

So, I don't know that it wasn't a fit as much as: there's trade offs with every profession.

Certainly the life that I've had and the experiences that I've been privy to through working in a corporate environment and now as a solo-preneur—I’m so grateful for those experiences. So, I think some of it is just knowing that if I had just done the first thing that occurred to me, which was to have gone into a PhD program, I don't know if I would've been making an informed decision.

But I also am a really big fan of thinking about our lives in chapters. My academic pursuits, I see that as chapter one. Then I had chapter two, which is when I went into more of a pure corporate career. Now, I feel like I'm really fortunate to be in chapter three, where I am combining both of those interests.

Through my coaching practice, not only do I feel like I'm a student again, because I sit with all these people who work in all these amazing environments, and I get to learn a little bit about the challenges that they face, whether they're founders who founded these incredible startups or executives inside of larger companies. But, I also am working in an academic environment, because I'm coaching students at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. So I'm returning to that dream of having the opportunity to work in an academic environment, but I feel like I'm actually doing it in a way that I get to leverage the experiences that I've had and bring those to the students that I work with.

I'm wondering if you remember the decision making process around deciding not to pursue that PhD and whether it was difficult to change course from your original dream. Because I think that's something people tend to have a hard time doing. It's hard to let go of those old identities, right?

You know, it was so long ago now, but I think what happened to me was: I really seriously considered going down the PhD track and then I thought about getting a Master’s in the liberal arts, but eventually I decided to get an MBA. I think in some ways, I didn't necessarily feel that sense of mourning, because I was still able to get what I wanted, which was the return to an academic environment, the ability for pause and reflection, and to use an advanced degree as a refocus and reorientation.

I actually took a PhD level course when I was at business school. It was a History / English course on the history of the book, which was super interesting to me because I had just come out of working for Google Books, which was Google's digitization effort to create a universal library.

Taking that course confirmed that I have just always been so interdisciplinary and that I don't know that my academic pursuits would've fit neatly into the box of PhD. I don't know if I had the mourning, as much as I had an evolution—in some ways, the birth of what I'm doing now.

I don't think that any of the existing boxes of career really work for me personally, so I feel that I have to create the career that is the best fit for me. I feel really fortunate that I get to do that. When I talk about what I'm doing now, a lot of folks say to me: “portfolio strategy” — just doing different types of work. That's oftentimes what I encourage people to do. You might not be able to get every single thing you want in one 9-5 role, but are there things that you want to incubate that might be relevant in the next chapter that you can keep doing?
I love that you took that history course! I took a history of American business course when I was at business school, and the first business we studied was book publishing. It was super cool — there's so much about the history of book as an enterprise in American history that I never knew about.

Yeah, so in my course, there were English PhDs and history PhDs. There weren’t a lot of other people that were interested in business.

Funny story: so, I'm in the class and it's a small seminar. Imagine it's the first day and there are 10 of us and I'm sitting directly next to the professor. She says: “We're all gonna go around and introduce ourselves.”

I'm in the MBA program and so I'm used to introducing myself as an MBA and I say: “I'm Stephanie, here are some relevant points of my professional background. Here's what I'm hoping to achieve from this course.”

The next person says, “Okay, wow…” and then just says their name and what program they're in. It was this hilarious moment of feeling how I'd always felt: that I didn't fit in the MBA environment because I was too academic, I was too bookish, I hadn't been an investment banker or consultant. Then I went into this literary environment and they all saw they all saw me as a classic MBA—I could speak in the language of business.

It again reinforces this theme on the advantage of not fitting in perfectly: it gives you the inspiration to create whatever it is that would work for you.
I really resonate with that, as someone who has had the exact same experiences in the exact same spaces. I actually took a history of book course in undergrad too. We got to take out these medieval manuscripts from the stacks and try to read them… so many similarities between our stories.
I love talking about books because I want to get to some of the fun things that I know about you—one of which is that you still read a lot for fun. I'd love to hear about some of the favorite novels you've read in the maybe past year or so.

It is true that I love to read and I have been a member of many book clubs including my primary book club that I've had for almost 10 years now. Famously, I have a spreadsheet that I started in 2008 where I started tracking all the books that I've read and now it has over 500 books on it. I primarily read literary fiction, and I just finished the new Ann Patchett book, Tom Lake. Have you read that one?

The last Anne Patchett that I read was the Dutch House, which I loved and I’ve heard about Tom Lake, but I haven't read it yet. It's on my list. How did you enjoy it?

It's so amazing, Claire. It's my favorite book that I've read this year. It's the story of a mother who is living on a cherry farm in northern Michigan with her husband and adult daughters. It comes out that the mother had briefly spent a summer acting as a stage actress and her boyfriend at the time who was also in the play is say, the most famous male actor in the world. Like a Brad Pitt or a George Clooney. The girls find out that this was once their mother's boyfriend, and the mother tells the story of her summer of being a stage actress and spending some time in Hollywood and what ended up happening in her life that led her to then be a mother and to live on this cherry farm — all against the background of the pandemic. There's a lot of themes of family and also fulfillment, whether it be professional or personal happiness.

Are these kinds of the themes that you gravitate towards in the novels?

I certainly like books that grapple with big questions — like, what would bring happiness? Would you rather be the most famous person in the world or have a successful partnership and family? I think those are certainly interesting conversations and the types of things that I like to think about.

What concepts from fiction are also helpful in coaching?

I oftentimes tell people that the reason that I like fiction is because it gives you the opportunity to walk in someone else's mind and to see the world in a way that you could never see it because you haven't had those experiences.

I feel that's incredibly valuable for developing empathy, which I think is one of the most important things that we can develop as humans — learning the stories and lives and experiences of people who've grown up in different cultures and different time periods who've just like walked in shoes that you haven't walked in.

Another thing that I often tell people is: I think being a student of literature is actually really helpful in a business environment, because understanding what someone is saying to you when they come to you with a concept or an idea is basically reading comprehension.

Because I've read so many books, I have a really great ability to understand when someone comes to me with an idea that maybe isn't fully formed, to say: “Are you saying this?” And they're like, “Yes, that is what I'm saying.” It’s similar to understanding the plot in a piece of fiction.

What are some of your favorite books of all time or favorite authors?

I studied Latin American literature and so my college days were spent reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love In the Time of Cholera and A Hundred Years of Solitude. I love them both the same.

After I graduated, for a long time I used to tell people that my favorite book was this book called Shantaram. It was very popular in the aughts. It's about this guy who is an escaped convict from Australia, and he ends up traveling to India and becomes an informal doctor in a slum. Then he also has a lot of experiences with organized crime and the mafia, and so he bounces between good and evil.

I think for people that love traveling—and I did a lot of traveling in my twenties—I really enjoyed the experience of being an expatriate and both the self-discovery that happens when you're in an environment that's outside of your comfort zone and also the really strong bonds of community that you develop with other people who are also having that experience. The fact that he's in Mumbai, but he's Australian, that really resonated with me.

What about traveling did you love?

I have always loved travel and I've had a lot of really wonderful experiences traveling. I did a gap year between high school and college, and I spent that year traveling in Ecuador. That was so formative for me. I went back to college and studied Latin American literature and I wanted to become a professor, and I think it was largely because I had such eye-opening, fascinating, enriching experiences during that year abroad.

It's similar to how I feel about coaching. I feel when I am in coaching spaces, I have to rise to be the best version of myself. I have to be my most present. I have to draw on my memory to be focused on what the other person is saying. It's very spontaneous, it's very creative, it's very engaging and that's how I feel when I'm living abroad because you're traveling without a net.

Also speaking other languages—I love speaking other languages.

What languages do you speak?

I speak Spanish and Portuguese. I learned Spanish during the gap year in Ecuador and I was in  a very remote area where no one spoke English, so my Spanish got really good and then I got to college and I was thought, “Well, if I'm going to become a professor I should also learn Portuguese”— side note, this is the most me story ever — I thought: “If I want to be competitive for the best doctoral programs, if I know both Spanish and Portuguese, that will make me competitive to get into a top PhD program in Spanish.” So now I have this funny thing where I have to tell people that I learned Portuguese so that I could get into a top PhD program that didn’t end up happening…

Then, my family is Persian. My dad is from Iran, my mom is not, so I'm half Persian and my parents did not teach us the Persian language, which is called Farsi, when I was growing up. But I really wanted to learn because I love foreign languages. So, when I was in college I spent a summer studying Farsi in a Farsi immersion program. Alas, I didn't retain that much of it because I haven't had the opportunity to really be immersed in a country where they speak Farsi.

I know you recently tried an experiment to see whether or not you might be interested in a more geographically flexible way of living. Can you tell me more about that?

Yes, I lived in Europe for two months to test this!

The experiment was about whether working from Europe for extended periods of time was something I might enjoy. And there were parts of it that I did really enjoy. I loved exploring remote villages in France, seeing art and trying new foods. I swam in so many beautiful beaches in Greece. And I was able to convince friends and family to come along and join for certain parts - I love getting other people I love to participate with me in the experiences I enjoy, it makes them even more meaningful to me.

But there were other parts that required flexibility and openness to changing my routine. For example I love to cook and despite my best efforts, during my two months I never managed to land in rental space that was well optimized for my desired style of cooking. Another example is exercise. Movement is very important to me and lifting weights or using my trusty Peloton here is part of my daily routine at my home in SF, and in my travels, it wasn’t easy for me to consistently access workout spaces so I had to put that aside those aspects of my routines for the duration of the trip.

I feel that as I've gotten older I've figured out, as you said, more routines and things that work for me and getting my schedule to work in the way that works for my life. I'm curious how you square this self with your previous self who did a lot of traveling. When I'm thinking about my own previous self, I did a lot of things more on the fly. I was younger and able to just be more spontaneous. I'm curious for your reflection on comparing this self, versus your younger self that traveled a lot.

One thing that occurs to me - as I’ve grown older, I have built a living environment that’s optimized around my style and preferences. But when I was younger, the delta between my home environment and some of the environments abroad, or especially when you're living in your college dorm — the delta is not as great, right? I've lived in the same home now for almost six years. I've renovated it so it’s optimized for my lifestyle.

Also, I think my self-awareness is so much greater now. It's also possible that those things were disruptive to me at that time, but I didn't have the muscle memory of so many years of knowing that, for example, when I work out every morning, that's what makes me feel most energetic through the day.

Even now, it’s funny, it wasn't until maybe four years after college that I really came up with this self-identity that I'm a reader, because I hadn't met enough other people to notice that my interest in reading was drastically greater than everyone else's. In school it's not as obvious because everyone has to read. So, even initially out of school, I don't think I would've said to you: “this is a primary point of my identity.” But then all of a sudden, the years were going by and people were constantly asking asking, “What did you do this week?” And I'd be like, “I read a book,” and people were surprised by that. I recognized that pattern enough times that I could start to say: I am someone who loves reading and my interest in reading is probably so much greater than other people’s, that it’s a defining factor of my personality.

But I don't think I had enough information to know that when I was young. I think similarly some of this stuff around travel is probably like that.

Yes. I asked you this because sometimes I have this thought: “I'm getting old and boring… like I need to stick to my morning routines to be happy now.” It feels in some ways there are more constraints because I have these preferences now, compared to when I was younger. But I like the way you framed it. It's not constraints—it's just designing a better life that works.
I feel so much of life gets better as you get older, because you have more self-awareness, more resources, more agency.

You have more ability to craft the life that you actually want versus, when we're younger, we're oftentimes behaving reactively. I think now in this stage of life that I'm in, I’ve never had a greater opportunity to proactively set up the life that I want. I'm also constantly running these experiments on myself to see how things make me feel. With the data I have from all those experiments, I can proactively craft the life that makes me feel the best.