ProFeds Founder Chris Kowalik was recently interviewed as a part of Authority Magazine’s series about the “5 Things Retirees Say They Wish They Were Told Before They Began Retirement.” Below is an excerpt from that interview.
Not having a purpose can manifest itself into physical problems. People’s jobs can give them great satisfaction and purpose on a day-to-day basis. When that retirement date arrives, many develop health issues because their routine and mental engagement is abruptly lost. Have a plan to create purpose-driven activities and get them started before stepping foot in retirement.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Retirees Say They Wish They Were Told Before They Began Retirement” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Kowalik. ProFeds Founder Chris Kowalik brings nearly two decades of experience in the financial services industry. She is a nationally recognized speaker and trainer for federal employee organizations and financial service organizations throughout the country. Chris has been a frequent contributor to national publications and media outlets, such as My Federal Retirement, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Fox Business Network, and Investopedia.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Myentrepreneurial journey started in the most unlikely of places — the military. I say “unlikely” because although the serving in the military can be profoundly inspiring and patriotic, it can also be rigid and unforgiving — two adjectives that can be death sentences for a small business trying to make its mark on the map. Let’s rewind and piece this together.
Straight out of high school, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served as an Arabic Linguist and Signals Intelligence Analyst — pretty amazing work for a blue-eyed girl from Kansas City. Although my work today is wildly different, the parallels are quite astonishing, which I would only realize many years later.
In 2001 — just 3 months before 9/11 happened — my time in the Marine Corps was abruptly cut short due to an injury I sustained. I had planned to be a “lifer,” but now I had no idea where my journey was taking me. To be honest — I felt a bit lost. I instantly longed for the camaraderie and brotherhood with my fellow Marines and I missed the important national security mission we served.
Given my high security clearance and language skills, I began the arduous search for positions with all of the letter organizations like the FBI, CIA, DIA, etc. I waited but grew impatient as I was stuck in this professional purgatory — and decided to move on with my life. This chapter had closed.
I began working with a financial services firm that focused on serving the unique needs of military service members. I was grateful to retain the connection to the military and helping them to make good choices with their money so that when their time came to leave the military, they would be well-prepared to make that transition. Little did I know, my journey was starting to take shape.
Since so many military service members go on to work as federal government employees, the company naturally gained interest in expanding their work into the federal workforce. My years of working with the financial professionals in the field gave me a unique perspective into how to help them feel supported so they could serve this audience well.
But after working with the company headquarters, I realized we didn’t share the same vision — our respective missions were not aligned. I had the respect of the field force and the influence to inspire a great transformation in the way financial professionals worked with federal employees to give them confidence to make smart money decisions — I just couldn’t do it where I was, so I had to make a drastic change.
In 2008, at the height of the housing crisis and the Great Recession, I left that firm and started ProFeds in January of 2009. Today, we strive to simplify retirement planning for federal employees by providing training and pairing them with financial professionals who have specialized their practice to help this unique audience.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Shortly after I was hired with that company back in 2001, I was asked to interview for a position as a financial advisor. I was a tenacious go-getter and was ready for my next great adventure. In advance of my interview, I took a battery of assessments and profiles to determine if I was an ideal candidate for the position. The interviewer sat down and the first thing she said to me was, “I’ll make this interview very short — I’m not going to hire you because you’ll never make it in this industry.” The Marine in me only had one response: Challenge accepted.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
We were scrappy like most good entrepreneur firms are when they first get started. A great friend and mentor of mine said to me, “perfection is the enemy of ‘good enough’” and that really stuck with me. Now that’s not to say we shouldn’t strive to seek excellence — anyone who knows me would say that’s how I’m wired. What that phrase told me is that if I got stuck trying to perfect every piece of my business, I would be part of the staggering statistic of small business that fail. Most of them failed because they couldn’t articulate their vision and value to the people they served and get their message out. I had to stay focused yet scrappy.
Looking back on things like old website designs, presentations, and marketing materials, it is endearing to see the scrappiness and “make it happen” mindset that I had. Of course, many things have changed since 2009 — technology, capabilities, collaborations — so I smile and remind myself how far I’ve come since then. I learned so much in those early days, and that gives me the confidence to keep striving and learning.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been incredibly blessed to have so many amazing influencers in my life — both personally and professionally.
Of course, my mother was my first great influencer — always believing that I have something special that the world needs. Even my earliest memories of my mom were of her being strong, independent and tenacious — never letting tough situations get the best of her. I am very grateful for that foundation that my mom laid for me. She was my first raving fan.
I hope as my husband and I raise our family, that we can be that same influence for our three great kids. My daughter had a front row view of the start of the business and the fortitude it took to make things work. As she looks back on her childhood, I hope she remembers to dream big and go for it like her mom. Years later, I met my husband who likely had no idea what he was getting into marrying an entrepreneur — God bless him! As a bonus, I’m also lucky to be a stepmom to two boys who add great dimension and energy to our family. I’m very blessed.
As I grew up, there were countless others who drifted in and out of my life at various stages. Friends, teachers, coaches, fellow servicemembers, clients, entrepreneurs — and many people in between. We can take immense value from various relationships throughout our lifetime and allow those positive experiences to influence our direction and our determination to get there.
No life worth living will ever be without challenge or sacrifice, but the great influencers in life help you to overcome and even leverage those obstacles to grow. Sometimes even people who tell you that, “you’ll never make it” can propel you forward in incredible ways.
Overcoming adversity is a learned skill and it can be the fuel for giant breakthroughs and transformations. When faced with adversity, we often reflect upon our past experiences and lessons from people who have had immense influence throughout our lifetime to get through the challenge we’re facing. Surrounding yourself with positive, tenacious and loving people in your life can give you the confidence that you can handle whatever life — or business — throws your way.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
First, you’d better love what you do because you’ll live and breathe it every day. The idea of “being your own boss” sounds pretty great at first but fades quickly. You realize that you might be the worst person you’ve ever worked for! You might also discover that the “half days” that you thought you could work, turn out to be true — 12 hours a day sounds about right. You’ve got to really want it and be dedicated to your success to find real joy in entrepreneurship.
Second, find your “why” and pay attention to your unique ability that allows you to make your “why” a reality. That’s what people pay for and will cause the right kinds of people to be attracted to you.
Third, stay connected and surround yourself with a strong peer network. Becoming isolated is a surefire way to burnout and sometimes complete failure. For me, I’m part of several amazing peer groups — entrepreneurs, speakers, and business technology just to name a few. The real key is that these peers always have big futures ahead of them and they want that for you, too. These are often incredible collaborators who will fuel your energy, growth and vision. Choose your peers carefully.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Fantastic work culture starts by wanting the best for the people who dedicate a big part of their week to bringing your vision to life. If you don’t want your team to grow, expand their capabilities and believe they’re part of something great, then you’re doing it wrong. Care about your team, their families and what’s important to them.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact nearly every aspect of one’s life. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different. But In your experience, what are the 5 most common things that people wish someone told them before they retired?
We’ve conducted thousands of pre-retirement workshops for federal employees throughout the country. Although they certainly have some unique planning needs, they tend to have all of the same concerns that everyone else has as they step into retirement. It was tough, but I’ve narrowed this down to 5 overarching themes that are real eye openers for retirees looking back on what they wish they had understood before making the transition. And because I always encourage taking action, I’ve included a bonus idea that will make those 5 concerns go away.
- What got you here, won’t get you there. You’re playing a different game in retirement than you were while you were working. You consume life — and money — in very different ways. For instance, the steps you took to accumulate wealth will not help you to preserve wealth. Both are important games, but they have very different rules and outcomes.
- No plan survives first contact. Some look at financial planning as a one-time event. They sit down with a planner, lay out the situation, make their decisions and then they’re done. Wrong answer. Financial planning is a life-long event and so your plan should be flexible as life changes — because it will. We need to continually reassess our circumstances and make adjustments as necessary.
- Blind loyalty is dangerous. Unfortunately, many of us are creatures of habit — sometimes bad habits. We’ve done something for so long a certain way, that we develop a blind loyalty to a person or a program that no longer serves us well. Whether that’s an employer-sponsored program you’ve grown accustomed to or the author or TV personality that has been your source of broad-brush advice, let’s get real about how continuing to blindly follow these paths will affect us in retirement. Retirement is too important to leave in the hands of misplaced loyalties.
- All progress starts by telling the truth — and math doesn’t lie. The biggest reason most people don’t begin the financial planning process is because they are not ready to face the truth. The truth about what they want and the truth about the current path they are on. Sadly, many would rather wander blindfolded into retirement than to acknowledge what the math tells us is likely to happen and build a plan to capitalize on their situation. Math can be scary — and powerful — so let’s use it to our advantage instead of allowing it to paralyze us.
- Confused people take no action. The financial planning world can be complex. There’s a lot to take in and for the average person, that can be an extremely overwhelming process. Here’s what most people don’t want to admit when they’re confused: Not making a decision is a decision — it just might not yield the result you want. When we let ourselves get tangled up in the weeds, we have a hard time cutting through that complexity to feel confident to make the right decision.
- BONUS: Get professional help. Work with a financial professional who can help you to articulate what you want, identify what is currently in place, and build a strategy to fill in the gap. These steps are essential if you want to confidently step into retirement.
Let’s zoom in on this a bit. If you had to advise your loved ones about the 3 most important financial issues to keep in mind before they retire, what would you say? Can you give an example or share a story?
- Timing is everything, yet unpredictable. Whether we’re talking about the timing of taking Social Security, the timing of when to take that long-awaited cruise, or the timing of when a loved one passes, it all matters. The best thing we can do is to give ourselves options so that we’re not stuck making bad decisions at inopportune times in our lives. For instance, choosing to take Social Security at a certain age is vastly different than being forced to take it because you have no other option. In this case, you need the money so desperately that you can’t leverage the opportunities available within Social Security that yield a far better outcome. Money gives you options and freedom.
- Sometimes it’s not about you. Many of the financial decisions we make are really for the benefit of other people. That might be a life insurance policy to protect income for a spouse or provide a legacy to your children. That might be a long-term care strategy to keep from paying out of pocket if you need services so that you don’t drain the assets that you’d prefer to leave to your family. I encourage people to consider this: Think about the life you want for your family today and ask yourself the question, “Do you want that same thing for your family even if you’re not here?” If so, we have to get serious about having tough conversations about some big planning concepts.
- Taxes are the carbon monoxide of financial planning. Nobody loves tax time, but it’s inarguably worse when you are surprised by taxes. When you have not done serious tax planning as part of your financial strategy, you’re likely going to experience some less than desirable reactions when Uncle Sam extends his hand and wants to be paid. Sadly, many people think they will be in a significantly lower tax bracket when they retire only to find out that isn’t usually the case. You see, there are only two reasons why people end up in a lower tax bracket in retirement: 1) they either planned to be there with proper tax planning, or 2) they have less income than they had when they were working (spoiler alert: very few people want this to be true). Pay attention to planning strategies that give you flexibility to pick and choose how various buckets of money will be taxed in retirement.
If you had to advise your loved ones about the 3 most important health issues to keep in mind before they retire, what would you say? Can you give an example or share a story?
- Not having a purpose can manifest itself into physical problems. People’s jobs can give them great satisfaction and purpose on a day-to-day basis. When that retirement date arrives, many develop health issues because their routine and mental engagement is abruptly lost. Have a plan to create purpose-driven activities and get them started before stepping foot in retirement.
- Stay connected and engaged with your network. Many people form great friendships at work and feel disconnected once they retire. Even if they keep in contact with those friends, they may find that they have less and less in common with them as time goes on. Since you’re now retired, you likely have different priorities and interests than you did while you were working. This is a great time to expand your network of friends.
- Health in retirement starts way before retiring. We can’t wait until we retire to take care of our health. That starts long before we transition out of our working years. We need our health to enjoy a long, satisfying retirement!
If you had to advise your loved ones about the 3 most important things to consider before choosing a place to live after they retire, what would you say? Can you give an example or share a story?
- Proximity to family & friends. For many, moving too far away may cause you to feel alone or disconnected in retirement. Consider this carefully before packing your bags!
- Your activity level. If you’re an active person who enjoys being outside, it is important to make certain that the climate of the area you chose complements your activity.
- The financial consequences. Every area comes with its set of perks and downfalls — it’s up to us to weigh those carefully before making a decision. Since you want to be mindful of your money, pay close attention the housing costs, property taxes, and income taxes in each area.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Professionally, I’d like to be known for helping people to change their mindsets to make confident money decisions. It starts by acknowledging that we all have choices throughout our lifetime that shape us and our futures. Planning for retirement can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be. As serious as this topic is, it’s also important to bring levity where possible so we can enjoy the journey and the process of planning.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
The book that instantly comes to mind is “Start with Why,” by Simon Sinek. Ironically, he released this book in 2009 — the same year I started ProFeds — but it wasn’t until several years later that I read it. The overarching premise is that “people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” When I’m mapping out growth and innovation here at ProFeds, this concept is always woven into my thoughts. This is a mindset of continuing to create immense value for other people because we’re aligned with the same why.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Above my desk is a plaque my team made for me a few years ago. On it is a quote from the famous Zig Ziglar. It reads, “You can get everything you want in life, if you just help enough other people get what they want.” This serves as a reminder that life — and business — doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Just because you win doesn’t mean I have to lose. We can both win and be better for it in the end.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chris Kowalik is a federal retirement expert and frequent speaker to federal employee groups nationwide. In her highly-acclaimed Federal Retirement Impact Workshops, she and her team empowers employees to make confident decisions as they plan for the days when they no longer have to work.
As the developer of dozens of highly-regarded retirement planning materials for federal employees and the creator of the FedImpact Webinar and the FedImpact Podcast, Chris has also analyzed the challenging retirement scenarios for thousands of federal employees – helping them to avoid costly mistakes, and highlighting opportunities for them to gain greater financial security in their retirement years.
Chris’ candid and straightforward nature allows employees to get the answers they need, and to understand the impact these decisions have on their retirement. After all, if what you thought was true wasn’t, when would you like to know?