A smart way to make a career transition

Written by Vince Thompson, Contributing Editor

After a successful career running television stations, leading a part of AOL’s advertising sales business and ultimately serving as SVP of Online Advertising Sales for Univision, Byron Elton decided to take a break. When he returned to the business world, as President and COO of Carbon Sciences, Byron had what everyone talks about but often finds elusive...his dream job.

How did you decide it was time to leave the media business?

Initially the decision was just to stop working for awhile and spend time with my family. I was living in Santa Barbara, had an apartment in New York, and was essentially only home on the weekends. It was taking its toll, particularly on my relationship with my fifteen year old son. I had missed a fair bit of his older brother's senior year in high school and I knew I couldn't do that again.

What did you plan to do?

I was fortunate to have a successful exit from my last job and I wasn't under any real pressure to go back to work for some time. I assumed I would end up back in media but was planning on taking off at least a year. The plan was to be a full time father, husband and friend, get in shape, lose some weight, catch up on my reading, and travel. I am a new grandfather and I wanted to see my grandson whenever I wanted.

Did you have a goal?

The goal was to decompress, get back to the basics, live my life and spend my time on my terms. I determined that when I did return to full time employment, it would have to meet the following criteria ... 1) I wasn't leaving Southern California, no more bi-coastal gigs, 2) I would only consider opportunities that I found particularly interesting and that offered significant equity and 3) I would only work with and for people that I truly respected and liked, people that shared my core values about life and family. Over the months, I fine-tuned the criteria to 1) stay in Santa Barbara if possible, 2) do something not only interesting, but important and 3) stayed the same ... work with great people with complete integrity. Fortunately, I found all three in my current company.

How did you make your dream a reality?

My first response is that it all just fell into place but I have to think that it was much more than that. My mind was set on a different path and I think I was just more open to different possibilities. A former acquaintance became aware of my availability and reached out on behalf of Carbon Sciences. They were looking for someone with my skill sets to come in and run the company, the timing was perfect and the opportunity met all my conditions.

What does Carbon Sciences Do?

Carbon Sciences has developed a technology that recycles carbon dioxide emissions into liquid, portable fuel, offering a homegrown solution that addresses both the energy and climate crisis.

Why the Green business?

The world runs on energy. There is no larger or more important business than providing alternative energy to the world that is green and renewable. President Obama in his inauguration speech said, "Each day brings new evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten the planet." This is the biggest crisis and opportunity we face.

How do your skills translate?

Every business, every idea, every solution needs someone to tell the story as effectively and to as many people as possible. Clearly my background is neither technical nor scientific but I do bring the ability to communicate important and sometimes complex information in a compelling and understandable way. My primary responsibilities are in public and investor relations. My career in media prepared me well for my current charge.

How did you learn the business?

I went to school on the sector. I am fortunate to be surrounded by accomplished individuals who understand these issues well. They have been patient, extraordinarily helpful and crucial in my tutelage. I immerse myself each day in the latest developments in the business and endeavor to translate it back into language and word tracks that even I can understand. I remind myself that it is not my responsibility to neither work on the technology nor write the patents, but rather to understand it as it pertains to addressing the energy and climate problems.

What was your best management move this year and biggest mistake?

When J. Willard Marriott handed over the company to his son Bill, he gave him a list of advice. I thought it was telling that number one was "stay physically fit." I had let that slip recently because of travel, etc. My best move has been to start each day with yoga and aerobics. It has made a huge difference. My biggest mistake was agreeing to do a media interview with a very technical magazine, a publication for, you guessed it, scientists.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you this year?

It's only funny now, but that interview was a disaster. The interviewer was a published, highly regarded scientist in his own right and wanted to delve into the minutiae of our technology. He had little patience for anyone who wasn't a scientist, particularly someone who was pretending to know what he was talking about. The third question was about "smart particle, nano technology" and as I was trying to answer, he interrupted and said, "You don't know what you are talking about, that would violate the third law of thermodynamics!" The only thing I could think of was, "Well, I told you this was a breakthrough technology. Apparently, they didn't teach you everything at Princeton, which is probably why Einstein left!" That was the end of the interview but thankfully he didn't publish anything on us. I have subsequently put him in touch with our Chief Technology Officer who speaks the same language and they are getting along famously.

What advice do you have for a seasoned exec considering changing industries?

Don't put limitations on yourself. We tend to think that we are only qualified to continue to do what we have always done. Skills and talent in one business do translate to others ... the only difference is jargon.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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