From probation officer to health tech consultant

MBA grad reflects on her non-linear career path

Content warning: this story contains subject matter pertaining to sexual assault. For campus resources regarding this subject, visit this link


Growing up, Blair-Marie Coles always dreamed of becoming a teacher, but after graduating high school she experienced a traumatic event that would change the course of her life forever. She was sexually assaulted by a friend. 

After months of navigating the legal system to no avail, she emerged from the experience with a renewed sense of purpose. To make the world a more just and equitable place. It’s guided her career choices ever since. 

“I never in a million years would have thought that I would be where I am today. But I just keep thinking back to little Blair and thinking, you know what, she'd be really proud,” says Coles.

While Coles’ life’s mission has been singular, her career path has been anything but. She’s worked as everything from a probation officer to a business analyst. Most recently, she’s been working as a health technology consultant at CGI while completing her MBA from the Alberta School of Business part-time. 

“I believe that careers are journeys not destinations, and I am proud to be the sum of my journey so far. I've come a long way already and I'm just super excited to see where this journey leads me next.“

Now as a new MBA, Coles reflects on her career and shares tips on how to navigate a purpose-driven, non-linear career path. 

1. Keep your mind open

After her assault, Coles began volunteering with victim services and couldn’t help but judge the work of the probation officers. In her mind, their work was fundamentally at odds with her values because they supported offenders. But her worldview shifted dramatically after an eye-opening conversation with a probation officer. 

“She sat me down and explained that we were on the same team. She said, ‘I can't help prevent crimes in the past, but if I can help offenders develop tools and skills they need to not commit crime in the future, I can prevent further victimization.”

So, when Coles’ plan A of going to grad school directly after undergrad didn’t pan out, she decided to take an unexpected route. She applied to become a probation officer with Alberta Justice. 

“I decided to take a leap and what I found on the other side of that door was so much better than what I would've had if I had got what I really wanted,” she says. Over the course of seven years at Alberta Justice, she ended up working her way up from correctional service worker to business strategist. 

“If you can just keep an open mind, look for opportunity and be willing to take a risk you're probably gonna find yourself in the most incredible places.”

2. Always be looking for ways to grow

While working in corrections over the years, Coles started noticing that everyone in the head office had been promoted from jail guards and probation officers. Yes, they had a lot of experience, but they were lacking fundamental business skills around project management, change management and strategic management. Where others might just accept the status quo, Coles saw an opportunity to do something about it. 

“When I saw the U of A’s MBA with the public policy management specialization, I thought what an incredible opportunity to marry both worlds. I can take the operational experience that I had gained and add the theoretical side to better serve the public service.“

With the MBA in her rearview mirror, Coles is far from done with her learning journey. She may not know what the future holds, but what she does know is that further education will continue to be a central part of her career. 

“Education will absolutely be a lifelong pursuit. Whether that's very formal, whether I go get a PhD or another master's or it's just learning to quilt – it could be anything. I just think that life is short and you might as well just be a sponge and learn everything you can.”

3. Set and protect your priorities

With a full-time job and two kids at home, Coles had a lot to juggle as a part-time MBA student. It ended up being a crash course in setting boundaries to leave enough time and energy for her number one priority: spending time with her family. 

“I really held myself back in many ways because I knew that I was going to be on the edge of burnout the entire four years. So, I had to be very careful about what I said yes to when it came to school, and I really learned to start with the no.” 

Safeguarding family time has continued to shape her career post-pandemic, empowering her to shift directions from corrections to health administration. After enjoying the flexibility of working remotely with kids at home, she wasn’t willing to give up that freedom when government workers at Alberta Justice were asked to return to work in person. 

“Just because you can do anything, doesn’t mean you have to do everything,” says Coles.

Inspired by this motto, she now finds herself thriving in a completely new industry –  as a remote senior consultant at CGI, working with a provincial  Covid-19 response team. The change not only aligns with her values but also better suits her desired lifestyle. 

4. Articulate your life’s purpose

From the outside, it may seem difficult to connect the dots within Coles’ career trajectory. But every step follows an internal logic that is motivated by the desire to make a difference.

“The pursuit of justice has been the throughline of my career. Even when I moved up into the tech analyst role in corrections, I still found so much value in the work I was doing because I felt if there were things that I could do to save probation officers and administrative support staff time in data entry, that means they have more time to spend doing the work that really matters,” says Coles.

Guided by this clarity of purpose, Coles has been emboldened to take risks on new opportunities in disparate fields throughout her career. 

“I figure you just jump and either you fail and you learn or you've succeeded and you learn. But either way, you learn and that's a success. So just jump.” 


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