The next big thing

Jun 17, 2013 by

Four years. That’s how long I worked at Smart Growth America (SGA). That’s twice as long as I’ve been at any job before (hell, that’s longer than most political terms of office or a Hollywood marriage). The last four years have also included some of the most profound personal, professional and business-related milestones I’ve ever experienced in my life: getting married, buying a house, starting my career coaching side hustle, serving as a YNPNdc leadership team member, being appointed to serve on the Arlington County Transportation Commission and probably dozens of other things I can’t even remember.

My experience at SGA, combined with all of these other experiences, have led to me to where I am today: accepting a job with Rescue Social Change Group (Rescue SCG) as their Youth Engagement Director. This new position is quite a departure from the work I was doing on smart growth, community development, land use and transportation to a focus solidly on social change among youth, with a particular focus on health issues – especially anti-tobacco use and anti-obesity. I wasn’t particularly looking for this opportunity (or any other job for that matter), which seems to make it even more serendipitous.

But here’s the thing: it’s exactly where I need, want and PLANNED to be, right from the beginning.

Remember how I was going to change the world? My method for doing that was to organize, outreach, advocate and create social change by training and teaching others to do it effectively. Several years ago, I decided that my goal was to lead the field department of a major national nonprofit. Now, Rescue SCG isn’t a nonprofit – it’s actually a for-profit so this will be my first foray into that sector – and they don’t technically have a ‘field’ department, but I will be managing a team of staff on the ground, working with youth to do targeted campaigns to reduce tobacco use and obesity among their peers. In other words: I get to do almost exactly what I set out to do over 10 years ago when I started this journey known as my career. Awesome!

After my last big job search, I wrote a series of posts sharing a bunch of tips and resources for job searching (here, here, here, here and here). While I’m still completely on-board with those tips, I thought I’d write a little bit about the different type of job search inherent in a director-level job.

Here are three things I think were a big part of my success in landing this new job:

  1. While I was asked to apply for this new job, I wasn’t 100% qualified for it – and I knew that. Taking over a large team scattered all around the country when I have only supervised a few associates, fellows and interns based in a central office? Managing multiple client relationships simultaneously when I’ve only ever managed one or two at a time? I didn’t have everything I needed for this job. But what I did have was lots of different kinds of experiences in management, client relationships, etc., a willingness to learn, grow and get better and a fire in my belly to take this next step in my career. In fact, I was actually told that this fire was part of the reason I was hired. That fire and the drive to succeed can and will be recognized by those hiring for senior level managers.
  2. Again, even though I wasn’t actively searching for a job, I was prepared if an opportunity came up (you know how I feel about being prepared, especially as a job seeker). When I got asked to apply, it only took me a few days to pull together my application materials; my resume was already updated and I had writing samples ready and waiting. The only thing I needed to write was the cover letter. Maybe more importantly, I had a storehouse of good, recent examples demonstrating my management skills, budget experience, campaign knowledge, etc. The ability to answer some of those difficult questions with relevant examples certainly made interviewing easier for me and likely helpful for my new employer in making their decision.
  3. Finally, I interviewed them as much as they interviewed me. I must have asked at least 15 to 20 questions in each interview I did and of course did a ton of research on their website, did Google searches and checked out LinkedIn profiles. When accepting a senior level position with a lot of responsibility, I think that its only fair to have a really complete picture of what you’ll be expected to do as well as when, how and what types of serious organizational decision making you’ll be asked (or required) to do. Even if your goal is to gain that decision-making authority, transitioning from a role where you don’t have much of it to one where you may have all of it is pretty daunting and you need to know where you stand before you say ‘yes’.

With all of this in mind and the promise of a very busy schedule for the foreseeable future, I’m going to take a hiatus from writing in this space for the next few months. I want (and need!) to be able to get a handle on everything before I can reasonably split my attention again. But don’t worry: with my new role, new responsibilities and new challenges will come lots of great fodder for the blog. In the interim, you can of course connect with me on Twitter and I’ll still be offering career coaching services, especially resume and cover letter review.

Thanks so much and wish me luck!

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Crazy: A Review of April

May 16, 2013 by

April was…crazy. Personally, professionally, in all ways absolutely crazy. It seems like every month this year has been crazy, which makes it doubly hard to focus on maintaining peace in mind. Nevertheless I’ll continue working on it.

April’s review

Here are a few key things that happened this month:

  • I went out eating, dancing and drinking with a couple of my best girlfriends on a weekend when Dan was out of town. We ended up closing down a bar at 2:30am which hasn’t happened in a long time. Even though I was really tired the next day it was so much fun! I really love to dance and often forget how important it is to me.My_neighborhood_in_bloom.
  • Dan’s birthday was this month so I took him out for a Caps game and a night on the town. Again, we had so much fun. Hockey is absolutely my favorite sport to watch in person and it was a great game. As always, spending dedicated time with my hubs was the best part of this trip.
  • I presented at a conference on supervisory skills (and then wrote a blog post about it). I haven’t presented to this audience before, so it was a great opportunity to get to know some new people and continue building my business.
  • We hosted our housewarming party – finally! It was great to see so many old friends and meet/play with their little ones. There are more and more kids among my group of friends so our parties have changed quite a bit since the old days 🙂
  • I attended and participated in several meetings for my usual transportation groups and commissions as well as the short-term parking group I’m on.

All in all, it was an exhausting month, especially because work was very busy as well. The biggest personal milestone that happened this month was the housewarming party and finally “opening” the house up for visitors. Several people hadn’t seen our place yet, so it was great to show off the new kitchen and all the work that went into making the house ours.Farragut_Square__dreaming_in_the_sun_while__zachsmith_101_and_I_grab_lunch_at_the_food_trucks.

The biggest business milestone I accomplished was to get my new website design and header launched (after far more hours of work than I originally intended to put into it). Getting that launched was sometimes an exhausting and frustrating process, so you can bet I won’t be doing it again soon! But it did allow me a chance to more clearly highlight the coaching work I can do with people (you maybe?) and the great content already on the blog.

The most valuable lesson I learned this month is that I need to take advantage of mental downtime whenever and where ever I can. There were, quite literally, almost no hours of any day in April when I wasn’t working, traveling somewhere, reading in preparation for something, cleaning, cooking or any number of other things. So when I had a chance to walk slowly home a couple of times through the beautiful spring foliage in my neighborhood or just stare out the window during my bus ride instead of doing work, it was a real balm to my mind and soul.

Next month

For the rest of May, I’m going to focus on taking time to relax whenever I can. I’m also going to work on trying to parcel out my time carefully so that I can try to preserve some of it for relaxation while still getting my work done.

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5 more supervision skills

Apr 23, 2013 by

In all the time I’ve been writing this blog, the most popular post I’ve ever written (by a huge margin), was “7 Skills for Supervision Success.” That is very telling to me. It tells me I should write most posts about it because people still need and want them. The role of supervisor remains one of the most important, but under-respected and under-trained in organizations everywhere.

And its not just nonprofits; I recently spoke at the National Association of Government Communicators 2013 Communications School and the folks in my session echoed what so many of you have said to me in the past about your struggles with supervising. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I do want to try to provide more support to those of you who have been thrust into supervision without the training and guidance you need or want.

To that end, here are 5 more supervision skills to add to your playbook:5

  1. Allow room for innovation – When a big project or piece of a project comes up and you decide to delegate it to someone you supervise, it can be tempting to give them all sorts of instructions on what to do and how to do it. And occasionally, that’s warranted – like when it’s a financial report or some other thing that has clearly defined rules and polices surrounding it. But, in general, you probably need to back off. Even if you think you know exactly the best and most efficient way to do it, you still have to provide room for the person you supervise to innovate and try something new. They may just figure out a new and better way to do something.
  2. Provide room to learn – How does someone learn to perform a new task or build a skill? Some of us get a bit of training and are then thrust out into the field to put training into practice immediately. Some of us are shown exactly how to do something and told it replicate it exactly. Some of us are asked to do something and then are just expected to figure out with no outside assistance. As a good supervisor, your job is to ensure that those you supervise don’t suffer through any of these ‘methods’, but instead learn through a combination of the best parts of each. You should provide training, actual hands on experience and modeling for those you supervise so that they can learn the way you’ve done it and figure out their own ways of making it work.
  3. Allow room for failure – This one may be the toughest on this list because it requires you to purposely step back and allow someone you probably like and trust to go down. (And it assumes that you can see it coming, not that it snuck up on both of you.) I’m not suggesting that you allow a major, deadline-driven project to tank just so someone you supervise can grow. What I am suggesting is that allowing room for innovation includes the potential for failure and that it’s important for that to happen in order for you both to learn. If you constantly swoop in to ‘fix’ something before it’s run it’s course, the person you supervise will never learn how to fix it him or herself and may feel resentful because you’re always butting in. In other words: butt out.
  4. Encourage positivity – I’m not someone who enjoys cheesy, fake expressions of interest or forced celebrations, but I do know that sometimes you have to grit your teeth and smile – even if you don’t want to. What’s more, if you start smiling, others will too; then they’ll get used to it and might actually start internalizing the positive emotions a smile brings. By creating a little positivity and encouraging others to spread it, you’ll find that your team is generally more happy anyway which will make even dull tasks a little more fun.
  5. Celebrate! – In my 7 Skills post, I mentioned giving credit (and taking responsibility) to others on your team. Celebration is little bit broader and usually involves a few more people too. Nonprofit, mission-focused people are often so focused on the next thing to do that they forget to celebrate victories that have happened, no matter how small. But during the celebration please don’t bring out your speech about how this is only the first step in a longer slog to ultimate victory; you’ll only depress people by making them think of all the work ahead. Instead, just bask in the victory and let them do the same.

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Linking Things Up: Put up or shut up edition

Mar 20, 2013 by

Y’all know I love a good rant and that I also love a call to action that seeks to push people beyond their boundaries and get them thinking in different ways about the work they’ve always done. That’s why I picked each of these posts. Enjoy!

  • Overcoming the Limits of Nonprofit Advocacy on Budget and Tax Issues by Patrick Lester on The Nonprofit Quarterly’s bloglinks – For most of my career, I’ve worked on advocacy efforts; but I’ve seen many nonprofits that will not take a stand either because they’re afraid of offending people or they think they can’t. Patrick Lester calls out some major nonprofits for their short-sighted approach to advocacy and notes that not only are many of our organizations largely funded by government grants/programs, but that the budget fights on Capitol Hill we hear so much about have direct impacts on the clients we serve.
  • Career Resilience: The Four Patterns that Should Guide All Your Career Moves by Michele Martin on the Bamboo Project Blog – Michele always offers insightful posts and this one is no different. She writes about a job market that no longer keeps us held to one company, job or even job role for very long and gently but firmly encourages us start practicing the art of being resilient and bouncing back. This post is for everyone, whether you’re secure in your career or not.
  • Stop Asking and Start Listening by Thaler Pekar on the SSIR Blog – Thaler admits in this post that she doesn’t have a lot of faith in the power of listening exercises. But a unique situation shows her that even the act of asking questions during a conversation can sometimes mean you aren’t listening. And without listening, there can be very little understanding.
  • People are depending on your leadership. So show up. by Allison Jones on her blog – The title says it all. No matter how tired, scared, irritated or shy you are, people are still depending on you to show up and lead. Read the full post for Allison’s great suggestions on how you can push yourself to lead (even when you don’t want to).
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You can lead kickass meetings and trainings

Sep 13, 2012 by

I’ve ranted about crappy meetings and conference presentations in this space before, but I needed to come back to it in light of the somewhat ridiculous number of meetings, conferences and trainings I’ve been planning and attending lately.

Designing trainings and other adult learning experiences is one of my deepest passions and I spend a LOT of time thinking about how to make them interesting, fun and useful. The same came be said for meetings I lead (though to a slightly lesser extent – its hard to make most meetings fun, no matter how great you are at planning them).

Here are a few suggestions for making your next meeting or training as kickass as it can be:

  • Plan, plan, plan and be prepared – You’re shocked right? The Queen of Planning suggests you plan yet again? Why yes I do. Whether you’re giving a conference session or a training, you should spend AT LEAST double the amount of time the actual session takes planning for it. Along with a coworker, I’m giving a full two-day presentation in early October. Even though each of us have presented on similar topics before, we’ve already spent at least 10 hours prepping and we’ll spend at least 15 to 20 more before we’re done (all for a total of about 12 training hours). For regular meetings that I lead, I spend anywhere from 10 minutes to a few hours prepping for them – the prep includes following up on action items from the last meeting, developing an agenda and making sure any key documents are close at hand before we step into the meeting.
  • Decide on outcomes and goals – This fits into the ‘plan’ category above, but deserves its own separate mention. You should NEVER walk into a meeting, training or conference session without some idea of the goals and outcomes you want to come out with on the other end. It can be as simple as “people will feel they’ve learned something” and as complicated as developing a full workplan for a project you’re doing. Either way, you need to know what is coming out of the meeting and communicate it to others OR cancel the meeting before it even starts.
  • Customize and be Flexible – At this point, I have a few standard trainings that I’ve given several times. While I love designing new trainings, giving a tried and true presentation is so much easier and can be just as fun. The key is that you’ve got to make it relevant to the audience to which you’re speaking. Each training, presentation or meeting should be customized based on that audience and you should also be flexible in case of changes. One never knows what may come up: someone gets sick, a new person joins your meeting at the last moment, the projector won’t work, etc. If you’re prepared and know what your outcomes are, you can flex and bend with the changes.
  • Go with the Flow – This one is a bit more difficult to learn admittedly, but if you think about meetings or trainings you’ve sat through where you jarringly moved from one topic to another or the speaker didn’t explain how an example connects to the overall theme, you’ll know what bad flow means. Try to think of your training and meeting like you used to think about writing papers in college: you start out with a thesis statement, provide some evidence points and then conclude by reiterating your thesis. A meeting or training should be the same and it should make sense.

Now: go forth and kick ass in all of your meetings and trainings!

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