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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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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Everyone Must Step Up: A (Short) Manifesto on Nonprofit Leadership

Feb 5, 2013 by

Two articles and a recent staff retreat have got me thinking about the changing nature of leadership and mentorship in nonprofits.

Jack Marshall’s article over at Digiday titled “What Millennials Want: Mentorship” was actually written from the perspective of the for-profit sector, but it was incredibly relevant to us nonprofiteers as well. Jack discusses agencies that “talk a big game about appealing to young staffers, [but tend] to fall down on the most basic of requirements: training them and helping them along in their careers.” He offers two core reasons for this 1) that traditional sit-down-in-a-room-and-get-trained models of staff development are either not useful or barely even used anymore (because of companies cutting corners, etc.) and 2) that most managers are stretched so thin that they don’t have time to spend with junior employees providing guidance and feedback.step up

While business may have only started seeing this trend in the last few years, nonprofits have been seeing it for decades. In the interest of saving donors’ money, serving more people and getting a high ‘efficiency’ score on all those nonprofit rating lists (most of which are bullshit IMHO – but we’ll save that for another post), nonprofits have consistently cut – or in some cases never even offered – training to their staff. And as a ‘middle manager’ myself, I can testify to being stretched too thin to spend as much time as I want with those I supervise.

At my organization’s recent mid-year staff retreat, we had some extensive discussions about professional development, staff evaluations and knowledge-sharing. And if I may be frank, we were able to come to very few clear conclusions. Why? Not because we didn’t try or because people aren’t interested, but because each individual within the organization has different needs and desires in terms of his or her professional development. I’d go a step further and suggest that the many of the younger staff members have an all together different view from the senior management of what professional and leadership development should look like.

Enter Trish Tchume, the National Director of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. Her fantastic article on HuffPo titled “A Field Guide for Recognizing Millennial Leadership” was exactly what I was looking for in terms of a way to focus on solutions to the challenges presented above. In her post, Trish identifies transformational millennial leaders that are breaking down traditional notions of what a nonprofit leader looks like (both physically and reputationally). And they are doing it by doing what millennials do best: networking with others, crowd-sourcing solutions, ignoring ‘turf’ or toes that can be stepped on and understanding that great ideas can come from anyone, no matter whether or not they are ‘known’ in the sector.

We all must take part in being the change we want to see. Here what we can do make it happen:

  • Nonprofit organizations and senior leaders:
    • First, acknowledge the truth: the more you ignore and fail to develop your staff, the more they will put on their walking shoes and leave your organization behind. Not only does this significantly erode your nonprofit’s ability to execute its mission, but the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UC Berkley suggests that staff turnover often costs 150 percent of that person’s salary (translation: if that person makes $60K, you’re paying $90K to replace him or her). If the nonprofit efficiency ratings took those costs into account, they might actually be more helpful.
    • Second: institute training programs, even if its mostly staff training each other or attending very cheap local events. Even a couple each quarter can make a difference in terms of your staff’s productivity, knowledge and happiness.
    • Third: make staff development and mentorship part of your organizational culture – make sure both your managers and employees know that taking time for mentoring conversations is acceptable and even encouraged; mentor staff yourself; share your network with your employees and be open to suggestions for improvement from EVERYONE in the organization from interns to senior staff.
  • Managers
    • Push back when your time is assigned 100% to projects/programs and none to all to the other important work, including staff development. No one can realistically spend 100% of their day just on programmatic work (even eating lunch takes away from it), so make sure you don’t just accept when organizational leadership tries to do that.
    • Even when things are incredibly busy, do whatever you need to in order to prioritize staff development. Take time out for lunch with junior staff. Save time in meetings for non-programmatic topics. Go get coffee or a drink after work with your staff. Sit next to them on the airplane during travel and take some time to talk about their goals instead of just burying your head in your laptop. The list goes on.
  • Junior staff/millennials
    • Push for those training opportunities and then take them when they come. They may not be exactly what you need or want, but every one is an opportunity for growth or at least networking with your peers.
    • Ask for feedback constantly – Not just on the report you drafted or the email template you just built, but on your performance as a whole. Be proactive in telling your managers about your longer-term goals and aspirations. Ask lots of questions and ask for connections to others who can help. (After a while, you’ll train your managers to offer this without even soliciting it, so start now!)
    • Remember that things are changing and while you may be on the leading edge, everyone else is not. While you’re working on getting mentorship, training and feedback at the workplace, don’t forget about your personal/alumni/social networks. Volunteer or serve on a board with your peers (YNPN local chapters are a great option) and offer them constructive suggestions and feedback about their work – and ask for the same on yours.

Of course, these ideas just scratch the surface on what can and should be done to move the state of nonprofit leadership forward. What else do you want to see to bring the sector and its employees truly into the 21st century of leadership?

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The Quick and Dirty Guide to Standing Out in the Workplace

May 21, 2012 by

On Friday, May 18, I presented a session at the 2012 YNPNdc Annual Conference (hashtag = #ynpndc12) titled “The Quick and Dirty Guide to Standing Out in the Workplace.” My fellow colleagues from the YNPNdc Communications Committee live tweeted/blogged the session, as well as many others. The tweets from my session are below and you can find the full record of live blog posts on YNPNdc’s blog NETWORKdc.

Enjoy!

 

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Moving on up!

Mar 19, 2012 by

I’m really excited to share that I was recently approached about becoming a guest blogger at Opportunity Knocks, a national online job site, HR resource and career development destination focused exclusively on the nonprofit community. I’ve shared, used and borrowed from their resources for years so I was very happy to say yes! I’ll be posting there periodically and wanted to share my very first submission which went live on their website (and then was sent out in an email newsletter – even better!) a few days ago. To learn more about Opportunity Knocks, sign up for their newsletters, browse jobs and of course keep up with their excellent bloggers, head on over to their website.

Free Labor? Not Quite.

There are a lot of things that nonprofits have in common: tax status, mission-driven work, dedicated employees, and – the topic of this post – interns. The same goes for individual nonprofit professionals – at one time or another almost all of us have supervised interns.

Here’s what often happens: You ask for help and your boss tells you to hire an intern…but provides no further guidance or instruction because it’s easy. Right? Um, no. In fact I think that supervising most interns is actually harder than full time staff because they have very little experience and frankly they aren’t “beholden” to the organization by things like pay and benefits. So how do you make sure that the free (or even very cheap) labor provided by your intern doesn’t end up costing both of you a lot in wasted time, energy and frustration?

Here’s what you can do:

1) Calm down – Do not talk to your intern when you’re angry. In fact if you have any problems with your coworkers or significant others, don’t ever talk to them when you’re angry. You won’t be able to control your emotions or the conversation.

2) Write it down – What is the problem as you see it? How long has it been going on? What specific examples do you have of unprofessional behavior or work not getting done? Tip: if you don’t have specific examples, you may want to reexamine whatever you think is a problem to make sure it actually is one.

3) Schedule a private meeting – This is not the time for a hallway or bathroom conversation. It needs to be scheduled and it needs to be private; you don’t want your intern to feel ganged up on nor do you need to involve anyone above you during the first conversation.

4) Explain your concerns using “I” language – Telling someone about all the things he or she is doing wrong (even if you are correct) is a sure fire way to make him or her feel attacked and then defensive. Instead, frame your concerns just like that: as YOUR concerns. It is entirely possible that your intern is not aware of how his or her actions are affecting you so let that person know.

5) ListenSimple yes, but not always easy. Understand that something may be going on that you don’t know about – and the only way you will learn about it is by listening to what your intern is saying. Do not just smile and nod: actively listen, take notes if you need to and then repeat back what you hear to make sure you got it right.

6) Set up a plan to resolve the issue – Once you’ve said your piece and your intern has said his or hers, the next step is to figure out how to work on fixing whatever is broken. What do you need? What does your intern need? The next steps must be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound; basically at the end of the following month (or whatever time parameter you choose) you should know whether each step has been achieved. This may be the most important part: your intern generally doesn’t have years of experience to fall back on so he or she needs very clear guidance from you in order to excel.

7) Follow up – After some time has passed, have another private meeting to talk about how things are proceeding. If things have gotten better, you can choose to continue following the plan you laid out or take a step back. If things have not gotten better, then it’s time to consider whether more serious steps are warranted.

I hope these steps will help you – and your interns – get even more great work done!

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