Last year at this time, I had just graduated with my MPA. I’ve been at my current job for a year now. I’m about to have a birthday next week. Each year that I get a little closer to 30 than 20, I think about what’s changed for me in the last decade or so. Mostly, I’ve been thinking lately about the kind of leader I already am, the kind of leader I hope to be, and the kind of leaders who surround me, who are both older and younger. This post is mostly about what I wish someone would have told me before I started working.
Optimism and dreaming big
When I graduated from college, I thought I was going to change the world. Seriously. I thought I was going to rush in and get rid of poverty or completely revolutionize the juvenile justice system or challenge everyone to commit their lives to service. I also thought I was going to be able to do those things right away, with the plan I had in my head, which was obviously the right one because it contained all these best practices I’d learned about in school. I’ve been in the nonprofit sector for the better part of six years now, and I’ve learned that unfortunately, best practices are just that- great guidelines to follow. A lot of times, these things won’t work in your organization because of your community’s demographic or your organizational culture or the brand or because people in your organization just plain don’t like your idea. It’s not the end of the world to have your ideas shot down- in fact, having your opinions challenged can make you better. Never stop bringing your big ideas to the table. I have felt energized recently by being around younger people who believe anything is possible and that our work is valuable. I also know that millennials have a tendency to be viewed as having ideas that are TOO big. I’ve learned how to scale my ideas and tailor them for an audience. Which leads me to this…
Do your homework. (And respect your history.)
Before you show up with your shiny millennial, foolproof ideas, it’s really important to ask questions about your organization and particularly, what’s been tried before. What has been the experience of the people around the table? Did something happen five years, ten years, or twenty five years ago that might influence the way your plan needs to be carried out? Organizational history is important, and it’s not something to be hastily shoved aside. As millennials, we want innovation and change quickly. We live in a world where we can constantly edit with the touch of a button, but when you work for a nonprofit, if you change your plans (your services, your mission, even your staff), you’re affecting many more people than just those who sit in your planning meetings. People’s attitudes and opinions of your organization’s brand can’t be edited quickly by you if you do something that doesn’t work for your stakeholders.If you’re taking over a new position from someone who has laid a foundation, like it or not, you’re inheriting everything that goes along with the way that person did their job. Everything they did might not be the way you’d go about it, but it’s critical to look at their processes and decide what DID work so you can maintain consistency for outsiders. Your ideas and processes may be different (and ultimately better), but it’s all about how you present your case for change. Do your homework and you’ll gain the respect of other people around the table.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Cliche, but true, the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn is that it takes time to build anything. Whether it’s a program or your reputation or anything else, it will take time. It’s okay if you aren’t where you thought you’d be, if you aren’t where your peers are, and if you have no idea where you’re going. You have to start somewhere. I was floored recently when I was at a volunteer recognition event. I’ve put in over 100 hours of volunteer time for this organization in two years. I never looked at the number of hours as a goal- I volunteer because I think it’s fun, because I believe strongly in the mission, and because I wanted to get to know other people who believe that, too. I was struck when someone turned to me and said, “Gee, how could we ever compete with that?” I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or put off. My answer is that you don’t… because it’s not a competition. You can only do a limited number of things, so you find out what’s important to you, you start doing it, and then you keep doing it. If you keep doing it long enough, you’ll find natural points in your relationships and life where growth happens.
Be careful how you present things.
This last point is something that I struggle with. As a fundraiser, volunteer manager, and social media manager, a lot of my job is obviously to present a brand in a positive light. As a leader, it’s critical to maintain a positive attitude and appearance, right?Maybe. I also think it’s important to be honest, especially when you’re asking other people to work with you. Letting people know that their help is truly needed and appreciated is a greater motivator than pretending everything is wonderful and under control. It’s crucial to show other people how they can contribute and then recognize those individual contributions. The key is to ask them to help you prevent, grow, or improve something- not to save or dig something out of a hole. I see a lot of millennials who strive for perfection. They tell their friends, family, coworkers, bosses, and everyone else that everything is perfect, going great, and there are no struggles because they have it all under control. Most of the time, this isn’t even true, and eventually, they’re going to drop one of the balls that are in the air. Asking people to help you isn’t a sign of weakness- it’s a way to build a strong team. And you need a team. In my efforts to become a better professional, there hasn’t been one time where I’ve done something completely alone. I’ve had mentors and peers who contributed, questioned, encouraged, and even flat out disagreed with me about things. All of that stuff can make you better if you let it.
I’m looking forward to what the next year has in store….