- Wise Words -
Know your type, choose your type
by yasmeen shaheen-mcconnell
Most Early Stage Professionals ("ESPs") enter the job market hoping for (or expecting!) a “perfect” job, but are not given the tools to identify what a “perfect” first job should be. For the nonprofit sector, at least, a key mistake can be to focus solely on the subject matter of a potential job or organization, rather than the key qualities of the position itself.
This focus comes from a culture that begins in high school which requires us to concentrate on subjects, rather than on skills. For ESPs it can be a mistake to limit ourselves professionally by sticking with the subject as the most critical component of our first jobs. The type of organization you choose to join, and the type of job you choose to do, will have a vastly greater impact on your success as an ESP than the “subject” focus of the organization that you join.
Early Stage Professionals rarely choose the nonprofit sector for inflated salaries (unforuntaely they are not!), but rather to make an impact, solve problems, do fascinating work, and change the world for the better. With these goals in mind it is easy to hyper-focus on the mission (aka subject) of the organization.
Often ESPs fall into the trap of only searching for jobs at organizations that align with a favorite class in university, rather than positions that will allow them to succeed and grow. As a 21st century human and future kick-ass professional, you have your whole life to become a subject-matter expert. Trust me when I say that focusing the first five years of your professional life on a specific niche issue or subcategory will not be predictive of your expertise at 45 or 65. So forget for a second your favorite subjects in class and ask yourself a few key questions about the work that you want to be doing.
Instead of focusing on mission, consider asking yourself two key questions:
1) What type of organization do I want to work at?
2) How close (or far) from the ground do I need to be to feel that I’m making an impact?
This process will allow for a few important things to happen:
1) You’ll broaden your job search to (potentially fantastic) organizations with incredible growth potential;
2) You’ll find a job that’s actually a good personality fit and that will allow you to succeed based on your skills; and
3) It will keep you from burning out of the social sector too early due to frustration from mismanaged expectations.
Because here’s a secret that newly-minted ESPs are rarely told: the actual type of work you do, and the culture (ok, “type”!) of the organization that you work at has a much greater influence on your day-to-day happiness, schedule, and success than subject does.
So, if we can agree that it is better to be “type cast" here are a few questions to ask yourself:
1) What’s Your Type?
Organizations vary greatly in size, mission, and how they function . Some deliver direct services and do so either locally and globally. Other organizations research and develop policy recommendations. Others act as experts that advise practitioners. Still others run campaigns, build tech solutions, or work with governments.
While all these organizations might work on the same subject, the day-to-day experience will vary. So ask yourself--Do I want to be in direct services? Or would I rather be in policy development? Or governance? Or programming?
Also ask yourself:
How close or far away from the ground do I need to be? Do I have to see and feel the results of my work on a day-to-day basis? Does impact have to be tangible in order for me to feel useful? If so, look for an organization that has at least some direct-service work, or one that’s focused on producing particular programs.
Do you get frustrated if you feel like you aren’t moving the needle on a larger scale? Do entrenched challenges seem daunting and your efforts too incremental? Do you enjoy working out the nuances of policy? If so, avoid small, direct-service providing organizations that won’t allow you to feel as if you’re making a broader impact. Look for work at organizations that can earn big wins through campaigns, or have the resources to do effective research or craft policy to be adopted by political leaders.
2) Size Matters
This one’s my favorite. There are all shapes and sizes of nonprofits that you can work for: mom-and-pop “shops” and agile start-ups, all the way through to prestigious and selective policy institutions, small governments and then big government.
The experience of working at each of these types of organizations will be vastly different.
Think about whether or not you thrive in chaos and ambiguity, because it’s exciting to have to build things from scratch. If so, consider applying at a small organization or a start-up looking for grit, talent, and audacity, where small teams, risk-taking, and steep leadership trajectories are more likely.
Or, do you excel on highly efficient teams in which your role and contributions to success are clear and attainable? Do you care about name recognition and well-developed work cultures? If so, consider looking for larger or more established organizations that have structure, so that you know your role and how your day-to-day wins fit into their picture of success.
As an ESP, take time to think through these questions and talk to people outside of your immediate peer group about these options, such as other alumni, mentors, career counselors, parents’ friends or even random people whose jobs seem cool. There’s a whole wide world of positions out there, so do a little bit of research on LinkedIn. Try to get some informational interviews and ask the professionals you meet what it is that they love about their jobs. Then, figure out what it is that you want to love about yours. Try to forget about the “subject” for a second and consider instead the way you want your work to feel. Since you’ll be going to this job day in, day out, for weeks and months and (potentially) years, you’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t think more broadly about what you want, what you enjoy, and what makes you tick.
Furthermore, these questions are where you can actually start to think about skills development. This is critical in the first few years of your professional life, because you’ll set yourself up for success and learn how to contribute to a team in ways that make you most effective. It will also help you think about what kinds of talents or skills you want or need to develop moving forward.
The Full Package
So if you want to be professionally satisfied and effective, forget for a little while about finding the perfect subject-matter fit, and think more about what kind of a team you want to be a part of, how you want your days to feel, and where you’ll thrive. You’ll set yourself up for success and, hey, you might even discover a new passion while you’re at it!
For budding nonprofit professionals (or even those in the private sector!), please let me know what you think of this piece and for all you veterans of nonprofit work, pipe up and let me know what it is that you love about your job at: YasmeenSM@gmail.com.
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