Most of us have seen it. That famous opening scene in “Office Space” where our workplace hero receives three passive-aggressive redirects from three different managers, regarding an administrative mistake.
This is a familiar scenario playing out in nonprofit offices across the country. When senior management teams are overwhelmed, often, one hand doesn’t know what the other several hands are doing. This dysfunction leads to systematic breakdowns in the ranks below. Unfortunately, nonprofit leadership teams are especially susceptible to this as they are more likely to agree to do more with less when asked to forgo for the sake of the cause.
It’s hard enough to up-manage your boss, but if you’re a junior member struggling with leadership-level staff who are maxed out in a matrix organizational system, here are some ways to help them, help you.
1. Work that meeting
Meetings may be the only time you’ll have to connect with your senior management team. Make sure you turn each one into an opportunity:
- Be prepared. There should be an agenda that goes out before the meeting. If not—or if it’s rather sparse—tactfully recommend revising it or rethinking the meeting strategy. If a practical agenda is distributed, make sure you review it and are prepared to participate.
- Speak up. Meetings are an opportunity to make an impression on your senior team. So, don’t sit in the back staring at your phone, speak up, ask intuitive questions, and initiate a discussion topic when you have a good idea.
Pro Tip: Don’t tempt yourself. Whenever possible leave your phone behind!
- Stay involved outside of the meeting room. If members of your management team are new to you, they may not yet know what you’re capable of. To spark mutual trust, reach out, join a committee, volunteer to spearhead a task force, or jump on as a contributor to a cross-departmental project. Don’t make work for work’s sake, but don’t hesitate to say “yes” to a productive prospect that can show off your skills.
If a management team isn’t assigning you to any meaningful projects, they might be inadvertently standing in the way of your professional progress. Here’s how to help inspire delegation:
- Communicate. New employees may avoid asking important questions—fearing it will expose their ignorance. Clear up that communication chasm pronto. And if you’re not sure what your next steps are, you should be honest with your manager. A frank conversation, or better yet a brainstorming session, will go a long way to revitalize your to-do list. Here are some tips to help organize where you should be in your first 90 days.
- Clarify your role. If you’re being pulled in a few different directions, or completely ignored, track down your immediate boss, set up a time to talk, and together outline your responsibilities and the chain of command. It’s a good idea to review your job description before the meeting. If your boss isn’t letting you do your job as it was described in black and white, recognizing this together will make it easier to put solutions on the table. This will also give you an opportunity to try to take a few projects off management’s overloaded plate.
If a troubled management team isn’t paying you the attention you need or deserve, you may have to be inventive to get noticed.
Pro Tip: If you have new colleagues, or are new yourself, invite coworkers out for a cup of coffee. Initiating this friendly connection can go a long way as new projects and opportunities arise.
- Build bridges. The familiar rhetoric of “step outside of your silo,” and “don’t exist in a vacuum,” can carry some weight. Reach across that divider and make plans to collaborate with other departments. This is your opportunity to work outside the box and get noticed.
- Log some face time. If you rarely see your boss in person, stop by their office, and if their office is remote, find a legitimate reason to set up a Skype or FaceTime meeting. Err on the side of caution with frequency, but the occasional personal outreach instead of an email can go a long way.
- Heads up! It’s possible your boss isn’t interested in having you move out from under his shadow. If you think you have a restrictive boss, you’ll have to work creatively to get yourself noticed without going behind your boss’s back. Try volunteering for activities (especially those that are important to your organization’s goals) during a meeting. If people hear you volunteer, especially people who are senior to you, it will be hard for your boss to say no.
As you move forward try to keep a few things in mind:
- Avoid gossip or complaining to your colleagues. Don’t discuss your frustration with management or detail your efforts to revamp the leadership team from below. No matter where you work, your words will likely come back to haunt you.
- Be mindful and take care. Keep yourself grounded and say no when you’re stretched too thin. The extra projects, committees, and collaboration should help you to stand out, but remember to cherish and take care of you.
It’s hard to manage up so try to remember, you’re working for a cause you are passionate about, and you’re taking charge of your own career development. As a result of your efforts you’ll have gained valuable professional and interpersonal experience. You got this!
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About the Author | With a background in the performing arts and journalism, Caroline Rodriguez understands the often motley course of career change. She’s been a reporter at NPR, a music teacher, and co-managed a yoga resort in in northern Michigan. Her passions include helping at-risk youth, supporting women’s rights, and encouraging girls to study science.