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How Aspirational Managers Position Themselves to Lead a Team

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Elizabeth Nielsen began managing 17 years ago. She was responsible for leading a team of seven AmeriCorps members, most of whom were older than she was.

In her career to date, Elizabeth has directly managed over 50 people and hired dozens of managers.

I first met Elizabeth at City Year in 2002 when, as the Director of Service, she supervised 8 staff members and oversaw the 100 AmeriCorps members they managed and I was lucky to have Elizabeth as my manager in 2006 when we both worked in the organization’s development department.

Elizabeth currently serves as the Senior Development Officer for the Valley Medical Center Foundation. She currently manages five staff - most of whom are are still older than she is. I had a chance to ask her questions about being a manager. Our conversation is below:

How did you know when you were ready to be a manager?

“To be honest, other people told me I was ready to be a manager. I had really great mentors around me who saw potential in me and told me I should try it. I knew the work, believed in the organization, felt I could be effective and had some ideas about how I could improve the role, so I went for it.”

You have hired plenty of managers, what do you hire for?

  • Do you hold yourself to a high personal standard in your own work? This tells me when you are a manager, you will expect a high level of work from others.
  • How flexible are you and can you engage with those who work differently than you to get positive results? Most people will be successful if they only managed people like them. What I look for is how flexible you can be in adapting your style to those around you.
  • Are you positive, and can you remain positive, even in a challenging situation? Managers have to be cheerleaders for their team, I want to know if you can be this way when things get hard.
  • Do you have a clear understanding and enthusiasm for the type of work management is? Can you articulate what you might be sacrificing in terms of time and friend relationships at work to step into the role?
  • #1 telltale sign someone is ready: Can you successfully set and maintain a professional distance from those you supervise? I have seen every manager I know struggle with this at some point in their career. Can you prioritize the needs of your team ahead of your own? (Example: Making a necessary yet unpopular decision instead of the one that will make you liked by your team.) Managers need to maintain a professional distance to be effective. What’s tough is that it’s natural to reach out and want to have friendly relationships with staff, and as you ascend in management roles, it can get lonely and your peer group shrinks. Even with experienced managers, this can be an ongoing struggle.

What advice do you have for new or aspirational managers?

  • Ask versus tell. Don’t fall into the trap that as the manager you need to have all the answers. When talking with your direct reports, shift your mindset from “I’m the manager, I know how to do it all” to “You’re in the job, you probably know how to do it and as your manager, how do I help you do it better?” A manager’s job is to ask good questions and help people generate their own solutions.
  • Seek out opportunities in your current role to step up and be seen as a manager. Seek out opportunities to show that you are comfortable being seen as a leader and in a management role overseeing the work of others.
  • Get some formal training in management. CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and Future Learn offer management training - some even free!

Final question: Agree or disagree, leadership and management are the same thing.

Management is external, leadership is internal. Anyone can be a leader. Management is focused on other people, not you.

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About the Author: Megan O'Leary has 13 years experience developing programs, fundraising, leading and serving in the social sector tech and education space. She is a proud AmeriCorps alumna and loves helping people connect to their strengths as leaders. She lives in Portland, Oregon and currently serves as the YNPN Portland Board Chair.

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