When I was searching for a job earlier in my career, a former classmate gave me advice that has stuck with me. Sometimes in your career, she said, you have to choose between manager and mission—should you work for a good manager or pursue a mission you’re passionate about, even if the management leaves something to be desired?
My friend thought that, especially early on, the manager was more important than the mission. As a social-impact professional, I had a hard time agreeing with her.
I got lucky: my next job had a mission I liked and a good manager. But you can’t always get both in the same job.
So, which one should you choose? Like many things in life, the answer is: it depends.
The case for choosing manager
Having a good manager not only affects the quality of your work life; it can also affect your ability to grow and advance. A good manager cares about your professional goals and wants to help you achieve them. They will proactively look for opportunities for you to build your skills and go to bat for you when needed, whether that’s advocating for you to attend a training or giving you new responsibilities.
Working for a good manager early in your career can give you a strong role model and mentor. When you’re first starting out, having someone to learn from—and look out for you—is arguably most important.
Working for a good manager early on also teaches you what to look for in your next job, so that you can hopefully avoid a toxic work environment in the future. In fact, the alternative—working for a horrible manager in your first job—can warp your perspective on what’s acceptable and “normal” at work in ways that are hard to unlearn.
The case for choosing mission
Many social-impact professionals are driven to the sector because of their passion for a specific mission, such as environmentalism, youth leadership, criminal justice reform, democracy, or another cause. They care about the cause so much that they want to spend the work day, one of the biggest chunks of time in the week, helping to advance that mission.
If working on that mission is essential to your job satisfaction and happiness, then choosing a job based on mission may be exactly what you need to do. Because without the “mission fit,” it could be hard for you to stay motivated at work. Over time, a lack of motivation could lead to burnout or cause you to slack off, which can hurt your career prospects.
Making the best decision for you
Ideally, you’ll find a job with a good manager and a mission that’s important to you (and remember: it doesn’t have to be the same mission for your entire career). But when you can’t find both in the same position, how do you choose?
One approach is to figure out what you need most at this point in your career. If you want to feel more connected to your work and develop your expertise in a particular issue area, then you may choose to prioritize mission over manager. On the other hand, if you want to leave your current job because you don’t feel supported or because you lack opportunities for growth, then finding a good manager may be more important right now.
There’s no wrong choice, and your choice doesn’t need to be permanent. Your wants and needs will inevitably change over your career. But as long as you know the qualities you’re looking for in a manager and the kind of impact you’re hoping to make at work, you’ll be on the right track.
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As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.