Creating your career story in the nonprofit sector, part II: Interview with Pamela Slim

Yesterday, I shared a review of Body of Work by entrepreneurship guru Pam Slim. In the book, Pam tackled the challenge of building a meaningful career in today’s changeable world of work. After reading the book, I was thrilled to follow up with her and we chatted about mentoring, the new world of work, and why we need to say goodbye to the workplace mafia culture. Our interview below has been edited and condensed.

In your book, you describe a change in the working world – defined, continuous career paths are less likely and people must piece together their own body of work. When did you start noticing this shift?

Pam Slim
Pam Slim

For me, it’s actually been a couple decades. I remember as early as ’93 when my dad –who I feature in the book– survived a series of layoffs in his own organization. I noticed early trends when I working as a business consultant, too, and then again later on when I branched out on my own. I saw so many specific examples of organizations that had been doing really well, but then went through a change of leadership, or the market shifted, or something else, where all of a sudden they had to make a change, let people go, restructure jobs.

That’s when I began to form my early views about why it’s so important to always think of yourself as being self-employed and directing your own career. I learned that people really need to be proactive in making sure they’re always marketable both inside and outside of organizations.

These views were really reinforced during the recent the economic downturn when I began to see others fully realizing these trends I had been seeing all along. It felt like a huge shock wave; like, all of a sudden, there was a crack in our global psyche, and it was extremely painful for all those who lost their jobs or whose businesses suffered. One positive result is that it has made all of us much more realistic, and aware that you can’t count on anything to last in your career. In some ways, it can be more dangerous to assume that everything’s going to be okay or that it’s going to go back to the way it used to be.

Is it also dangerous for organizations that do not buy into the “body of work” theory? What does this mean for employers?

I think it’s very relevant in organizations, especially within the nonprofit sector, where organizations need to constantly engage with partners and conceive of new approaches in an economy that is less stable than its ever been, where they can’t rely on any one source of funding. In a way, they are building their own diverse body of work.

One of the organizations that gets it right is Not For Sale, founded by David Batstone with a mission to end modern day slavery. Not For Sale maintains a really interesting mix of active social media and social enterprise projects as a way to communicate and directly address the circumstances that are really creating slavery.

Looking at it from a talent management perspective, I really believe that we need to be thinking differently about how we’re managing people in organizations, considering that most people will not spend their entire careers in one place. The more that managers can understand and recognize each individual employee’s body of work, the better. In my first book Escape from Cubicle Nation, I talk about this problem in terms of the mafia culture in organizations: while you’re in an organization you’re very beloved and respected, but once you suggest wanting to leave, then somehow, all of a sudden, you’ve betrayed the family.

I think that’s a very unrealistic and unhelpful view that can be a detriment to both individuals and organizations. Even after they leave, employees still have valuable contacts, references, and relationships to share. If we all take more of an adult perspective and realize that nothing is really going to last forever, we can find ways for people to be excited and engaged in what they’re doing when they are there. We also need to create more short-term projects rather than initiatives that are so huge that people don’t get the satisfaction of seeing results.

In the nonprofit environment, where employees wear many hats and struggle with limited time and resources, how can a person carve out a space to contribute to his or her own body of work while still meeting the demands of the job? What about younger professionals who may be expected to “pay their dues” before taking on more meaningful work?

It’s very important to be aware of the specific skills, strengths, and experiences you want to develop while you’re in an organization. When you are conscious about what it is you want to learn, wearing many hats at a nonprofit organization may actually afford you more opportunities than a larger organization with more definite boundaries between roles. Often, there is the chance to expand your body of work and that of your organization at the same time. I’ve always had that kind of perspective: I don’t stay focused on my individual role. I always make time to take other people to lunch from different departments, building relationships, and learning new things.

If you’re constantly looking ahead to what you want to create in the future–maybe it’s your own organization, maybe it’s a role where you can have more impact and influence–you are able to “work backwards” and define what skills and experiences you need to have now in order to get there. The most dangerous thing you can do is to sit back and wait for somebody to tell you what to do or assume that you should only do what is included in your job description. It’s our obligation as employees to meet the needs of the organization, but it doesn’t stop there.

In the book, you stress the importance of surrounding yourself with supportive peers and insightful mentors. Do you have any tips for someone who has identified a potential mentor and wants to start moving the process along?

First, remember that great mentoring relationships are based on reciprocity, so you want to know as much as you can about those individuals –what’s important to them, what do they struggle with, what are they trying to create– and then make it your job to do everything you can to help them. Whatever it is that they need, it’s really important that you be tuned in to that.

Second, make sure that you’re asking for advice in small little bits as the relationship develops. Sometimes I see people get excited about a new mentor and then say “Here’s this book I wrote. Can you read the whole thing and give me feedback?”. For somebody who is really busy, a large request like that can feel very awkward, because you want to help the person but it’s just too big of an ask. I find it’s much more effective to ask for advice that might take 15 to 30 minutes of their time. That shows that you’re prepared, that you’re thoughtful of their time, and that you’re specific in terms of the kind of expertise and feedback that you’re seeking. That’s the kind of thing that somebody in a mentoring role appreciates.

The third thing is really important: when somebody does give you advice, circle back around after you have acted on that advice and implemented it, and let them know the results, good or bad. It’s amazing how few people take the time to do that.

Do you have any tips for seeing the big picture and staying focused on the fact that we are always contributing to our body of work, even when the day-to-day seems overwhelming?

Definitely. I think that’s a matter of good planning, actually, and making sure that at least once a quarter you take some serious time out to step back and look at what you’ve accomplished in the past quarter, look forward to the next one and look at what it is you want to create. What are some of the things that you’re afraid of? Are there big, new challenges that you’re seeing or patterns that you want to be break?

And because I’ve been a business coach for so long, I really live and breathe by planning – by planning and by deadlines. If you don’t break down your own body of work in to projects that have deadlines that you can track, that’s when I think a lot of it can just be lost. And it’s why I like the project metaphor very much. Everything that you’re doing really could be a project, and within those projects is where you can identify particular ways to develop. But if you don’t take time out once a quarter to reflect and review those projects, you can’t integrate the work the way that you should.

To learn more about Pam, her books, and when she’ll be visiting your city, visit facebook.com/pamslim and sign up for her mailing list at pamelaslim.com. Read my review of the book here

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Kari's underlying philosophy of work in the nonprofit sector is that we need to ensure equal and easy access to the things that make us who we are: the arts, culture, and lifelong learning. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she received her Master’s of Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University and spends her time as a Consultant with Grants Plus and member of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network's national board of directors. When she's not cheering on the Cavs or scouting out the nearest coffee spot, you can find her posting on Facebook,Twitter and LinkedIn.


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