How to Build Management Experience from Scratch

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Becoming a manager is one way (although not the only way) to advance in your career and build leadership skills. But when employers are hiring for managerial positions, they often look for candidates with prior management experience. So, if you’re not currently supervising anyone, how do you get the management experience you need to become a full-fledged manager?

This is not a trick question. There are ways to build management experience at your job as well as several ways to find management opportunities outside of work to get management experience in other settings. Here are three things you can try—potentially all at once.

Tell your boss about your management goals

A good boss cares not only about you getting through your work, but also about your professional growth and job satisfaction. And because of this, they should be open to helping you to identify—or create—management opportunities in your organization.

If your annual review is coming up, that’s a natural point to share your management goals and discuss how you can achieve those goals at the organization. But you don’t have to wait for your review to bring this up. You can bring it up in a regular check-in with your boss or schedule a meeting specifically to discuss your professional goals.

Whenever that meeting happens, try using language like: “I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had over the last year [or over another period of time, if this isn’t your annual review] to contribute and to grow my skills. At this stage in my career, I would like to focus on growing my management skills. What opportunities could exist here for me to do that?”

Then, pause and really listen to the response. The conversation could go a few different ways:

  • Your boss may respond enthusiastically and supportively. If so, that’s great! Then you can move on to figuring out how to make it happen. If you have ideas for how you can get management experience on the job, start the conversation and brainstorming with your supervisor. If you’re unsure, ask your boss what they may suggest as a first step.
  • Your boss may say that your position typically hasn’t had management responsibilities. If that’s the case, gently but confidently ask if that could be re-evaluated or if there are other roles that you could eventually grow into.
  • Your boss may say they want you to build certain skills before giving you management responsibilities. Prepare for this response by compiling a list of possible trainings or courses. You can also build your knowledge by reading articles on Idealist Careers and other sites.

Ask for opportunities to manage interns

Because internships are temporary in nature and learning-centric, managing an intern can be a great foray into management.

Lea Berry, a life and career coach, used her internship management experience in her first job as a U.S.-based staffer for the British government to springboard into a full-time management position.

Berry discovered that she really enjoyed helping to manage the interns and she shared that with her supervisor and mentioned that she would like to manage someone more formally—and her boss said yes! Her boss had already been thinking about bringing on a junior staff person to expand the team’s capacity, so they agreed that Berry would manage the new person.

Now Berry often coaches people who are managing interns or other employees for the first time. She recommends using self-awareness to identify strengths and triggers ahead of time so you can “regulate yourself in a situation when the stakes are high.”

For more tips on managing your first intern, read about what you can do to make the experience a positive one.

Seek out volunteer opportunities where you can manage others

Just as volunteering can help you develop “hard skills” such as marketing or fundraising, it can also give you management experience and help you develop the “soft skills” needed to be a good manager.

The exact opportunities available will depend on the organization where you’re volunteering, but generally you can gain management experience by leading a team of other regular volunteers or managing volunteers for one-time events. Then you can draw on that experience in an interview when talking about your leadership style, how you manage conflict, or other common management scenarios.

That’s what Sarah Barnett, now the public affairs adviser and special assistant to the Chief Operating Officer at The Humane Society of the United States, did when she interviewed for a social media community manager position at the organization just over nine years ago. Barnett says she drew upon her experience managing volunteers for a local animal rescue organization to demonstrate that she could manage her direct report. That was her first management experience, and eventually, she grew into a role with three direct reports.

“Every group is hamstrung for volunteers,” Barnett says, which gives you a good opportunity to take something and have ownership over it. She still volunteers with the same animal rescue organization, and now she’s helping a volunteer who’s trying to gain marketing experience for her resume.

The other advice Barnett has for aspiring managers is to seek out learning opportunities.

If there’s something you’re interested in, “talk to people in those fields and ask to learn more,” she says. “The worst they can say is no.”

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Where did you find your first management experience? Share your success story in the comments!

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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.
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