Take this job – and love it

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No matter how you approach it, starting a new job can be daunting. A newbie joining an established organization, with its set organizational structures, entrenched hierarchies and oft-times intimidating social cliques, is bound to face a host of challenges. Add a few more if the fresh-faced employee is inaugurating a position new to the nonprofit.

No easy task, to be sure. But some practitioners are proving shining examples on how it's done. They're not only jumping into new positions, but making jobs their own — infusing them, and their adopted organizations, with renewed energy, vision and direction. How do they do it? Is their success borne of internal fortitude? Skill-set? How important a role does environment play?

In search of answers we followed a couple of bright stars on the nonprofit scene, asking them how they managed to make the most of their new roles.

Listen up

Take Myna Kota who joined the Girl Guides of Canada in July 2010 in the newly minted role of strategist, programming partnerships. She approached her mandate — identifying government stakeholders and national nonprofits with whom to establish relationships — in much the same way she seems to approach life: with her eyes and ears wide open.

Coming from a small, local nonprofit — and the private sector prior to that — into a large national organization with a hundred-plus-year history, Kota knew that, to successfully introduce something new and help move the organization forward, she needed to understand from whence it came. The approach would prove invaluable.

Interestingly, when Kota started there was little documentation or formalized structures in place related to partnerships. Sure, some elements of her job were pursued in decentralized ways before, but this was the first time the specific mandate would be explored in such a focused fashion. "It provided a different and new way of thinking about the organization and the role that we play in society," she offers. "No one had really looked at it from that perspective."

New conversations

Talking about new perspectives, Kota would soon introduce something the organization hadn't been open to before: advocacy. "It's still not formally part of what we do," she admits, explaining the mission for 100 years has been to enable girls to contribute to their communities. But, by gradually introducing conversations around it, Kota gave the traditional nonprofit new ways to think about advocacy and its potential.

One would imagine it challenging enough to maneuver amongst, and find one's place within, traditional structures as a new employee. But to carve novel ways of thinking would make it tougher still. Not so, says Kota. "For me it was about understanding where the organization is at with it and where it's been," she offers. "There's always a history and understanding of what it could mean for the organization." If it's challenging, it's only because it's new, like anything else, she adds.

Besides, "new" is hardly daunting for this woman who's had much experience, both in her nonprofit and private sector roles, making novel positions her own. So what can she teach us?

It takes time

For one thing, if you want to achieve your new responsibilities, you need patience. You must adopt a long-term view. "It won't always happen quickly or easily but keep your eyes on the prize because you're making steps each day," she says. "Over time you will feel the impact, you do move the needle."

What if you're thrown into a particularly nebulous working arrangement as Kota was? Every individual operates differently but adaptability is key, she advises. It goes hand in hand with patience. "If you adapt the two approaches, you can roll with it," says Kota. "Being able to operate in a bit of uncertainty is important."

Matthew Cutler certainly knows a thing or two about uncertainty. When he arrived at The 519 Community Centre three years ago as coordinator of resource development and communications, the 35-year-old organization was completing a 10-year capital campaign that usurped much of its focus and energy. It also had no intentional resource development strategy or strategic development plan to speak of and building a brand wasn't even on the agenda.

For some, the situation would appear frightening. But the ground was ripe for Cutler who arrived with an impressive portfolio in youth engagement. "A lot of that engagement stuff fed into how we started changing things at the 519," he offers with equal share boldness and honesty.

Initiative taker

Here's the thing about Cutler: he isn't one to sit on the sidelines, waiting for opportunities to present themselves (not surprisingly, before long, he had already become manager of resource development and communications). When Cutler has an idea he feels strongly about, he pushes it. To wit: he didn't feel the traditional philanthropic fundraising model worked for the 519. Rather, he believed the greatest potential donor base walked through the doors each day. So he started a membership strategy that adopted more of a community engagement approach in its fundraising and resource development.

He then developed a business plan for social enterprise. "The organization had reached a natural transformation point where we had expanded the space by 45% and there were lots of discussion on how we could use it," says Cutler of the time. "The ground was ripe for plan B, for new growth, for new opportunities." Cutler is still heavily involved in the restaurant that now sits in that space.

Other changes Cutler adopted included enhancing corporate engagement and evolving the 519's approach to volunteerism. "Some models we were using historically weren't fitting with trends," he explains. But, like Kota, he cautions others to be patient when introducing new paradigms. "This doesn't happen overnight; it can take a few years to really start to see things happen in a new way."

It takes two...or three...

To be sure, jumping into an organization full steam ahead is not for everyone. Which brings to mind another essential element in one's ability to successfully infuse a new role with energy and direction: relationships. "Cultivating relationships is not only one of most productive ways to work but the most rewarding," says Kota, for whom cultivation involves constant dialogue with her superiors. "I communicate regularly as to where my head's at and what value something can bring," she offers, admitting the approach doesn't work for everyone but keeping people appraised of her thinking comes naturally. "It's just how I work."

Relationship-building is equally vital to Cutler whose LinkedIn profile bears no reference to him being a fundraiser or communicator but, rather, titles him a relationship management professional. "I really see the centre of success being about relationships," he offers. "It's the inherent ability to work on your relationships that are valuable."

To that end, Cutler schedules meetings each week with community members and donors with an eye on building or reinforcing relationships. He asks his staff to meet regularly with members to get to know them better. And there's a constant focus on engagement with community organizations. "It's about achieving a bigger vision," he says.

Single-minded vision

Cutler is nothing if not singularly mission-driven. And he doesn't put a lot of weight in historical systems of authority or structures — unless they're working. "I will respect anyone who's doing a job well or a system that's working well but if that's not happening, I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be on the table for discussion."

That's not to say he doesn't adopt diplomacy too. He does; he has to. "I've evolved from being the obnoxious young kid five years ago who was convinced he could fix everything to actually being more strategic and diplomatic in the way I do it." But, as he explains, "In the back of my head I'm always thinking, 'what would be the best way for this to happen' and trying to move us as close to that as possible."

External effects

Of course, working in an environment open to change makes a huge difference. It's safe to say that, without the element of openness, without their organization's commitment to learning and exploring new ways of thinking about who they are and where they want to go, both Kota and Cutler's capacity would be limited. "It was understood that [the changes] had long-term potential in terms of enhancing the delivery of mission," Kota says of her forward-thinking employers.

Similarly, Cutler applauds the dynamic culture of the 519, one that supports his take-no-prisoners-initiatives. "This is the first time I stayed at an organization longer than 24 months," he says. "My personality and skills are well-equipped for building and changing things; if it was just maintenance work, that'd be the day I walk away."

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is also president of Elle Communications and can be reached at: info@ellecommunications.ca.

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