The big jump: Considering a move to management

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Moving into management is a big jump for many people in the nonprofit sector — and sometimes is not necessarily the right move. We talked with people who recently made that leap as well as career coaches to understand why moving into management isn't right for everyone, as well as when to consider it and how to successfully make the jump.

Before you say yes

Everyone knows that cream rises to the top. In the nonprofit sector — as in the rest of the working world — this means that if you’re good at your job, you’ll probably evenutally be offered a promotion into a leadership position of some type. 

But saying yes to a promotion is not required. “Many people think that if the offer is there, they have to take it, that we are supposed to climb a career ladder into management. But you need to decide if that is really the path to where you want to go,” says leadership development coach Kathy Archer.

Nancy Ingram, president and lead consultant of Foot in the Door Consulting agrees. “Many people assume the only way to proceed in nonprofit career development is to move upward into management. But the possibilities are actually endless. You need to take time to carefully consider where you get the most job satisfaction. A lot of the people we coach who move into management feel disappointed at being removed from the action of a nonprofit’s work.”

Ingram has lived this experience herself. “In my own case, I wanted a promotion but I didn’t realize that it would mean managing paper and processes, rather than working on program development with partners.” Ingram co-managed an NGO with another person who thrived on the paperwork and details, while she found it demotivating. “It’s important to know yourself and what motivates you.”

Who makes a good manager?

Just over a year ago, Donna Jeanpierre took on her first management role as the Volunteer Services Manager at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre in Thunder Bay, Ontario. “I was looking for a change,” says Jeanpierre. “I wanted more responsibility and a decision-making role appealed to me. People I worked with strongly encouraged me to apply, thinking this role was a perfect fit.”

Similarly, MyAn Pacholkow took on a role two years ago as Office Manager/Head of Admissions for the Alberta Ballet after previous supervisors recognized her affinity for management and her strong leadership skills. “I enjoy helping people do their jobs in alignment with an organization’s goals,” says Pacholkow.

But not everyone makes a good manager, says Anne Melanson, president of Bloom Nonprofit Consulting Group. “Being effective as a manager requires a fundamentally different skillset than one might develop as a front-line worker.” This is especially true, she adds, in the nonprofit sector where there are few niche specialists, especially in small- to medium-sized organizations. “One of the challenges I’ve seen in someone moving from that to a management position is the self-discipline required to delegate as opposed to diving in and doing it yourself.”

Melanson describes management as being like “air traffic control” and asks the following questions to anyone considering a management position: “How comfortable are you in relinquishing control over paths and processes and putting them in the hands of someone else? Can you be at peace with outcomes, and have patience to be a supportive bystander and coach helping staff through tasks you used to do yourself? Are you comfortable making things happen in an environment where all the answers aren’t there?”

From her vantage point, Jeanpierre says, “There’s a huge learning curve for new managers, especially in the first year. If you don’t want to put in time and energy into learning and stretching, this might not be for you. As an employee, you might not feel responsible for interpersonal conflicts on your team, for instance, but when you’re the manager, it’s your responsibility. “

What to consider before you say yes

Even if a management role is generally a solid fit with your career goals and skills, there are other important considerations.

Think about whether you are ready for a management role or whether you still need to learn management skills in order to avoid the Peter Principle, where “managers rise to the level of their incompetence”. Archer stresses, “The time to lay the foundation for a management position is long before you get there. Figure out good stress management and time management. Learn to say no, to set boundaries, to shut door, to ask for help – you will have to learn to do these things eventually or you will burn out.” She recommends developing skills above and beyond those required for frontline work — whether through formal training, mentoring or even through reading or online courses.

Archer encourages prospective management candidates to “get curious and don’t be embarrassed about your curiosity.” Ask questions about what job descriptions actually mean, and compare the skills you have and the skills you will need to gain to be successful in the job. She suggests talking with others in similar positions to understand the actual work involved.

Cultural fit with an organization is also a vital consideration, especially when considering making a move to a new organization. Pacholkow says, “I applied for my role because my skills matched what they were looking for, but I realized later that I simply gravitated much more toward a different population and it didn’t end up working out.” Pacholkow also suggests doing due diligence in researching how an organization is run, especially in how it manages both its human capital and finances. She recommends potential new managers read annual reports, Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) postings and media reports on an organization to understand how it runs as a business.

Archer also acknowledges that sometimes even the best job can come at the wrong time. “The truth is that sometimes you need to turn down a position because it doesn’t fit into the rest of your life. You need to distance yourself from the desperation that says, ‘This opportunity will never come again’, so that you can make a clear decision about what is best for your whole life.”

Management is not your only option

Especially in a fairly flat sector, management can often be seen as the only forward move but this does not have to be the case. Archer debunks the myth that something is wrong if you don’t move up into management, saying, “We need to wipe out that stigma. At the end of the day, we want to look at using people’s strengths and developing skills the organization needs — and how people can do more of that.” This can be as simple as allowing someone who loves research to train their peers while remaining in their current position.

Melanson adds, “It is not an unambitious career path to make a lateral move. You can have a very successful career without ever being a manager.” Melanson says she often sees fundraisers move from a role in a smaller organization to one in a larger organization before working their way back to a more senior role in a smaller organization. “There’s a lot to be gained in similar roles but in different environments. You learn about best practices and techniques in larger nonprofits but you are forced to develop a larger range of skills in a smaller organization.”

Taking the plunge

As with any new opportunity, there are a variety of challenges and opportunities in becoming a first-time manager. Ingram observes, “You can’t predict what will happen when you go into a new organization. A lot depends on what happened in the organization before you arrived — the level of trust and trauma, and how it was handled.” This was true for Jeanpierre who succeeded a manager who had held the position for decades before retiring. “Even though I had ideas about change, I held off – it was already a big change to lose a long-term manager and I could tell that there was some sadness about her leaving.”

Ingram advises new managers to closely examine their own expectations about leadership based on their past experiences — and to encourage their team to do the same. Creating a team agreement — which could include decision-making, personalities, approach to deadlines, etc. — helps all staff understand what will be expected of them and reduces the fear of a new manager simply coming in and making change.

Fear of change is a reality new managers have to contend with: Ingram advises managers to be mindful of what people think they are losing with the change in leadership, and to acknowledge it so that change does not feel invalidating to staff.

At the same time, as Melanson says, “If you’ve got the word manager on your title, you’re supposed to manage. There’s no situation where a new manager doesn’t come and make changes – it’s the nature of role. The key is to respect the fact that frontline people have had their own well-informed opinions about how things can be made better and those opinions need to inform your changes.”

While advising new managers to seek regular feedback from their own supervisors, Melanson says, “You don’t want to be someone who always presents problems and asks your supervisor to think it through for you. Frame your conversation by presenting a situation, outlining your solution and asking for feedback.”


A recent survey of new managers suggests that the most daunting aspects of their new role include balancing their individual responsibilities with overseeing others, meeting higher performance expectations, motivating their team, prioritizing projects and supervising friends or former peers.

All of the new managers we talked to reported higher levels of stress in their new roles. Ryan MacIntyre, executive director of We Did It School-age Care says, “Management is far more stressful than working on the frontlines simply because there is more to manage.”

Supervising former peers can be challenging. In an article about managing former peers, psychologist and business strategist Liane Davey says, “The power relationship is inevitably altered.” Of this transition, Melanson adds, “You need to be mindful of friendships: there has to be democracy and transparency in how you treat and manage people.”

One new manager we talked with had the challenge of supervising the assistant manager who trained her in her new job. Fortunately, their ED reorganized the leadership so that the assistant manager reported directly to the director, leaving the manager to manage other staff and develop the program. “I know that kind of flexibility isn't possible in all organizations, but for me it was a great relief because it meant I didn't have to feign an authority I didn't feel appropriate, or feel shame for ‘taking’ someone's job. If a supervisor is able to adjust the manager's responsibilities to better match their skill set, it can help everyone.”

How organizations can support new managers

Organizations can support new managers in a variety of other ways. Melanson says, “It’s in everyone’s best interest for a candidate to be educated on the real day-to-day responsibilities and expectations of their position. Management looks different from one place to another and even from one department to another, so be explicit about what you expect of a particular manager.”

Archer says organizations must let go of the assumptions that “you move in and have all the skills — or you figure it out on your own” and instead offer training and professional development opportunities to help staff develop the skills they need. The HR department at Jeanpierre’s hospital offers new leader orientation where managers learn and even roleplay together situations they will face with their staff. She appreciates the ongoing support and professional development from her employer. Archer also observes that professional development can be even simpler than this — encouraging new managers to join LinkedIn groups and participating in online skills training.

Mentorship is another important way to equip new managers. Jeanpierre appreciates her predecessor’s willingness to meet for coffee and advice, but also has found it extremely useful to be mentored through a program in a professional association which pairs new volunteer managers with more experienced members for a year. Both Ingram and Archer suggest the value of peer mentors between organizations as a means of generating both ideas and a network of support.

A management position can offer dynamic new opportunities for growth and career development, but the role is not for everyone. As Jeanpierre says, “If you’re happy doing the work you’re doing and don’t feel the need for a bigger challenge, don’t apply.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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