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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

How to Succeed in Business (Or What I Learned in the Dungeon of the Non-Profit Sector)

I've been in the working world for several years now. After temping for what seemed like eons and working as a program/public affairs assistant for several more, I finally landed a position six months ago where I am trusted to perform a range of duties with a large amount of autonomy from my supervisor. I'm trusted to manage projects and programs and do so with a minimal number of mistakes, amazing to me sometimes given my problems with disorganization and short attention spans. My current company lacks a defined hierarchy--most people here share the nebulous title of "associate", but I'd venture to guess that at a similar company or organization my responsibilities would fall within the range prescribed to program or project managers. For the first several years of my career my responsibilities were sharply limited to administrative tasks that were closely monitored for quality and consistency by my superiors. Having graduated from a demanding college and having aspirations of professional greatness (whatever that may be) I was constantly frustrated by the lack of brainwork associated with compiling media lists, preparing meeting agendas, writing meeting recap memos and performing mail merges. It all seemed completely pointless and insulting to my intelligence. Granted, every once in a while my abilities would be recognized and I would get to ghost write a policy paper or article, or organize a press conference, but these opportunities were rare within the general miasma of office work I was expected to perform, well, and with a smile on my face.

But several recent experiences at my current position have made me feel thankful for the training I received as the token program bitch. As much as I like my current working environment, there isn't a huge amount of emphasis placed on intra-team communication. Granted, we have weekly meetings where we set priorities and tell one another what projects we're working on, but when it comes to things like meeting management, people rarely send agendas or notes out ahead of time, and there is virtually nothing done to effectively recap meetings to document the decisions made in regards to goals and action steps. There's an underlying assumption that everyone will be on the same page going into a meeting and that everyone has taken ample notes on what they are to do when they leave it. I appreciate the laid-back environment that this creates and the fact that people rarely feel beholden to perform seemingly mindless administrative tasks.

Recently I have been in two situations where I have felt that either giving my coworkers meeting materials in advance or sending out recap memos after meetings would be helpful for rolling a project along. Both times the steps that I have taken to do this have been met with delight and surprise, as if they couldn't possibly ever expect anyone to be so proactive in the area of intra-team communication. Doing something for your coworkers that makes their lives easier is always a nice feeling. But more than that, it's occurred to me that doing so is a direct product of having lived in administrative limbo for the first several years of my career.

To put it plainly, I was trained by a series of micro-managing non-profit divas (it seems counter-intuitive to call managers at non-profits divas, but trust me, I've encountered many). And as much as I resented these people who at the time only seemed interested in making a name for themselves in some matter of public policy or politics, I am coming to be grateful for the skills that working for them ultimately taught me. For instance, I'm a pro at mail merges (helpful now that my admin is on maternity leave and I must do these things myself), can compile rather creative and comprehensive media lists, can collate photocopies like a pro, and organize groups of people for meetings like no tomorrow. While the majority of my work now focuses on higher level managerial tasks and brainwork, I feel like having these skills makes me a more reliable and empathetic teammate. I realized today that having these skill sets, I would place more value on them than I had ever before realized if I someday had to hire somebody to do the job I have today. Sure, I would be impressed by an advanced degree, but in some ways, I think I would have more respect for somebody who had put up with the bullshit for several years and knew how to apply it more advanced tasks.

The moral of the story is this: Do not be discouraged if your job seems more clerical than you would like for it to be, especially if you've recently graduated from school. We all go through it. Do what you can to keep sane enough to survive it and to move on to the next level. And once you're there be grateful for the skills you obtained while collating hundreds of pieces of color-coded memos for board meeting packets while your boss was at a two hour-long hair appointment. Chances are, others will be grateful for it too.

[edited this morning because apparently being the office bitch still didn't teach me how to properly proof my work]


Anonymous Erin said...

I completely agree with you. I also think putting in your dues untimately earns you more respect as a manager from future colleagues. For example, I used to work with someone who felt it was beneath him to anything other than high-level strategic thinking...and I had zero respect for him because he couldn't make his own copies or complete any other task he felt was menial.

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot believe I run everytime I see your old boss. Man her hair sucks.

2:33 PM  

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