10 Ways to Supercharge Your Mission-Based Career

If you are anything like me, you might have a burning, churning passion for your work. I don't care what work you do. You could be a landfill operatorfuneral directordata entry genius, or life-saving champion for human rights. Anything you do can be done with the passion and thrill of devoting yourself to something that matters to you. 

This week, I posted the 3rd episode of No Nonsense Nonprofit, a podcast devoted to nonprofit practitioners and dabblers, wherein I shared 10 Ways to Supercharge Your Nonprofit Career. I based it on my own career experience, along with advice I've applied from super smart people. You can listen to it here. I also thought it would be nice to get a quickie version of it into the world for those of you who just want the facts, ma'am. I get that. That's my thing too. 

Getting down to business, here are the ten tips that have rocket-boosted my career and taken me from entry level to the top of my field in just a few short years. 

1. Be Insatiably Curious

Do you ever wonder how something works? Do you get excited about weird things other people don't even notice? Last week, when I was writing a post about my deeply soul-delighting meeting at the landfill, I realized that I've made a life of loving things most people avoid. I lived in a mortuary. I love garbage. I want to understand the plight of transgendered kids. I just did a Theory of Change workshop with MIUSA International last week, and was immediately fired up about disability rights and the identity of people with disabilities. I hadn't thought much about that before, but suddenly, I was deeply interested. 

Why? Well, I'm insatiably curious. I can't presume I know everything. I grew up very religious, in the way where you're taught you need to know the right answer to everything. When I got older, I realized that's impossible, and now I want to understand people I used to be forbidden to even entertain - my first gay friend blew my mind and allowed me to toss out all my agendas that used to cloud my relationships with people. It's a world full of different opinions, different experiences, viewpoints, and ways of being. I can always be open to that because I am interested and know enough to know that I don't know it all. 

What does this do for your career? Keeps you on your toes. You will not rest on your laurels for a second, because you always know there is something yet to be learned and discovered, a new innovation to pioneer, a new group of people to understand and reach, a new way to unleash goodness in the world.

Be curious, and you will harness the energy of the undiscovered, under-utilized and under-appreciated.

2. Look for Patterns in What You Do and Enjoy

A few years ago, I looked at my career and realized there are a few things - outside my normal job duties, that I always do in any job. For me, it involves understanding why we do what we do, and looking for ways we can do it better. It turns out, much of the time people do things they way they do them, just because it happened to be the way it was done. I can smell that from a mile away, and I question it. But I go a step further. I'm not a fault finding whiner by any means. I'm a "here's a way we could do this to improve efficiency/make more money/serve our customers and clients better/meet our funding goals more effectively..." person. I've written policies and procedures for almost every job I've ever had - on my own initiative. I've proposed ways to retain employees at a regional coffee shop, developed a school-wide behavior management plan at a private school, and developed entire programs, including all operating procedures for them at a nonprofit. All in my regular employment life. 

I've always been a consultant, I realized. I just used to be employed by an organization. I've always done this, and that is part of what makes it so natural for me to follow this career path now. 

See if you can find a thread in your own career. Do you always make your customers and clients fall passionately in love with your over the top customer service no matter your role? Do you always make the most incredible business forecasts, regardless of your rank? Do you always water the plants and when you leave, they probably wilt? Figure out who you are at work - in any job - and you will be on your way to maximizing your strengths, and delivering top-notch value to your employer or clients.

3. Invest in Your Own Professional Development

Look, I know investing in your own professional development might not be a popular thing to recommend. A lot of people suggest that you should always have your employer foot the bill for that, especially if you work in the nonprofit sector. There are legitimate reasons to abide by a self-imposed "no-investment" rule, if you don't think you'll see a payoff to it over the course of your career. I, however, can't think of any of them, because I strongly disagree.

If you take yourself and your nonprofit or mission-centered career seriously, you'll shell out some scratch now and then to invest in yourself. You don't have to spend a lot to do this. You can borrow a book from the library and invest the time in learning new skills and information. You could hunt down free webinars and learn just about everything you need to know to be amazing in the world. You could sit at the knee of a wise nonprofit wizard and glean their knowledge. I don't care what it is, just make the effort. 

If you sit around waiting for someone else to notice your genius and invest in you, you will likely wait forever. However, if you get curious about the skills you need to be successful, you'll pursue them with passion. If you do work in a nonprofit, you might even be able to get a grant or scholarship to get some of that sweet, sweet prof dev. When I found myself swamped with a million projects and rather stumped as to how to get ahead, I wrote a request to the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation and scored full tuition scholarships for me and 3 others to get a certification in Project Management. That was an incredible opportunity, and I'm so glad I did it - even though it took a ton of time. It paid off immensely. I didn't do that because someone looked at me quizzically and said, "Gee, you're so awesome, I'd like to invest in you. Looks like project management training would be helpful." No! I just knew what I wanted and went for it. 

If you can't get scholarships or grants, set aside a little money every month for a professional development fund. People who invest in themselves see returns. 


4. Know Your Value – and Ask for It

This is eternally challenging for kind-hearted people like you and me to understand. We work for nonprofits because we are, apparently, more interested in adding value and goodness to the world than we are interested in making it big or getting rich off our toiling. However. The nonprofit sector would be transformed for the better if kind-hearted people like you and me no longer acted as doormats and refused to work for peanuts. 

This is not just a nonprofit problem. It's also a problem women have, according to many reports that say women don't negotiate as much as men, and that's one reason we get paid less. At least, that's we hear in the news all the time. 

Here's the deal: If you don't ask for it, you won't get it. And if you don't know what to ask for, you won't feel confident asking. When you have identified who you are at work by noticing your patterns of behavior and contribution, consistently learn more because you're driven by insatiable curiosity, and are consistently investing in yourself, you become more and more valuable to your organization. You might stay there and make a path through the ranks - or you might go someplace else to advance (the latter is more likely, according to the 2015 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, only 21% of nonprofit executive positions are hired from within!) - either way, you need to know your value. 

You can do this in a few ways. If you have access to a nonprofit salary survey that is local to your area, use that. A lot of professional organizations put these out to their members. You may have to pay for it, but some are free. A simple Google search will probably turn up a few options. It's worthwhile to look at, because you will be able to identify duties that are similar to yours, which will help you with conversations and negotiations about title, salary, benefits and perks. When you have more knowledge and you can site a way you came to your valuation of yourself, you have more power. 

Now. The ask. I have no idea, honestly, why it was easy for me to do this as my career advanced, but I have a hunch it was because I could find and use documentation to support my ask. There were a lot of times when I asked for more money - especially when I had significantly more duties than I previously had. It wasn't always easy. Because I advanced within the same organization, I had to work to de-anchor my boss and the board's understanding of my value. I started at a certain wage in an entry level position, so when I advanced to an executive level position, it was hard for them to immediately see the logic behind the sizable leap. It helped that I had invested in my own professional development and therefore had many more credentials in the field than I had when I started, and I also had information regarding comparable pay for comparable work at other organizations. Also, I wasn't afraid to advocate for myself to be paid what I was worth. I knew - and they knew - that I could take my skills someplace else to get paid more - and they wanted to make sure that didn't happen. So did I, really, because I loved that work. 

5. Be Adventurous and Make Your Own Opportunity

This recommendation is dependent on the one previous to it. If you know your value, not only will you get paid what you are worth, but you also have the confidence and the platform with which to make new opportunities for yourself. This is something that I have also come to naturally throughout my life, and until recently, I suppose I just imagined everybody else did this too. I don't know what gave me the idea that I could pretty much do anything I wanted to do, but I'm glad I picked it up somewhere, because it has made my life excessively interesting. When I say "Make Your Own Opportunity," I say it because there is not a single instance when I didn't ask for a promotion I wanted, and in fact, most of the time, I created a promotion for myself out of thin air. Well. Not thin air, exactly. Rather, it was investment in my professional development, performance that made a measurable difference in some aspect of the business or organization, and the confidence to be able to document the difference I made in order to prove my value. 

If there is a gap in the organization and you see it, think about how you might fill it. What would you need to learn and do in order to fill that gap? Do other people realize it's a gap? What do they need to observe and think in order to see it? And what can you do, if you want to create a new opportunity for yourself, do you need to do to help them understand the problem and why you are the solution to it? This is a place where good relationships come in handy - where top-notch performance in your job is essential - and where your passion for making the world and your business or nonprofit better is paramount. 

Making your own opportunity is an amazing thing to do, because most of the time, you are able to lift all boats while you do it. You can fill a massive gap with your prowess, while also allowing someone else to presumably take on the role and work you did in the past. I first did this in my last organization when I wrote a grant (again) to hire an AmeriCorps*VISTA, who took on management of the farmers' market I had managed in the past. While he was there, I used his genius to help develop the program to the point where it could financially support his salary, and we hired him at the end of his year of service. He was the first citizen in the amazing empire I worked to build when I was with that organization. I partly was able to make opportunity by taking on new projects and roles, and also by filling the void I would have otherwise left behind (or would have had to continue doing them all by myself, which would have destroyed my life). The other key to this factor, is that it was never only about me and my career interests and goals. I always deeply believed that it was in the best interest of the organization for me to serve in the new and expanded ways I proposed. And I was correct. 

6. Fail Fast

Try new things, continuously. Now. We are all, aside from a few peculiarly brazen people, afraid of failing. I'll be honest - I think we're especially afraid of failing at work. It's odd. Marriages fail, and businesses fail...we expect that stuff to happen, and those concepts are part of our language and culture. But when it comes to failure at work, we get kind of high strung about it. I know I did. For a really, really long time. 

However, it didn't stop me from still doing it. I didn't call it failing, but I did call it "trying." Here's the thing. We trick ourselves, oh so cleverly, into thinking that if we never try, we will never fail. We play it small and we play it safe. We hedge. We avoid making decisions. We become more and more risk averse. And we box ourselves in with our own rules and fear and paralysis. We think we are safe, because we aren't failing. 

Or are we? 

Failure may be the opposite of success, but hiding and skirting the tough decisions at work are certainly far from success. We need to understand the role of failure in our lives and work. Failure is a signifier that you tried something and it didn't work. Now you know. It's actually not so bad. 

"Fail fast" is a phrase borrowed from startups and the Lean Startup in particular. It means you build something, get it out there, test it with your customers (your customers can be anybody - your boss, your donors, your clients, anybody you define), see if it's working, identify why it isn't working, and decide whether to persevere or pivot. A pivot might even mean you stop doing something altogether. The important thing is that you have the information you need in order to measure whether your attempt worked or not. Fail fast is a way to get information you need to innovate and move your work, career and organization forward more rapidly and thoughtfully. It doesn't mean you go rogue and get reckless. It means you plan something, launch a small version of it (build a minimum viable product, as Lean Startup puts it), see if it works (measure), and decide what to do with the information you collect (learn). 

In my career, I built and launched a billion zillion things - sometimes extremely quickly. Some of those things succeeded, and some of them failed. The ones that failed fast and we could learn from were far better than the ones that died a slow death because we were all over-invested in some idea, or had a grant that kind of sort of paid for it, so we thought we had to make it work by our sheer force of will. When I learned how to fail fast, everything worked better. And it made a vast difference in my career (and the organizations I worked for).

7. Know When to Stay and When to Go

Of all the things that can stall your career, hopping jobs too quickly or staying too long are among the worst. There is something to be said for persistence. Put in your time, do your best, face your challenges, overcome them, and also...when you know you're done, know you're done. It's OK to be done.

I have a LOT to say about quitting. I talk about it constantly. I think quitting is great. When the time is right, you need to accept it, and go. In our culture, quitting is tantamount to failure. We think a quit is a fail. We are wrong. 

I drove by a church recently that had a Mike Ditka quote on its reader board: "You're not a failure until you quit." That's all well and good for a baseball game (baseball? Oh crap. I have to Google this now? Arrrgh!! OH. Football. Yeah, I don't actually care)...That's all well and good for a football match, but it's not true in real life. 

First of all, you are not a failure. You might fail. That doesn't define you. Let's stop labeling ourselves and others with words like "failure" or "quitter." That's ridiculous and self-defeating. Both failing and quitting are normal things that we do in life. Without them, we would just stay the same forever and never do anything worth making a movie about. Right? So, get over the completely useless thing where you call yourself names for quitting stuff or failing or anything at all, really. Nothing you do can change who you are. Just know that. 

Now, back to quitting. One of my dear, dear friends, and former employees faced a massive challenge at work. It was something that was intransigent, relating to certain personalities in the workplace, and it was beginning to look as though her job was untenable because in many ways, the job itself was set up to fail. She and I both cried in my office a lot during those days. One of the things she said, over and over, was, "I'm not a quitter!" She never did quit. She stayed longer than I did. I told her to quit. I thought it would be better for her. I didn't fire her because she didn't deserve to be fired. She was actually completely amazing and fabulous. What happened wasn't her fault. But what happened was also not healthy for her. In the end, when she left, it was good. It wasn't her choice, but she was set free. It also was painful. Leaving isn't always easy, and it doesn't always feel good. 

You know you need to quit when you are in a place where you feel discomfort. I mean, not just the discomfort of needing to grow a little, or adjust something and get better at something, or communicate differently, or get a coach, or get a counselor - but the kind of discomfort where you are physically ill, emotionally raw, filled with rage - that kind of thing.

You also are done when you have nowhere to grow. If you've already made all the opportunities you can make for yourself in one place, you might reach a ceiling. Don't let that stop you. Loyalty is wonderful, and - oh man, this is against everything my protestant upbringing taught me - you have to be loyal to yourself too. Be committed to your own advancement, not out of selfishness, but out of the determination to contribute as much as you can contribute to the world in your lifetime. That's why you're here.

Ultimately, knowing it's time to go can allow you to take a little time to take stock of what you're doing, how you're doing it, and what you want to do differently. It will help you wrap something up. It will help you know when enough is enough and how you might leave a legacy behind you at a place. It can help you walk forward in your life moving toward something instead of running away from something. So quit when it's time to quit - and double down when it's time to double down. Just consider it. Don't move through this stuff on autopilot. Your career depends on it.

8. Learn from Detours and Mistakes – No Regrets

Let's say you follow all my amazing advice, and you quit. Only to discover you wish you hadn't. We all have those moments of doubt, or checking in, when we wonder if we've made the right choice. I'll be honest - I used to have those moments all the time. I got really down on myself about detours, and thought they were always a bad thing and meant that I was a directionless flake. Worse, I thought other people thought I was a directionless flake too, which quite bothered me. 

The truth is, I'm not a directionless flake. I have a lot of interests (I'm insatiably curious, after all), and I want to try new things (I'm OK with failing fast, after all), so I challenge myself continuously. For a while, early in my career, that looked like a job hopping thing. In reality, it wasn't that. It was just my way of capping out somewhere and choosing to move to the next thing that would better serve my entrepreneurial approach to life. 

When it comes to detours, see if you can find something you learned on that strange path that you would never have seen any other way. See if you can figure out where that path led you, where you wouldn't have gone on your own. 

I believe this about life: every path you tread is where you need to be. Every day, I believe this more and more deeply. The only perfect way to live your life, is how you live it right now, today. Every choice you make is the perfect choice for you right now. Not because you're always right, but because your choice will always result in exactly what you need at this moment. It might not be a fun result, but it will be the result you most need. Harness your detours and unexpected deviances from your Big Life Plan. Let them speak to you. Learn from them. Appreciate them. Do not be ashamed of them. Let them shape you.

9. Set Big-Picture Life Goals, and Work Toward Them (or Let Them Happen)

I'm a HUGE FAN of goal setting. I used to be obsessed with it. Goals are fun and exciting - they give you something to work toward, to be excited about, to get all psyched up about! 

The way I used to approach goals was with a lot of pushing and forcing and shoulder to the wheel kind of working. I would set a goal, and then have all the mini goals between the result and where I was right at that moment, all planned out and pushed forward. It was OK. 

Last year, I was in a massive life transition, and one of the things I did about it was write a book. That's how most people deal with their problems, I realize. Part of my research for the book was to go through old notebooks. I fancied myself a songwriter and poet (good songs, terrible "poetry," says the adult critic in me). As I was looking for fodder for my book, Letters to Boys, I came across something that was equally interesting to me. Lists and lists of life goals. They were in many different notebooks and spanned 8 or 9 years of my life. All of them were a little different, but they all taught me something about life. 

Almost all of my Big Life Plan goals had been realized. I didn't go back to those lists until more than a decade after I had written them. I didn't really give them much thought. But, here I was, a writer (check!), finished with grad school (check!), a speaker (check!) and coach (check!). These dreams have been with me a long time, I realized. And I was living so many of them without even thinking about it. 

Such is the power of intention. I intended to do all those things. I knew I would. And yet, for some reason, those particular life goals lost the urgency I experienced in my daily life on smaller order goals. It didn't matter. They were still powerful enough to direct my life. In fact, those intentions - those Big Life Plan goals of mine - were so connected to the core of who I am and how I live in the world that they couldn't help but come true. 

State your intentions. Call them goals, if you want. Make plans, if you want. Mostly, be intentional about living into who you are. Your life will fall into place when you hear yourself and trust yourself.

10. Take Time to Care for Yourself

Speaking of hearing yourself and trusting yourself, my last recommendation for supercharging your career (and, let's be honest, just being a happier person), is to take time to care for yourself. You can't hear yourself when there is too much noise in your life. You can't trust yourself when you don't listen to yourself. You don't notice you are physically reacting to a life circumstance (a job you need to leave, or a relationship that must change) if you numb yourself and detach your mind from your body. 

I'm a nonprofit nerd (unite!), and chances are, you might be one too. We are notoriously bad at taking care of ourselves. I'm sorry to say it, but we just don't really seem to notice when we are teetering on the edge of burnout. We don't always realize when we are making ourselves sick. We often let our work overwhelm us to the point where we don't remember what other interests we used to have in the first place. Anybody can fall prey to this bad habit - even people who aren't nonprofit nerds. 

A few tips on this front: 

  • Find something you love to do - something that refreshes you. Do you like hiking? Go for a hike (ingenious recommendation, right?!). Do you like sitting by the river? Go ahead and do it. Do you like reading a book? Read. 

  • Make intentional time to invest in your own wellbeing. We fall for a trick all too often. It's a trick that says, "I don't have time for myself because everybody else needs me and if I take one hour away from all of the demands that are on me, the world will explode and I will die and everyone I love will die, and I will be alone in hell!" Or something along those lines. But the truth is, you can find ONE HOUR to be good to yourself. Take a hot bath, go to a yoga class, I don't care what you do, but for the love of God, make your life and health a priority. NOTHING else matters as much as your health and life. Don't wait until you get too sick to do anything about it to notice that. 

  • Connect with people. Talk about real things that are going on in your life. Be honest. Don't hide from the world. Yes, be judicious (I'm not, but hey, that's just me). But find your tribe and be with them. Love them. Let them love you.

  • Ask for help when you need it. There are so many times in my life that I have avoided asking for help at all costs. When I was 11 years old, I tried to impress a boy by doing some kind of gymnastic-ish move at summer camp. I hurt my wrist, but I was too embarrassed to tell anybody. That night, at dinner, someone passed me the salt, and when I grabbed it, tears started streaming out of my eyes. My camp counselor looked at me, horrified, and said, "WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR WRIST YOU HAVE TO GO TO THE NURSE RIGHT NOW WHAT HAPPENED?!" Turns out, it had swelled to about five times its normal size. It was sprained. I spent the whole day in misery when I could have gone and gotten a cool Ace bandage right away. I wish I could say I learned that very day to always speak up and get what I need, but instead, I kept learning that lesson for 25 more years. 

I truly hope these fabulous supercharging career tidbits are helpful to you! I'd love to hear your thoughts about career advancement and how you're doing it. 

Sarai Johnson is a purveyor of nonprofit wisdom, Amazon Best Selling author of two books, and the newly initiated host of the No Nonsense Nonprofit podcast. She wants to help nonprofit people make the most of their amazing work, and also secretly wants to transform the nonprofit sector for the better, one person at a time. OR a million people at a time, it depends on the activity. To see what Sarai does and to access her and her work, check out Lean Nonprofit, her consulting and coaching firm. 

Sarai JohnsonComment