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Conference Reflection: It’s time to see our career movement in 3D

The following is written by Elizabeth Kidd, Steering Committee Co-Chair of the EPIP-Michigan Chapter, and staff at the Community Foundation for the Holland/Zeeland Area. 

ekiddMoving up on the proverbial career ladder is a frequent topic of conversation among young professionals in any field; the philanthropic/social change sector is certainly no exception.  We analyze potential next steps, lament the often limited options for upward mobility, confess our fears that we might be stagnating, and celebrate when we ourselves or our colleagues have opportunities to move up.  However as I talked with other participants at the 2013 EPIP National Conference and listened to them describe the work they were doing, I was struck by how woefully inadequate the career ladder metaphor is to capture the many valuable ways we can and do move professionally – particularly in the field of philanthropy.

Just because you’re not moving up, doesn’t mean you’re standing still.   So often when we talk about career movement, we assume that this only means linear/upward movement.  Yet when I try to visualize the professional journeys of the philanthropic leaders I most admire, they look a lot more like M. C. Escher’s Relativity than a ladder.  I think this should give all of us pause.  Not just because it’s fun to unpack all of the assumptions built into the concept of a career ladder, but because this really matters for our own personal professional development and how the philanthropic community cultivates and recognizes leadership.

No matter where you currently sit in the world of philanthropy and social change, it’s worth stopping to take a look at your surroundings – especially if you’re finding that the ceiling seems to be made of reinforced concrete.  Even if there’s no way up from here, there may still be important and interesting work that you can access from this space – whether it’s a matter of opening the windows, tunneling out Shawshank Redemption style, or renovating the room you’re in.  What does this look like for EPIPers?

  • Take a long, hard look at your day to day practices and habits as a grantmaker – or whatever position you currently occupy.  What are the most unexamined parts of your work responsibilities?  Are they working as well as they could be?  For you?  For your grantees?  For your boss, your co-workers, your board and committee members?  How do current practices or processes support or inhibit strong relationships with your key constituencies?  I am always surprised and challenged by what I find when I take time to do this.  It also gives me renewed energy and direction even though I’m sitting at the same desk in the same organization I was yesterday.
  • Remember that you can zoom in or out.  Consider what professional options would open up if you were to dive deeper into an aspect of your current work that strongly interests you.  Conversely, if you took a step further out from your current organization, what would that look like?  There are many regional, state-wide and national associations as well as academic and private sector organizations that philanthropy intersects with that could provide an entirely new or complimentary perspective.  Your unique definition of professional success will likely involve positioning yourself in the optimal place on a number of continuums.  It’s freeing to realize we’re not limited to making either/or decisions but we also need to make the effort to discern the position that best suits our goals on those continuums.  Special thanks to Trista Harris and Christine Reeves whose conference session helped many of us – myself included – to see the specialist/generalist dichotomy in a new light.
  • Invest in your informal professional life.  Professional organizations, collaborative initiatives, and board service provide alternative avenues for leadership and growth – especially at times when your formal professional movement is limited.  Several of the Emerging Leader Salon speakers stressed how critical movement in this dimension is to one’s overall success in philanthropy and social change.

As we experience these other forms of movement in philanthropy, we also need to make sure we are articulating the different and important value they bring to our professional journeys.  The work we are engaged in is complex and multi-layered and will require that we be capable of movement in all dimensions to achieve the kind of change we seek.  Put on your 3D glasses and see where they take you.

This series, “Conference Reflections,” will feature a new post from one of our 2013 National Conference participants. To check out more of what happened during those three magical days, check out this site. And follow these posts to hear more from the fabulous leaders who made it what is was.  

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