Leadership and Management Workshop - Additional Thoughts from our Panelist: Sharmila Rao Thakkar, Executive Director, The Siragusa Foundation

In this second part of this interview, Sharmila talks about working in philanthropy, her career pathway, and overcoming career roadblocks.

What is something you wish you had known before taking the job?

How to say no without feeling badly!  And that there’s never enough time and resources to do everything we want to, so how do you maintain the day-to-day while creating space to move a bigger agenda forward.

Honestly, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Philanthropy, working in a foundation is so much more than giving away money.  It’s about ongoing learning, informing the work, unearthing opportunities, exploring solutions, collaborating and sometimes just keeping things going. There’s a lot of thought and planning. Sometimes the cyclical nature of the job feels like you’re in maintenance mode, but the skill, ability and energy to keep the bigger picture at the forefront and remembering the why is a role I have enjoyed taking on.

What are some strategies for working in small teams? As in, when it’s just you and the executive director?

Communication, preparation and planning is key. This comes under the guidance of don’t wait for a question or issue to become a problem.  But if it does, know that you have an outlet because you’ve established a culture of openness, both for giving and taking feedback, and trust that you’re on the same page toward reaching a larger goal.

Small teams require a lot of understanding and flexibility, cooperation and independence simultaneously, trust and reliability, resourcefulness and entrepreneurship. These are characteristics of any good employee but particularly in small teams, the all hands on deck mindset is the norm.

How did you mitigate or get over career roadblocks?

Communication. I’ve learned that often the one way to address a challenge or problem is head on.  We may not always know the full story and where another is coming from if we don’t ask and if we’re not clear with our needs, wants and intentions.  If you have done your due diligence, practiced your presentation, made the case, offered a solution and tried your best to make it work and indeed it’s a full on road block, well how do we usually navigate road blocks?  We take a detour, go another direction… if you can’t “go sideways,” i.e., find a route within to keep moving AND there’s not an outside source like a mentor or coach to help walk through solutions that may not be visible AND you can no longer grin and bear it, then it may be time to think about next steps.

Back to that “gut check”.  Is this working, not in your control, are you happy, are you growing, are you learning? If you answer no to all these questions, it’s time to move on. I don’t believe we need to be appreciated and recognized for each and every success, but if you can’t find space to be you and work on developing the next phase of you in addition to the former then that’s a clear sign there’s another route worth exploring.  The journey is not always straight and clear, but the path you forge with these road blocks actually clears the way for a much brighter future that you’ll only get to experience having traveled the past, with all that it allowed you to grow through.