Ask a Mentor with Susan Schaffrath

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What is one thing you wish you’d known earlier in your career?

Probably the most important is to deal quickly and directly with performance issues. Like most new managers – actually like most managers – I avoided confrontation, continued to hope a situation would improve when it clearly wasn’t going to, and couched negative feedback in language that made it easy for an underperforming employee to miss the point. I’d complain to my husband and my friends, but not to my boss, wanting to look like I had everything under control. All the while, the strong performers in my department were picking up the slack for the poor performers. Fair? Not to the employees that I valued the most.

A few simple strategies would have helped: For example, when having a difficult conversation about performance, skip the social chatter and open with a statement that sets a serious tone (I need you to listen to what I’m about to say or X is a problem because and it needs to change because Y).

Formally reviewing expectations is another strategy that would have been a good first step to improving performance or setting the stage for the termination of an employee. Talking explicitly about expectations is especially effective when you’re a new supervisor and your staff has been in place under one or more other supervisors who may have avoided dealing with performance issues. A job description can be a useful tool as a starting point.

What was something that helped you succeed in your career?

Rather than one big something, it’s more typical for a leader to exhibit many smaller somethings that over time add up to a big difference. For me, the following have been critical somethings:

  • The ability to keep a confidence, no matter who’s doing the confiding. The higher up in an organization, the more you’ll know that you can’t share or even hint at knowing. Keeping secrets is tough. But if you treat the organization’s secrets, your boss’s confidences, and your employees confidences with equal respect, you’ll earn a reputation as a person to be trusted. A good reputation is priceless.
  • The tendency to stay calm in a crisis. When in the midst of a stressful situation, everyone watches how the leaders are responding. Calmness goes a long way toward decreasing anxiety and assuring that employees continue to do their jobs. For me, calmness and over-communicating proved to be especially effective when the small privately held company I worked for was sold to a large publicly held company. Employees were panicked about losing their jobs; rumors and misinformation were everywhere. For months I held weekly department meetings where employees could air rumors, hear decisions explained and re-explained, and share information. These meetings taught me the value of being honest, of avoiding speculation, and of admitting I don’t know.
  • A good sense of timing. Knowing when to do things asking for a raise, for example, or deciding to change jobs or transfer an employee’s projects a sense of management confidence. Many employees don’t have this sense; leaders must have it.

To achieve success, there’s no substitute for the basics: hard work, avoiding office drama, consistent professionalism, delivering on commitments, high standards. For me, though, the three qualities of keeping confidences, staying calm, and exercising good timing made a big difference at critical points in my career.

What advice would you give to young nonprofit professionals looking to move up in their current positions?

Everything I’ve written so far is relevant, but I would also add the following:

  • Study the leaders you admire in your organization. How do they handle stressful situations? Study those who aren’t as effective. What do the employees complain about? This studying will give you insights into how your bosses think: great preparation for the future.
  • When problem-solving with others, learn to ask the powerful question: What do you think? You’ll make smarter decisions and become a person more likely to stand out and be promoted.
  • Develop the habit of considering the organization as a whole as well as your own scope of responsibilities. Presenting suggestions in terms of the benefit to the organization is impressive and rare.
  • Learn to present your ideas clearly. The managers who reported to me used to tease me about my three bullet points requirement for presentations. I found, though, that it’s great mental discipline to distill your major points the ones you want people to remember into a few key sentences.
  • Accept the likelihood that you’ll need to make a couple of strategic moves from one organization to another when building your career. Knowing when to work toward a promotion from within and when to seek a better opportunity elsewhere is challenging. Truth be told, early in my own career, I made what turned out to be strategic moves without having much sense of career direction. Young professionals today don’t have the luxury of being so casual about their careers.

What inspires you professionally?

There’s no substitute for being committed to work that improves the world in some way, work that’s worth doing. I feel extremely fortunate to have found a way to be in the business world and to be involved with teachers and students and effective learning. For me, publishing excellent educational materials was intrinsically valuable as well as profitable. Also, this type of work tends to attract employees who are idealistic. And they’re creative too: writers and musicians and designers and artists. No job is a joy every minute, but I found great satisfaction managing in this environment.

About the Author:

Susan Schaffrath, Executive Service Corps: Coach and Consultant 

Susan has had a long career in publishing, mainly in the creative end of educational publishing. Her employers have included Encyclopaedia Britannica; McDougal Littell, a division of Houghton Mifflin; and most recently National Geographic School Publishing, where she was Executive Vice President for Product Development. As a company executive, Susan had a key role in setting company strategy, entering new markets, and anticipating trends. She has had significant experience in leading through periods of transition driven by mergers, multiple ownerships, resource constraints, and a technology-driven revolution in publishing. Helping managers and staff deal with change has been a key part of her professional life and continues as a focus of her consulting and coaching work with nonprofits. She is particularly interested in supporting young professionals who are assuming new leadership positions and in working with them to develop strategies for career and organizational success. Susan volunteers regularly in her community and has been an advisor to Solidarity Bridge, a nonprofit that sends medical missions to Bolivia. She serves on the ESC interview team for new volunteers, participates in the organization’s mentoring program, and has consulted and coached in a variety of organizational settings.