Thus far in my career, I have given my heart and soul to two different organizations. Both who taught and continue to teach me so many lessons. The capacity of each organization I’ve had interaction with was quite different. When I first started at Child Crisis Center, there were over 200 employees, a 30+ year history, developed programs which provided direct services, and an 8M+ budget. Then I started at Feeding Matters and witnessed the exact opposite…we had 7 employees, a 7 year history, agile programs without a direct service component, and had a $500,000 budget.
I learned many strategies throughout my still very-new career, but the most effective strategy for me was learning to lead from the middle. I was not in a leadership team position at Child Crisis Center, nor was I in one when I first started at Feeding Matters. But I was able to leverage my position within each organization to create organizational change and develop my own professional skills while enhancing my influence in the organization. I have collected a few lessons that helped me learn how to lead from the middle. I will mention that some of these lessons were learned through failure on my part…but that’s definitely when the best learning takes place.
- Take a Deep Dive
I am a big believer in life-long learning and have always been one to truly dive into a project or job and understand it fully. Therefore, I think the first step in leading from the middle is to ask questions. I do not mean asking questions to anyone and everyone who will listen at your organization. I’m talking about contemplation. When you are seeking to find why something is done or how it is done, you learn quicker and showcase your ability to be autonomous. The result of this Socrates approach is to understand the system which you are working within. Every system has it’s nuances, major influencers, politics, etc. It is imperative to take an audit of your organization. Learn about the past, present, and vision for the future. But even more so than this, understand who the organization’s influencers are. Typical business structures rarely reflect that actual dynamics of decision making in an organization. Finding this out not only helped me understand who the decision influences were in my organization but allowed me the confidence that I could become an influence even at my position.
- Putting the Organization’s needs first
When you are early on in your career you typically have your own career goals in mind. Yes, we are all in the nonprofit sector working towards a greater good. But, we still all want to progress in our career. Some people want to be in charge of things, others want to be the rock that everyone needs to keep the office on track. No matter where you want to fall on the office hiearchy, in order to lead from the middle you have to put your organization’s needs first. This is certainly a cliche but it’s more difficult in practice. It forces you to become extremely self-aware to the point where you are able to recognize when you have a personal goal that you are trying to advance instead of what the organization needs. This causes you to learn humility but breeds respect.
- Incremental Changes
Timing is everything. Innovation can only take place if your system is ready for it. Once you understand the organization, have the organization’s needs in mind, have cultivated respect from your team, then you have started practicing leading from the middle. Once in this position, you are certainly an influencer. If you have ideas to help move the organization’s mission forward, you can make incremental changes to work towards your vision.
So find solutions, take initiative, seek out connections, educate yourself about your organization’s barriers and internal challenges, make connections, suggest improvement, strive for a gold standard, appreciate your team, cultivate sustainability, and strive for efficiency. Your impact is powerful. Good luck!