Finding My Voice

It’s always nice to find out that you’re not alone. This recent article helped me to feel this way by revealing how women face discrimination because of our voices.

I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I have a little girl voice (always by older men). In addition, I have received unsolicited and unwelcome coaching about how I could improve the tone of my voice by making it richer, deeper – more masculine.

Ironically, when I sing, my alto voice is much stronger than my soprano voice. If you’ve ever heard me speak, you might even be surprised that I can hit those alto notes (in fact, I can also hit some tenor notes too!). So it’s not that I’m not capable, or that I don’t have it in me – it just isn’t what comes natural to me. When we do things that agitate what feels natural and right, and takes us out of our comfort zone in a nonconstructive way only to please other people, it sets us up to be extra self-conscious and prone to making mistakes; it may even lead to violating other aspects of who we are.

This article just offers one more example of how male models of leadership dominate (as only male models of leadership could do). Let me say this as loud and clear as my so-called “little girl voice” will allow: the only way to dismantle such domination is to consistently remain true to who we are despite other people’s prejudice.

How to Be an Authority without Being a Jerk

If you’re anything like me, then the idea of claiming to be an authority seems a little bit distasteful. Not just because of imposter syndrome – feeling like ‘who am I to claim to be an authority’, but also because authority is so closely linked to the word authoritarian – something I do not wish in any way to associate myself with. Nope, not me – I’m all about cooperation, sharing, and other bleeding heart stuff like that.

On a recent drive along I-80 in central Pennsylvania (I have some of my best thoughts while on the road), it occurred to me that my repulsion toward the word authority may be rooted in my interpretation of the word rather than what the word could potentially mean.

The concept of authority has become entangled with authoritarianism and top-down, hierarchical leadership styles that are slowly, but thankfully, becoming a relic of the past. We think of the word ‘authority’ to mean ‘I wrote the book. I’m special and better than (collective) you because I know it all – and anything you say to try and challenge me is just going to make you look like a fool.’

I see authority as an active process of envisioning and creating. It doesn’t mean that you wrote the book that sits on dusty shelves and nobody reads anymore but that you are actively and continually writing – creating – in response to an ever-changing world.

If you think you know everything you aren’t an authority; you’re a jerk and nobody cares about your impossible and improbable claims to know everything. The only way to establish authority while also building credibility and respect is to take creative risks, learn, renew perspectives, and repeat the process over and over again. Let’s rewrite the script on authority.

How to Thrive When Your Boss is a Narcissist

Have you ever worked for a narcissist? It’s hard to feel like you’re making a meaningful contribution when your coworker, supervisor, or leader takes credit for your work, puts you down, and does whatever they can to draw attention to themselves regardless of the consequences.

Unfortunately, there have been several narcissists in my life — both professional and personal. Being around someone with this kind of personality can be really distressing. It has caused me to undervalue my work (and myself in general on a more fundamental level), to deflect attention from myself both intentionally and without any awareness of doing so, and to feel extremely frustrated and profoundly alone. It’s subtle but impactful psychological abuse that seeps into your intellectual and emotional processes – and it’s really hard to get past that. I’m still working on it.

The first thing to do if your boss is a narcissist is leave if you can. You’re not going to change them. No amount of false flattery, perfectionism, or working 16+ hours a day will get them to appreciate you. It’s just not going to happen, so let go of that fantasy. They don’t care about you like that. They are focused on illuminating themselves and leaving you in their cold, dark shadow.

If you can’t leave right away, then you need to figure out a way to effectively deal with the situation so that you can thrive. Narcissists aren’t clones of each other so you’ll need to get to know them and their selfish desires to develop effective communication and work strategies. It can be helpful to share how their behavior is impacting you in a safe environment. Don’t forget that their behavior – and everything they say about you and the world – isn’t about you. It’s a reflection of their insecurities. Know that you are capable and remain committed to your work and the contributions you can make.

You could also have a bit of fun with it and do whatever you can to upstage them and reveal them for the selfish jerk they are. But I don’t recommend that, because in the long run – no matter how clever you are – it will be used against you even if it destroys your career and whatever self-respect you have left.

So if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having to work closely with a narcissist, know that it can be done. If you choose to stay in this situation for an extended period of time, even if you’re super tough, it’s going to hold you back in one way or another. Plan an escape. The mere fantasy of doing so will give you sustenance as you face your dysfunctional workplace each day.

How to Sell Yourself without Selling Out

I hate talking about myself. When I’m asked to share even superficial details about my life, I feel my fists (and teeth) clenching as my gaze drops to the floor. I guess people think something about me is interesting – and I’m flattered, really I am – yet, I can’t help but feel a little to a lot uncomfortable with any form of prompted self disclosure.

Yet, I’ve found it to be really helpful to not just talk about myself but – gasp – promote myself so that people can understand how I can help them develop and realize their goals and while also making things a little bit easier for them. I really do have a lot to offer; why is it that I feel an icky feeling in the pit of my stomach when an opportunity to share comes my way?

It’s because most models of networking and self promotion are just downright sleazy. And we’ve all been a victim of sleazy people who only care about promoting themselves and making money at the obvious expense of everyone else and values that you’d think are common sense. They stretch the truth or shift their focus to things that in the long run really aren’t all that important. There has to be a better, more sincere – and more comfortable – way.

Think of selling yourself as creating connections and sharing your many resources to create positive changes. If you don’t sell yourself, nobody will ever know who you are or what you have accomplished. Your example can be an inspiration to others, and your gifts can directly benefit people, organizations, and communities – if they are activated through dialogue and subsequent action.

Selling yourself is offering who you are and what matters most to you to the world. Not everyone will be interested. In fact, some people might really disrespect you for just being who you are. Focus only on the people who are open to learning about you and what you do – people who care and with whom you might share a genuine connection.

 

And to make sure you’re not a hypocrite, extend the same to others. Open up to them and listen to understand who they are and how they serve in the world. Selling yourself isn’t about compromising your values or making other people feel sick because you are overwhelming them. It’s about communication and creating opportunities for meaningful relationships to begin.

How to Be Innovative When Writing Proposals

Question: I’m working on a proposal related to drug and substance abuse that will benefit women, youth, and girls. I need innovative methods to add to what I already have. Where can I find this information?

That’s a great question! Grant proposals always challenge us to do our very best in terms of program delivery and to articulate the most innovative aspects of our work in writing. While the requirements of funders can sometimes seem oppressive, they do seem to get us focused on improving what we offer to our communities.

Proposals should reflect the best of what your organization has done in the past as well as what you hope to do and achieve in the future. In terms of the future, there are several questions you should ask yourself to inform your thinking:

1. What has worked well in the past that we should continue to do or expand? Because you have experience working with the community, you already have a good sense of what has worked well. Identify these activities and continue to refine them. This is what distinguishes your organization from all of the others, making you more competitive as you apply for funding.

2. What have we done in the past that can be improved? As an experienced organization, you probably also have a lot of knowledge about what doesn’t work, or what could be done differently. Take time to identify, reflect upon, and discuss these areas so that they can be improved.

3. What needs does my community have that are not being met? As a nonprofit, you have an obligation to have first-hand knowledge of community needs and to address those needs as effectively as possible. This means you need to be present in the opportunity, ask questions, conduct formal assessments every so often, and listen to the people you are serving and your partners on an ongoing basis.

4. What feedback has the community given us about what we are doing well or not so well? Whether or not you have asked, I am sure that some of the people you are serving have given you positive or negative feedback – or even suggestions for improvement. Develop a system to keep track of this feedback and review it periodically to improve your programs.

5. What trends are impacting the field? Your presence in the community will help you understand not only what the people being served think and feel about what you are offering, but the whole of what is going on in their lives and in their community. Be aware of any type of change or activity in your community that might impact the people you are serving or your ability to provide service to people.

6. What innovative practices could be replicated by my organization to better meet the needs of my community? I believe this might be at the heart of your question! There are a lot of ways you can research innovative practice not just when writing proposals but throughout the year. Some sources of information include professional associations, trade journals, networking groups, and government resources. Stay in touch with your colleagues to know what they are doing. Make some calls to public officials or even funders to ask them what ideas they can share from other communities. Attend conferences, read, and imagine what could be possible!

Keep in mind that what is innovative and works in one community may not necessarily be effective in your community. As you come across ideas, share them with your coworkers and/or the people you serve to see if it might work. Keep in mind that you are serving complete people, even though your program may only impact a part of their lives. All of those other parts of their lives will impact their needs and what will work well as you interact with them. This also means that you should focus not just on addressing problems, but on preventing them while also creating a more positive environment.

7. What does my organization and program have the capacity to deliver? My philosophy is always to underpromise and overdeliver (hopefully you have noticed!). I often see nonprofit organizations promising the world in a proposal when there is no possible way that they could actually do what is being proposed. Only propose to do what is possible given the time, money, facilities, and other resources available to the organization. But never stop dreaming big; always be thinking about what additional things your organization could be doing if more funding became available.

To answer these questions, your organization needs to assess needs and capacity to address those needs on an ongoing basis – not just when it is time to write proposals. That way, you will be prepared to take action when you become aware of unexpected opportunities for funding or partnership.

Your Questions Answered! How Can I Establish Myself as a Trusted and Respected Leader?

Q: How can I establish myself as a trusted and respected leader?

As leaders, we have the opportunity to have a positive influence on other people, our organizations, our communities, and beyond. Establishing yourself as a trusted and respected leader will lead to even more opportunities to do good in the world. But this is easier said than done. Here are a few suggestions for you:

  1. Be honest, even when it hurts. Be open and truthful, and others will know that they can trust you.
  2. Do what you say you will do. Always follow through on your promises. There is nothing more disappointing than being promised something and then being forgotten. Demonstrate that you care by only making promises that you can keep and by following up on all of your commitments, no matter how minor they may seem to you. Life happens; if you aren’t able to do something or to do it as quickly as you had hoped, let the other person know.
  3. Be consistent. Other people will trust and respect you they know what to expect from you. This creates feelings of safety and comfort that support healthy relationships. But don’t be afraid to change your mind or your way of talking about or doing something if it is a reflection of your own personal growth. Let people know that it is natural to change and evolve over time.
  4. Be present. To be trusted and respected, you need to be seen. Make the time to interact with other people and use this opportunity to demonstrate your leadership ideals through your personal example. Being present doesn’t just mean being in the room; it also means being aware and engaged.
  5. Check impressions. You want to be trusted and respected, but how do you really know whether or not other people trust and respect you? The truth is that you don’t. And if some people trust and respect you, others may not. Be aware of how other people respond to you. If you think you are not being clearly understood, ask others how you are being perceived. Reflect and check in on a regular basis to make sure your inner and outer worlds are integrated.
  6. Find a mentor. Mentors can help you get established by opening doors that would otherwise remain inaccessible (or, in some cases, that you might not even know about!). In addition, a mentor can be your sounding board to explore your ideas and insecurities. Make sure you choose your mentor wisely and clearly outline your expectations for the mentor’s involvement in your life.

Your Questions Answered! How Can I Help my Students Develop Good Character?

Q: How can I help my students develop good character?

As adults, we have a great opportunity to influence the children around us. We do this through our example, including our choices and actions (children are always watching and learning!) as well as through our words. There are a lot of character development programs especially designed for educators to influence children’s esteem and virtue. But if we don’t embody those values, we are sending mixed messages that will lead to confusion and even resentment. So as an adult, and particularly as a leader, we must always be aware of the example we are setting for our children.

As much as we want our influence to impact the children around us, whether they are our own children, our neighbors, or our students, we can’t control how others will respond to us. What we say and do will resonate with some people, and it will turn other people off. That’s human nature; we are all different and some people are more open to learning that others. We can never control other people, nor should we want to. Attempting to control others’ thoughts and behaviors will lead them to shut down; by doing this, they will not be open to learning from us. So we need to share our ideas, and be a great example to others, without the expectation that everyone will buy in to what we want them to believe or do. And when other people reject our ideas, we need to show them respect and continue to share who we are with an open heart and mind.

There are many influences on children including their school, family, community, and the media. Each source of influence has a different motivation. Some are most concerned with the well-being of children while others are not. Our children are exposed to a lot of things that we might find harmful, or detrimental to the values we are trying to imbue. We can try to change some of these practices, but it takes collective effort over time. Join with others who also care about children, and who want them to build character, and you will be even more successful in influencing who they are.

Your Questions Answered! How Can I Be an Effective Public Speaker when I Have an Accent?

Q: How can I be an effective public speaker when I have an accent?

Your accent is a part of who you are. It makes you unique and can distinguish you from the crowd. On the other hand, when we speak with an accent other people might misunderstand what we are saying or not take us seriously. Despite taking Spanish in school for several years and being around Spanish speaking people most of my life, I sound absolutely ridiculous when I try to speak this language (I know what it should sound like, and that’s not what is coming out of my mouth!). I more than make up for this with my French, which might be passable in certain regions (though I’m not sure which ones). I really appreciate your courage because I know how uncomfortable I would be if I were in your shoes.

Identifying that you have an accent and that this might interfere with your effectiveness as a public speaker demonstrates critical self-awareness which is really important for any leader! Whether we are speaking in our native or another language, we can always improve our word choice and elocution so that we are can deliver a stronger message. I’m a native English speaker and my public speaking ability in my native tongue is completely different now than it was five, 10, or 20 years ago. This takes preparation and practice, practice, practice.

Don’t let your self-awareness turn into self-consciousness or self-criticism. If you feel self-conscious about your accent while you are speaking, you may project nervousness that distracts people from your message. Be proud of who you are and what you have to say! If you think the audience is not understanding you, check in with them and look at their reaction. You can also use visual aids, like presentation software or a handout, with text to help people grasp the key points of your speech.

Remember that we all have different linguistic abilities. I’m referring not just to you as a speaker, but to listeners as well. It can be harder for some people than others to interpret meaning when the speaker has an accent. Be compassionate toward them, and yourself, to develop a rapport that will make your audience want to learn more from you.

 

Your Questions Answered! How Can I Better Manage My Volunteers?

Q: How can I better manage my volunteers?

As a person who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 20 years, I know how important volunteers are to the mission of our organizations. I also know, having volunteered for a variety of organizations, that the process of creating a great volunteer experience that leads to people feeling truly engaged can be mystifying. The administrative aspects of managing volunteers, like recruitment and keeping track of contact information and hours contributed, is relatively easy. Developing your volunteer base is not difficult, but it does require intention and consistent effort. Here are a few tips to help you improve your volunteer management.

1. Ask volunteers to fill out an application, just like they would for a job. This helps you to assess the best ways that each volunteer can contribute to your organization.
2. Interview prospective volunteers. Give each candidate the opportunity to ask questions and to decide what their level of commitment can be to your organization.
3. Get to know your volunteers. The process of getting to know another person takes time, so your assessment of volunteer interests and skills can’t be limited to the application and interview process. Show interest in each volunteer and provide them with opportunities to develop their skills and explore their interests.
4. Consistently communicate. Volunteers want to know what is going on in your organization, and they want to hear it from you! Make sure your volunteers receive regular formal communications with important updates, like printed newsletters or email. Invite volunteers to all of your social media accounts. Make sure your volunteers hear about important changes from you rather than through the grapevine.
5. Check in on a regular basis. Call, email, or schedule a meeting with each volunteer at least once a month to see how things are going. Ask them to provide you with recommendations for how the organization can create a better experience for them.
6. Recognize each volunteer’s contributions. Tell volunteers directly that you appreciate what they are doing for your organization, and do it often! For those who don’t mind the spotlight, you can also feature volunteers in your newsletter or on social media.

 

Your Questions Answered: Working with Youth, Staff Challenges, Innovation

Q: I lead a group of young people between the ages of two to 26. Attendance is very poor for our weekly meetings and are a bit hard to organize. How can I make these gatherings interesting?

A: It can be very difficult to hold the attention of young people, especially when there is such a large age span. Here are a few ideas that might help increase attendance and organization:

  1. Think like one of the young people. As adults we often have very different ideas about the world and goals than children do. When we approach working with children, it can be helpful to try to see the world through their eyes – which may seem naïve or distorted to us. Imagine what it is like for them to participate in the group. What other activities might they be doing instead? Why do you think they are making this choice?
  2. Ask participants what they want. In addition to thinking like a young person, you can get right inside their minds by asking them what they want. What do they like most about the meetings? What don’t they like? What do they want to get out of participating? Why do they choose to come or not to come? Accept their honest feedback and adjust the schedule and activities accordingly.
  3. Create an incentive to participate. It may seem a little manipulative or unethical to offer people something for participating. The reward of your meeting should be enough! But in reality, incentives can help people try something that they might otherwise choose not to do. An incentive can be something very simple, like the opportunity to do something new, a snack, or a special guest speaker that piques their interest. Make a list of rewards that your young people might like and choose something that is feasible given your resources.
  4. Divide the group by age. Because the attention span, interests, and goals of people in your age range are very different, it may be beneficial to break the group up according to age. If this is difficult to manage, you may need to recruit more volunteers to help you implement activities.
  5. Develop mentors. You have a great opportunity here for the older participants to mentor those who are younger. This will give them a sense of responsibility and connection that my improve participation. In addition, the younger people will benefit from these relationships and may attend more often because they are excited to see their mentor.
  6. Identify cheerleaders. Young people are highly influenced by their peers. If you have active participants in your group, they can be your cheerleaders and help you recruit participants. Provide them with the language and support needed to tell other young people about the group.
  7. Demonstrate impact. Clearly identify the goals of each meeting and the group overall. When goals are achieved, or milestones toward those goals, verbally let the group know. Remind them of your group’s purpose and let them know that you are making progress. It may not be obvious to them without you calling it to their attention.

Q: I own a school and have a staff of 17 people. It is hard to recruit staff because of our school’s location. The staff I have do not respect my authority. They come late, dress improperly, are insubordinate, and express many other negative attitudes. How can I restructure and build on my staff’s strength?

A: I understand your predicament. You don’t want to lose staff, because they are hard to replace. Yet, the staff you have aren’t being good role models to your students. Here are a few ideas that might help:

  1. Reward good behavior. Hopefully, some of your staff are exhibiting good behaviors. Recognize and reward them for being good role models not just to your students but to other employees. Consider matching these employees with others who are struggling to serve as mentors and provide them with a reward for their extra effort.
  2. Create a comprehensive policy book. Make sure all of your expectations are in writing. When new staff are hired, go over each item with them. Unfortunately, you can’t expect that everyone will have common sense. Ask employees to sign a document stating that they have read and understand the policies.
  3. Create consequences for breaking the rules. Put a system in place to let people know when they have broken a policy. Remind them why this particular policy is important to the school and your students. Clearly identify the consequences for breaking the rule including both the impact on the employee and the influence it will on students. Create a progressive system of consequences leading up to termination of employment.
  4. Suggest ideas for improvement. Provide your staff with alternative options for behavior. If they are doing something that is against the school policy, don’t just point out that what they are doing is breaking the rules – provide them with specific ideas of things that they could do instead. If this behavior is something that the employees always do at work and otherwise, they may not really think about other options.
  5. Document challenges and progress. Keep notes for yourself with dates to help you remember what happened when. When you have a conversation with an employee about their behavior, follow that conversation up with something in writing that identifies the policy that was broken and what your expectation is for them going forward.
  6. Build on your school’s strengths. Think of your school in terms of its unique strengths. What makes it special? If you do need to recruit new staff, do so from a position of strength rather than focusing on the inconvenient location. Position your school as a great place to work and you will attract great talent.
  7. Carefully screen new employees. If you do hire new staff, make sure you are prepared to ask them questions that will help you determine whether or not they are a good fit for your school – and whether they will bring you the same challenges you have experienced in the past. Carefully observe their behavior and how they respond to your questions.
  8. Be a role model. As the owner, you are the ultimate role model and are always being watched by your students and staff. Make sure you always exhibit the behaviors that you expect to see in others.

Q: I am a teacher and the head of our English department. I work with many different personalities. How can I be more innovative to improve the department’s achievement?

A: Yes, it can be a challenge to work with many different personalities! Here are a few ideas that may promote your department’s success:

  1. Approach relationships with curiosity. Demonstrate a genuine interest in getting to know your coworkers and other employees in your school. This will open up opportunities to learn about how each person is motivated and what they can offer to improve the department.
  2. Identify each other’s strengths and interests. It is helpful to be curious and to pay attention to information that other people voluntarily share. But sometimes we need to intentionally ask questions to gather specific information. Take the time to ask each person in your department what their special gifts are and what interests them most. Don’t forget to share this information about you with others, too! It may be especially powerful to do this in a group setting where everyone in the department can learn more about each other to coordinate effort and promote bonding.
  3. Create opportunities for everyone to contribute. Now that you know how people are motivated and what their strengths and interests are, create opportunities for them to use their talent to benefit the department. When new projects come up, pull people in who will be interested and who will likely make a positive contribution.
  4. Let people take risks. Innovation involves risk and learning. Give your staff a little room to try new things and then evaluate, together, whether or not it worked. If it worked well, then this practice can be shared throughout your department. If it didn’t work so well, then you can either change it up a bit or try something new. Let your staff know that you trust them to try new things.
  5. Celebrate your department in the school. Honor the contributions of your staff by letting school administrators and other department heads know about their commitment, innovative ideas, and successes.
  6. Expose your employees to new ideas. As department head, you have the opportunity to shape your employee’s ideas about education and to expand their horizons. When you find examples of practices that are working well in other environments, share them with your staff. You can do this verbally, in writing, or at meetings. Set up a system to regularly share new ideas with your staff.
  7. Define success. What is your department trying to achieve? How does it define success? Have this conversation with staff to create a working definition of success. This will guide the department’s efforts and can serve as a reminder of what the group thinks is most important when decisions are made.