Whenever I can help it, I write my name using only lowercase letters. I’ve done this since college at least. I’ve always signed my emails that way. “Proper” nouns in general feel snooty. Sentence case is fine. I guess.
I remember starting to use y’all around the same time I dropped the capital letters in my name. When I started college, I worked at a fancy restaurant in a small town in Texas. I didn’t give y’all-the-word much thought back then. But working at this restaurant made the expression critical to my success as a server. “Y’all” was shorthand for who I was and how long I had lived in the state. It signified to my rich and white clientele that I was from around here. I could affect a Texas drawl though it didn’t often stick, but y’all came out easy and unforced.
People of color navigate and survive in society through many different means. My strategy in those days was to survive through assimilation. Many of those techniques have stayed with me, though I am more aware of them now. I reject assimilation the more I feel comfortable in my own skin. Using y’all in this context established rapport with my customers. It meant I got bigger tips and repeat customers. I used it so much back then that y’all soon became part of my regular vocabulary.
But after I moved from the hospitality industry to an office, y’all disappeared. I’ve spent most of my career feeling like I had a lot to prove. I worried that using unprofessional language would harm my career advancement. It became a part of myself that I felt like I had to hide if I wanted to get anywhere.
After a few career moves and increased responsibilities, I started to bring y’all with me. Y’all was finally a part of me that I felt comfortable revealing. It was a nonissue almost everywhere. If anything, it humanized me. At the start of my career I worried about appearing too perfect. I thought that people would interpret my ambition and competence as arrogance. Y’all became a personal touch. It was more than an informal plural, non-gendered way to address a group of folks. My career success helped bring “unprofessional” slang into my professional world.
The spelling of my name traveled a similar but longer path. Everyone in America learns that you must capitalize your name and others’. It doesn’t matter what you like, those are the rules. But I started writing my name in work emails the way I do in personal emails. I started to feel more comfortable writing it everywhere. To my surprise, with no reinforcing, people in my office took notice.
Nowadays the people in my life use them both interchangably. But the spelling of my name isn’t that serious. People who are trans, non-binary, or gender nonconforming should be able to affirm their identity without issue. But this is how I like my name to look. In a world of typed documents and email, it’s the name I prefer to use. Y’all was something I felt comfortable doing as a junior employee. josh is something I can call myself as a director.
In a very small way—in my own way—I am helping to disrupt the status quo of what people consider professional. I prove that you can do good work and still define yourself against type. I must also tell people that my identity is separate from the value that I bring to an organization. It’s part of who I am. And no matter who you are, it should be easy for (y’)all of us to respect.
It’s been an unbelievably long seven weeks working the COVID-19 response. I’ve spent a lot of time working with my part of an interconnected network of partners across the state. Our response changes at least once or twice each week. We make plans, we communicate those plans, and then they change again. I’ve grown a mustache!
In the past seven weeks, I interviewed two candidates for a job. I twice interviewed for a new job. I didn’t get it, but I’m feeling okay about that. Especially now, I have plenty to do.
Communication matters I make no secret about my love of Hemingway the app. Everything I write for an audience of ten or more I write in Hemingway. Making something easy to read is the highest form of respect that I can give my audience. I used to write languid, embellished prose. I wouldn’t do that to an audience that gets an avalanche of emails every day. I have gotten overwhelming positive feedback for this decision. My words cut through the vagueness that covers up the unknown. And if I don’t know something yet, I say that. It’s easy!
Plans matter Plans change, all the time. But they still matter! Plans communicate vision. They convey intent. What we put into our plans tells other people what we value and how we focus our attention. I’m reading Emergent Strategy right now, so I see fractals in everything. I notice that even the new things we are doing sometimes feel like the old habits we’ve tried to break. It’s hard to reinvent yourself while you’re doing something new. I have to check my biases when I create new programs, or else I will repeat them.
The collective matters I am reminded every day why we must fight for a better world. This one treats people like shit! We are stuck fighting every day for small improvements. We are fighting against decades of people destroying the social contract. We still don’t acknowledge that the social contract was never made to support people of color, women, renters. We in the public sector make programs that benefit and support white culture without even realizing it. When we as a society lapse into panic mode, we go for what’s easy. That means prioritizing dominant culture. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have to choose to stop it. There is no time like the present.
I see professional advancement as the incremental development of skills. I identify a task or role, then compare it to my existing accomplishments. The more I learn, the more I can apply to the next challenge. I approach employee advancement the same way. I give guidance on new challenges and provide feedback along the way. I use those accomplishments to lead to larger and more complex assignments later. But are there limitations to that approach?
in a typical hierarchy A person’s supervisor usually sets their opportunities for growth or advancement. Advancement could depend on favoritism, luck, or other uncontrollable factors. When I’ve had a good job or a supportive boss, advancement feels so easy! I’ve also had jobs where my boss doubts my potential, and has worked to limit my opportunities.
there is a better way In a self-managing organization, each team determines and distributes their responsibilities. People who want to advance can seek support from their team, rather than one person. In a distributed leadership, management responsibilities spread across an entire team. Team members could add new responsibilities or rotate them among their teammates.
for people who aren’t ready for the responsibilities they want This is often a hard decision for a manager to make. I don’t want to limit a person’s potential for growth. But in a traditional hierarchy, advancement is usually a series of steps, not a slope. There is a whole host of responsibilities involved in going from being a team member to manager. Lots of organizations treat a promotion into management as sink or swim. Management trainings are often given only to people who are already managers.
what can I do in a traditional hierarchy? We offer trainings for employees at every level of the company. We set aside funding for them to attend conferences and other learning opportunities. I could try distributing leadership to junior members of my team. I assign them project leadership and track their progress over time. We already rotate who facilitates team meetings and other gatherings.
but?? But it wouldn’t be right to ask an employee to approve time sheets or lead my weekly check-ins. I use those to track the progress of my team and correct their course as needed. I also get paid more to do those things. Sharing management duties should mean sharing compensation that I receive. Would people be happy if their pay fluctuated based on their current role? Would I take a pay cut if someone else did part of my job? For how long should someone do work for their own growth before they’re paid for it?
Managers should contribute to a culture of feedback and support the growth of their teams. People who want advancement should be able to decide what that’s worth to them. I will keep looking for ways to do that.
I started my career in public health. In school I wanted to be a doctor, but I hated memorization and preferred working to studying. My first public health job was in disease intervention. I spent my days tracking down people exposed to HIV and syphilis. At the health department, I latched immediately to the all ways we try to help people. We operate behind the scenes and appear when people are at their most bewildered. We emerge from the fabric of a collective society to offer people our ears and a hand. Even the mere threat of infection can make people feel helpless. It can feel like they’ve landed in the bleakest possible future. We try to lead them out of that bleakness into a more realistic and thus brighter world.
When my friends went overseas to support the Ebola outbreak, I was desperate to join them. I tried explaining this desire to my then-boyfriend, now husband. The public health archetype is a scientist rushing towards the danger without fear. Being on the front lines feels thrilling. You are changing the world on the most granular level: one person at a time. I joined the response but I was thousands of miles from the action. But even from my vantage in the emergency operations center I felt the thrill of the chase.
I work at a food bank now. Those public health ideals have stayed with me, though we only fill short-term needs here. When Coronavirus hit, the familiar adrenaline of the response returned. Our threadbare safety net looks even more tattered in the face of mass layoffs and social distancing. This weekend I’m coming down from about three weeks of non-stop planning. We don’t know how long this disease will spread. A week ago we didn’t know for sure how it spread. We are creating infrastructure at a rapid pace. We are unsure of what is coming. I pivot every time the response changes.
This week I had to take a step back from the front lines. I’ve had asthma for most of my life, but I forgot about all that when the number of COVID-19 cases increased. Another food bank director told me he sent home sick all his staff in the “high risk” category of the infection. It knocks out people over 60 and those with chronic disease, including asthma. In an instant I realized I was at risk (my husband said, “uh.. yeah, hello?”). Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome isn’t an abstract disease. I don’t need anything severe or acute attacking my respiratory system!
As a person who wants to help, I’m conflicted being the person who needs help. Even though my risk of catching the infection is low, it’s higher than I think. So now I’m working from home full time. Still busy (so busy), but not in the office. I’m helping to lead a response even though I’m off the front lines. I can make a difference without taking up a hospital bed.
I’ve seen the camaraderie created during a response, and I’ll miss the bonding that will happen. But even at home, I am living through this pandemic. I’m still trying to make a difference. I’m in the bleakness with others who are at higher risk of COVID-19. I can still help people survive while we find a way out.
In a few short weeks, the scope of our response has changed. People most at risk were already navigating a rigged system. We already know that we moved too slow when the crisis began. For most people, we’re only a month in. There’s no telling how long it will last.
I was recently interviewed by a student taking a class on effective management. So, here is that.
Please describe a typical day at work. What do you do all day?
I’m in a lot of meetings! I am one of three directors in my department, and I supervise 12 people across three teams. There are about 30 managers and directors in the whole organization. I lead or take part in several workgroups. I also have weekly check-ins with my boss and each of my three direct reports. We meet monthly as a leadership cohort, and I meet every other week with my other department leads. I am also in lots of meetings for recurring or emergent issues.
The rest of my work falls into two broad buckets, management and strategy.
Strategy is planning the big-picture stuff. My three teams have different but overlapping areas of focus. I need to make sure they are all on the same page about where we’re going. I also try to have them collaborate across teams as often as possible. I also consult on other people’s projects as often as I can. It’s a chance to align our visions and show them what’s important to me.
Management is important because I have to align visions within my own team. I provide guidance on projects and consult when they are unsure of how to move forward. I review drafts, contracts, and other policy documents relevant to my work when needed. This doesn’t include the more traditional management responsibilities like:
approving timecards and expense reports
regular check-ins and team meetings with staff
communicating our vision inside and outside the organization
finding professional development opportunities for staff based on their interests and skills
What are the most critical problems you face as a manager?
I find that as a non-profit we’re always more ambitious than our capacity. Prioritization is a big part of our work. I have to ask, “how critical is this need? Is it urgent or can it wait? Is this a potential learning opportunity for junior staff? Do we have the time to set those expectations to improve their chance of success?”
My teams work in opposite ends of our building, and communication is central to our performance. After I was hired, I noticed that while two of my teams felt they were distinct, their work was very similar. I put in effort from the beginning to get the teams talking and working together more. In a way, this doubled the available brainpower we had to solve problems. We share a lot within our department, but we still have the rest of the organization to talk to! We have a responsibility to define our work for others (or else they’ll do it for us).
What are the most critical skills needed to be a successful manager in your line of work?
Collaboration is the most used skill in my toolbox. I need to be able to guide my teams towards the best decision we can make. That means asking probing questions. After I get a summary from them, I like to ask, “what would you recommend?” Some managers do this so they can lead their employee to the answer the manager wants them to guess. If this is your plan, you’re wasting time. Just tell them the answer if that’s what you want to do. Instead, I ask them questions to refine an approach based on our collective expertise. The goal is not to ask questions with a solution in mind, it’s to think through a problem without knowing what the solution will be.
The other most critical skill I use as a manager is respect. When you’re the boss, you don’t need to raise your voice or be rude to get your work done. I stay professional with my staff, but I still like joking around. I want people to enjoy their work time and value their colleagues.
What are the major reasons managers fail in positions like yours?
Some managers fail when they change their programs without understanding them first. This may happen with new managers who want to prove themselves worthy of the role. Others fail by taking on too much at once, which can burn out their team. Some managers find it difficult to give clear, critical feedback to their employees.
Semi-related, but the most cringeworthy thing a manager can do is call their coworkers “family.” Ugh! The concept of family means different things to different people. Families ask a lot of each other in non-transactional ways that I would never ask of a colleague. I have strong relationships with former colleagues, but none of them are my family. Some people don’t have great relationships to their families. Some people are children or spouses of abusers. Some queer and trans people have negative or traumatic connections to their relations. I want to work with people I respect, without having to make it as personal as family can sometimes be.
What are the outstanding skills or abilities of other effective managers you have known?
All the best managers I’ve known have been active listeners. It’s a fact that you won’t always have the best solution. An effective manager is someone who can listen to others and refine their own thinking on a subject. I take extensive notes when I’m in meetings. I use those to reflect after the fact or clarify what I took from the meeting.
Effective managers must also focus on staff development. My first foray into management in an office was when my boss was out on leave for two weeks. She named me as the interim team lead in her absence. While I was “manager”, we had one minor issue that I was able to work through. This experience improved my confidence and helped me realize I found management thrilling.
I also appreciate when managers can communicate big-picture strategy and expectations. As an employee, I am always curious about the “why” of a task given to me by management. How will this get us to where we want to go? What should this look like when I’m done? Why is this more critical than whatever else I was doing? How does this task fit in with everyone else’s work. Though the hierarchy gives a manager power, managers often fail when that’s all they wield.
If you had to train someone to replace you in your current job, what key abilities would you focus on?
The most important thing I do is understand how racial and social injustice relates to our work. White supremacy and dominant culture created every problem that non-profits try to solve. Racial injustice is present in how we “serve” people in need to how we administer programs. We need to rebuild many of the systems that we exist in. Another valuable skill I would want in my successor is relationship management. A lot of my work is relationships! Most days I work with at least 20 people in roles across the organization. I need to be able to hear what’s important to them, share what’s important to me, then find common ground.
Strategic ability is important, too. Right now, my team is working to expand the network of partners we use to do our work. I started laying the groundwork for this almost 18 months ago! At the beginning, most of the plan only lived in my head. I had to generate buy-in among my bosses, my team, and in other departments. This means having a clear (but flexible) picture of where you want to go, and then persuading others to go there with you.
The last thing I would say about effective management is that everyone has their own style. My style has been successful for me as a brown person navigating a hierarchy built by white people. It’s not successful for everyone, not even other people who look like me. As a man, I am praised for being assertive and direct. I am also not expected to invest in soft skills (like joining the social committee). And when I use soft skills, such as volunteering to take notes in a meeting, I am praised for that too.
We managers have a responsibility to change the professional norms we were born into. We all deserve to work in a place that is inclusive and supportive of us being ourselves.