As the world and job market continue to evolve, one thing remains certain: education and work experience are increasingly important but often not enough to land your dream job. I often talk with professionals at all levels of their careers who have experienced frustration related to obtaining their goal position or gaining the skills needed to be qualified for that aspirational role. One of the most important lessons I have learned has been that various forms of engagement outside of the workplace can be game-changing for aspiring leaders.
Through hands-on learning opportunities, leadership potential can become leadership experience. I found myself in an executive director role at a very young age. External leadership training and experience not only led to me being asked to interview for the position in the first place but have also continued to provide me with ongoing learning, helping me to develop as a professional and leader. Particularly for macro social workers, for whom leadership and various levels of engagement are keys to success, opportunities like the ones described below can offer transformational opportunities for relationship building, training, and demonstrating ability to lead within an organization.
1) Volunteer leadership roles within professional or other community organizations
I joined an organization called Detroit Young Professionals upon moving to southeastern Michigan with the goal of meeting people and getting involved in my new community. After attending a couple networking and community service events, I applied to join one of the group’s committees, and that was when I truly began to benefit. The relationships I’ve developed have provided me with a diverse array of contacts from which to draw when seeking out potential partnerships or wanting to connect friends and colleagues with people they might benefit from meeting with. From committee member to committee chair to now board member, I have been able to experience various aspects of the organization’s work, and I often find myself applying processes or templates from DYP and other organizations I’m involved with in my own workplace, saving valuable time and improving my organization’s effectiveness without needing to reinvent the wheel.
2) Fellowship/mentorship/leadership development programs
Many organizations offer cohort-based leadership training or mentoring programs. The Network for Social Work Management is a great example of this, as it provides both a mentoring program and a policy fellowship with a mentoring component. As a policy fellow this year, I have had the opportunity to delve more deeply into an issue I am passionate about: college access for students from foster care. I am paired with an insightful, experienced social worker with whom I connect with regularly to discuss my project and talk through potential ways of being an impactful advocate. Her guidance and feedback has been incredibly valuable throughout the process, and I now have a mentor and friend in another area of the country who can provide comparative perspectives and context which may be missing from my purview.
In addition to the Network, other organizations both nationally and locally offer programs with similar goals. Some are cross-sector, while others are targeted toward professionals working in a certain field (such as social work) or interested in similar roles or issues (such as fundraising or diversity, equity, and inclusion). Some are free, while others cost, although those with fees generally offer discounts to those of us working in the nonprofit sector!
3) Board service
I believe board service can be a positive learning experience for professionals in any field. For those who work in the nonprofit space, however, as many of us social workers do, I consider board experience to be essential.
As a board member, I learn new methods of organizational governance and high-level leadership which I am then able to take back to my own workplace. It provides me with the lens of a board member, making me a better nonprofit leader as a result of the context which comes from that governance perspective. Also, conversely, my nonprofit work experience makes me a valuable board member. Some nonprofit boards are led primarily by professionals from other sectors who consider board experience a great way to give back. While they provide important expertise, nonprofit and social work voices are also needed on boards.
How do I find these programs or boards?
Of course, the only way to take advantage of these opportunities is to know about them. This is why it is important to connect with others in the spaces you are interested in; in my case, for example, these include social work, young professional, nonprofit, and education spaces. After connecting with others in the categories which apply to you – through seeking out local events, talking to those currently in your network (former professors, colleagues, etc.), and joining groups (such as the Network) and paying attention to their e-newsletters – you will begin to learn about opportunities for engagement. From there, all it takes is to express interest or apply! Then, through those experiences, your own network will grow, and you will continue to be referred to future opportunities – including, possibly, the job of your dreams.
Bonus Self Care Component
While the career benefits are clear, I have also found that external involvements are a form of self care. Not only do they provide safe spaces to test ideas, but they keep my creative juices flowing and keep me inspired, often reminding me in various ways of why I chose to pursue a career in this field. They also result in genuine relationships through formal mentorship pairing or through informally working with others on committees or boards. Those relationships provide support systems for us to lean on and learn from. As a result of these relationships, I have been able to collaborate with others on projects to benefit all of our workplaces. We discuss our personal goals and how we can assist each other by making introductions to our contacts. These engagements have provided immeasurable value, both for my career and my personal well being. They have kept me motivated and constantly growing. After a recent disappointment, it was one of my board families which reminded me why I do the work I do. While some of these opportunities may simply sound like extra work, I assure you that the right involvements will leave you feeling more enriched, energized, and prepared to achieve your goals.
Kayla Roney Smith is the Executive Director of the Hazel Park Promise Zone Authority, a place-based scholarship program and college access network in southeast Michigan. Previously, she served as a college adviser to high school students and a program coordinator overseeing youth after-school and summer programming. Kayla received a Bachelor of Arts in Social Relations and Policy from Michigan State University and a Master of Social Work with concentrations in Social Policy & Evaluation and Community & Social Systems from the University of Michigan. For her college access work, Kayla was named as one of southeast Michigan’s “20 in their 20s” by Crain’s Detroit Business and one of Oakland County, Michigan’s “Elite 40 Under 40”. Kayla co-chairs the Detroit Chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, chairs the Michigan Junior Leagues’ Statewide Public Affairs Committee, and chairs the National Association of Social Workers-Michigan’s Chapter Committee on Nominating and Leadership.