5 Things I Didn’t Learn from My M.B.A.

Disclaimer: This article isn’t intended to diminish what I learned at the University of New Haven. They provided me with a great education which has been the springboard for a series of career opportunities. I decided to get my advanced degree at the ripe old age of 23. I left undergrad, changed campuses, and bought more expensive books. I saw the decision as “investing early” but I didn’t have a deep understanding of how this level of education should be approached. Looking back, it may have been this lack of maturity and perspective that prevented me from hearing the subtle, but valuable takeaways the professor was sharing. It could also be that there are some things that you can only learn from mentors and peers, who teach you through their actions and interactions every day.

Lesson 1: Build buy-in before you get there. Most work places host meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. Because of the sheer frequency of meetings, it is easy to forget that not all meetings are equal and that leveraging a meeting to your benefit is a learned skill. If you are called upon to share important project information or ask for support on a new proposal, your first step should be figuring out who you need at that meeting and what their current opinion is on your topic. Take the time to talk with each stakeholder individually before the meeting. Share some of what you’ll discuss in the meeting and learn their concerns. When you get to that very important presentation, you’ll have a clear idea of what information needs to be shared to get approval/buy-in and be able to proactively address obstacles in front of your managers and peers. Bottom line: You’ll get more done and be perceived as a rock star.

Special thanks to Ellen Barry, for modeling this behavior and showing me how ‘working the floor’ breaks down interoffice barriers.  

Lesson 2: Get comfortable with your content. What I don’t mean here is memorizing sound bites. When you only bother to understand your role/project/business at a surface level, you will struggle with answering questions on the details. Good managers/investors/partners always want to know more. Give it to them! Show them that you understand your world (whatever size it may be) inside and out. Share the stats that excite you. Reveal the trends that scare you. Offer your biggest success. Follow it with your biggest challenge or hard lesson. When you are comfortable with your content, the depth of your knowledge translates into confidence and thus builds trust with others.

Special thanks to my previous boss, Nick Denby, who always shared my love of spreadsheets but constantly pushed me to deliver insights out of the data.

Lesson 3: Ask for feedback and ask again. In my M.B.A classes, I saw that confidence (and maybe even a little ego) went a long way in leading a group project or getting your voice heard. From what I remember, most people were comfortable speaking up, sharing their opinion, and advocating strongly for their ideas. I don’t remember us taking the time to discuss group dynamics. I don’t remember anyone coaching me to ask how people were feeling. It wasn’t until I met my husband that I started to realize that soft skills played a big role in creating trust and building teams. As a social worker, he shared a lot of valuable tools which made me a better colleague and a better manager. The more I learned how to ask questions and open the floor to feedback, the easier it became to build a team dynamic and work effectively together.

Special thanks to my husband, business partner, and unofficial life coach, Athan Schindler, for helping me understand people and emotions better.

Lesson 4: Praise Matters. In grad school, we didn’t spend too much time on how to manage across generations. We didn’t even really spend time acknowledging how women may manage differently than men. “Management” could be solved by a RACI chart, adequate communication, and effective project management. In many ways this, this equation matched my way of thinking. As I moved into a middle manager role, I had defined my convictions around team work, figured out how to get groups to complete large projects, and found my authentic voice. However, it wasn’t until I saw how my colleague took the time to give positive feedback to members at every level of her team that I realized the power of praise. By watching her, I noticed how she applied appreciation to situations and changed outcomes. I also saw how she shared credit up and down her chain of command. She was never too busy to lend a hand or offer a high five. By working with her, I learned how to acknowledge what others bring to the table, and recognize them in a way that felt authentic to me, and the results were powerful.

Special thanks to Devon McGoldrick for understanding my cynicism enough to take me on as a work friend and let me learn from her.  

Lesson 5: Send thank you notes. Honestly, I’m not sure when this practice fell off my radar. My Mom was hyper-vigilant about timely correspondence after all my birthdays and holidays as a kid but somewhere along the way I stopped appreciating that gifts were more than just physical representations. In the work world, when someone gives you their time, they are likely foregoing money or their own productivity to help you out. It can be easy to overlook this in an office setting when everyone is perceived to be working toward the same goals. However, as a freelancer and a non-profit professional, thanking people has continued to be an area where I reinvest my time. Not only is it a great way to refill your own tank, when admin tasks may be wearing you thin, but it is amazing to see small acts of kindness snowball into bigger relationships and collaborations.

Special thanks to my former teammate Brian Myers for constantly challenging me to be more thoughtful and weave a bigger relationship web.

Research is easy. Change isn’t.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time researching event trends both in the for-profit and non-profit space. It isn’t unusual to be in research phase, as we head toward 2017 planning season, but the difference this year for me, is my ability to be more objective about what information I should be looking for and how I should put it into action.

In the past, my planning approach looked something like this:

  1. Evaluate current event portfolio
  2. Determine which events to keep or sunset
  3. Analyze internal data to inform event growth strategies
  4. Determine incremental improvements that would add value but be cost effective
  5. Finalize organizational planning documents and budgets

There’s nothing wrong with this approach if your organization is in a growth stage. That is to say, if your brand affinity is getting stronger, your event revenue is increasing, and your retention rate is growing, that is likely a focused approach and efforts are well-directed.

However, if your metrics are less favorable, your event satisfaction is waning, and your staff’s excitement about next year is low, it may be time for a new approach. In fact, through all of my event research, my key finding was that nothing is working 100% of the time.

To me, that news is liberating.

It means that your 2017 planning can be more untraditional without the risk of missing the “silver bullet”. Because there isn’t one.

Consider the potential outcomes if you loosened the reigns, and your planning approach looked more like this:

  1. Discuss most valuable donor audiences
  2. Brainstorm vehicles which appeal to key audience interests and highlight your mission
  3. Determine how event fundraising can be more directly tied to programmatic efforts
  4. Build bridges with corporate and major giving team members to create collaborative strategies
  5. Diversify your event portfolio with proven and new ideas

If you’re eager to bring innovation and small wins to your non-profit in 2017, it may be time for a change in mindset. I firmly believe that exploring a new approach is simply time spent on trying something new. I’m happy to share my research with you so you can decide for yourself the best approach.  If you’d like a copy of my environmental scan, drop me an email at annemarie@findsmallwins.com. Happy planning!