by Ashley Blake, BSW
One of the most inclusive and refreshing aspects of the social work field is the diversity of its constituents. Studying and working alongside people at different points in time in their life—with different backgrounds, and different levels of experience—is not uncommon. As a result, human service providers, perhaps more than any other group of people, recognize that a passion for helping others to reach their full potential knows no color, gender, faith, or age.
Upon graduating from college with my BSW, I moved to a medium-sized city to accept a job with a medium-sized nonprofit. Not long after starting my entry-level position, it became clear that my organization was thriving and that there would be a boom in hiring, particularly within my department. Otherwise put, we were an increasingly diverse department, in an increasingly diverse nonprofit.
Four years later, I am now the manager of my department, supervising a group of passionate, committed staff, some of whom are more than a decade older than I. Although I was fully aware of this fact when I accepted the position, it didn’t negate my inherent discomfort about supervising people who were older than me.
It wasn’t long before the apprehension crept in. In every team meeting, every performance review I conducted, and almost every moment of supervision, I found myself fretting: Am I being taken seriously? Is this person willing to take direction from someone with less work experience? What could I possibly teach this person that he or she doesn’t already know?
For weeks, I could feel myself shrinking under these fears. Then I realized...I had nothing to fear all along. In fact, once I shifted my perception, I realized I had a treasure trove of learning experiences right in front of me. I just had to be willing to look past my own self doubt. Doing so wasn’t always easy, but I took steps to work past my hesitance and fulfill my managerial role with confidence and humility.
For those of you similarly rising through the ranks at a young age, here are my top five tips for kicking the cold feet and embracing your manager status.
1) Recognize your strengths.
A strengths-based approach may be our go-to when working with clients, but many of us find it difficult to extend the same encouragement and acceptance to ourselves. Nevertheless, taking the time to recognize what it is about yourself that you value and appreciate goes a long way toward helping you understand why you’re destined for success. Eventually, as self doubt began to sneak in about my ability to lead and manage my department, I was forced to remember why I would be great at the job (cue forced smile)! Besides, what choice did I have but to show up every day and do my best? It may not have been as easy as willing my confidence and watching it appear, but I began to put the “I can do this” pieces together. After all, what the position needed was someone who was familiar with the field, familiar with the history of the department, excited about the job, compassionate, organized, and motivated. And what do you know—I was all those things! Slowly but surely, acceptance of my strengths far surpassed the ways in which I thought I was unsuitable for the job. Alas, I’ve learned that feelings of defeat are not uncommon in our field, whether it’s the seemingly endless budget cuts that diminish much-needed resources for the people we’re serving, or a challenging interaction with our clients or co-workers. In the end, exercising the ease with which we’re able to find the productive and valuable in any situation serves not only us, but our clients, as well.
2) Be willing to embrace your weaknesses.
Let’s face it. Just as we each have areas of expertise, so too do we have areas of our career and personal life that we find challenging and tedious. Luckily, recognizing and working through these weaknesses is a task that we (hopefully) learned to address during our social work studies. In fact, it may have been one of the biggest takeaways from my time as a student, as I find it continually serving me in so many ways—not the least of which was to apply my ability for personal reflection and insight to the anxiety I was having around my new manager status. Just as I had to acknowledge the strengths that helped me get to where I was, I had to know the barriers that would prevent me from succeeding. Once I knew the areas in which I might falter, I knew where to step back as needed, and when to push myself harder.
More importantly, I knew what strengths to look for and cultivate in my staff. For instance, I sometimes struggle to see the proverbial forest through the trees. If you need someone to get lost in the details with, to think through every step in every process with, I’m your woman. If what you need is to see the biggest picture possible—to envision the outcomes of a program five years down the line—I may not be your go-to person. Knowing this, I’ll often turn to one of my staff who I know has a knack for thinking broader and larger in scope. Asking for her input and explaining why I need it (don’t be afraid to admit that you can’t do it all!) has helped me to successfully address the task at hand. At the end of the day, I’ve learned something new, my staff knows they are valued members of the department, and both my team and I are stronger.
3) Trust the belief that others have in you.
My mom asked me once, after I shared my anxiety about supervising staff with more years in the field, “Do you think your boss is a smart woman?” “Yes, of course,” I replied, somewhat confounded by the question. I elaborated, “She’s knowledgeable, well respected, and trusted in the industry.” “Why then,” my mom responded, “don’t you believe that she knew what she was doing when she picked you to run this program?” She was right. This pointed out a ridiculous oversight on my part, I must admit, but common of people moving through the throes of incertitude.
Thankfully, as we sometimes struggle aimlessly to see how we’re doing absolutely anything right, there are people around us who can see just how well we’re able to handle the multitude of responsibilities that come our way, and it behooves us to listen. Listen and trust. Once we accept the belief and encouragement we receive from people in our lives as more than nice sounding compliments, we will learn to see them as truth.
4) Stay open to growth.
Many people feel that to progress in life, one must be open to growth. Allowing the opportunity for new experiences, ideas, and tools to find their way into our lives is one way of ensuring that we get smarter, savvier, and more gracious with every passing year. Interestingly, these paths toward growth may be paved with rough roads, and what may actually be a blessing can sometimes feel like a curse.
Around the same time I was promoted to my current position, so was one of my co-workers. We were both thankful for our promotions but anxious to prove our worth. Soon, we found ourselves getting to work early, skipping lunches, leaving later, and even dreaming about work! We were tired, stressed, and terrified of failing. As we were leaving one night, long after everyone else, we stood in the parking lot questioning whether we had made the right decisions in accepting our new positions. We wondered whether we would ever get a handle on our roles and responsibilities. Satisfied with our grumbling, and knowing another day was looming large, we got in our cars and drove home. That same conversation happened many more times over the next few months, and yet, we continued to show up and push ourselves to do good work. In the end, we were simply doing what most of us do when faced with a challenge: Put one foot in front of the other and keep moving.
Now, I look back on those early days with fondness. It was a rough road, but so worth the journey. There are still weeks when I feel tired, stressed, and terrified of failing, but I know that I’m growing into that smarter, savvier, and more gracious person.
5) Remember your shared purpose.
Each of the tips I mention here acted as one of many tools in my toolbox, as no one affirmation was able to fully snap me back to a place of confidence and contentment—except one. At the end of every day, I found myself—if even for a moment—reveling in the camaraderie and inspiration that stemmed from working alongside such kind, smart, and hard-working people who share my vision for a more equitable, inclusive, and compassionate world. In those moments, it doesn't matter who is a manager and who is not; or who is older and who is younger. Ultimately, what matters in those moments, and every moment, is that you find a job, or a city or a family where your efforts, your wisdom, and your heart align with those around you, to help make this world a little bit better than how you found it. Ashley Blake is a manager at a nonprofit organization providing affordable housing and resident services to seniors and families earning low incomes. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Social Work from Eastern Michigan University and is a past contributor to The New Social Worker. Ashley resides in Portland, Oregon.
Ashley Blake is a manager at a nonprofit organization providing affordable housing and resident services to seniors and families earning low incomes. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Social Work from Eastern Michigan University and is a past contributor to The New Social Worker. Ashley resides in Portland, Oregon.