Trust Your Instincts | Early Career Lessons
After visiting with a friend about an uncomfortable experience with an older male supervisor early in my career, I decided to share it with others.
I launched Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog in 2011. In all this time, I have struggled with how to broach the topic of this post, and how to share information that would be helpful to my readers, especially those new to the field of nonprofit development.
Happily, recent online research reveals there is more helpful, quality information about managing workplace relationships – both for women and their male supervisors – than ever before. This is encouraging and it makes me believe there is hope for change in the workplace, and greater understanding from all points of view.
The lessons learned from the story I am about to tell are several. First, trust your instincts. If you feel something is wrong even though you cannot “see” it, there is probably something wrong. Second, tell other colleagues you trust about your feelings and what you think is wrong. Witnesses can be essential, and for the long term. Third, remove yourself from uncomfortable work situations, and as diplomatically as possible. Often you will advance in your career if you do so.
“… Anyone, man or woman, who’s assumed to be a lightweight has a harder time getting ahead,” she says. “Of course that kind of struggle affects confidence level. Qualified women really aren’t taken as seriously as their male colleagues—many studies bear that out—so they’re more likely to have to deal with the emotional fallout of being held back, including a realistic reduction in their confidence about whether they’ll be able to fulfill their ambitions.” Adams should know about the research; she’s the former Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Maine Farmington.
– Elizabeth Harrin for A Girl’s Guide To Project Management, “6 Ways To Get Taken Seriously At Work” (2018)
Just over twenty five years ago, I worked at a university in the same college where I had secured a Master’s Degree a few years before. I was honored to have been hired, and I held a relatively new and low level position managing development activities for the college, which included several divisions. Three different deans occupied leadership roles at the college while I was there. And as Elizabeth Harrin remarks above, I was definitely considered a “lightweight.”
My work involved organizing and hosting monthly events that included advisory council meetings with alumni who were among the leading philanthropists of Texas, and broader “university” activities that were held in the college’s facilities. The university had a huge legacy of endowments that funded its faculty and programs, some 300 when I was on staff back then. One of my jobs was to thank endowment donors and to update them about activities funded with their endowments, annually. I took this responsibility seriously, and I was encouraged in my efforts by the university’s central development office.
While devoted to my tasks with a laser-like precision and eager to impress, I was admittedly young and still new to the field of nonprofit development. By the time the third dean had arrived to oversee the college, I had uncovered some concerns. One of those was being unable to find out what had transpired with the funding provided by certain endowed funds.
I always hoped to make my annual donor letters interesting and timely. But for some of them, I could not find any information. I wanted to share with each donor how that year’s investment income had been spent on such things as faculty research, new publications, programs, travel and the like, or if the endowments were unassigned, what was happening with searches to fill those positions and related efforts. But I hit a wall with some of them. I asked the endowment accountant for help repeatedly. No information was forthcoming. In fact, at one point during my questioning, the accountant grew very uncomfortable and asked me to, “please stop asking.”
I scheduled a time to meet with the dean. He had indicated he was quite disinterested in me and my work. My intuition was that he wanted to clear out the current staff of the college and hire “his own.” But finally, I gained my audience. I told him something was wrong with my thank you note process: I could not get the information I needed. In fact, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up on end, when I asked the endowment accountant about certain funds. The dean simply said with disdain, “you just aren’t doing your job.”
“Not surprisingly, a large share of women feel invisible at work, compared with male colleagues. From ordinary meetings to executive offices and boardrooms, many more women than men feel that they don’t get credit for their ideas, or that their contributions aren’t recognized—slights felt even more acutely by women of color.”
– Nikki Waller, The Wall Street Journal, “How Men & Women See the Workplace Differently” (2016)
During this time, however, I kept moving forward. I found allies in the central development office on campus. I suggested the college develop a digital system whereby each staff member in the college involved in endowment tracking – from the accountant to the department chairmen and individual faculty, to development officer – would work off one centralized computer-based system. Information about the endowed funds would be input into the system by each person, and checked and referenced by everyone else. We would all be able to see one another’s work, and would be held accountable for it. My development colleagues thought the idea was a very good one. In fact, I had already informed them something seemed awry and that I was worried. The new system would help with transparency and the flow of information.
Still, at the college level no one was listening. The feedback from the new dean and his associate dean suggested I was not very smart, and I did not know what I was doing. I actually developed a mild stutter at this time. I had wanted the job in the college so much, but I had become afraid, and I felt (rightly) that I was being looked down upon by the new dean and his entourage.
I also knew in my heart that if I stayed much longer, the problems I was uncovering might entrap me, and ruin my future development career. I decided to look for a new job. And I was surprised to receive three job offers. I flew out of the college like a lightening bolt.
Two years later, I landed in Dallas. My career was thriving. I had access to the elite philanthropic community, and my work was going exceptionally well. One evening, I received a call from a colleague still working at my former college. The endowment accountant was discovered to have been embezzling endowment funds over several years. I had been right. I received additional calls from those in the central development office confirming the news.
Now, I had retained a lingering sense of failure about that job. But those telephone calls released those feelings instantaneously. I was relieved beyond measure. I had been correct, although I was sad about the crime committed.
“Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet (1803-1882)
Since that early experience, I continue to find older males occasionally fail to take me and my work seriously. But I have also found several who became (and who are) enthusiastic and supportive mentors! Which is all to say, do not assume just because you are young that you will not find strong male advocates. The plethora of stories in the media today about negative male-female experiences sometimes overshadow the good ones.
Build on your own internal strengths and be confident in your own abilities and instincts. Yes, you have much to learn. But you already know a lot. Don’t ever forget that.
About that endowment management system I suggested years ago: I understand someone (a male) at the university did eventually make it a reality. Great news! I wonder if anyone has any idea how it was conceived. Water under the bridge ….
- Madeleine Burry for Health, “Are You Being Gaslighted at Work? Here’s What to Do About This Dangerous Form of Abuse” (February 11, 2019). Keep in mind, both men and women can be guilty of gaslighting. It is not a gender specific activity.
- Jane Fang for The Muse, “7 Ways to Excel in a Male-Dominated Workplace” (n.d.).
- Anne Fisher for Fortune, “3 strategies women can use to make sure their ideas are heard at work” (February 11, 2019).
- Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. for PsychCentral, “7 Ways to Extinguish Gaslighting” (November 5, 2018).
- Dawn Papandrea of Monster for Business Insider, “How to recognize gaslighting at work and what do about it” (September 19, 2020).