Managing Up for Success
By Ann L. Silverman

Ann L. Silverman
Ann Silverman
Often, entry- and mid-level staff people at nonprofits, who start their jobs with enthusiasm and a commitment to doing good, feel they could do more and could be more effective, if only their boss would let them.

Frustration tends to set in when staffers don’t get the direction or clarity they feel their manager should provide. So what is left for them to do? Give up and go somewhere else? Tough it out? Or try to manage from their current position?

There isn’t one prescription for all situations, but here are a few proven strategies to improve your own work experience—and, not incidentally, your workplace—even when you are not the boss.

Know Your Organization
Nonprofits try to do a lot but don’t have a lot. Many organizations have limited resources and ambitious agendas. Imagine what could be done with more time, more money, and more staff! Ask for a copy of the organization’s mission statement, its strategic plan, if there is one, and its budget. Try to get these documents before you join the organization, so that you can understand the constraints and the hopes.

Organizations have particular cultures. Different organizations have different sets of values and norms. Organizational cultures reflect the nature of the work, the leadership, or other factors. Ask your boss and your co-workers how they would describe your workplace. Are there particular expectations regarding how people are supposed to work? Are there unwritten rules? Is there a particular approach to solving problems in the world that has been articulated, or underlies what the organization does? If no one has written these values down, ask your boss if it would be helpful if you did that work.

Know Your Boss
Different supervisors have different styles. Some supervisors have never supervised before. Some are clear about their expectations and their own constraints. Others are not. Try to understand your boss’s perspective and priorities. Learn his or her communication style. And see what you can do to support him or her. For example, if he is always complaining about the new software system, and you happen to know it or are a computer whiz, offer to help him navigate it.

Know Your Project or Program
Having measures of success can help. Do you know that what you have done has made a difference? How do you know this? Can you document that the people that you referred to homeless shelters over the phone actually got a safe night’s sleep? And do you know what happened to them after you suggested who could help them get permanent housing? Do you have a work plan or a job description that guides your work? See if you can articulate the expected outcomes of your work, and the measures of success being used. Review any barriers to achieving those outcomes with your boss, and modify the work plan over time as needed.

Know Yourself
Define what you need in order to succeed. Do you need a little thanks, some feedback, or a quieter work space? It’s OK to want to improve in your current position. Many of us want to grow in our jobs or in our careers. But, there are sometimes tensions between our ambitions and what we do in our jobs. Recognizing those, along with a little patience, may be helpful. Find a way to ask for what you need to improve your own performance. Your boss may appreciate it if you ask for her feedback on the presentation you made or the report you handed her. Some folks are simply not in the habit of delivering feedback or being asked for suggestions for improvement.

Build on what You Learn about Your Organization and Yourself
Communicate with your boss and others in your work place. While good managers will welcome criticism, constructive criticism will get a better reception than simply whining about all of the problems. State what you think isn’t working as well as it could, and then provide one or more solutions that can be implemented #147; and which don’t add to your manager’s burden. By listening and increasing your understanding of the nonprofit you work in, you may find ways to manage up for success, both for yourself and the organization.

Ann Silverman, of Ann L Silverman Consulting, has worked in, led, and consulted with staff and boards of mission driven nonprofits for more than 25 years. Email her at