Navigating You!

Do you have a personal compass that nudges you when it’s time to think about you? Does it ask you to think about “Where am I now? How does it fit into my desired career trajectory and life goals? Am I doing something that maximizes my skillset in an environment that helps me thrive?”

Most people address these questions in a cursory manner, if at all. “It’s not something I’m thrilled about, but the money is good.” I like what I do, but I don’t like the people.”

Frequently, people have “fallen” into a career path without assessing how well it fits for them personally. For some, it proves to be a fortuitous pathway and things go well. Others wake up thirty years later and realize they dislike what they do but by now have such a specialized skillset they’re at a loss on how to transition. In the fundraising field in particular, it’s a common theme for professionals: “Well, I started out in (fill in the blank with almost any field!) but then sort of fell into fundraising.” Of course, there are now degree program specific to fundraising but they are not prolific and didn’t even exist when most of those now at a senior level started their careers.

But isn’t that a little sad? Working requires so much of our time and effort. It has the potential to add a great deal of meaning to our lives when we can use it to serve others or to fully utilize our talents. Because of the high investment and the high potential, seeking outside professional navigation can help you answer those all-important questions.


Yet, why seek an outside perspective when we are generally smart human beings, capable of doing our own research? Because we usually see only a slice of our personality. Of course, we’re aware of our strengths and weaknesses but just don’t have the needed distance for an objective perspective. For example, looking at a bicycle from four inches away ensures that you see the wheel. Someone five feet away will see the whole bicycle. A person twenty feet away may see the bike, the traffic on the road, and the road conditions.

So, the way we define ourselves tends to be outdated. It’s based on experiences that may no longer be relevant. Yet, this is the main view we use to define what we do and where we go—usually for decades! I hear this logical flaw when clients automatically say, “I’m horrible at _____.” Then, they tell me about an incident that happened 15 years ago. They have since matured or the situations are different, but their self-assessment does not include those changes.

Another area of deficit is the lack of information and perspective on skillsets. When people are assessing their skillsets, they tend to focus on a narrow subset of hard skills rather than the personality factors they bring to the table. The tendency is to say “here is what I have done, so this is what I am capable of doing” versus asking “who am I and what opportunities might flow from my strengths?” Delving into the unique traits of your personality, cognitive abilities and way of seeing the world helps you to not only recognize opportunity, but also maximize the payoff for your efforts. Having a solid understanding of our strengths and challenges, our likes and dislikes means being better equipped to focus energy into the areas that will yield the highest personal and professional satisfaction.

Objective assistance on who we are as people helps provide a bird’s eye perspective on whether a career path is congruent with our long-term professional and personal goals. It’s easy to miss this larger perspective because we’re often focused on the current challenges and successes of the week. This is particularly true for fundraisers—we get so involved in meeting all of our obligations that the weeks turn into months and then years. Before you know it, your career is defining you rather than you defining your career.

We spend more time on planning an event than we do thinking about our actions, personalities, and strengths and how those insights (if we took the time to have them!) might inform our career path. I like to call “fundraising” the accidental career because so many of us did not really actively choose this path and very few of us actually map out the path once we’re on it.

Yet, when we’re in a position that is not truly aligned with our values and priorities, it causes emotional drag. Emotional drag is that nagging sense of not being fully excited about what we are doing and the questions that occasionally pop into our minds. “Is this all there is? Will my time payoff? Why do I have a great job and feel so apathetic about it?” People notice a lack of energy and enthusiasm about their job, even if it is a good one.


System variables are those components that are bigger than any one person but may have a profound influence on an individual’s ability to do the work. System variables include those within an organization (i.e., the culture, the communication flow) and those which affect the organization (i.e., the healthcare system, rules and regulations).

“Is it me or is it them?” Assessing this answer is crucial in determining career decisions. When a person is assessing an unhealthy system, it’s necessary to determine the root and the route of dysfunction. Where does it start and how does it flow? How likely is it to change? Frequently, I have clients who acknowledge that they are working in a dysfunctional system but behaviorally are still acting as if working harder or doing their best might make things better. High achieving clients tend to have the perspective that they SHOULD be able to fix the system. Generally, this is only true if the person has the authority to change the system.

It is equally necessary to assess systems when things are going well. What is making the system work? If it all leads back to a single person, and that person moves to a different organization, will the system still be positive and stable?

Assessing system variables is necessary for the cost-benefit analysis of staying within a career path or within an organization for “the potential.” The statement I usually hear is “if this facet changes, things could be great. I don’t want to give up too soon.” This thought process works only if a system is new or in a current state of change that allows a person to pinpoint specific variables and timeframes of change. When people are aware of what changes need to occur and the reasonable amount of time attached, it helps them figure out the likelihood of the potential coming to fruition. Vague statements such as ‘I’m going to give it a little longer’ or “hopefully, things will get better” reflects that a person is probably wasting his/her time.

After over twenty years in the development field, I can definitely attest to the fact that any success achieved has been highest in organizations that encourage success over hierarchy and function over dysfunction. I’ve learned that you cannot “fix” the system so it’s critical to make sure you and the system are a match! Sounds easy, right. Wrong! I spent a lot of what I now believe was unnecessary time figuring out whether or not I could fix the system, or fix myself or fix somebody else. At one time, my password was “thefixer.” It was a difficult journey and it wasn’t until the road became impossible that I realized I wasn’t qualified to figure it out—at least not on my own!

An outside perspective is especially helpful on systems because this professional is removed from the daily details and better able to see an overall pattern. For example, a person working in the environment may focus only on the current CEO. The outside professional’s perspective is more likely to focus on the pattern of CEO’s. Is this one an anomaly or does the board tend to pull in those who are technically smart but lack emotional intelligence?

The component of the system that affects daily happiness is the interpersonal relationships and the general social culture. Social contagion is a concept in psychology used to describe how attitudes and emotions are transferred from one person to another. This is why toxic people, if lleft unchecked, can quickly contribute to a toxic culture. A system which allows bacteria to breed will have difficulties with organizational health despite changes in individual personnel. High achievers often try to cope by working harder. “I’ll keep my head down and do my job.” The problem with this approach is that the emotional impact of a negative atmosphere erodes energy, motivation and confidence, gradually making it more and more difficult for a person to excel in his/her position.


Those in the development field are more often than not high achievers. Just consider the twelve characteristics Jerold Panas lists as being essential for highly effective fundraisers: impeccable integrity, good listening skills, ability to motivate, hard worker, concern for others, high expectations, love for the work, high energy, perseverance, presence, self confidence, common sense and street smarts. Whew! These characteristics are also really common for high achievers in just about any field you can name.

So, it’s no surprise that high achievers have a special set of challenges in their career trajectory. First, they’re often so technically competent that it can be confusing to figure out the most personally rewarding path. Secondly, they are often less likely to seek out feedback from others or an outside professional because they feel that they should be able to figure it out themselves.

High achievers tend to have an over-developed sense of responsibility and try hard to avoid disappointing others. They may stay engaged in projects or career paths to please a mentor or a colleague. Their sense of responsibility frequently keeps them in a dysfunctional system for too long. “I will let down a lot of people if I leave.” This thought process can even keep high achievers in the wrong career due to the sense of moral obligation to those around them. The tendency to take too much ownership can also keep high achievers from firing unhelpful subordinates or result in them spending too much time compensating for another’s bad behavior. The over-developed sense of responsibility also may result in the high achiever being under-valued. She becomes the “go to” person for crisis and clean-ups without adequate compensation or recognition.

The theme of waiting too long to act is common with high achievers. Waiting too long to reach out for help in figuring out the variables driving your life and, ultimately, your personal and professional happiness is also way too common. One of the most healthy and best things I ever did for myself was reach out and say, “I’m not sure where I’m going or even if I’m going in the right direction.” The day I asked these questions was a pivotal point in my life and my career. Taking the time to question, to assess, to acknowledge and to discover is an activity, and a characteristic, that should makes it onto a list of the most important things development professionals do for themselves.