The definition of improvisation is the act of coming up with something on the spot. We do this every day in so many ways. I am doing it right now.
The secret to your success does include an element of luck, for sure. It also includes consistency, talent, intelligence, hard work, vision, honesty, gratitude...the list goes on. Surely one of the most important things you can do is expand your talents and capabilities--grow in every situation. And that always requires improvisation.
I have watched major gifts officers, managers, organizational leaders, physicians and CEOs work hard to find new ways to succeed in uncertain and unknown environments. They must. The world is changing for every manager of resources and improvisation becomes a key technique that must be mastered. So embrace your fears and own your personal powers.
1. Perform your job exceptionally well and develop a reputation for competence. Distinguish yourself so that peers as well as others see you as an "expert" in your field. Find a way to build awareness and trust with your peers and talk about your own respect for their talents; there is great value in collaboration. Add value to every fast moving situation that you face day to day--and help others do the same. You are handed a situation and asked to react to what develops--you need to respond quickly and maximize your creativity.
Over the years I watched a very busy physician who was the director of a department rise through various levels and become exceptionally influential in the medical center where I worked. When foundations wanted to tour a particular area (not even within his area of direct responsibility), they often asked if he would join the tour because of the respect they have for him and his positive attitude and energy. Every day he brings his A-game; he insists on inclusion, he insists on giving feedback to his colleagues and responding to their feedback of him, he expands everyone's thinking, he extends the conversation to ensure that all participants really understand the power of a particular research technique and the impact it can have. All the while he is building a brand new team, temporary but effective for the next time as well. One can watch him bring his smile, his humor and improvisation techniques together with a love of life. He always has an answer. His success is simply remarkable and his impact is felt by everyone. He is one of the most positive, influential individuals I have ever known. Simply put, people trust him and that stands for so much in the world today. This individual can change the whole world around him.
2. Acquire referrals from your peers and your clients. Draw on all of your professional networks internal and external to your organization. Leverage your credentials in one area and extend them to other areas, organizations or industries. Use your contacts to provide needed recommendations to others for the chance to exhibit your talents to fresh audiences. Say yes when given the opportunity--show that you understand and recognize the specific need and guide your partners to the next step in the process.
I have had a colleague over the years who is an administrator at the medical center. His kindness is legendary and his efforts to be involved and bring the best reputation to his organization are well known and recognized city-wide. He has risen in the ranks because of his competency but also because of his attitude. He always says yes to anyone who might need help in any way--and if he has never done a particular thing, it doesn't stop him, he is going to find a way. One cannot have an event or a gala or a campaign, one cannot move forward on any major plan without stopping to see him--he is that helpful. At many organizations as I am sitting with the development committee, someone will say that the important next step is seeing this gentleman. He is a gatekeeper to hospitality and resources and that door is always open.
3. Stretch your skill sets...don't just keep doing the same thing over and over. In new situations, fake it till you make it--and then keep moving on. Problem solving and decision making are unscripted and involve working with what you have in the moment.
I have carefully followed the career of one of the major donors with whom I worked. He is from a small town in Pennsylvania and spent a great deal of time working in the steel mills as he was growing up, putting himself through college. When he graduated he had a degree in engineering and went on to get his masters in operations, then a Ph.D. in computational engineering. He joined a key company in Georgia as an Executive Vice President of a small division, then was recruited to Philadelphia where he became President of an unrelated company and led the company to great success. He was then recruited to NY and became president and COO of a manufacturing company and later chair of the board and CEO, a position from which he retired. He is now serving on several company boards as well as on the board of several key non-profits. He always had the time to meet and consider the needs of non-profit organizations with which he felt a connection. He brought creative ideas to his own gifts and how they could make an impact on the organization as well as leverage other donor contributions. A remarkable man who later told me that he wasn't always sure about his next step, but he took it anyway, figuring that somehow he would work it out...when he was unsure, he consulted his wife and trusted colleagues within the organization and outside. He was always pursuing his career and life with humor and seriousness.
4. Sometimes you just need to take a step back...grow your skills and competencies and develop new tools for your toolbox--re-calibrating your view and approaches in the process. Perhaps a different role in a smaller/larger organization, a shift in your field, a new level of education....a brand new skill set. If your organization takes the time to work with you and train you for another position, that's a genuine bonus for both parties. Your opportunities will grow exponentially with each new effort.
I watched a very competent annual fund officer become a very competent planned giving specialist. She loved her work and thought she could take advantage of what she knew and change her trajectory for the future. She went to law school and now works with a well known law firm in Washington and is nationally recognized for her skill and commitment as counsel to high-net-worth families and charities. This took time but was surely a great investment for her career.
Be adaptive, inventive and practical, use an array of approaches to maximize success for 2020.
With special recognition to Scott Steinberg, author of Making Change Work for You, 2015.