update: how can I get a management job without management experience?

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer asking how to get a management job without management experience? Here’s the update.

A lot has happened since I wrote you just 9 months ago!

First, a couple things to clarify: in my letter I talked about moving up to a “director” job, which some commenters thought was a huge leap and I was a foolish naif to think I would be able to get that kind of role. In my field of nonprofit fundraising, “director” is the title used for anyone above individual contributor and could mean anything from second in command of the whole organization (reporting to the executive director) to a fairly low level manager. I also got some pushback for writing that I didn’t want to move to a “less prestigious” organization, but what I should have said was “less stable”. At that time I worked for a very stable, well-established university with excellent pay and benefits and I wasn’t comfortable taking the leap to a small organization with less secure funding or worse benefits.

At the time I wrote in, I was totally burnt out on my job and wanted to change my career entirely. It was a combination of boredom in my job, pandemic fatigue, and exhaustion from doing all of this with an infant at home and working from home full time – sometimes I went two weeks or more without leaving the house! I had a serious itch to move on and move up, and I thought that meant leaving my field.

I did a few things before my letter was published. I picked up a volunteer role for an old hobby that got me out of the house for a few hours every week, which immediately improved my mood. The hobby had absolutely nothing to do with my job, which was a great and much-needed mental break, and after a few months I also started helping out with the volunteer coordinating. I started applying for positions outside my field, and got to the final stage with two different companies that ultimately didn’t work out. Interestingly, 10 minutes after I got the rejection for a job I thought was a sure thing, my current boss called to say I was getting a salary adjustment of almost $10k! That snapped me out of my burnout and I was determined to recommit to my job and keep plugging away for a few more years.

But, it didn’t last. Within a few months I was still frustrated and bored, and I felt strongly that my talents were not only being wasted but I was actively missing out on learning the skills I would need to move up in my career. In my original post I described how my work was frustratingly isolating, and my grandboss heavily discouraged us from taking on any projects or learning anything outside our narrow scope of work. My immediate boss was (and is!) a fantastic leader and she and I were able to have candid conversations about how I wanted to be able to contribute more to the organization. I wrote a proposal to broaden my scope of work in an area that the organization absolutely needs (and without an increase in salary), but it was denied by my grandboss. So, as much as I loved my boss and my team, I was job searching again within two months.

This time around I sat down and thought really carefully about what parts of my work I did enjoy, and what pieces were making me feel frustrated and burnt out. I realized much of my feelings were coming from internal issues unique to my organization and wouldn’t likely pop up in a new job, especially at the next career level. I read job postings carefully before applying and only sent in applications for roles that seemed interesting, challenging, and achievable. I did get quite a few interviews, and I also got quite a few rejections when they went with “someone with more management experience”. I was able to lean on my volunteer role of coordinating volunteers, and came prepared with examples of times I’d managed projects (like special events) that involved coordinating people. Some roles were much more management-focused (like one that would have six direct reports straight out of the gate), and others were primarily doing the work itself while also supervising one or two people.

It took about three months (seven months since I initially started looking) and probably 50 applications but ultimately, I did get the kind of job I wanted! I’m now a Director at a really cool organization, managing my own team of three. It’s the kind of role that lets me draw on all the different things I’ve done over the course of my career while also growing in new directions. My boss is incredibly understanding that this is my first management role and is giving me whatever resources I need to succeed, like professional development and an executive coach. It’s a tough role and I have a LOT to learn about management, but I’m so excited. Thank you, Alison and commenters, for the advice and wisdom to help me get where I’ve always wanted to be!

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. WoodswomanWrites*

    OP, your strategy and approach to get where you wanted, and your commitment to continued professional growth, no doubt are contributing to your being a strong manager. Congratulations on your new role!

  2. Smithy*

    Excellent update!

    I’m pretty sure I was a commenter who pushed back on the specific term prestigious but to hear the context of desiring a stable funding environment with good benefits is certainly not to be sniffed at. I’ve had a few friends work at places with serious rollercoaster finances, and it was miserable for them. It’s also worth adding that while there are certainly questions you can ask to try and assess financial health, a lot of times you really won’t know until you’re there.

  3. LDN Layabout*

    Congrats LW!

    As well as volunteering, I’ve leant into examples of project management that cross over into people management and also a few examples of having to manage up.

    1. LW*

      I distinctly recall a conversation I had with him early in my tenure there where he strongly suggested he expected someone in my role to stay 5+ years (whereas the average tenure in this industry is less than 2). I stayed exactly 3. I know they’re making some changes to make it attractive for someone to stay long term but right now they’re only getting people who have already been there forever and don’t want to leave, or who have no aspirations beyond the narrow scope of work.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, and honestly, it’s perfectly fine to lack ambition. That job could be perfect for someone who’s happy to stay in an IC role until they retire, and who moreover wants a job they can do half asleep and don’t have to think about at all when they’re not actually working. And who’re frustrated because they’re in a job that requires them to make career development plans, when they aren’t interested in a “career” and just want a job that pays their bills (obviously they aren’t looking to get rich).

        Just to be clear, I’m really glad you found a more challenging job, but there’s nothing wrong in not having any aspirations beyond the narrow scope of work. I’d take being bored over being stressed any day of the week, but then, I have little ambition and a fairly high tolerance for boredom. Luckily I don’t have to choose, I get to stretch in my current role just enough that I’m not bored out of my skull, but I’m not stressed out by being forced out of my comfort zone constantly, either.

  4. Elizabeth West*


    I wrote a proposal to broaden my scope of work in an area that the organization absolutely needs (and without an increase in salary), but it was denied by my grandboss.

    Shaking my head at how very short-sighted the grandboss was. And in being so, they lost a valuable employee with a lot to contribute.

    1. Generic Name*

      Seriously. My thoughts exactly. You told organization that you wanted to do broader and higher level work—for the same pay!— and they were like “newp”. And now you’re gone. I wouldn’t be surprised if you learn that they had to hire more than one person to replace you. This should be a lesson to employers, it’s not always about pay. Sometimes it’s about the working environment or the work itself. Increasing pay is a first step to retaining top performers, but it’s not the only step.

      1. LW*

        Unfortunately they haven’t been able to hire even one person to replace me (and they already had an open position before I left). It’s really a good place to work but fundraising is a hot market right now and they’re looking for a unicorn with a ton of experience who is happy playing in a narrow sandbox, for average salary and benefits.

        1. Smithy*

          I’m also in fundraising and started a new job about a year and a half ago.

          My old employer was only able to replace me with someone a step down in experience/title and in the last six months the woman who had reported to me also left and their candidate pool has been so bad they stopped the entire process and plan to start again next year. Fundraising is a field where depending on what you’re willing to do, there are often always jobs available and in some specialties I’ve seen people happily recruited even when their last 2/3 jobs haven’t been for periods longer than 18 months.

          This isn’t to say you won’t need to interview with a lot of places to find the right fit, but if you’re in fundraising and unhappy – you should definitely be applying. No matter how recent it was that you started your last job.

        2. Rhymetime*

          Very true about the state of the fundraising world. As an experienced fundraiser, I had two offers recently. I accepted one and when I turned down the other one, the organization had to start all over because they had no other qualified candidates. They ended up needing to hire a recruiter to help, and that’s with paying a competitive salary. Your former employer is in trouble if they expect someone with substantial experience to settle for what they’re offering.

          1. No Moderation*

            Ah, the old ‘we want someone with a PhD with 20 years experience who will work for minimum wage and no benefits’.

            That’s so 2008…

            1. Candi*

              This current situation is so Recession-opposite it’s not even funny. It’s the employers who clue in to that that’ll thrive.

    2. Candi*

      This reminds me of the recent updates to letters where bosses were blocking any growth opportunities and preventing people from being promoted, transferred, or otherwise moving on.

      It doesn’t work. People will bounce to a different company if they can’t get growth in their own.

  5. Forrest*

    I commented on that letter to say I was in the same boat— getting interviews for manager roles, but never the job. Six weeks after that letter I was offered a management role, and I’m now at the end of the first four months of managing my own team! I’m loving it— lots o new things to learn and think about it, but I was so ready.

  6. O.*

    OP, your ability to detach yourself from the negative, and keep growing in a positive direction, is inspiring to me. I presume that we’re getting the “Hallmark highlights” version of your journey, but still. I’m very ambitious like you are, but I have trouble letting go of situations where I’ve felt small or hurt, and I’ve let it keep me in a place where I’m kind of looping the memory, instead of learning from it and moving on. It’s wonderful to hear a story where you found a better path for yourself. It helps me imagine how my own path could be different. Thank you.

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