“The Simple Thing Is, Be Nice to People.” Interview with a First-Time Manager.
Zach Dubin is the Assistant Dean for Development at Boston University School of Law. Zach cut his teeth on the annual fund at Dana Farber, and moved up through the advancement ranks to eventually become a Leadership Gift Officer at BU Law. When the Assistant Dean position opened up in the small, 7-person Esdaile Alumni Center at BU Law, Zach applied for the position and got it. With years of tactical experience under his belt, he was thrown into the proverbial management fire: reporting dually to the Dean of the Law School and BU’s Vice President of Development; navigating the transition from co-worker to manager; and learning to trust his gut, make executive decisions, and find his voice as a leader. And he had to do all of this while progressing towards a $100mm fundraising goal and raising two children under 2 years old. (No pressure!)
Zach gave us the low-down and offered some great advice for other new managers in the advancement space. Plus, he’s just a great guy all-around and has wisdom well beyond his years that we all can benefit from.
We hear all the time that there’s not a lot of training on how to lead a team in the fundraising space. As you moved up from individual contributor to manager, were you just sort of thrown into it? And how did you navigate the transition?
I’ve often heard that sometimes the best fundraisers make the worst managers. The skill sets are very different. I’ve had the benefit throughout my whole career of doing a variety of positions. I pulled my own lists, ran my own queries, worked in Annual Giving and then as a Leadership Gift Officer. I was always on a small team, so I did a lot of stuff on my own that you might not need to do if you were a part of a bigger fundraising team. And if I didn’t have to do all that, I’m not sure how the transition from fundraiser to manager would have gone.
Because, if you’re not exposed to that stuff, then you might not have a sense of what the people below you actually do on the day-to-day. You wouldn’t know about the tediousness and toughness of just getting an accurate list of people in New York who are rated. It’s a lot more complicated than the press of a button. But I had done those those tasks on my own and so I think once I became a manger, I’d like to think I had a good idea of what it takes to be successful in those roles, which allowed me to guide my team better.
Having all those roles in my background, whether they were my official job title or stepping in during periods of transitions, it helped me hold things together, I think.
What was the biggest surprise as a first-time manager and how long did it take to present itself?
Oh, it was right away. I started as a manager in a moment of crisis on the team. Right away I had a list of big issues to deal with and was told, “Deal with them.” So, baptism by fire, thrown into the deep end, whatever euphemism you want to use, that was my experience.
It’s difficult to go from a peer to a manager. It’s hard to separate the personal from the professional. But I had seen mentors or previous supervisors do it so well in other jobs and I tried to model my behavior after them and model my interpersonal interactions off them. But that was the most difficult thing to navigate, especially when you’re promoted internally.
How do you think you’ve grown as a manager since you first took over to now?
I think I have more confidence in making decisions and not waiting for someone above me to give me the green light. And also I just got my feet wet in the job and saw what didn’t go as well, and I realized that if I’d taken more control or been more confident in my choice, it could have been improved. I tend to be an accommodator to an extent, and I saw people in different offices who were more pushy and it used to take me aback (and sometimes still does). But I realized that sometimes you need to be forceful in expressing your opinions and thoughts. There’s probably a middle ground there, but being more confident in what I believe and starting to say “no” a little more and not saying “yes” and agreeing to everything.
Also I’ve gotten much better at giving feedback, both positive and negative. I think I veered from being pretty social when I was a peer to maybe seeming a little anti-social as a manager. And I might’ve lost a bit of my personal touch by doing that, so again, it’s been about finding that middle ground. People do need to see your personality and emotions and what you’re actually thinking. You can’t just be a stoic manager all the time. For reasons with how the office dynamic was when I took over, I felt I needed to go really hard in that “serious” direction to set a precedent, and now I’ve been able to glide back into a more open, personable approach.
Those realizations are obviously a product of getting more comfortable in your role, but do you think you could have only gotten there with time spent on the job?
Yeah, I think so. I think every one of us has imposter syndrome at some point. We wonder when we’re going to be found out and people are going to realize that I’m actually not good at this and I’ll be let go. And I still have that. But it’s what drives you. The footsteps in the back of your mind push you once you think you’ve got it and become complacent. Well, no one’s got it, no one has this figured out. We’re all just kind of making it up as we go. There are no perfect ways to solicit a gift or build a board or engage alumni. You try things, you learn, and you move on.
Once I got a little more confidence that people above me had confidence in me and I wasn’t being judged every second, it helped. Of course I could still make a mis-step tomorrow and screw things up, but that keeps me motivated a little bit.
You’ve kind of got a microcosm of a full fundraising team in your office at the Law School. It’s almost like a little fundraising start up. How do you manage that? Especially with people getting involved in all sorts of things and maybe not focusing their scope on one specific task as is more traditional on larger teams.
The tough thing about a small team is that because everyone has their hands in different activities, everyone is partnered on different things, people don’t always stay in their lanes, so to speak. They veer into planning events when they’re a gift officer sometimes. And, well, I don’t want them to focus on that. It’s helpful, but it’s also not what I’m measuring them on. I think it’s natural on a small team because people want to be helpful, and it’s easy to offer to help on the fun stuff. I get it.
If you’re in a 200-person office with a ton of support, it’s harder to veer off. On this small team at the Law School, we have more flexibility, and a lot of the time it’s useful. But making sure people always understand their goals is my job. Usually that’s a weekly or monthly check in on goals as a reminder. It puts the spotlight back on their goals and on what’s measured, so they know what they need to focus on. It can be easy in our office to do a bunch of stuff in a week, but have none of it relate back to your actual goals.
It took me about a year to realize I needed to push a little more and get people to hone in. I needed to figure out what was sustainable and what needed to change. I think that’s natural for a lot of new leaders. I don’t think it would have been good of me to come in on day one and say everything is changing and be drastic or draconian about it (even if some people above me wanted me to do that). I had to be patient and had to figure out how to get us from Point A to Point B. I probably could’ve done it quicker, but hindsight is always 20-20.
When you start as a manager, a lot of it is because you’ve been an incredible individual contributor in the past. How do you still manage your own fundraising goals and manage the team without feeling like you’re working two full-time jobs?
Part of it is the benefit of being internal. On the individual side of getting visits and closing gifts, I had a lot of strong relationships with prospects already. Going to New York and getting two full days of visits is relatively easy. I know who I should go see because I’ve built those relationships for years now, so it takes two or three days to plan a trip. Instead of reaching out to 100 people to get ten meetings, I can reach out to 30 or 40. So I can be efficient with it.
I have also come to rely on my team more, and I’ve realized there are people around to help support me. I’ve gotten better at just asking for what I need, because, you know, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not life or death. We’re not saving lives.
The former dean of the Law School had a great quote about this. As she was leaving the deanship, I asked her what she advice she’d give an incoming dean that she never got, she said “Care, but don’t care too much.”
Work hard, push towards your goals, but there’s a lot of other stuff happening in the world. Care about it, but at the end of the day go home and be happy with your family and think of other things. If you don’t get something done one day, it’s not the end of the world. There’s always tomorrow and there’s always going to be work to do. Make sure personally, intrinsically, you feel like you’re doing a good job and finding balance.
Is it difficult to keep that perspective?
I realized there’s just no benefit to not having that perspective. Nothing good comes from psyching yourself out or working like crazy. If I sent twenty more emails to alumni the Saturday before a trip, then, alright: maybe I’d get one or two more meetings. But was it worth it?
I focus on the process, and what I believe that should be, and I don’t worry about the results so much. That probably comes from my annual fund background. If I do the hard work beforehand, I know the results will come eventually. I’m fortunate to work at a place that, when it comes to bigger gifts, they recognize that takes time. Leadership here just wants to see progress on these relationships, and they recognize that that can take years.
If my managers didn’t have this understanding, it would be tougher to keep that perspective. But their approach helps me keep my perspective.
What makes you unique as a manager?
I’ve had some good managers and some bad managers, and I think the simple thing is, be nice to people. In my mind, the managers who have been nice have been successful. But that also stems from confidence. They had confidence in their position and they knew that the people above them had confidence in them.
And the managers I’ve know that haven’t been good, haven’t had confidence. They didn’t feel like they were being appreciated; they felt that their job was at risk or they were being pressured in some way.
But if you’re happy and nice to people and give them clear directions, it’s not hard. There are tens of thousands of management books, but you could probably put it all on a postcard and be just as successful.
Give clear feedback, be honest with people, be nice, be generous. That’s probably it. You do a few simple things and, hopefully, things work out.
What advice would give someone who’s been a great fundraiser and gets the opportunity to take on a management role?
It’s similar to what I just said: You need to find your own voice.
I asked someone once what it takes to be a good manager. They said to take your time and not put too much pressure on yourself. It takes at least two years to become a good manager.
People are not born managers. You have to give yourself the patience, time and leeway to figure it out, to test things and see how they work. There’s no one right way to do it and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. You just kind of have to iterate, see what’s not working, prioritize and keep on building up. It’s not a linear graph that goes up and to the right. You’ll jump up then plateau and repeat that process, inching your way up instead of making a big leap.
If you try to make wholesale changes and become a different person, you’ll set yourself up for failure. It’s a gradual process and you’re always learning. There are always new situations, whether it’s the bad side or good side, and it’s always a learning experience.
Zach Dubin is the Assistant Dean at Boston University School of Law, where he leads a team of 7 annual fund, stewardship, alumni relations, and leadership gift employees. Zach can be reached at email@example.com, or on LinkedIn.