Feel your freedom

My first year at Dalhousie University was hard. I had been hired to manage Phonathon, the student caller program in Annual Giving. I had expected that hiring and training 25 students a year would be my least favourite part of the job, but in fact I enjoyed it. And my new colleagues were great (and still are!).

It was everything else. All our systems were being upgraded at the same time and everything was broken. There was no documentation. So many technical problems, and so few answers! Some days I felt helpless and angry … what had I signed up for?

In hindsight, however, the biggest problem may have been me. As my first calling season approached, I was very concerned with replicating the program as it had been before, right down to the details of segmentation of the calling pool. I wanted status quo first, make changes later.

Sometimes status quo is the right answer. In this case it caused a lot of unnecessary pain.

One day during that stressful time I met with a previous Phonathon manager, hoping he could help me replicate the structure as it had been. He shrugged and said, just do it your own way. If you think it should be done a certain way, he said, then do it that way. Learn from the result and do it better next year.


In that moment I realized that it was my responsibility to make decisions. Not as an onerous duty, but the freedom to follow my own lights. Obviously taking ownership in this way means owning mistakes, and I did make mistakes. But it was far easier to learn from my own mistakes than someone else’s.

Taking ownership and responsibility doesn’t mean you don’t consult and ask questions. The difference is that you’re not asking others to tell you what to do; you’re laying out your plan and getting others’ perspectives on things such as risk. You build mitigations into your plan, you carry it out, you own the results (good and bad), and you learn.

That was almost ten years and several positions ago, but “feel your freedom” still sounds like good advice.

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