When your manager outsources all the interesting projects
September 14, 2020 6:55 AM   Subscribe

Worrying about my career development

My manager is overwhelmed with everything and wants to keep hiring consultants to help manage the workload. I work in a non profit organization on the Comms team. I have about 7 years of work experience under my belt in non profits as well as IT.

The problem with this from my perspective is that I'm trying to build my career and get good experience. When my boss started she asked me my career aspirations and I told her that I was looking to work on strategic high level writing and that I was less interested in the social media aspects of Comms.

For example, we are doing a media outreach campaign that involves research and writing (two things I am good at and have done for them in the past). Meanwhile, my boss wants to start an Instagram account for our org.

My boss's plan is to hire an outside freelancer to do the research and writing project, meanwhile I'm tasked with starting the Instagram account. I think the organization sees me as the 'young hip one' so in their minds I'm the perfect person to start an Instagram, but in all honesty it doesn't interest me- I feel that I am capable of so much more, and social media seems like an entry level task to me!

Is there any way I can bring this up to my boss in a way that doesn't sound like I don't want to do my job? She has mentioned that she is very serious about staff retention, she even promoted me back in May so I do feel a sense of loyalty to her and to the organization. Is this a conversation that I could bring up at our weekly meetings, or should it wait until my next HR review (which will probably be at the end of the year?) I have noticed this is a very caring organization, they do try to make their employees happy but a lot of people simply don't have time to focus on that. Should I give it a shot or tell myself that next summer I'll apply for new jobs?

posted by winterportage to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you just mention that the research and writing project sounds interesting, and that you'd like to be involved? How your boss responds to a casual hint will be telling. If they didn't assign it to you because they didn't think you'd be interested, that opens the door for you to go into more detail about what does and doesn't interest you. If they're dismissive of your interest, though, that's a sign you should look to move on.

Don't frame it as "I don't want to do Instagram". It doesn't really matter; your boss assigned it to you, so you'll have to do it. Make it about what you *do* want to do. You could probably do both at the same time; Instagram isn't exactly difficult or time-consuming. (Which is, of course, why it doesn't interest you.)

I will say that the most interesting projects I've worked on in my career are because I've spoken up about my interest in them. Several of those times, my bosses have been surprised that I was interested. Don't wait for someone else to read your mind about what interests you. "I've been thinking about that research project a lot recently. It sounds like it would be pretty interesting. Is there something I could help out with?"
posted by kevinbelt at 7:09 AM on September 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

"Boss, I think I can add more value on project X than an outside consultant. I'd like to do A, B, and C, and I think my familiarity with the org would be a huge benefit in delivering value. Do you think we could consider bringing in outside help for Project Y that will probably be cheaper due to it being a less specialized skillset instead? This would free me up to really deliver on X."
posted by bfranklin at 7:10 AM on September 14, 2020 [12 favorites]

I don't think a subtle hint is the way to go. If you're subtle and she doesn't respond, you won't know if it's because she didn't understand what you were getting at, or if she is refusing. I'd make the request directly and back it up with reference to the specific skill sets you have, the value you can bring to the project and the money that you'd save.

If the problem is that taking on those projects won't leave you time to do the Instagram scut work, that's a different thing. You'll have to show her that outsourcing the Instagram would be cheaper and easier than outsourcing the projects.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:20 AM on September 14, 2020 [10 favorites]

I think it's fine to bring it up with her, but not in the context of searching for a new job. The script above is a good one in that it focuses on why you would be a good choice to do the project, rather than just that it's the work you want to do.

I would be prepared for the following:

- she wants you on Instagram because you're there all the time, and so being there to document things for the actual content makes sense
- she thought you would like to expand your social media credentials
- an outside consultant is on the research project for internal reasons (sometimes if it's been a hard sell to senior management having a consultant gives more weight or more credibility to certain aspects...conversely sometimes it's a "poison pill" project and a manager will hire externally so no one internally hangs for it)
- she is giving the project to an outside consultant because it's easier for her to manage a discrete project with a start and end date rather than someone who she has to manage additionally on an ongoing basis

Having your thoughts around some of those possibilities may help the conversation go better. If you don't get this project, that doesn't mean you never will - she may make different choices on future ones.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:46 AM on September 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

Being able to frankly talk to your direct boss about your desires and advancement like this is a vital skill to have. It is hard to do. It is so understandable to worry about mistakes doing this and causing yourself career problems. I would not do this in a group meeting. I would ask for a one on one meeting.

The people who advance more, the people who are paid more, the people who succeed more, are generally the people who know how to push and prod and ask for things in a way that gets results. This is a vital skill if you want to keep moving ahead and if you want to be fairly compensated. At least I know in my line of work, the people with the higher salaries are the people who push on it and bring it up tactfully and at the right time. If you just wait for things to come to you, they come much slower.

In your case, there is potential work that you are excited about doing and your boss is choosing to outsource these things. Go up to them and say "I'm really excited about this research and writing project. Would it be possible if I could shadow the freelancer doing that work so I can learn how to do it and maybe next time we won't have to hire outside for it? If this gets to be too much in the way and my other duties are impacted I will let you know, but I totally think I can do it and it sounds really great to me. Would that be possible?"
posted by cmm at 7:49 AM on September 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't know anything about Comms, but I've had something like this happen to me and I get your frustration. Often, the outside consultants were sloppy too, which made it worse.

Schedule a career development meeting with your manager, and explicitly mention that you'd like to work on these projects. Have a discussion of how you'll balance your time and priorities, and how you will show results. Getting it down as a plan may make her more comfortable with giving you the responsibility. Be ok with only getting a partial set of these; you can work on getting more as you prove yourself.
posted by redlines at 7:53 AM on September 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

As someone who has been both an employee and an outside consultant, as well as a hiring manager, I totally get your frustration.

If it helps, I don't think this is a "you" thing. I think it's a "this is how organizations operate" thing. It's been my experience that people don't hire outside consultants to handle social media, because they want someone who is immersed in the day-to-day culture and is familiar with the past and present of the organization - especially if it's not a large company that requires constant monitoring and posting.

Conversely, a lot of companies will hire someone who is external to do strategic writing and/or planning for them, for a few reasons:

It's much easier to get senior management to sign off on the expense if it's for a glossy strategic piece.
A lot of times, companies want a strategic writer to come in with an outside pair of eyes and help them see what they don't know about the internal culture.
One of their major donors or board members knows this incredible person who is GREAT at this stuff, so we should hire them!

I'm sorry. I think you can make a good case for being involved, but, just in case, a lot of times, organizations make decisions that make no sense whatsoever and it can be really frustrating.
posted by dancing_angel at 10:55 AM on September 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Perhaps one argument that you might be able to use in your favour would be to have one person handle the social media and the research and writing to ensure that you're delivering a wholly integrated and unified message. That means more work for you, but putting a social media responsibility on your resume is a good move these days, especially if you want to keep on in a comms position.
posted by sardonyx at 12:12 PM on September 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone who's been an employee and worked for a consultancy, warriorqueen's and dancing_angel's responses are absolutely golden when it comes to explaining the rationale behind why strategic planning and visioning documents are often done by external consultants, but there are a few things I'll add:

-Especially for things like environmental scanning, an organization will want to bring in someone with sector research bona fides to lend a project more credibility.
-In other cases, it's an opportunity to have a name-brand consulting firm (or consultant known in your field) do some pro bono work with your org (this happens far more often than you might imagine).
-The development of a strat planning document often involves a lot of stakeholder engagement work, which is where you need fairly senior and established people to do their thing.

In terms of how you approach this with your manager, I've got a different take than some of the other answers.

Some of the justifications above are not necessarily things your manager may ever feel comfortable discussing with you. To the extent that moving up is about navigating organizational politics well (as well as, at your level, never acknowledging said politics) one way to prevent any awkwardness is to not make a case for being involved in the consultant's project and instead look for other interesting projects. While you want a stretch assignment, you really don't want to give the impression that you're not up on the politics of the situation either.

I don't know how large your organization is, but if it's a reasonably large non-profit, there might be some interesting opportunities for reporting back on the results of the outreach campaign. I've worked with a couple social media-centric comms folk whose careers got a boost from revamping their org's social media and internal communications on the heels of a big outreach campaign or strategic plan launch. There's still a huge growth opportunity buried in this situation. It just might not be the exact opportunity you wanted.
posted by blerghamot at 6:38 PM on September 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

+1 to the folks saying there are plenty of reasons your manager might want or need to hire an outside consultant for the research & writing project. Starting with that assumption, the best approach is "I've been thinking about that project and am interested in learning more about that side of things. How can I help?"

I've gotten several great opportunities at my current job by asking to work with the more experienced or licensed person who got the project I thought I'd be great for but didn't get. It's a genuine learning opportunity, a networking opportunity, and once you've done on project like this, it's more likely you'll be offered a chance at the next one. Plus you might get to have some real impact by providing context an outside consultant might have missed, which results in a stronger end result and makes you look good--and indispensable.

YMMV based on office culture, but it sounds like there's room for this sort of creative initiative at your job.
posted by rhiannonstone at 7:59 PM on September 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

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