Episode 19: Building and Managing Teams to Thrive with A.J. Mizes

19. Building and Managing Teams to Thrive with A.J. Mizes

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“When that tank is full with psychological safety, it’s because you know that your leader, your manager, has the best intentions for you, that they want to help you succeed.”

AJ Mizes

Episode #19


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

I talk to my long-time friend, and talent and human potential aficionado with over a decade of experience within Career Coaching and Human Resources, A.J. Mizes. He is my go-to resource when it comes to how to build a strong, healthy, and balanced culture for organizations.

AJ and I get to nerd out and go deep on the nuances and strategies behind building a great team while aligning to your mission and hitting your goals. In strong cultures, there are healthy boundaries and psychological safety, and people are not afraid to receive direct and professional feedback.

19. Building and Managing Teams to Thrive with A.J. Mizes
19. Building and Managing Teams to Thrive with A.J. Mizes

Listen now and learn AJ’s tips and tricks on how to promote a safe, healthy, and productive environment at work. Plus AJ gives advice on how to get you in front of the right people and find the perfect fit for you when it comes to job searching.


A.J. Mizes


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19. Building and Managing Teams to Thrive with A.J. Mizes
19. Building and Managing Teams to Thrive with A.J. Mizes
19. Building and Managing Teams to Thrive with A.J. Mizes

Tips and Tools to Implement Today

Tips to create a better culture in your organization:

3 questions leaders should ask themselves:

AJ’s Best Advice for Job Searching: Questions to ask in an interview

Favorite quotes

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I teach nonprofit fundraisers to bring in more gifts from the RIGHT donors… so they can stop hounding people for money. Fundraising doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.


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19. Building and Managing Teams to Thrive with A.J. Mizes


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episode transcript

Mallory: Welcome everyone. I could not be more excited to be here today with my dear friend AJ Mizes. We are going to try to stay on topic, but I’m just so excited to be talking to you. You have so much variance in creating culture for our organizations and in the hiring side of things, and also helping folks find meaningful and aligned jobs for them. There are just so many ways in which your work and just who you are as a human aligns with the nonprofit world. I’m just so grateful to have you now. 

AJ Mizes: Thank you. That’s so nice. I’m honored that you asked me to be on the show. So thank you so much.

Mallory:  Oh, my pleasure. So why don’t you, other than being my friend, tell folks a little bit about you and your history and what brings you to this conversation?

AJ Mizes: Sure. So I am a talent aficionado, which is what I’ve been called by others. And so what this has meant over the course of my career is I have worked in different HR organizations for various different types of companies. I actually started in hospitality. I then moved into tech, I’d say probably for the last decade I’ve worked in tech companies, either within recruiting or within the HR function as a whole. And right now I work at a very well-known tech company that rhymes with ‘space hook’. I serve as an HR leader to help grow and foster really great cultures to help make sure that we’re building a place where everybody feels included. And there’s an equitable space for people to grow their careers. 

We’re thinking about site strategy and workforce planning and leadership development. So actually I’m a boomerang to space hook, and I was at that place from 2017 to 2020. I then left to start my own executive coaching and HR consulting practice, which was amazing and still is amazing. I still have part of that business still going, because I went back to space hook in June of this year to lead a pretty large team. 

Mallory: Before we started recording. I told you that one of the things that I think is really unique about you and your diversity of experiences, but also just the different roles that you’ve held, and I learned this from our personal relationship is how much HR leaders at big companies hold these really like multi-dimensional spaces around creating healthy environments, healthy cultures for the people around them. Also being a bit of a firefighter, constantly putting out fires and then also often being really like heart-centered and human centered people needing to manage their own emotional experience in holding all of that together.

Really thinking ahead and thinking intentionally about culture and also managing challenges and crisis seas, and then navigating your own self-alignment and expression and safety throughout that whole experience. And so in hearing you talk about your work often, I’ve been like, oh my gosh, nonprofit leaders, this is you too.

You’re leading these organizations. You’re trying to move the needle. You’re building culture, you’re putting out fires and you’re trying to figure out how to navigate your personal and emotional experience throughout all this too. So do you want to just start maybe with that? How do you view that intersection and how do you handle all of that?

AJ Mizes: Wow. Yes. What you just said spoke so much truth because as an HR person, and just as a leader in general,  not only are you trying to inspire, motivate, provide inertia for your team to do the work and set the mission, but you’re also protecting your chief. You have to also protect yourself and in HR, and even as a non-profit leader where you are also HR, you’re also dealing with trauma. You’re dealing with people who perhaps get diagnosed with cancer and you’re having to work with them through how they are treating themselves and also doing the work or taking time off or whatever. So it’s a tough place to be. It’s a really tough place to be. And I think. There have been a few things that I’ve learned as I’ve worked with different organizations to create a really strong culture, but then also to provide boundaries for yourself as a leader.

The first thing I will say is probably the boundaries thing. So I make it a point that at a certain time, each day, usually it’s around five or five 30. I’m done. I’m done working for the day and I close my computer. People have my cell phone number, if they need to call me for an emergency, I check my phone one time before I go to bed, just to see if there’s anything that pops up that’s an emergency and that is it.

And a new thing that I’ve done over the last five months is I actually separated my work phone from my personal phone. So what’s 70 more dollars a month? For peace of mind, it is worth it because I can leave this phone here in the office and when I come into work in the morning, I’m not burdened by what’s in my inbox.

I’m not being driven by what’s in my inbox. So that’s been really healthy for my psyche because I tend to worry a lot about people, about different organizational things that are going on. And so that has been a really great way to set a boundary and to remind myself that what I do is not life or death.

That’s been a huge thing for me. And then I’ll say too, culture has been described, and I love this quote, it has been described as “the worst attitude or the worst behavior that the company tolerates”. And so if you can think about maybe that problem person or that manager who always just doesn’t seem to get it right all the time, that really is the thing that drives your culture.

So I’ve really been a strong proponent for setting what good looks like, and then holding that bar, because that’s what you want people to talk about. And that’s what keeps people there. 

Mallory: I love that. I love that and it’s really interesting, I think in non-profits and this is a little bit more complicated, but that I would really extend people’s thinking about that to board members as well. A huge part of your culture is determined by your board, and I’m not someone to rush into bringing board members on because board members are very hard to fire. And then they have a huge impact on your culture. so I think that’s really interesting.

I’ve never heard that before, but I think that’s such an important thing for nonprofit leaders to hear, because I often think they are probably trying to build good culture. But they are putting up with them tolerating a lot of inappropriate behavior because of other skills the staff members might have, or a scarcity mindset around. Could we find someone who can still do blank and their energy is being wasted on that culture piece while they continue to tolerate that behavior? 

AJ Mizes: Yeah, exactly. And typically when I see that type of behavioral spiral or just perpetuate and stay in an organization, it’s typically because the CEO, the president or whatever is scared of giving the feedback or they tiptoe around giving the feedback and they don’t actually address it, or maybe they do address it, but then it still happens. You can do something about all three of those scenarios. For the first two, it’s to learn how to give great feedback and learn how to give direct and caring feedback that helps the other person hear you and understand the feeling behind why it’s not working well.

And the third thing is, if you’re giving the feedback you’re landing at directly, but that person is still doing the same things that are not working. Then you’ve got to make a choice on whether or not that person stays or not, which kind of ties back to that quote about culture “If that’s what you’re tolerating, then that’s really going to dictate what your culture looks like”.

So one of the things that I talk about all the time is “high tides raise all boats” and high tides, meaning the leaders in the organization. And so as a non-profit as a for-profit company, I think one of the most important and fruitful things that we can do as leaders is to invest in the development of leaders.

How do we make sure that as leaders in an organization, they know how to have really awesome one-on-one? It sounds trivial, but I’d have a really great one-on-one. How to have really great career conversations. How do you make sure that leaders are talking with the people that report them, especially fundraisers about what it means to grow in their career, and then how are you, as a leader helping to serve as the bridge between what that person wants and how.

Mallory: I love that. And there’s something that you said that I want to go back to around the feedback piece, because most nonprofit leaders are wearing way too many hats. Often they are the executive director, they are the fundraiser. Maybe they’re managing their programs. They’re putting out so many fires.

And so I think a lot of the time. The fear that comes up around giving feedback is actually that the behavior is their fault. So they’re like maybe that person is doing that because I didn’t give enough direction around what to do, or we don’t have a good enough onboarding experience. And so I can’t really come down on that person or give feedback around that thing because I haven’t trained them properly.

And so what would you say to that, to someone who was saying “Okay, I’m having this awareness now that I really am shying away from feedback, but I think it’s because I don’t deserve to be able to give the feedback because I did something wrong”? 

AJ Mizes: I tie that to a scarcity mindset, maybe just a fearful mindset instead of a forward momentum look-forward, on what you can do to increase the amount of feedback loops that there are in your relationship with the person that you manage. What I tell new managers when they join an organization or when they’re coming into, maybe a new scope of work is to set some feedback agreements between the two of you.

So to literally make feedback, a bullet on every single one-on-one agenda that you have. And it’s just a time for you to say “Hey, do you have any feedback for me over the last week or the last two weeks?”, and then vice versa. But the agreement is, yes, we’re going to talk about it, but I’m going to give you feedback now, if you promise to give me feedback. 

And so it’s not only “I’m giving you feedback as my direct report, but you’re going to give me feedback as your manager”. “What can I be doing differently to help unblock you? What can I be doing differently to help direct you? Do I need to be spending more time with you or less time with you?”, but being open to receiving that feedback as a leader because our job as leaders is not to micromanage nor to get down in the weeds. We hire people to do those things because we need to be spending our time in an elevated way. So anyway, those feedback loops are super duper important. I usually ask leaders to think about three other questions as they are approaching and leading the team.

One is, how do you want to show up to your team? What do you want from your team? and what do you want for your team? And the reason that I have leaders answer these questions is because as direct reports, there’s a gas tank of psychological safety that either gets filled or depleted, depending on what’s happening.

Typically when that tank is full of psychological safety, it’s because you know that your leader, your manager has the best intent for you, that they want to help you succeed, that they want to be there for you. As stuff happens that tank may deplete, but it goes back up when that psychological safety is there.

And so if you can be fully transparent as a leader about what you intend for your team, what you want for them, and then what you want from them in exchange, it creates that psychological safety that then allows for that feedback loop to happen, which then allows for all of this stuff to happen with a well-greased machine.

Mallory: I just love you so much. Okay. There are just a few things I want to point out, cause I was like literally about to ask you about psychological safety and then you just read my mind. So thank you for that. I think the transparency thing is really important. And one of the things I want to call out here is I think often in nonprofit, we avoid transparency around things that make an engagement feel transactional in the way we’ve been defining transactions. So I can imagine I’m even thinking back to my early leadership where I think I really struggled to say what I wanted from someone that very much felt like a servant leader and a fixer. I was really addicted to my fixer helper energy, that’s what initially brought me to the nonprofit sector. 

In doing so, which was also really tied to my own ego and feelings of self worth and value and all the stuff because of that, I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed and then held a lot of resentment when people didn’t do what I needed and probably felt this lack of safety, because there was a lack of clarity, but I thought, I don’t want them to feel like it’s transactional when I’m just doing this for them because I want this thing from them. I think what you’re saying is critical, which I say in fundraising all the time too, is “This is why transparency is key”. And to be able to say “ We want everything to thrive. I want you to thrive as an individual. And I also want our team to thrive and I want to thrive”.

And I don’t believe that any of those things are mutually exclusive, my thriving and your thriving and our team thriving should actually be completely intertwined. And yes, I want to show up for you in the best partner way possible. I expect things from you to make that partnership really healthy. 

AJ Mizes: Oh, yes. Thousand percent. And the thing that just popped into my mind as you were talking about my success and the team’s success and your success, is that often leaders forget a lot of the time that they’re humans too. And they’re working on things too. And the best leaders that I know, and this helps contribute to psychological safety for your team, are the ones who are transparent on the things that they’re working on or what their goals are.

Maybe if you’re the head of fundraising or you’re the president of your nonprofit or the managing director, what are some pieces of feedback from the board or from your peers that you’ve gotten feedback on and how can you model authenticity and vulnerability to create psychological safety by sharing that with your team? So that a you’re modeling it, but B they’re helping to hold you accountable.

Mallory: I want to go here for a second. So one of the things that I think is really interesting about what you just said, which I totally agree with, is this idea of being vulnerable about the things that we’re working on and something I’m constantly talking about is the idea that it’s not just what we say, It’s how genuine we are in what we’re sharing. So I’ve also seen leaders really weaponize their vulnerability, almost like where they’ll say their challenges or the things they’re trying to grow on too much in the self-deprecating way that isn’t really authentic and vulnerable, but stops their people from being able to talk about it.

It actually decreases the amount of psychological safety because people feel like they can’t bring up these challenges because the leader is so often talking about them in this really like “Wow is me” way. How do we address a dynamic like that? 

AJ Mizes: Okay. So it’s called an ultimatum, essentially. And I was just talking with somebody about this yesterday and he was telling me about somebody who was giving them feedback around how negative he was being all the time. And his interpretation of that was “Well, I’m just super direct and I think everybody appreciates that about me”. And you can see where that is maybe not exactly correct, but it’s a defense mechanism. If he’s saying I’m negative, it’s just because I’m direct, that’s your brain trying to provide rationale to a statement or a piece of feedback that we’re hearing. But here’s the thing: being direct is not a value that a lot of people value. Being truthful, perhaps yes, but being direct in a way that is an excuse for being harsh or rude or not receptive to how other people are feeling, that’s not okay. 

That’s not what we’re talking about. So in terms of being vulnerable, but if there’s an excuse or an ultimatum I’m just direct. And so that’s just me, I think that’s where we run into issues as leaders, because as leaders, we have to flag how we show up in different spaces, depending on what type of outcome we need, depending on the type of person and how they are motivated. If we just expect people to fold to the way that we’re molded as leaders, then we’re just creating a bunch of drones in our organization, we’re actually not creating a space where people can show up as their authentic selves can contribute in an area where their strengths are. We’re actually just creating a system of fear or a system of conformity, and that doesn’t lead anywhere.

Mallory: Good. I think the other thing that I know you and I are both such fans of coaching in general, and I think this is just such a huge reason why I’m such a fan of leaders being coached also is because, especially nonprofit leaders, it’s such an isolating role. They have these nine to 23 bosses to make their board of directors happy. They’re managing staff teams. They don’t really have anyone.

I think it’s really interesting, you talked about how we flex the way we show up in different situations and I felt like I did that a lot as a leader, but it showed up very differently to the board meetings that I did to the staff meetings, to this person’s one-on-one and this other person’s one-on-one. And I think there were times where I questioned my own authenticity because of it, where I said “Am I being manipulative because I know how to get the best out of that person? And I’m not speaking to them exactly the same. 

I really grappled with this, like early in my leadership. And then what I realized, but I’d love your feedback, maybe you’ll just tell me that I was totally wrong. What I thought for me was that in every space I showed up really genuinely. I really wanted to see my staff members succeed. And so meeting them where they were at and perhaps adjusting the way I coached them or adjusting the way I supported them and tailoring that to who they were and the way they were seeing the world.

Yes, maybe it meant that the way I communicated was different, but it was driven from a place of empathy. And that meant that it was aligned with me because I wanted their success and I wanted everyone’s success. Even honestly, when I fired people.

I remember firing someone once and saying “This is just not the right set, and I want you to have a job where you feel successful every day, I sincerely want that for you”. And I want for me, someone in this role that I’m not having to do this every single day. I want that for you and I want that for me. We both want that. And we have been trying to make that work in this role and it’s not working, but for me, it’s always really been about tapping back into my deeper desires, for everyone to be successful. And that, that might not always mean that we’re successful together, but is that like the wrong way to be?

AJ Mizes: No, I freaking love it and that’s exactly right. And so that’s why I need leaders to answer that first question, which is how do you want to show up to your team? Because as long as you’re showing up in those ways you are being authentic to yourself. Now, the way that the words come out of your mouth or the way that you talk about something might be different depending on who you’re talking to. But as long as you’re showing up in those ways that you brainstorm, when you’re initially thinking about how you want to show up to the team, you’re being authentic, but you’re just meeting people where they are.

You’re meeting people in terms of how they like to receive feedback or what they’re motivated by, in a way that’s going to work for them and it’s going to translate into action because that’s just how they are wired. Those are the powerful leaders who aree able to master that. 

Mallory: Okay. I love that. Do you ever experience leaders who maybe don’t offer that same level of empathy or connection because they don’t feel like they receive it? And how do you deal with that? A pattern I see sometimes in the nonprofit world or that I could imagine somebody listening to this and saying “Okay, yeah, I can do this with my team”, but where’s my psychological safety from the CEO or from the board? And that there’s like this resentment that then can get intertwined with the way they show up for their own teams. How do we navigate that if it’s not coming from the top? 

AJ Mizes: Yeah, that is difficult. Here’s what I’ll say. I think it’s imperative for everybody to have that with their leader. Sometimes it may be you going to your manager and expressing what’s not working in the relationship between you and your leader.

I’d say that’s probably the first thing I would ask is: have you voiced this to that person? And what are the other questions? And now you’re quite famous for asking this: who would you be without that thought or without that fear? How would you show up? I talked to leaders about that if you didn’t feel that way about your manager, what would be different?

“Oh my God, I have the best relationship. We would talk about everything or I felt like we wouldn’t have to meet all the time”. So that’s typically the anecdote I feel if that dynamic does not exist between you and your leaders, like giving that feedback, but not just complaining about it, giving a suggestion on what would need to change in order for that dynamic to shift in your eyes, because then you’re giving the leader kind of the recipe to make the great bread.

And if you’re just saying “Make me bread” and they’re like “Do you want pumpkin bread? Do you want other bread? Tell them what type of bread you like”. And that then helps your leader show up in a way that’s going to be helpful to you. So I think that’s number one. 

And number two is this concept of team one versus team two. So team one is the leadership team for your organization. So it’s like the managing director, maybe the fundraising director and a volunteer, it’s the leaders of the team. And in order for any organization to be successful, team one has to operate as a well-oiled machine together, because what people typically think is that when folks walk into that leadership room, that they’re actually representing their team and they have to show up.

If you were to ask those leaders who their team one is, it’s the team that they lead. That’s their team one. But what happens when that’s the case is all of the different leaders in the organization, if they show up into that room as team one, for the team that they lead, it turns into the United nations.

It turns into putting a stake in the ground and just representing what’s happening in their teams, which leads to lots of disagreements in that room. Or a lot of debate, a lot of perhaps unhealthy debate. But if you think about it, what the team that you lead actually wants, they want more than nothing else in the world is for the leadership team to be team one, because that brings psychological safety ,because the leaders get along, the leaders are aligned, we are all on the same team. 

So if team one can operate like that, which is the leadership team, they can disagree in the room, but then agree to disagree and then go out and have the same message, that brings a lot more, again, psychological safety into the organization. 

Mallory: Okay, I’m obsessed with this. So I think this is such a critical point, and I will say it has been something that I have failed around in my leadership, and I think succeeded around in my leadership in different ways or in different organizations, actually.

So what’s really interesting to me about what you’re saying. And I think for nonprofits in particular, but also actually for-profits, this is where we really were grounding in your mission and your clarity is critical, because the only way for your program team and your fundraising team and your marketing team and whatever other teams, you have to be disconnected and to have those different stakes in the ground as if it’s not clear how they’re all achieving the shared mission. And I lead an organization through an incredibly difficult time, and I will say, not everyone was always happy with the choices that I made, but every decision I made came back to like, how does this serve our mission?

And I think bringing a lot of transparency to that and saying, look, this is a really hard choice and I see you. I see why the priority of that team is this. And here’s why I’m making this choice related to the mission that we’ve all decided is why we’re sitting in our seats. I think when they went back to their teams, they weren’t always thrilled with how they had to lead their teams, but they were always aligned.

I think it just made such a difference. Sometimes with early organizations, maybe it’s both clarity around mission and leadership that both need to be combined, especially as the mission is maybe evolving in your first year of existing as you’re testing and trying different things to achieve your vision.

If team one is aligned on mission and there’s that transparency and safety there. Really we’re constantly challenging and asking ourselves the question, is this the best for our mission? And I would say, when you think you know that answer quickly, you’re probably wrong. That’s when to ask it again or to challenge those preconceived notions that you have. So I love that. I think that’s such a helpful framework. 

AJ Mizes: And every organization that I go to and introduce that to them, it’s like this mind blowing thing, like “Yes, exactly”. To your point. It doesn’t mean that everybody in the leadership room has to agree on things.

It doesn’t mean there can’t be debate. It just means that once a decision has been made to your point about how you had to lead that organization through some pretty crazy times. When people leave that room, you disagree, but you commit to the direction and you commit to leaving your team through whatever that is.

I bring that back to your question about “Oh, I’m not getting that from my leader” is to really look around the table, your philosophy around leadership, your mission, your culture, your values, talking about it regularly. It doesn’t mean you have to change it all the time, but just making sure is this still right? IIs this still how we work with each other? Is the way that we’re working alongside our mission. So it all contributes. It all intersects. 

Mallory: So one of the things that’s really interesting about what you just said around disagreeing at the table is that I actually think, and again, please tell me if I’m wrong, you are the expert here, but now that I’m thinking about, I have always really valued disagreement at that table to be a sign that we’re pushing our beliefs around something. And so just to say that it can be complicated at times to do that or to build a team around that. 

Part of having diverse teams around things is going to mean that likely we develop things where none of us are 100% happy because if we were 100% happy, then we could have just done it on our own. And the way to actually make this thing as impactful as possible is for us to be doing it together with a group of diverse voices and opinions and lived experiences and that by having that, we actually do come up with the best possible solution and it means no one gets a hundred percent of what they want and that’s actually a really good thing. And to create buy-in around that model. What do you think about something like that and maybe how do you tie that to hiring your leadership team?

AJ Mizes: Yes. The data says everything that you just said is correct. When there are diverse perspectives around the table, the work product is that much more effective, successful, and it’s proven with data. So I think the thing with hiring and how you come up with that table of diverse perspectives is to avoid what I call the likeness syndrome.

And so what I tell people, especially in like scaling organizations or even just organizations where you might be rejiggering, some things inside is to make a list as a leader and you have two columns. The first column is things I’m awesome at and then the next column is things I could be better in or things I suck at.

The best organizations in the world are ones that have skills around the table that compliment each other. And so what organizations that I find tend to fail at, and it’s the like-me syndrome or the sorority syndrome, is if you’re hiring people who are just like you, if you are a straight white CIS gendered male and around your table are a bunch of white, straight people, that’s an indicator that you might have a sorority problem going on, or like-me syndrome going on. If you can look around the table and there are different people from different types of different countries, different languages spoken, different socioeconomic backgrounds, different races, different genders, sexual orientation, you are going to be bringing in diverse perspectives. 

Now that’s just about identity, right? That’s not even talking about skills and going back to that list of skills, you want to be hiring people who have the column on the right, the things that you suck at. Maybe some of the things that are on the left column, the things that you’re great at, but if you can build people around you that are going to compliment the things that you don’t have, they’re going to help contribute in ways that your brain just doesn’t work.

If you’ve ever taken StandOut or Myers-Briggs or any of that stuff, there’s a reason why those psychometrics deliver results the way that they do is because we’re just wired differently from each other. Have that self-awareness about how you contribute to the organization as a leader. 

If you identify what gaps exist so that you’re creating a well-rounded machine, in addition to the identity pieces and the backgrounds that we all come with, you’re going to come up with a kick ass organization of leaders who make what you do. 

Mallory: Okay. I love that. And again, this comes back to the leadership development piece also because I think there’s a certain amount of inner work that leaders need to do to remove their own ego. 

I became a manager when I was 22 years old. It was crazy. My boss left and I got her job and it was bananas that I was managing a nine person team, most of whom were older than me at that time in my life. And when I think back to what I think about how desperately I wanted that sorority culture, I gravitated to the people who are more like me because they made me feel safe and my own self-worth.

Then in my last organization, every person I hired was so much smarter than me. And they had so many skills that I didn’t have that I didn’t even understand and I was worried about being able to manage, because I didn’t even understand the technical nature of what they were going to be able to do.

I couldn’t even have those conversations around them. I think what is so important about what you’re saying is that, I knew that I was a good leader and I knew that I was a good manager. That’s why I was in my role. I could never do their job, but that wasn’t my job. I had so much more self-awareness then, I had so much more security with who I was and what I brought to the table.

I just want to call that out for folks too, it’s normal. Especially early in your leadership career to feel triggered by trying to manage folks around you that make you question or doubt your own skills and expertise. And there’s some self work that needs to be done there so that you feel fully aligned and embodied in who you are internally in order to be able to create an environment for those folks to be.

AJ Mizes: And that need for us to be seen as the expert in all things is actually the opposite. It’s insecurity. It shows up as insecurity because maybe in your case, and in my case too, right? When you’re young, you’re managing people older than you. You want to be seen as the expert, you’re experiencing maybe even imposter syndrome.

Should I even be here? Can I do this job? Yes. But what people want more than ever, regardless of who you are is acknowledgement and recognition and appreciation for the skills that they bring. For me, like just to be vulnerable, I suck at anything financial, anything, Excel, spreadsheet, anything about investing, anything about CPA stuff.

And when I was younger, I helped run a property that had 400 different employees and different cost centers and things like that. I had to learn really quickly how to run a pivot table and how to do this stuff. I stunk at it. But what I had to realize is that there were other people on my team who were really good at that stuff and as I, as I appreciate them or give them praise or give them like stretch projects. Even in that arena where I knew that this is what they love to do, I never took credit for that stuff ever. It always went to that person for how they showed up, how they contributed to their strengths.

And therefore, I wasn’t the expert. I didn’t do the work, but my job as a leader was to find the person who loved that stuff and to give them more time to be in that space. That takes away the insecurity, right? Because the work still got done. The thing that we were trying to accomplish still happened. My name just wasn’t attached to it and that is okay.

Mallory: Okay. I know we’re running short on time. And so I’m going to do a quick pivot to something that I know you are the expert I go to any time someone is coming to me, job searching. I’m like “You need to go and talk to AJ because I think that you have so many of the technical skills having been inside of HR for so many years and understand what companies are looking for. So you really bring that level of expertise and I also know that you care deeply about the people who work with you, finding the right fit for them. Sometimes I see career coaches who just want to get people placed as quickly as possible and you are just so intentional about wanting your people to be happy where they end up. 

I think you’re also really good at helping people figure out what is aligned for them and non-profit leaders and fundraisers in general transition often, that’s one of the things that I’m trying to address through helping people feel more embodied in their work is that because I was someone who thought fundraising would feel different at other organizations when the challenge was actually inside of me.

I’m sure there are a number of people listening to this podcast who are saying “Oh my God, the leaders that AJ is describing, I want that. How do I find that boss? How do I find that culture?” So do you have any high-level takeaways and then I’ll make sure folks know how to find you to learn more, but when folks are trying to identify the right cultural fit for them or the right boss for them, what should they be looking for?

AJ Mizes: Oh, I love that you asked this question because this is near and dear to my heart because there’s a lot of propaganda out there when you’re interviewing, there’s the jobs web page, which is curated by a copywriter and the YouTube video that they hired a video production company to create. So those are great, those can be good indications, but what I will caution you on is those can be a facade. Those can be not the real deal all the time. Sometimes they are, but a lot of times they’re not. And so there are questions that you can ask as you’re interviewing to just get another signal, see what lights up. So the first question that I recommend people ask is: what’s the most unexpected lesson that you’ve learned while working here?

And so what that’s getting to the root of is what’s surprising. The unexpected piece is like you have a certain perspective on what you think the culture is going to be like, or your, whatever your work is going to be like. And then what was unexpected about that? So that can help shift what’s different about the narrative that people are driving about the culture at that organization.

The second question that you can ask to learn a little bit more about leadership is to have the person that you’re interviewing with answer: can you tell me a story about a person in the organization who you’ve mentored or had reported to you that is now in a different place in the organization? Can you tell me about how you help them get to where they are?

And then you’re going to get a lot of answers around “I don’t have anybody that has been promoted” or “Here is somebody and here’s how we work together to help to get them to where they are”. And that’ll give you a lot of indication as to what type of bridge they would potentially serve for you in terms of where you want to go in the organization.

And then I think the third thing is for you as a candidate to understand what role this next stop is playing in your long-term goal. And I really look at stops along your career journey as like seasons or missions. You’re taking this new role because it’s going to help you accomplish something either for the world or for your personal career objectives.

You’re going to do that thing. And then there’s going to be another mission for you to take, and it could be at that same organization, or it could be elsewhere. And so to be really clear with yourself as you’re going into it about what would this help me accomplish for myself or for my ethos and what I want to provide to the world.

So I think those three things are really helpful. Those first two to ask. And then the third to know as you’re going into it, because then you’re aware of what type of signal you’re looking for. Is this going to be an alignment at all or not? 

Mallory: I love that. I love that. I could ask you a million questions about this. AJ has this amazing webinar that we’ll direct folks to as well, to help you, if you’re in the job search process. His process recommendations are for helping you get in front of the right folks and find the right thing for you. We’ll direct all of you there as well, but I love to wrap up with giving folks the opportunity to share a nonprofit that they love. And so we highlight them for folks who are interested, they’ll go learn more and some will give if they can. So tell us about a nonprofit you love.

AJ Mizes: So I’m on the board of Townhall Theater in Lafayette and the mission of Town Hall Theater and Lafayette is to bring artistic experiences that represent a vast array of different experiences that the world has, in terms of plays from underrepresented people, music from underrepresented groups.

That’s a very small theater based in Lafayette, which is in the east bay of California, where I grew up. And I am really just passionate about the art of storytelling and the way that storytelling brings people together, regardless of background. It creates shared experiences, which helps us emote and be more empathetic.

So you can visit the theater by going to townhalltheater.com 

Mallory: Awesome! Thank you. Thank you, AJ. I’m so grateful for you and everything. I can’t believe how much we got through and I just wish I had heard this episode 15 years ago when I started my leadership and organizational building journey. So thank you for sharing all of this with us.

AJ Mizes: Thank you for having me. Thank you so much. It’s been such a fun time and a pleasure.

19. Building and Managing Teams to Thrive with A.J. Mizes

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