A whirlwind three years at the Y

“What do you know about YMCA?”

In June 2015, I sat in a large boardroom. A three-person interview panel faced me, scribbling notes and sharing glances.

My glass of water was full. Not in an “I feel optimistic” way, but in an “I don’t trust myself to drink properly” kind of way.

“Ooh I know the YMCA song – I can show you the moves if you like?”

Probably should have been less worried about the water.


Incredibly, I was offered the role and began at YMCA South Australia as the Youth Programs Coordinator, managing the Youth Parliament program and young carer retreats.

It was the beginning of a whirlwind three years that comes to an end this week.

Working at the Y was my first “real” career job. My life changed from three part-time gigs plus volunteering and university to a role where I had a desk and responsibilities. And guaranteed pay (woo!).

One year in, I wrote about the five things I learned from my first year running Youth Parliament.

Now as I hand over the reigns of Youth Empowerment Manager, I’ve been reflecting on the whole experience, what I learned, how I’ve grown, what surprised me and what I’ll do differently next time.


Get comfortable with ambiguity 

When you’re running events and working with community, many, many things will go wrong. Wait, I’ll rephrase that. Many things won’t go as per Plan A.

You cannot control everything and that shouldn’t be the aim. Building capability and confidence in the team is far more important than running through every possible scenario and having a pre-prepared solution.

To lead through ambiguity,  there are two things I’ve found helpful.

  1. Trust your people and give them responsibility. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be surrounded by people cleverer, more suitably trained and more eager to work on the tasks than you. Don’t confuse their energy for intimidation – embrace it. Delegate, encourage and trust they can do it.
  2. Work out what the minimum information that people need – it’ll change person to person – and try to deliver that. Do they need to know the long-term goal of the project? Or a step-by-step breakdown of the event? Perhaps they need clarity of the chain-of-command and support systems in place. Sometimes they just need a clear deadline and desk to work on.


Be clear with your priorities

Your ‘to-do’ list will be a million times longer than your ‘done’ list. Especially in a not-for-profit. There’s never enough capacity, staff, money.

Prioritise what is important and urgent. I find writing a ‘don’t do’ list to be more helpful than writing a ‘to-do’.

If you understand and communicate why you’re prioritising certain things, your team members will begin to align their priorities, giving projects more impact and traction.

I struggle with this because I know what’s possible, what could be achieved and I want to get there… today. But, when the only resource you’ve got is your people, you stretch and pull and try to fit more into a day than you can fit into a month. And then you all fall in a heap and drink a lot of wine, which leads into my next point.


Eyes wide open – be present, be aware

You are responsible for everything you do. Yes, there are influences and yes, they may be very persuasive, but at the end of the day, you choose how you use your time and how you respond.

And if you are reacting, you’ve made a choice to be less self-aware and switch off. (Which can sometimes be a great short-term coping strategy – as long as you recognise it as such).

A big thing I’ve learned working at the YMCA, is that boundaries are much easier to set at the beginning. The extra oomph you generously give at the beginning, suddenly looks like slacking off when it’s taken back.

For me, I’m really aware that when I have fallen in a heap and burnt out, I need to take ownership of that. Doing it tough versus having a tough conversation is a choice. An uncomfortable, but a necessary one if you want a positive work/life balance.

You cannot pour from an empty cup and if you need extra support, less on your plate, different working conditions, you need to initiate and fight for that.


Imposter syndrome feels very real

The combination of being a new manager and a young woman made me question my worth and my right to be in the role. It felt like just as I was getting over that insecurity, someone would remind me that I was young and female.

At the Y, a lot of senior management are men. They talk about footy and their banter is very different to mine. This stuff poses barriers.

How do I make my voice not only heard, but seen as legitimate and useful?

Over the past three years, I’ve been working hard to find my authentic leadership style. I was really aware that I didn’t just want to model the behaviours of the ‘typical’ senior manager, I wanted to be taken seriously for me. No makeup, bubbly attitude, naive and idealistic – me.

It’s been a journey, but I believe I’ve kept my integrity, been honest about who I am and have garnered respect for that (from the people that matter to me).


You are not everyone’s cup of tea and that is perfectly okay

People’s personalities clash. Not everyone will like you, not everyone will understand you and if you’re worried about that, think about the people in your own life. There’s nothing wrong with not liking people.

There is however, something wrong with being rude and unkind. Most office politics start with passive aggressive communication and could be completely avoidable. Don’t write an email when you could pick up the phone – or better yet, ‘clear the air’ in person.

Over the past three years, one of the biggest things I’ve found peace with, is that people will dislike me. And that is a-okay.


Real change sparks resistance

I’m a big believer that change is good. That questioning the status quo and trying new things has positive outcomes.

As we know, people react to change in different ways, and not all of these are positive. But, it’s a good marker to know if you’re creating real change – or just fiddling around the edges.

Something I’ve learned working at the Y with a range of different teams and through a lot of change, is to dig deeper into people’s reactions. To identify whether behaviour is a dislike toward change in general (that’s not how we do things here) OR a genuine warning that things don’t work.

Like most things, communication is key.


It’s all about the people

I have been so incredibly lucky to work with some absolute legends. Intelligent, compassionate, bloody hard-working people who are fighting for something bigger than themselves. People who pour hours into their work so that others can experience something wonderful. The ones who at the end of a long day still have a sense of humour. You all rock – thank you.


Looking back, I feel incredibly lucky to have worked on such a wide range of projects during my time at the Y. I’m going to be very sad to leave the fantastic team and young people that are part of YMCA’s programs, but I’m super excited to see what happens next in SA.

I’m thrilled to be moving to the Northern Territory for two months with the Y to work on their youth programs and I’m sure I’ll have much more to blog about through that adventure.

If you want to get involved with YMCA, head to www.sa.ymca.org.au and follow them on Facebook (and Y Camping and Youth Parliament).

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