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How to Manage the Growing Pains of Being an Expert



At the 2015 American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference in Chicago, I attended a session called “Meet the Pros: Intermediate Consulting Skill-Building Self-Help Fair”. It was a 45-minute skills-building session that featured experienced independent evaluation consultants (including Norma Martinez-Rubin of Evaluation-Focused Consulting, Jessica Pugil of The Working Partner, Susan Wolfe of CNM Connect, Laura Keene of Keene Insights, and Stephanie Evergreen of Evergreen Data) who provided insights and advice on lessons-learned on managing a consulting business.

It was a can’t-miss session for me, so much so that I had to get up at 5am, leave my AirBnB near the University of Illinois at Chicago’s campus at 5:45, grab breakfast around 6:15 and wait outside the session room by 6:30. Luckily for me, most people don’t show up for a 7am session, and I was the first one in line.

Set up in the style of speed dating, participants circulated to different topic areas (strategic planning for longevity, managing community dynamics, finding spaces to work outside of the home, how to select projects, and branding). Each facilitator also provided a useful handout that outlined their expertise and recommendations for managing a consulting business.

Compared to attending my first AEA conference in 2014, I strategically chose to attend sessions that centered mostly on independent consulting and business management, program design, and data visualization. I also chose sessions that were more skill-building focused as opposed to panels, listening to research findings, and the like. Starting a business can be rewarding and stressful. Not only are you putting yourself out there as an expert, you have to do everything that comes with managing a business (including paying yourself and employees, reviewing contracts, getting insurance, and the like).

For the longest, I felt more comfortable in my role as an activist, and then eventually a social worker. Given the beginnings of the profession, social work’s ethical principles are in alignment with being an activist. While program evaluation is a requirement in the social work profession, I sometimes look at the practice as being completely separate from social work (and this is in spite of studying it as a graduate social work student. I’ve written several blog posts on how I became a program evaluator and a reproductive justice social worker. It’s an ever-evolving process, and I still strategize on how to integrate my social justice side with my analytical side.

Whether you’re a social worker, evaluator, activist, or occupy another role, there will be times where you feel you don’t measure up. Attending all the sessions, reading all the books, and networking with all the people can’t erase those feelings that you may not know what you’re doing. In reality, you know exactly what you need to know at this moment. How can you leverage the skill sets you have, and managing those icky feelings that come up when you don’t feel as legit as you’d like? Those feelings are merely your inner critic, and that voice will come up no matter what you do. Here are some ways I’ve found to manage it:

Trust yourself: It’s easy to compare yourself to others, and most of the time we’re comparing our beginning to someone else’s finish line.  I use to believe I have to know everything there is to know about it in order for me to be seen as a program evaluation expert. Then I realized that I have yet to know every single thing about the reproductive justice movement, or even social work. Professional development opportunities like conferences, trainings, networking, and even social media can help you gain better insights into what you do. There are so many evaluation theories, so many communities that social workers engage with, and so many social justice issues, that it would be impossible to know every single thing.  What I do know it that I have a critical eye, can ask probing questions, and synthesize information to help organizations see how seemingly unrelated aspects of a program can be connected.

Meet people where they are, then challenge yourself: “Meeting people where they are” is a very social work-y phrase. It involves recognizing the current circumstances of an individual, group, or community, what resources are readily available, and what strengths s/he and they possess that will allow you to connect in meaningful ways.  Once you’re able to gain their trust, challenge yourself to discover more ways to connect. What does reproductive justice look like to this individual, group, or community, based on their current circumstances? When you are open to new ways of thinking and can help people make connections and come to similar conclusions, it builds your confidence.

Re-frame what you do: “I’m Nicole and I’m a program evaluator” and “I’m Nicole and I help organizations identify how their program, intervention, or project is impactful and what areas needs to be improved” are essentially the same thing. So are “I’m Nicole and I’m a reproductive justice activist”  and “I’m Nicole and I recognize now various aspects of a person’s life (including gender, race, environment, class, and other ways we face injustice) can influence how one makes reproductive health decisions.” Telling someone what you are and having the ability to explain it in general terms are totally different. When you’re able to explain what you do or your position on a topic in concise, digestible terms, it makes you sound more believable.

Read, fire, aim: I first came across “Ready, fire, aim” while reading Jack Canfield’s The Success Principles. Jack says, “Don’t be afraid to just jump in and get started moving toward your goals. As long as you pay attention to the feedback you receive, you will make progress. Just getting into the game and firing allows you to correct and refine your aim.” While preparing yourself as much as possible won’t erase those “I don’t feel legit” feelings, there’s nothing more powerful than getting started. Because you signed up for that training, or submitted that scope of work for a project, or attended that networking event despite feeling tired, or asked someone to share examples of intersectionality, you’ve taken the first step. And you’ll continue to take more steps.  Also, there’s the belief that getting to our destination is some linear, straight-shot. You’re going to be all over the place, and it will feel uncomfortable, but you have to trust that (in spite of the uncertainty) it will all come together. And it often comes together in ways you won’t expect.

RAISE YOUR VOICE: What one piece of advice would you give in managing the growing pains of being an expert?

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By | 2017-05-21T17:22:04+00:00 January 14th, 2016|Categories: Miscellaneous|2 Comments
  • Elisa B.

    Thank you so much, Nicole, for sharing your experiences. What you wrote resonated with me-it was like reading my own thoughts! Trusting oneself and diving in, and learning as we go – there’s nothing more to do than that, and nothing to lose. -Elisa B.

    • Thanks for reading, Elisa! I love sharing my own experiences in the hopes that others can feel they aren’t alone, especially when it comes to complex topics like evaluation and social work. If you never put yourself out there, you never know what you can do!