Composing Your Career: From the “What” to the “How”

This is a follow-up post by Meg Ahern, who recently began a new position as a learning specialist at USAID LEARN. Dr. Ahern completed her joint PhD in Women’s Studies & English at U of M in 2012.

I’ll start with a confession.  In my previous post, I wrote about how useful an academic doctorate can be in other fields, as I’ve found in my own career in international development, and I ended with some advice about focusing on the kind of role you’d be happiest in day to day.  That advice was partly for me.

When I was writing that post, I was starting to think more about tweaking what my own role was in international development.  It’s a story with a happy ending, and I’m sharing it in hopes that it can help to illustrate a little further how many academic goals are pursued by others outside of academia, and how useful your training can be to other organizations.

Ever since I left academia for international development, my choice of industry has felt absolutely right – it’s a cause I’m deeply passionate about.  And I’m still tracking with my original sense of fundamental purpose: to use my academic training, and other skills I’ve cultivated, to help people and organizations do this good work better.  Of course, there are a variety of ways to do this.  Was I in the best role for me?

Dr. Meg Ahern

In my previous job, at the Global Partnership for Education at the World Bank (GPE), I was “helping others do good work better” through a mix of modes: strategy and policy, and organizational learning and development.  While the strategy and policy work was certainly exciting in terms of its impact, day-to-day it translated to a lot of sitting at a desk, working on documents solo.  I’m kind of an extrovert, and I missed getting to work with people more.  In particular, I missed being in a role where I get to interact with others directly in a way designed to empower them and help them reach their goals — like teaching!. I loved the work I got to do on organizational learning and development in my job, and felt a pull to do more of that.

So I did a job search (imagine – here you can do this at any time of year! 😉 and eventually ended up leaving GPE to join an incredible team (called LEARN) that works on organizational learning and development for USAID. Here I am in seventh heaven. My new role as a learning specialist draws a lot on my teaching skills, as I design and facilitate workshops and other sessions helping USAID (I’m personally focused mainly on their work preventing and alleviating hunger in vulnerable areas) to think about what its staff need to learn in order to function better, how they can share knowledge, and how they can be setting themselves up to manage their projects adaptively, designing and implementing course corrections where needed to ensure better development outcomes in changing contexts.

For example, some of the things I’ve done, or am about to do, in this role include:

  • Helping to plan and facilitate a workshop for leaders of multiple programs that aim to serve vulnerable communities in the Sahel to create a shared understanding of the nature of the complex factors at work in the region, and a common strategy for how best to improve the lives of their beneficiaries in a sustainable way with the resources they have
  • Designing and creating an online library of technical documents in a user-friendly format, so that staff have the resources they need to design robust programs
  • Designing and facilitating sessions that help USAID staff (in Washington and overseas) to assess, prioritize, and plan what they need in order to learn from their programs, share knowledge with their colleagues, and adapt their work based on what they learn – and analyzing and synthesizing the ideas that come out of those sessions

In addition to the fun of this work itself, I especially enjoy the team I’m on.  I get to work on a team of three dozen wonderful people who all support USAID in organizational learning and development, and who explicitly espouse openness, nurturing, and emotional intelligence as key values.  This is my personal ideal, and I am having a ball – and learning a lot – from my new coworkers as we all practice together what we preach to USAID about how to work well together. (Not only that, but here I work with another U-M Ph.D. – a linguistic anthropologist who’s our senior monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning specialist!)

So this is where finding not only an industry that resonates with you, but also a role and environment in which you’ll truly thrive, can really pay off.  Getting to not only work for a cause that’s hugely meaningful to me, and not only do so using my brain and the skills I developed in academia, but also do this in a way that feels consistently fun, dynamic, and natural to me — and on a team of kind, like-hearted companions, I just feel incredibly lucky and grateful.

One last note for those who need more clarity on what organizational learning really means: organizational learning is what an organization needs to work smarter: how can it capture the knowledge of its various staff, build institutional memory, develop a learning agenda, monitor and evaluate its progress in a way that will help it to learn, and design and implement its work in an agile, responsive, adaptive way.

Organizational development I think of as being more about what an organization needs to be better and stronger: In addition to the above, how it can develop a healthy, inclusive, constructive culture full of positive relationships, how it can develop the management/people skills of the leadership team, how it can ensure a balanced and appropriate approach to resourcing so that it’s investing in the right areas and setting its staff up for success, etc.  Good organizational development supports good organizational learning.

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