Out of Your Field: How to Be Successful Without Expertise

main.jpgI openly acknowledge that I am the outlier at my organization.

As Communications Coordinator at Nonprofits Assistance Fund, I do not dream budgets nor get excited over financial statements. In school, I never took a single stats or finance class. While I have learned to read a balance sheet or a loan document over the past year, I am by no means the “go-to” person on those topics. In fact, I can tell you with utmost certainty that I will never be a finance guru. My roots are planted deep in the arts and humanities, where my passion grows from words and design standards.

Despite my lack of affinity for all things finance, it’s my job to tell the story of this organization focused on just that: the nuts and bolts of nonprofit finance. How do I do it?

First, this is not about surviving a job you dislike, mind you. That’s an entirely different blog post. I love my job, but I also recognize a knowledge gap when I see it. In a situation like this, how do you take the reins and do the job well?

While it is easy to feel overwhelmed and out of your field, here are some tips to help you succeed: 

  1. Discover your strengths, and leverage them. The staff at my organization takes the Strengths Finder, and then we map our strengths on a grid. For instance, I may not be analytical, but I am strategic. Identifying our individual strengths helps create a nice marriage of work personalities (strategic, yes?). Other tests I suggest are Myers-Briggs or an individual SWOT analysis.
  2. Acknowledge and accept your weaknesses, to yourself AND to your boss. I remind my supervisor that finance is not my “frame of reference.” Since she understands my strengths, we are able to collaborate together so we can put our best foot forward.  Your coworkers will appreciate the honesty; they hired you for your strengths, anyway.
  3. Never stop learning. I accept that I will never be a financial guru, but that doesn’t mean that I should stop learning about finance. RSS feeds and blog updates have become my “work best friends.” Every day, my email contains a new finance resource, and I am able to flag useful posts to read when I can. To help you get started, I recommend checking out Nonprofit Alltop.
  4. Bookmark, bookmark, bookmark. In the growing digital age, it is easier to have resources at your fingertips. I bookmark websites that provide fruitful information for quick reference, so I can look up that random fact about budgets or business models when I need it.
  5. Identify ways to include the subject matter into other areas of your life. The knowledge I have gained while at Nonprofits Assistance Fund has benefited other areas of my life. For instance, I am much better at managing my personal cash flow. This makes a tough subject matter more grounded and relative for me, a useful feature in communicating our mission to other people like me.
  6. Ask plenty of questions. We already know that “no question is a stupid question,” but this especially holds true if you have already done steps 1-5. If you do not understand something, ask. No, seriously. Ask.
  7. Identify the knowledge you bring to your organization, and become that expert. I may not know how to produce a trend analysis, but I am the first in command to create catchy copy. Remember, you can add organizational value and expertise no matter what your position. While I may be out of my field in nitty-gritty nonprofit finance, I AM the outstanding expert in my field of communicating our work and values.

Do you have tips to add about how to overcome a work challenge or knowledge barrier? 

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