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A Surprising Key to Building a Successful Changemaker Career

This is a sponsored partner post on PCDN

A lot of people ask me, every day, what they need to do to build their career in the social change sector. I speak with private sector professionals, with people who are just about to start their careers as well as people who already do work with social impact but often feel like they are stuck or are starting to become disillusioned and cynical. The interesting thing is – while professionals who are tired of their corporate careers dream of work in an organization that simply aligns with their purpose, their counterparts in the social impact sector often feel just as restless and dissatisfied as them. Why is that?

In six years working in career development with professionals from all kinds of backgrounds, one insight has been persistent: no matter whether we work for social impact within a private sector company, in a international NGO, a small social enterprise or community grassroots organization – it is our sense of agency that is a strong indicator of how successful we will be as change agents and how fulfilled and aligned we are in our work.

Sure, technical skills, degrees and topical expertise matter – but in terms of what makes you impactful as a professional, it is often the less tangible skills, like agency, that make or break your career.

What does agency mean exactly? In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Factors like religion, customs, ability, gender, social class or ethnicity can influence agency negatively. A sense of agency, or sense of control, is the subjective awareness of initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world. (Source)

In my experience, this sense of agency varies greatly despite negative influencing factors. Some people should have a very limited sense of agency based on their gender, ethnicity or social class but somehow defy the logic in the way they show up in their work. Is that just luck or something, that we can learn from? I believe that nobody wants to just complain and feel like they can’t do anything about a situation that affects them negatively. If our greatest human rights movements can grow from this place of agency, then we must be also able to do something individually about our own struggles – no matter how small they might seem in contrast to the big struggles in the world that we are also trying to fight. 

Professionals with a weak sense of agency will typically give up before even trying (in the worst case) or give up after the first or second attempt diagnosing the situation as helpless. This is often the point when people start looking for a different job, hoping that a change of organizational culture might help them become happier and more fulfilled.

Just imagine what that means for the work of social change at large. If we give up so early, how will we be successful in creating any significant change considering how people are naturally resistant to change? Our work truly begins at No. I don’t mean in a stubborn way of trying again and again, but by evaluating our strategies and finding new ones to achieve what we want to.

While context really does matter, working with 375 Fellows from 52 different countries at Amani Instute, we have learned that people tend to carry their challenges into any new work place culture. You need to change first, to change the world around you.

Learning how to diagnose which elements of your situation are in your control and which are not is incredibly important to understand what you can do to improve your effectiveness and fulfillment at work. Sometimes we don’t have to change our job, sometimes it is enough to change our strategies, how we approach challenges, how we deal with our peers and what we can learn from our mistakes.

If you want to learn how to better navigate your professional growth do take a look at our post-graduate certificate in Social Innovation Management – The program runs twice a year with a 5-month online phase and a 4-month immersion phase in one of the global hubs for Social Innovation, in Nairobi (Kenya), Bengaluru (India) or Sau Paulo (Brazil).

You can join the program if you are ready to take a leap towards a new career but also if you already have a job and you are looking for a way to reframe it and re-energize your social impact at work.

Feel free to ask me also any questions directly at geraldinehepp@amaniinstitute.org – happy to support you in finding your next steps!


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