This is How I Manage – With Gillian Bergeron

Every issue of 63 Magazine, we will take a look at the skills that every organizer needs and ask experts exactly how they do it. For this issue, we talked to Gillian Bergeron about how she manages.

Gillian currently serves as the director of field operations at Nextdoor, the social network for neighborhoods, from their San Francisco, California headquarters. Her team of local staff use many of the same community organizing tactics political organizers use, to help Nextdoor grow throughout the United States and abroad.

Like many energetic and talented individuals who got their start in politics in 2008, Gillian didn’t even know what organizing was until then-Senator Obama decided to run for president. Captured by the energy surrounding his campaign, Gillian knew she liked talking to people and that she really, really wanted to be a part of this movement. She became an organizer for Obama’s South Carolina primary campaign in April 2007. There she would meet Kevin Puleo, her regional field director and her first “real” boss. As her mentor, Kevin taught Gillian on day one that, “trust is the most important thing on a campaign.” Using this advice as her guide, Gillian would continue to gain new responsibilities and higher field leadership roles for the next six years she organized for President Obama.

Now at Nextdoor, she uses skills developed through political organizing to build a vast community for a tech start-up with no political involvement. Organizing instilled Gillian with confidence and the ability to work with and motivate many types of people—skills she would need to build a career outside of politics.

Gillian knows that organizing taught her how to be an amazing manager and gave her skills that reached beyond her work. Being a good manager has helped her become a better listener, a better communicator, and a more measured and thoughtful person. Smart managing has helped make much of her successes possible. This is how she does it.

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My name is: Gillian Bergeron and this is how I: MANAGE!

I approach managing by: Balancing being liked and being respected (as best as I can). When I was younger, I cared a lot more about being liked. Now it’s reversed.

Never ignore the good or the bad, be honest and leave no one behind (or under the bus).

I know I’ve been a good manager when: Really good people want to work with me again. Former volunteers and organizers who are in school, relationships, (normal) jobs, or foreign lands have left those things behind for awhile to come work for me.

A successful relationship with someone I manage is about mutual respect, honesty, clearly setting expectations, communication and showing some hustle.

When I realized this, I became a better manager: I used to feel the most important role of a manager was to be an advocate for their team. While that is a very crucial part of the job, it’s only half the battle.

Ultimately, being a good manager does mean advocating for your team and ensuring they have the tools and training they need to be successful. But, it also means pushing your team to do more and to do better—never letting them settle and encouraging them to take risks.

To prepare for check-ins with someone I manage: I ask them to set the agenda, but I show up ready with anything else we should cover and any specific flags. I always celebrate the good, but know this check-in time is about feedback and improvement. When someone says their turf is in good shape, I dive into the data with them and ask a lot of questions. You should trust your team, but it’s also important to confirm that you two are on the same page about what “good shape” means.

I want specific updates on progress and goals and what’s next. The more prepared you are, the more confident I am that you’re on top of things and that I should leave you alone to continue killing it.

The best advice I’ve ever received on managing was: Never ask someone who works for you to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. And if it’s their first time doing the thing—ie: knocking a door or calling a voter—you should be right there with them, leading by example.

Organizers should invest time into being a good manager because: Learning to be a (good) manager makes you a better organizer because managing staff is very similar to managing volunteers. It’ll make you better at what you do.

It’s also so fun. And it pushes you to your limits—usually in a good way— because you have a responsibility to these great people you recruited and trained. Lastly, no one should be managing organizers if they haven’t been an organizer—that is insane. Basically organizers need to become good managers to make sure a bunch of jerks aren’t in charge.

If you have to have a difficult conversation as a manager, you should know: No one likes having these conversations, but they are part of the deal. First of all, you need to have a crystal clear conversation about what is and is not working and confirm they still want to do the role. If they do, you then come up with a time-bound, goal-oriented improvement plan with daily or weekly benchmarks.

If things don’t improve, it’s just not a good fit. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault—this person just may not be meant to do this work. When you think about how hard the work we do is, it’s not that surprising. When this happens, don’t drag out the inevitable—you won’t be doing them, their volunteers, or yourself any favors.

My top three tips for organizers who want to be better managers are:

  • Be human. Compassion and understanding go a long way in this line of work. Understandably, we get cranky or hangry or homesick and sometimes forget our teammates may be in a similar place. And it’s okay that your volunteers saw you cry last week.
  • Pay attention. If you have a manager who has inspired you, motivated you, made you better—reflect on what it was about their management style that really brought out the best in you. And then build upon that, thinking through what would have made you even better, and try it with your team.
  • Train, train, train. This goes both ways. You should seek out management trainings and opportunities. You also need to learn how to train the hell out of your team—then do it well and often. It’s worth the time and energy to get it right and will make your job much, much easier.

 

My closing advice for organizers is:

  • Bask in any moments of sanity you can get. I realize for many of you right now, this means getting a 14-minute nap in the backseat of your car in a Target parking lot or two solo runs each day to Starbucks. That’s fine.
  • Test everything. Don’t assume a tactic that worked well in your rural Midwestern turf on the campaign trail is going to fly in Seattle when you try it on a legislative race. And even if that tactic does work in Seattle—always assume it can be done better and smarter. Don’t settle.
  • Live and die by the data. Well, first make sure the data is good. Then, live and die by the data.

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