At the time of this interview, Nicole Bohannon was the Global Education Managing Director at the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area. She graduated from the George Washington University with a BA in International Relations and Affairs with concentrations in Latin America and Europe & Eurasia. Prior to joining the United Nations Association, she worked on the Patrick Murphy for Senate Campaign, and held internships at the American Security Project, Atlantic Council, and Blue Star Strategies to name a few. We connected with her to discuss her professional background and some of the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Tell me a little bit about your background. What led you to where you are today?
I was born and raised in DC, so I’ve been interested in politics since birth. My parents actually met while working at the Democratic National Committee! However, I grew up with my parents telling me that how you give back to your community is beyond the political. They encouraged me to think about the common goals we all have and use that to help others in the community. I always knew that I wanted to give back, and that became a huge grounding value in my life. I continue to ask myself: how can I try to create the most impact with all of the opportunities that I’ve been given?
I went to undergrad at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and I worked the entire time I was there – at nonprofits, consulting firms, and think tanks. These experiences really helped me to realize how many different avenues you can take to make an impact. It also taught me how to think more critically about where I want to go and the skills that I need to get there. Regardless of where I worked, my own skill development was the most important key to success. What was I naturally good at? What could I bring to the table?
My first job after graduating was as a finance assistant on a Democratic senatorial campaign in Florida. I was nervous about moving to a new state and for my first real political experience. When I made this decision, I just remembered advice from my mom: “If you get any political campaign experience, you will come out of it learning so much more about yourself and what you care about.” Spoiler alert: she was right. I quickly learned that working on campaigns can be some of the most chaotic and sometimes toxic experiences you can have, but you’ll also learn what you’re like when you’re in a really stressful situation.
What do you consider to be your very first job – whether it’s an internship or paid job – and what did you learn?
I had my first internship when I was fifteen years old. When I was twelve, I saw the movie All the President’s Men for the first time. Seeing two reporters bringing down the president inspired me to become a journalist. I started to do writing and journalism workshops, and worked at my school newspaper, eventually becoming the editor-in-chief.
I knew I wanted more journalism experience, so when I was fifteen, I met with a family friend, Ben Eisler, who worked as a reporter for The New Republic. I pitched him the idea of bringing me on as a summer intern. Looking back, I was probably very aggressive as a fifteen-year-old, but he agreed to let me work with him!
Every morning, I showed up at his office in downtown Washington, DC at 8:45. I wasn’t an official intern or employee, so Ben had to come down to get me from the lobby every morning. This was the first time I was around people who were actually being paid to do something I loved. I remember sitting in on editorial round tables, which was probably a routine weekly check in, but I thought it was amazing. I learned how to pitch a story and how to think about it in so many different ways: why is this story important? What perspectives are we missing? What perspective does this person bring? So much of what I learned – the collaborative process, working with others, looking at things from different perspectives – I still use in my work today.
While I loved the writing and editing experience, I found out that I ultimately didn’t want to become a journalist. I still had so much passion for certain issues, but I had to figure out how I wanted to concentrate and direct it in a different way.
I still remember this experience when I’m working with students and interns in my current job, too. I always tell them: the worst thing someone can say is no. If someone tells you no, the world isn’t going to end, you just have to take it in and figure out what to do next. Don’t overthink it; whatever someone’s answer is, you’re still going to move forward one way or another.
You’re now the Global Education Managing Director at the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area. Tell me more about this role.
Moving from that campaign job to my current role was a natural transition. During the campaign, I learned that there are two types of people: those who thought that new people had to suffer the same kind of difficulties that they experienced, and people who wanted to make it better than they had it. I learned that I was part of the second group.
I did Model UN in high school and college, so I know how important these programs can be for students. Our current programs serve 1100 students in DC, and just over 30% of our students are from Title 1 schools. (In the US, Title 1 is a federal designation that is tied to federal funds going to schools that have a higher percentage of students from at-risk backgrounds. These funds go to a number of programs, including after school activities, meals, etc.) Knowing this, it’s important to understand where students are coming from and how they want to learn. Many young students aren’t going to sit and listen to a lecture, so we’re able to create really experiential programs for them to learn about global issues.
It’s so incredible to see all of the work these students do. Some people think that topics like human trafficking are too complicated for high school students to understand and debate, so it’s important for us to not only know the topics really well, but be able to create resources and communicate information into ways that younger people can understand. And they do! Once they’re given a responsibility to understand and advocate for something, they’ll get really involved in the work.
Throughout this work, I’ve still remained true to my grounding values: to use my privilege to give back to the community. When I’m working, I try to see things both in my light self (the positive things I do or bring) and the shadow self (areas where my work might bring down my overall goal.) For example, I want to have more students and schools involved in our programs, but I don’t want to take away support from those that we already work with. I don’t want to be a mile wide and an inch deep. I always want to make sure I’m making a positive difference, while doing the least harm possible.
What advice do you have for managing others?
Right now, I’m basically in middle management in my office; I’m managing my own team, but also managing my own director and organization leaders. As a manager now, I have a good understanding of what I’m good at and what may be lacking a bit. When I’m hiring and building a team, I know the skills and qualities that I really want in the people around me.
My first management experience was (again!) when I was fifteen. I started doing Model UN because all of my friends were doing it, but I quickly fell in love with it. I ended up being the Secretary-General, which meant that I basically organized a whole Model UN conference. I set up catering, made sure people registered on time, trained my club team members to run committees, and did so many other tasks to manage the event.
Especially in that experience, but even as an intern in college, I was building management skills. Rather than standing out in my intern groups by competing and putting other people down, I wanted to build others up so that we all looked great. Being an intern helped me to work with others, but also taught me a lot about managing up – you have to understand your superiors and figure out how you can learn and grow without adding more to their plates.
What is managing up? How can it be helpful to career development?
I see managing up in two ways: helping your manager, while also creating opportunities for your own growth, and making sure that the people you manage and the people who manage you are staying on track with goals and deadlines.
The key to the first part of managing up is being prepared. During my internship at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in DC, I was organizing a weekly newsletter, highlighting our work and current events in Europe, but I really wanted to get more involved in the events we put on. Step one of my plan was to do the work: make sure I was completing everything that was assigned to me as best as I could. Then, step two was to ask for more work.
When I was ready to ask my boss for more work, I was very specific about the work I wanted to do. I knew I had specific skills to help, and I was ready to learn more. Rather than asking “what would you like me to do now?” which would create more work for my boss, I offered more help and a specific solution, which didn’t cost them as much time and gave me even more valuable experience.
My work on the campaign was my most difficult experience with the other side of managing up. On campaigns, you have to be aware of hierarchy, and as a Finance Assistant, I was at the bottom. There was a lot of work to do, so my “managing up” was less about asking for tasks, but more about keeping my boss on track and fitting into the team structure.
As a Finance Assistant, one of my main responsibilities was to make sure that our candidate was doing his call time, which is when he spoke with potential donors to raise money. This was really difficult and I had to have a good understanding of my boss and his motivations. I also had to know when and how to stand my ground. He would sometimes do other things to avoid doing his call time, and even though I was at first intimidated by telling him what to do, keeping him and the team on track eventually led to us having a really trusting relationship.
Overall, the real key to managing up is that there’s no single right way to do it. As you keep practicing, you’ll develop trust and a gut feeling after a while for each situation.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
Firstly, no one thinks about you as much as you do. This helps me get out of my own insecurities. I think about it two ways: the first is to remind myself to always advocate for myself. You can’t assume other people know what you’re thinking or want you want, so you have to advocate and be explicit with what you want. It also helps in difficult situations, too: this reminds me that most decisions, especially in professional settings, aren’t personal.
The second piece of advice I always come back to came from my mom when we lost the election in 2016. It felt like we lost twice; we lost our own senatorial election, but our party also lost the presidential race, and by that point we had been coordinating with them daily, so it was an extra blow. After we lost, my mom gave me advice that, looking back, definitely makes sense. She said that there are three things that should happen to everyone: they should lose an election, lose a job, and go through a breakup. This is definitely true. Throughout the campaign, I learned so much about how I worked in stressful situations, and as hard as it was to lose the election, I learned so much, too, about moving forward.
It was really hard at first, but I took it one step at a time. I let myself be sad, but then I started making small goals for myself, starting just with really simple things like “cook a meal today.” Eventually, I worked my way back up, moved back to DC and started at the United Nations Association. As hard as that experience was, I definitely learned that I’m able to lose, start over, and succeed despite all of the bumps in the road.
That lesson has also helped me a lot with where we find ourselves now. It’s so important not to overwhelm yourself. Sometimes you just need to focus on what you need to get through right now (like making sure you cook yourself food!) As long as you stay true to yourself and your core values, you’ll make it through to the other side.