TEDxCentennialParkWomen — Photo by lorikay Photography
In the last two years, I have learned more about leadership through leading groups of volunteers than during my entire 20-year corporate career. Leading volunteer teams is a humbling experience from which any leader can benefit. As the workplaces of the future move from command and control hierarchies to networks of alliances within and outside organizations, these sort of experiences help us develop the traits each of us need to learn to lead in the future.
On Dec 1, I was part of an all-volunteer team that pulled off a TEDxWomen event called TEDxCentennialParkWomen. Within three months, we did our legal set-up, curated nine amazing speakers, found sponsors, venue, created a website, brand identity, marketing, PR, social media platforms, concluding with our inaugural event launch with about 100 people participating. We didn’t charge for tickets. Team members had not worked together before. They had full-time jobs, businesses, families. Most of our meetings were virtual. No one was paid to do anything. Were we all on drugs? If so, I’ll bet some companies want that prescription!
Here are the 5 leadership lessons I learned from this experience:
1) Organizations must serve individuals – For true engagement to happen, leaders must find a way to help people achieve their personal goals through the organization. Some volunteers jumped in because they saw the opportunity to express their own beliefs through our mission (“to educate, inspire, and empower women in all aspects of their lives”). Some jumped in because they saw this as a way to learn new skills, to express their strengths, to get exposure, to make new friends, connections, and contacts. Not everyone’s motivation was the same. I needed to understand each individual’s motivation and find a way for the organization to fulfill it. This is a flip of the assumption I had in corporate America: People (including me) are here to serve the organization. We need both for engagement to happen.
2) Resourcefulness is more important than resources – In my corporate career, projects not assigned resources didn’t get done. We spent a lot of time fighting for and allocating resources. On my volunteer team, we had no resources when we started. No money in the bank. No full-time employee hours assigned. No credibility of a past event. What we had was an engaged, resourceful team with a common mission to create a great event.
3) Your job is where you contribute best – We aligned people’s roles based on what they did best and were most inspired to do. We had a list of work to be done (e.g. curate speakers, get sponsors, project management, branding). We asked three questions of each volunteer: 1) What do you do best? 2) Where are you inspired to make the biggest contribution? 3) In what role could you be really dangerous? The last one was important because it allowed people to be open enough to share their weaknesses. We discovered complementary skills each team member felt valued and “found their place of contribution.” How can organizations benefit from this more flexible and personalized mindset of job and career planning?
4) Everyone has something to contribute – In my corporate career it was easy for me to write off people who didn’t fit within the neatly-defined window of “perfect performance” for the role that I had created for them. In volunteer roles, I didn’t exactly have a pipeline of highly paid, “perfect” talent to choose from. One person I thought would be great for their role turned out to not have that skill set. I learned to develop a wider window. I learned to look deeper, past the “imperfections,” to discover people’s special talents. I learned that this person had a few special talents that were critical that we hadn’t even anticipated. I learned to not limit myself and others by getting stuck in the little window I had created.
5) Failure is inevitable and makes you stronger – In corporate America, failure is still associated with shame. I learned that if as leaders we change our mindset to, “failure happens despite our best laid plans,” it allows us to rebound and be more agile. There is no shame or blame. There is just the learning and the new plan. There were many times of disappointment, challenge and failure. A few of the initial volunteers abandoned ship after the first meeting. Some companies we approached to be sponsors said no. Some friends I asked for help said no. Speakers informed us on the day of the event that they weren’t able to show up on time. Some cash sponsors fell through and we had to pay out of our own pockets. Times like this can be disheartening. My usual corporate pep-talk, “Oh well, that’s what they pay you the big bucks for!” didn’t exactly work. At that point, I had to ask myself, “Why am I doing this again?” I had to reconnect with the “why” within myself. It was for the mission I believed in. It was for the team I had come to love. It was for the opportunity to share ideas I believed in that were worth spreading. It was also probably for the ego. And it was definitely to show all the people who had said “no” what we could get done! I became more resilient. I became more willing to use whatever emotion I had in service of the goal. I saw everyone rise to the occasion to contribute in ways I had never imagined possible. We became more agile and connected as a team as we faced challenges together. We were humbled by failure. We grew.
Our mission with TEDxCentennialParkWomen was to put speakers on stage and create an experience “to educate, inspire, and empower women in all aspects of our lives.” Our speakers were phenomenal. But more than them, it was the experience of leading this volunteer team that educated, inspired and empowered me. It made me a more humble leader, and that is truly an idea worth spreading.
Written by Henna Inam