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Want to Learn Leadership? Lead Volunteers!

Volunteering has a lot of benefits, regardless of what organisation you decide to give your free time to. Today I want to talk about leadership and leading volunteer teams, because the experience of doing it is different than at your job.

Leading employees is a piece of cake compared to leading volunteers, and the reason is obvious. Employees have to stick with you; you are their boss. They get paid to follow you. Volunteers, on the other hand, are not. If they are not happy, they can leave at any time without any consequences. A wrong move is enough to ruin a whole project. You are an elephant in a porcelain boutique at any time.

I have been a volunteer for the past seven years, and in non-profits you don’t have to pay your dues. If you feel ready to lead, there is a team for you to lead right away. I have been leading volunteers for the past five years, and I often think about how much it helped me grow.

I find good leadership to be more and more important in a world where people trash their companies after leaving, where stories about start-ups not embracing a 24/7 culture are rare, and in a world where people need articles like this to encourage them to get enough sleep. This is where good leadership is important, if you want your team to stay motivated, not leave you, and work towards the same vision as you have.

I think many could learn from people who led volunteers. I believe that’s a great place to learn leadership. If you can successfully lead volunteers, you can lead anyone.

Many experts believe there are no rules to leadership; that leadership is different from organization to organization. And while I partially agree, I also believe the things below are so important that compromising should not be an option.

Let people do what they are passionate about

Allowing your team to do what they are passionate about is critical to being happy at work — which is critical to how well employees, as well as volunteers, perform.

Whenever you add something to someone’s job description (or take something away), make sure that person is fine with it. There is a reason why young people are being advised to choose a career path based on their passion, not on their projected income. If you do what you are passionate about, you will stick with it when it gets tough.

 Give people the chance to do what they are passionate about.

Give people the chance to do what they are passionate about.

People are unique. Treat them accordingly!

People need unique career paths. Unfortunately, in many companies, career paths are set for you before you even join. People look better during interviews if they ask questions about their projected career path. It means they want to grow and lead. But in this world full of musicians, we often forget that we need people who can carry the instruments. Not wanting to lead, or not having ambitions for it, is a career choice as well. It helps some people focus on what they are passionate about. If leadership is not part of that, that’s okay.

Your job is to define a unique career path for your team. It is not a one-size-fits-all. Paying for all your employees to participate at a conference every year might be a great perk for some, but not for all. Instead, figure out what is the best growth approach for every individual. Once you figure that out, cater to their needs and make sure to follow up. By always staying in the loop, you know (and they know) that you care about them. Space and resources for career growth are by far the most important perk you can offer.

The organization must serve the individual

If you want to keep your team motivated, you need to find a way to help them achieve their goals through the work they do. Some volunteers join a cause because they want to learn something new. Others do it because they want to expand their network or because they want to learn to lead. Whatever their goal is, your job as a leader is to facilitate self-expression.

Combine this with your knowledge of their passions. Do they want to lead? Put them in charge of projects. Do they want to make friends? Ask them to be in charge of the monthly pub crawl. Do they want to be better at public speaking? Give them space to pitch ideas in front of the whole team. The sweet spot is to find the place where their personal goals and passions meet.

Never blame or shame. Mistakes happen.

 Stay away from blaming your team for their mistakes. It might cost you their engagement.

Stay away from blaming your team for their mistakes. It might cost you their engagement.

If you come to work every day being afraid to be put to shame, you will never do your best work. Your creativity will suffer, and so will the productivity and your loyalty towards the company. If you want to be in charge of people who do the best work of their life, you need to give them space and allow them to make mistakes.

We all learn from our own failures. It is the best and most effective way of learning. It is natural. When we were kids, our parents told us not to play with fire, not to talk to strangers, to eat only after washing our hands, and to be careful when climbing a tree. But we never cared until we fell three meters down or burned ourselves. We are prone to make mistakes – that’s how we learn. Learning how to tackle employees failures without taking it out on them is a critical part of a leader’s playbook.

Set the bar high

This might be counterintuitive, considering you are working with people in their spare time. Why would they want responsibility? It took me years to understand. The secret sauce to successful projects is to set the bar high, because volunteers will only rise to the level of your expectations. You will often be surprised at the results.

Steve Jobs was incredible at making people feel that anything is possible. Develop a whole new product at NExT in 18 months? Possible. Disrupting the music industry with iTunes & the iPod? Possible. Creating a computer that fits into an envelope? Possible. Everything was possible for him. I think we all agree that the world would look different today, had he not pushed all his teams to the limits.

Learn to react accordingly

When working with volunteers, you often collaborate on a project-basis. During these projects, at different stages, volunteers experience different feelings.

 Example of a project and its different stages

Example of a project and its different stages

Projects are unique, but the image above is just an example of what a volunteer might feel during one. Leaders have a role at each stage, not only when things are shining and you need to stand out as this great-leader-who-made-it-all-happen. Let’s run through all these stages:

This is going to be awesome

During this stage you want to raise the excitement level by sharing your vision. Volunteers will only work for good leaders. This is where they usually pick up on your style and figure out if you two are going to work well together. If they get your vision, they will work for you with blood, sweat, and tears. This is where you make them feel excited and lucky enough to be working with you.

This is hard

Once the honeymoon is over, things are going to go south. Volunteers start understanding how much hard work it is needed — hard work in their spare time they are not paid for. This is where you, as a leader, need to keep them connected to the vision, to increase their motivation. You all signed up to it at the beginning of the project. The vision is what keeps volunteers motivated during the hard times.

I am terrible

No, they are not terrible. You need to make sure they still work on what they are passionate about, and have not been moved around and given other responsibilities than the ones they have signed up for. This is where you, as a leader, need to motivate, praise, and encourage your team, to keep them afloat until the next phase. This is the toughest part. This is where most volunteers drop off. If you learn to tackle this properly, you have done your homework well.

This is the phase during which leaders need to be most visible. This is where volunteers need their leader to lead. This is where you lead by example and prove to them that you are all pulling in the same direction.

 Work gets tough sometimes. That's when you jump in!

Work gets tough sometimes. That’s when you jump in!

I will figure this out

Once volunteers passed the previous phase, the probability of them sticking with the project until the end is high. Most marriages end between when children are born and when they move out. That is the toughest part. If a couple is able to pull it off and still be happily married on the other side, they are likely to keep going. It is the same with volunteers and projects. If you have managed to keep them during the tougher phases of a project, they will stick with you until the end.

Done. That was awesome!

This is the part of a project when you need to be least visible. As a leader, you always take the blame for failures and you always give credit for success. This is part of your job description, as a leader of volunteers or employees.

 Great leaders always take the blame and always give the credit away.

Great leaders always take the blame and always give the credit away.

The only moment when you should be visible during this stage is when you give appreciation and thank your team; with handwritten notes, not with emails or Slack messages. Let your team take the credit, praise them, and make them feel important. A leader is never more valuable than the sum of the team members he leads. Print it and put it on your wall. Dream it. This is so important. You might be a great person, a visionary, or a genius — but without your team, you would never be able to put a dent in the universe.

What to take from here?

Leading volunteers and employees is not the same. I know that being in charge of volunteers taught me a lot. But we all have our own style. I am sure Steve Jobs was not too lavish with praise for his team, but he was good at laying down a vision and making people want to follow it. For him, it was enough. That was his style.

But people like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk are not born every day. You are probably not one of them, and neither am I. The guidelines above are the ones that worked for me and the teams that I led and still lead. Maybe something else will work for you.

I believe that good leadership requires practice. You need to make your own mistakes to learn. Few companies will gamble on you if you don’t have previous experience. So how are you supposed to get the experience? After leading volunteers for several years now, and going together with them through successful and less successful projects, I can recommend leading volunteers as a magnificent learning experience. It is something you can jump into straight away and earn a lot of experience that can take double the time to learn in the business world.