June 22, 2007

Trading Places

I spent today at an all-day conference on elder abuse, part of my volunteer job.

In this volunteer role, I am at the absolute bottom of the pecking order. I am the least experienced of maybe three hundred volunteers. I have a boss, who reports to a series of three managers. The three managers report to a local Director. The local Director reports to the Executive Director, who runs our volunteer program for the entire State of Washington.

When you spend a decade in a leadership position, you view the world one way.

When you are number three hundred out of three hundred, you view the world differently.

In one job, you listen to feedback, you gain consensus, you demonstrate vision, and you make decisions.

When you're number three hundred out of three hundred, you see all the ways things could be different, better. But you're an ant, your job is to move your small piece of soil into place, in harmony with all of the other ants.

You look at the relationships between your leaders. You notice that one Director sits at a table with most of the managers, while another manager sits by herself, halfway across the room. You notice that your Director and the Executive Director never talk, they sit on opposite ends of the conference room. Your managers are constantly leaving the meeting to take cell phone calls. Your co-workers do not exhibit "cell phone" behavior. Some co-workers have interesting comments about the dynamics between your leaders.

When you're number three hundred, you read too much into subtle gestures offered by management. Without the appropriate context or information, you make assumptions.

It would be interesting to have our multichannel leaders spend time in volunteer programs, where they are number three hundred out of three hundred. There are many lessons to be learned at the bottom of the pile, lessons that can be applied to leadership.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:53 AM

    Community service doesn't always humble. Many people "forced" to do it, by court, by company policy or peer pressure, college credits, or even "to look good on the resume", are rarely changed by experience and in some ways make the experience worse for people they are around, be it other volunteers or the people you are working to help. Thought that is important to point out as many people think if you require it as college requirement or punishment of a crime that it will help better the person. It usually doesn't.
    Another factor isn't so much of being one of three hundred as much as sometimes there is a danger of overwhelming since of futility. In the business world you set benchmarks and goals, and easily reached objectives. Depending on the type of project, most community service require a lifetime commitment to maintain and active participation from people you are trying to help. Consider, as part of a neighborhood cleanup in the city a "block garden" was created on an abandoned property, cleaned up and set as a nice area for residents to go. Within 2 months the property was taken over by dealers and homeless addicts, and within 4 months was no longer recognizable as a garden.
    In the midst of so much good done by volunteers, stories like that are frustrating and drive many good volunteers away.
    Personally I find working with children, the most rewarding, and yes, as a volunteer you are limited in what you can do by the structure of the organization, but a good volunteer always finds ways of bending the rules or doing "extra" above and beyond what is required just as if you are working in the business world at a mid-level.


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