4 leadership lessons from a successful volunteer event

How can you achieve amazing results as a leader while confronting a big fear? How can you motivate people without formal authority? Volunteering is a great opportunity to practice skills in a safe environment, and this experience reminded me how much there is to gain from this.

I recently organised an Open house event through Toastmasters, to give guests a taste of what it is about and recruit new members. As someone who has always had a fear of people not showing up, this was way out of my comfort zone – and yet it ended up being a raging success with a record-breaking 100 attendees (and 10 new members), winning praise for our club and a district award.

1. Be a good follower

The President of my club put out a goal of 100 RSVPs. At that point I didn’t think it was possible, but I bought into it and put in the action to make it happen, and gradually as we built momentum I started to believe it was possible. There was a point where becoming a good follower shifted into being a better leader as I translated that vision into my own and started to engage other members and guests in making it a reality. This is the power of followership.

2. Connect with your ‘why’

As Simon Sinek says, first start with why. At the beginning of the project, I took the time to reflect on what success would look like and why I was excited about that – which definitely paid dividends.

I love our club and as soon as I visited it I knew I had found my home. There was no need for me to experience other clubs because the people, the encouraging and genuine environment and the quality of speaking and leadership was high and palpable.

My why was to get a huge crowd to experience this and if that was what they were looking for too, they would join our club. This drove me to take action and also helped me paint a picture of what the night would be like for guests and members, even though I was scared no one would turn up. And they did!

3. Look for people’s strengths and see how you can amplify them

Organising this event without a strong team around me was not an option – for the success of the event and because of the demands of my role at work. This seems obvious but as someone who is very driven, and sometimes perfectionistic, it would be easy for me to step in and do too much. After some initial planning and a call with a trusted peer to get clear on the approach I built a team and started delegating.

I was lucky to have a President, committee and 40 members to choose from – many of whom are growth-oriented high achievers. However, I knew that if I handed out jobs I didn’t want to do I wouldn’t get commitment, especially being volunteer work.

In the One Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard tells us to ‘catch people in the act of doing something right’ and I reflected on what I had observed in the meetings and used my intuition to select people for each role: who would do it well and who would grow from the experience.

I also thought about the purpose of the event and the Toastmasters values which I share – integrity (which to me is a lot about following through on what you say you will), service and excellence. Who ‘got’ what the event and we as a club are about and showed enthusiasm? Who could I count on? I felt so proud to see the speakers and every single person on the event team stepped up and did an amazing job.

4. Take time to recover and reflect

When I first started planning the event I underestimated quite how big it would be. I put my hand up to do 2 workshops the following day. If there was one thing I would do differently it would be to anticipate that it would be a massive event and give myself time to celebrate and recover from that for a day at least. This is a key to resilience and sustainable performance.

Lastly I recommend a reflection practice after any event which takes you out of comfort zone (more on reflection here). Take time to reflect and write down what well and what you learned, and share that with others to embed the learning for you and the team, and pay it forward.

You may have a busy role with lots of opportunities to develop, but if you are looking to accelerate your development and learn in a different environment, volunteering can be a great way to do that. With a team that is not being paid, you have to put even more attention into ‘what’s in it for me’ and inspiring people with your vision. And I will certainly be taking that back to my day job.

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