Sometimes it takes an admirer to find our inner superhero

It’s one thing to subscribe to a theory and quite another to see if happen for real.

That’s why I was so excited to take part in the 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership, an amazing three days of workshops and discussions, with the goal of expanding the national presence of our profession.

For me, the most exciting examples of theory transformed into to practice were shared on Day Two of the Summit, when Rob Jackson convened a breakfast conversation about volunteer managers moving upwards into leadership positions. It’s a cause that Rob has championed for a long time and one that’s been echoed by many voices within the profession.

If you want to increase the influence, respect, and overall credibility of volunteerism and volunteer programs, you need buy-in from the top.  And the best way to attain that buy-in is by taking on those leadership roles yourself.

Here’s the Exciting Real Life Result

It’s already happening. Our breakfast was populated by thoughtful, committed volunteer engagement pros who were all, one way or another, considering or actively moving into larger roles within their organizations.

What was fascinating was that many (if not most) of these participants came to their roles with no intention of becoming the Big Boss. But as they started to advocate for their programs, they realized that progress was not possible unless they expanded their own sphere of influence.

That’s the shift that interests me – that moment when we realize that we’re capable of taking on a role that we may have ruled out.

From our conversation, it seems like there was one particular factor that stood out for supporting that decision to play bigger:

They had Mentors

Our breakfast discussion on leadership at the Summit. That’s CVA Liza Dyer (on the left, far end of the table) sharing with the group. [Photo courtesy of Sue Hawthorne, CVA]

By a mentor, I don’t necessarily mean a leader who formally advises someone junior to them – although certainly that happens, and it’s a valuable relationship.

What I have experienced myself – and heard in this discussion – was a lot of informal mentoring from supervisors and colleagues who see more in us than we recognize in ourselves. It’s these mentors who prepare us for leadership, even when they must give us a gentle push out of the nest.

One breakfast participant even received that nudge in a meeting, when her supervisor asked her – in front of the staff – if she was thinking of becoming Executive Director.  And while perhaps she had not considered the role before being asked, she now takes the question seriously. She sees the value she might bring by leading her nonprofit.

Mentoring Happens when we’re Visible

If you’re feeling discouraged because there’s no one at work to mentor you, take heart: there are other ways to receive this kind of support. The key is to put yourself out there and get to know your colleagues.

I’m thinking of the volunteer managers that I know through my local peer network. Once they step forward to join committees or take a seat on the board, they discover that their colleagues are there to pull them forward. If your community lacks this kind of network, there are national options for engagement, such as participation in AL!VE – or (if you are a CVA) by serving on a CCVA committee.

Look at Liz Salter, who first thought “I’m not cut out for leadership?” when asked to become president of her volunteer managers association.  She may have thought she wasn’t ready, but her talent paved the way for infrastructure changes and greater engagement from the members.

Or look at Barb Sheffer, who makes the time to mentor younger colleagues. There are leaders of volunteers much like Barb in every community, but you will only find them if you reach out and get involved.

One Last Thought

CVA Liza Dyer attended the breakfast. She was mentored by her supervisor, who encouraged Liza to embrace the profession of volunteer engagement and obtain her certification.

Liza observed that we often mistake our comfort zone for our sweet spot, when in fact we’re capable of much, much more. Taking on a more senior role means more headaches – we become the ones fielding complaints, asking for funding, or wrangling with the board, but the reward for embracing those responsibilities is greater influence.  We gain the authority to make positive, lasting changes.

You may legitimately find that your current role is absolutely where you belong and where you’ll stay. But if your goal is to advance your volunteer program, isn’t it worth exploring what holds you back from moving up?  And should you decide to take the leap, there’s plenty of support to get you there.

Ramp up your leadership skills! My Six Principles of Buy-In will boost your influence in any situation. Email me for the handout and worksheet.  – Elisa