TEDxCPWI have learned more about leadership leading volunteer teams in the last two years than I learned in my 20 year corporate career.  Leading volunteer teams has been a humbling experience for me. All CEO’s (or any leader) can benefit from this experience as the workplaces of the future move from command and control hierarchies to networks of alliances within and outside organizations.  The experience of leading volunteers created powerful paradigm shifts for me. These shifts are critical to engaging globally dispersed work forces, virtual teams, and millennials in what has become a 24/7 work culture in danger of burnout. I share a blog post I recently wrote for the TEDxblog on five paradigm shifts.

Here’s a quick personal story to illustrate the point.  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 for the non-profit, 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!

1)  Organizations must serve individuals – For true engagement to happen, I needed to find a way to help people achieve their personal goals through the team.  Most 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.  We need to shift the paradigm most of us have in corporate America – employees are here to serve the organization and money is the currency of the exchange. The new paradigm is that organizations must also serve individuals – personal self-expression is the currency of the exchange.  The best way to engage people is to serve their personal needs.

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.  There is a great quote from Simon Sinek’s TEDTalk “If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”

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 as it allowed people to be open enough to share their weaknesses.  As we discovered complementary skills each team member felt valued and “found their place of contribution”.  Most organizations have predefined career paths. How can organizations benefit from this more flexible and personalized mindset of job and career planning? Leaders need to help each person articulate and navigate their unique path of contribution and growth.

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 small 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 widen my own perspective – to look 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.  Our job as leaders is to discover the special talents of others by widening our own perspective.

5)  Failure Happens. Don’t Shame. Don’t Blame. Just Grow – In much of corporate America, failure is still associated with shame. I learned that when I shifted my mindset to “Failure happens. Don’t shame. Don’t blame” I was able to be more agile.  Without 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 dropped out 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.  I had to stop and 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 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. I learned how to let people fail without letting them be failures. I was humbled. I 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 created important paradigm shifts for me as a leader and that surely is an idea worth spreading.

If this resonated for you, please comment, share and subscribe to my blog.

Additional Resources:

TEDx Blog Post – and other great resources on TEDx blog

To Unleash Employee Engagement – Make It Personal

Leadership Lessons in how to Fail Well

TEDx Speaker and Author Bertice Berry’s post on our TEDx Event

Henna Inam - Professional Photo - ColorThis article was written by Henna Inam, executive coach, speaker, and consultant.  She works with women to help them realize their potential to be authentic, transformational leaders. They create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth, and engagement. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, UPS, Nestle, J&J, and others who know female leadership talent is good for business. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here. Connect on Twitter @hennainam.