What If You Treated Everyone Like a Volunteer?

By: Richard H. Axelrod

Four ideas to help you build connections with staff and volunteers, from engagement and change management expert Richard Axelrod.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of your association. Without them, your association could not survive.

Many leaders assume working with volunteers is different from working with employees. If volunteers feel like their voices don't count, if they feel like their time is being wasted, if they feel like what they are doing is unimportant, they quit. But when employees believe they don't count, they first quit in place. Then they leave if they can. In either case, the result is the same: a disengaged, weakened organization.

What would happen if you treated everyone in your organization as if he were a volunteer? What if you treated everyone as if she mattered? Here are four strategies that increase engagement, whether you are working with volunteers, employees, or both.

1. Find out what is important to people and help them achieve their goals. Volunteers are passionate about something. Find out what they are passionate about, and connect them to people who share their passion. Provide resources to help them achieve their goals. Most leaders want people to be passionate about the work of the organization. What if leaders were passionate about employee goals?

You can start with a simple question: "What do you care about at work and why?" You'll be surprised what you learn.

2. Unleash talent by letting people identify and work on issues that are important to them. In one organization I know, when people have an idea for improving the organization, all they have to do is gather like-minded souls and go to work. If what they want to do requires spending money, they develop a proposal for leadership's approval. Try this in your organization, and you'll uncover new talent as employees address issues important to your organization and the people who work there.

3. Make meetings matter. Meetings are where people decide whether to sit on their hands or become engaged. Greg Balestrero, president and CEO of the Project Management Institute, has a laserlike focus when it comes to meetings. He knows if the environment isn't right, then the meeting goes downhill in a heartbeat.

Balestrero doesn't tolerate agendaless meetings that waste time. He makes sure there are skilled facilitators who can create an egalitarian spirit by treating the CEO the same as the lowest-level person in the room, who can open up group discussions and bring them to a conclusion, and who can make sure that every voice counts.

4. Lead with an engagement edge. In my interviews with successful leaders, one thing stands out: They take honesty, transparency, and trust seriously. For these leaders, honesty, transparency, and trust are not motherhood-and-apple-pie statements. They practice them every day. A great example is Paul Borawski, CEO of the American Society for Quality. If you walk the halls at ASQ, you will see a lot of performance data and financial reports. Executives spend two days each quarter in business plan reviews that include financial performance and a lot more.

But transparency does not end with the paid staff. ASQ's 4,000 member-leaders, who are all volunteers, are invited to participate in "ideas to action" sessions. These events, sometimes several days long, provide an opportunity to share ideas and get feedback on the organization's vision and strategy, performance indicators, and other issues.

Borawski trusts that when people have honest information, when they get straight talk from their leaders, they will do the right thing.

Once you start using these strategies, you won't want to stop.

Richard H. Axelrod is a founder and principal in the Axelrod Group in Wilmette, Illinois. He is the author of Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations and coauthor of You Don't Have to Do It Alone. He can be reached at www.axelrodgroup.com.