July 15th, 2020


Non-profit vs. for-profit leadership

For my birthday I asked my lj friends to ask me questions to inspire future entries. metawidget asked a really interesting question that I had to think on for a while:

I would love to read your reflections on organizing people in different contexts — marriage equality, makerspace, work, wherever… what holds true across your experience and what is more particular than you might expect.

So background: At work, I have managed anywhere between 10 and 60 people. In life, I have lead volunteer organizations. I was the board of a statewide LGBTQ+ organization, president of my company's women's network, my toastmasters club, a SWE section... who knows what else? I'm a leadership junkie. I can't help it, I get sucked in. In 2017 I actually resolved to NOT get involved in group shit and what happened? I was elected president of a makerspace with 400 dues-paying members for two years.

Things that are the same, whether I was middle-managing at work or a president of volunteers:

You plant the flag on the hill It's your job to broadcast the larger vision, whether it's your dream, a senior leader's, or just what the group has decided. You paint a picture of where we should be and help the team find some alignment, then they use their own brains to find the paths there.

You're the shield Work gets done when we can focus on a few things at a time, not worry that this report due at the end of the week is actually needed next month now or there's a new idea we MIGHT do. Senior management gets random whims and requests and needs more reports. Organizations have new little ideas spring up all the time. A good leader maintains consistent trajectory and filters out distractions.

People development In either place, people need to grow. They need stretch assignments, gaps pointed out, opportunities presented, ie "what do you mean you've never seen a fuel indicator test? there's one tomorrow!" You are growing your own replacements so you can move on to another idea, everywhere.

Bugging people Friendly reminders help the world go around. Task lists, recurring meetings, and organized agendas might sound totally boring but whether you're at work or in a volunteer group, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Things that are different

Resource Constraints I used to think a volunteer organization would be really resource-constrained... but that's not really how I'd put it now. It's true that nobody's PAID to do what I say for 40 hours a week. But if the task and vision are interesting enough, and the system is easy to navigate, people join up. Those people are endless! They can walk in off the street, or come in with a friend. You never know who will stride in!

At work, I have ten people working for me and that is it for this year. If we don't have budget to grow, it doesn't matter how interesting my bright ideas are. I have to find time for my group to do it, sacrificing something else, or convince another group it's worth their time. Everything is a sacrifice. No time, energy, or talent comes from the air.

Priorities The priorities are interesting to volunteers, but at the end of the day they'll do whatever they want. So volunteer energy ends up driving what gets done. I was always having to lay that out at the makerspace. As leaders, our job was to survey the energy in the group, then channel/support/amplify that as best we could. But a lot of the time it was riding the waves. Somebody could have an awesome idea for a huge parade next saturday, and if 17 other people stood up and said YES WE'LL MAKE IT HAPPEN, then it might happen! If it was just a vague "we should do this!" idea with no backing, then you just take it in the suggestion box. You can't feel BAD about an idea not happening, because it's just an idea and they all pretty much have equal merit.

Being the boss I'll admit it, I sometimes wonder if I have trouble coming up with what to say in tough conversations because so much of my leadership experience is in volunteer gigs. At work, I try to debate and convince people that a new way of doing something is better. But I've had some managers above me say I need to be more insistent sometimes. It's not a democracy, I'm the boss, we are doing it this way, it's not up for debate. In my non-profits I'm not really anybody's boss, I'm not in charge of the paycheck. I still think collaborative leadership is a more powerful skill that should be used more often, but the ability to throw down the expectation is a skill to have as well, and I haven't had much opportunity to work on it.

Overall, I still tell people that volunteer groups and clubs are an excellent way to grow management skills, especially in the organization/planning/strategy realms. Now that I'm writing this out I should have identified the earlier, so I'd know where my gaps were. I didn't find a lot of other great resources on this topic so if there are any more, I'm open to suggestions. Better late than never.