Volunteering and Team Leadership

A Facebook group of which I used to be a member was gearing up for a major sports event, so I thought I would share a few thoughts on the difficult task of team leadership…

If I might be so bold – a few thoughts on team leading…

I have over the years seen some awful examples of team leading and, on occasion, made the same mistakes myself. I have no idea what the team leader training involves this time around, but may I offer a few words of advice to those of us who have been asked to team lead or who have aspirations in that direction

The key is in the job title. Team leader. Not team manager. A leader leads from the front, not manages from the rear. We are not the paramilitary wing of the 2017 event! I have seen some terrible team leaders who try to schedule everything down to the last second. They invariably failed and just came across as patronising, condescending, ineffective and out of their depth.

A good team leader know that they have only one real job to do – to keep their team working effectively. This means that you have to make sure your team is happy, feels safe and secure, know that you are constantly monitoring their wellbeing and can deal with any issues they give to you. But it also means that you recognise that they are adults, not children, and are able and willing to make decisions of their own about how best to perform their role.

There should be no member of a team that walks further during a shift than the team leader as you constantly visit each team member to make sure they’re okay. If it’s a long shift, make sure that you rotate individuals around various positions during that time – there is nothing more disheartening to a volunteer than being put somewhere and then left there like a slowly sinking, forgotten boat in the corner of a harbour.

Breaks and refreshment are vital. Loo breaks are up to volunteers to manage themselves, this isn’t an area that benefits from micromanagement, trust me! Be clear in your briefing about this. Make sure the volunteers know what to do about getting water. Food and mid-shift breaks will need a bit of a scheduling effort, but it is my experience that if you tell people how you would like it managed, it generally looks after itself. If you simply tell people that, for example, their positions must remain occupied during breaks and that breaks must be no more than a certain length, so please can they arrange within their local volunteer groups to go in such a way that it happens that way, the vast majority will be glad of the flexibility. It is not necessary to schedule breaks to the minute. That just causes resentment. On your first walk-around, check that each group has sorted this out. If not, remind them to.

2017, like all big events these days, strives to be as inclusive as possible. It is likely that you will have a few team members with requirements that differ from average. You need to make sure that you identify these right at the beginning of the shift and without patronising the volunteers, make allowances and adjust processes to make sure that they get the same enjoyable experience everyone else does. Remember that disabilities are not limited to mobility issues. It’s a lot more complex than that.

The key to dealing with this well as a team leader is the briefing at the beginning. This is your chance to set the tone for the shift and to give the team some confidence that you know what you’re doing and that you have their welfare foremost in your mind. Be clear about their roles, gather any exception information like special needs or requirements, tell them what you will be doing and how they can get in touch with you. Really emphasise that your job is to look after them and that they are to call you if they have any problems.

A distant or invisible team leader is of no use whatsoever. Tell them that you plan to visit them several times during the shift. Tell them what your plan is to rotate them around your areas. But also tell them that from time to time, things don’t go to plan and since we are dealing with the Great British Public, we should also expect the unexpected.Above all, don’t micromanage! If you’re doing that, it means you’re not focussed on being a team leader. Your job isn’t to do your volunteers job, it’s to make sure that they are happy doing the job they signed-up to.

Things won’t always go smoothly. Don’t expect it to. But don’t panic when your carefully-constructed mental picture of how your shift will run goes right out of the window. Just prioritise and deal with it, delegating if necessary (upwards is usually the best way). But never lose sight of what your team’s needs are.

Too many people who have been professional managers in their work life sign up to be team leaders thinking that it is going to be the same. It isn’t. There are far too many really bad managers out there in the commercial world who are focussed on the company not on their team. A volunteer team leader’s focus has to be the other way around and the transition from one to the other is never easy. (Of course, if you’re a good commercial manager, it will be seamless because you’re doing it right in the first place).

By the same token, you will get the occasional nightmare volunteer. The professional complainer, the star-struck selfie addict, the wannabe team leader that “knows better than you”, the rampant media whore – they come in all shapes and sizes. Sadly, they can be far more time-consuming to deal with than their contribution warrants. But don’t forget that you have the final say. If they are disrupting your team, send them home. Never be afraid to do that.

So, in summary: Be clear in your own mind what your job is. Brief well but keep it light. Manage expectations and be clear about exceptions. Be positive and up-beat, make sure that your team knows you want them to have a good time and double, triple-check that they know how to find you at any time. Tell them you want to know about any issues immediately and that after the shift is too late to sort out a problem. And most of all, be visible to everyone on your team, always.

This seemed to go down quite well with the group membership. One asked about volunteering itself, to which I responded..

I could probably write a PhD dissertation on an analysis of volunteer motivation! 

Over the years working with teams of volunteers on the Olympic Park and as part of Team London, I have come across so many different types of people and different styles of working as volunteers. I listed what I consider to be the worst attributes above in the nightmare volunteers bit – and I have known (and fallen out with!) examples of each.

The best ones are the opposite of those. The best ones are the ones that know that it is important that their efforts contribute to a better experience for other people rather than themselves, who get their reward from seeing someone else’s day improved through their efforts rather than any direct glory for themselves, who know that they are a small part of a big team and it’s how the whole team works together that makes the difference.

The best volunteers adapt and change to dynamic circumstances rather than let things fall apart around them but at the same time when something isn’t going right are not afraid to ask for advice or assistance. The best volunteers are those that take time before working on an event to familiarise themselves with where they’re going to be working, have read and re-read their training notes and who listen to their pre-shift briefings. Those people hit the ground running and do a great job right from the first shift.

I don’t know how others feel about new volunteering experiences, but I always get very nervous before starting something new, and the bigger the role or event the worse that is. I still get twitchy thinking about the Lumiére event from early last year. I always find that spending a few hours in Wikipedia or looking online at maps or browsing through organisers’ web sites and so on is time very well spent. 

A couple of the volunteers I work with regularly carry little notebooks with them, and this is a brilliant idea. A lady I’m working with on Monday does this. In those notebooks they put all the stuff that caught their eye in their preparation, any key briefing points for that day and interesting or relevant stuff that occurs during their shift. That level of preparation means that they are already tuned-into what they need for their day so they can enjoy it all the more. I certainly plan to do that for these athletics events. 

Give me ten well-prepared, adaptable and properly-motivated volunteers any day over a hundred “alpha volunteers” who have been doing it for years and “know best”. If a volunteer is doing their role looking for praise, applause, attention or to stalk some celebrity somewhere, then they need to re-examine their motivation. Because people like that drag an event down when they should be building it up. I have no time at all for “queen bee” volunteers who think they are the most important person there.

I suppose it’s about perspective. Yes, we’re all volunteers because we get something out of it. Of course we are, that’s perfectly normal and right. If that something is the satisfaction of being a valuable part of something bigger than you, that works as well as it possibly can and that contributes in a positive way to society as a whole and the visiting and watching public in particular then that is absolutely spot-on.

If you’re in it for the glory, then go and be a politician, because volunteering isn’t for you.

Successful volunteering is about getting the small things right. If at the end of a shift you can think of a handful of occasions when someone has headed away from you being grateful and with a smile on their face, or able to do something they didn’t think they could do, then that is a good shift. If someone heads away after you’ve helped them and they’re excited about being here and are sharing your enthusiasm and positivity about their day, then that is a good shift. If people, tired but happy, head home after a busy day and quietly think to themselves “those volunteers were bloody good”, then that is a good shift.

Because it’s about them, not us, in the end.

All, of course, just my opinion! 🙂 

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About Paul Harper
These posts represent the collected thought of Paul Harper. Usually rants, occasionally lucid, always easily ignored. Read, don't read, your call!

One Response to Volunteering and Team Leadership

  1. Melita Godden says:

    A useful read, it’s how everyone can enjoy their day and deliver what they should,

    Melita Godden

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