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! 🙂 

Truth and Post-truth

Bloody hellfire! – “Truth” – a movie I’ve not come across before, that hubby spotted on the Sky menu and recorded for me. Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett and a host of others for whom my respect has grown enormously. The story about how CBS’s 60 Minutes programme uncovered President George W. Gump’s Texas National Guard scam to get out of serving in Vietnam and how, ultimately, wealth and power corrupted and destroyed the people, including Dan Rather, who tried to tell the story. 

You can always – always – tell when a story has got to me so much, made me so angry, so downright fucking pissed off, that I sit through the whole credits trying to catch my breath and I still need more time. There have been a few movies that have done that in recent years: Inside Job, Spotlight, The Insider, The Big Short, The Imitation Game and Margin Call to name six others. Then, of course, there’s Newsroom and Making a Murderer on tv. 

They are, for me, all about the same thing: disappointment. When people and organisations and systems and even whole countries, just don’t live up to what they could be. They’re all about little people trying to do things right, or correct things that are wrong, and being smashed aside by stronger forces than honesty, truth and natural justice. 

As we enter the post-truth age (a cliché, I know, but ever wonder how it so quickly got labeled as a cliché?) stories like this one really, really resonate. Because these days, when so much power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, they seem almost nostalgic in their innocence.

In “Truth”, Bush and Viacom are the bad guys. But these days, they’re minnows. With the likes of Murdoch, the Koch brothers, assorted Russian asset-thief billionaires like Putin and a few others making all the decisions and choosing what is true and what isn’t, these small stories seem almost insignificant against the global scope and ambitions of the new elite with their new truths.

I really believe that we have to all intents and purposes entered the end of days. The last chances that we ever had to work for the common good have gone. Trump, the ultimate liar and moron’s moron, is about to occupy the second most powerful seat on the planet, and his best friend, master and fellow multibillionaire Vladimir is in the most powerful. 

The media is controlled by a few people whose best interests are served by keeping people like them in place; the UK is about to piss off the largest trading bloc of countries on the planet, and our government is cutting social care budgets while campaigning to increase them all the while lying about how much of our money they’re spending.

And the voting fuckwits believe it all. They actually think that at the end of it all, they will be happier, wealthier and more secure. They think they will have more control without having the first idea what that word means. 

The cannon fodder is actually smiling as it’s being rammed home.

The whole of humanity has turned into a massive Whitehall Farce. Except it’s not funny any more. It’s Animal Farm, or 1984, but a thousand times worse.

After all, it’s not oppression if the people vote for it, is it?

Not a bang, but a wimper…

Referenda are *really* bad ideas

Referenda are *really* bad ideas. 

No average voter can possibly understand, or work out, the complexities of a situation like Brexit, or Scottish Independence, with sufficient clarity to make an informed decision. Not one. 

Both referenda suffered from exactly the same fatal flaws: the campaign people got hold of a few tasty soundbites and cranked up the rhetoric – on both sides – so that these trivial, unverifiable non-specifics became visceral and dominating aspects that defined absolutely everything. 

The Brexiteers were desperate for anything – absolutely anything – to avoid the xenophobic core of their campaign. So fluffy nonsense like “control” started to become talking points. 

The Scottish seperatists, desperate to avoid discussing things that they knew nothing about like EU membership, central banking, currency, debt and a hundred other things, decided on the same wooly concept of self-control as their core message. 

When the major thrust of a campaign is jingoism, then you know, with absolute certainty, that the public is being lied to, is underinformed and is in all likelihood, becoming the victims of massive fraud. They are being asked to make country-changing decisions based on no knowledge whatsoever. Situations like that are ripe for abuse, and abuse has happened on a huge scale. 

What, exactly, did the Brexiters vote for? Most don’t have a clue. Ask them what their estimated trade balance will be in five years, you’ll get a blank look. Ask them about exchange rates, trade tariffs, cross-border policing, environmental issues, replacements for massive EU infrastructure grants, military cooperation, agriculture policy and any number of other things DIRECTLY impacted by their voting decision and you will get a tilted head and a “huh?” But ask them if they want to take back control, and they’ll get all excited because you’ve used a sound bite that they recognise. 

The theory behind a referendum is great – people get to choose their own destiny. That is, of course, crap, because it misses out the most important word. Informed. Informed people get to choose their own destiny. If that happened, then great. 

But it doesn’t, does it? An informed population is a dangerous one. An informed population sees through bullshit quite easily and can’t be lied to so often. Nobody in power wants an informed electorate. They want a compliant one, an obedient one, a stupid one. 

The very best we can hope for in our system that pretends to be a democracy, is to elect someone every few years that we trust just enough to do what is right. Then leave it to them and hope they don’t screw up too much. 

No, the ideal political system is not democracy but a benign dictatorship. 

Democracy sounds great on paper, and you never know, if someone ever tries it, it might just work. 

But as things stand, at the moment, people are just too fucking stupid for democracy…

Those lovely folk, the Professional Mourners.

A few days back, something nasty happened somewhere and some folk died. No, I don’t remember what it was either, but right on cue, all the crocodile tears started flooding into social media, prompting this from me:

Ah, those lovely folk, the professional mourners. 

Risking life and limb in their headlong rush to they keyboard after every nasty event anywhere in the world to prove just how caring, worthy, moral and virtuous they are. Never flinching from the just cause of narcissistic self-promotion, the more people killed and in more gruesome ways – ideally on television in HD in a never-ending news loop – the happier they are. “Look at me, I can use the death and suffering of others in shameless advertising of myself and as a pathetic validation of my own existence”. 

They are the exact equivalent of the crowds around the gallows in a Hogarth painting; tutting and muttering about how terrible it all is, but wondering if they have time to go to the toilet before the next one comes along because they really don’t want to miss anything. 

Do they really care? Who knows? They certainly care about being seen to care, that much is clear. And as in so many modern things, image is everything and that must be protected at all costs, even if it is only a delusional self-image. 

To whom does all this sharing and caring make any difference? 

Does London give a shit that you’re “praying” for it after some “mass” stabbing? No, of course not. It doesn’t even notice. 

Does Nice or Paris or any other nice cozy Western town who has experienced an attrocity notice that you are Je Suis-ing at them with all your might? No, of course not. They are too busy clearing up, getting back to normal and working out how to stop it happening again. 

Does “Remembering the 96”, or whatever the number was that week, several decades after the event represent anything but wallowing in a much-missed tragedy? No, of course not. It just makes them feel better about themselves in a guilty and barely disguised “thank goodness it wasn’t me, that *would* have been tragic…” 

So what does all of this self-indulgent self-flaggelation actually achieve? 

Nothing. Nobody really gives a toss when the crocodile tears start to flow because they’re devoid of meaning and thought and use. They have no value, utility or merit. It is cheap X-Factor emotion, turned on and off at the flick of a switch and as genuine as Simon Cowell’s suntan.

Which says everything that needs to be said about those whose hobby is to demonstrate their humanity to disinterested strangers. It has no value. So stop it.

Boris still thinks he’s credible. How sweet!

Boris Johnson, in a fit of retrospective wisdom, has attempted to finally put some substance to his unexpectedly successful “leave” campaign in the EU referendum. See his text in the Telegraph here. My response went like this:

Oh, Boris. Bless you, sweetheart! It’s really quite lovely reading your substance-free rants against the left especially when, like this one, they’re so easy to decode and translate into the truth.

All this airborne spittle that your white heat of righteous indignation generates about Europe distils down to just one small thing: envy.

You have absolutely no problem with Eurocrats, you don’t mind their inflated salary and expenses packages, you have absolutely no problem whatsoever with their mostly imaginary lack of democracy and the formation of a federal United States of Europe causes not the slightest problem for your fake and jingoistic patriotism.

The only problem you have is that it’s them getting all this and not you.

You have absolutely no desire to see democracy, accountability and transparency made more widely available to us plebs down here. That would be utterly disastrous! You just want it for yourself. 

Because like a lot of over-entitled toffs that have been educated way beyond your intelligence, you think that what is good for you is, of course, by default, good for the country. What you miss, and what those clones of you like Cameron and Gove always miss, is that it simply isn’t true. It’s all just one great money and power-grabbing egowank on your part. 

We, the great unwashed whose sole purpose in life is to enrich the likes of you, get absolutely nothing out of it. 

So how about you do us all a favour? How about you and the other mindless cretins in the leave campaign take off your baggy union flag boxer shorts and just tell the truth for a change – that it’s all about you, not us. 

You have managed to convince a large portion of the population that their casual racism is actually a great patriotic battle for freedom and democracy plastered in blue woad and strapped to the arse-end of Boudicca’s chariot.

But having done so, you now have no idea what to do. Your five-point plan is as substance and truth-free as the entire leave campaign. 

So by all means, from behind the safe ramparts of the Barclay Brother’s propaganda sheet, feel free to mock those of us that see you for who you are. But always know that you’re not fooling us, and there are more of us than you think.

The irritation of the expectation of empathy

There are many things in life that irritate me – a list that is in no way shrinking as I get older. Fairly close to the top of that list is the expectation of empathy.

When did we stop being allowed to make our own mind up whether or not we cared about something, or if we do, by how much?

In a change that I presume has been brought about by social media, news organisations seem to spend far more time and energy these days telling us how we should feel about something than they do reporting actual news.

“Horrifying”, “tragic”, “terribly sad”, “national pride” and other emotional cue cards pepper the news output way more than any factual content these days. And there is no quality threshold either. The same lines get trotted out for refugee drownings, mass shootings in America or for the murder of an MP as some scripted event “suffered” by the Jendashians, those morons on that The Only Way Is Chelsea Shore programme, Big brother or anything with Simon Cowell in it.

Has the dumbing-down of the population reached its ultimate level now where we need to be told when and how to emote? Has the deliberate dilution of our education system finally reached peak moron, with the achievement of a completely pliable and compliant population of mindless drones?

When did it not only become rare, but almost forbidden to make your own mind up about things? When did independence of thought become an endangered attribute?

And when did minor achievement become a cause for celebration? A semi-professional performer wins a tv “talent” show, some Kardashian clone loses a few pounds, a British astronaut becomes the three hundred and seventy-somethingth visitor to an International Space Station that is positively worn out because so many people have visited, and we’re expected – demanded, even – to care about it. Why?

Someone dies. I didn’t know that person or anyone close to them and they made no impact on my life. I didn’t notice them while they were alive, why should I care when they die? No, that’s not allowed! We have to demonstrate that we are caring, worthy people by mourning this complete stranger. We are expected to praise their “bravery” as though drawing breath is a brave thing to do. Why?

Some narcissistic moron with a GoPro camera strapped to their nether regions and Red Bull logos all over their arse flies face first into a mountain at 150mph, or falls to their death because they were walking on the edge of a high building, or breaks their neck dicking around in waves on a plank and we’re supposed to praise their bravery and value their memory. Follow your first instinct to laugh and call them what they are – idiots – and you’re completely wrong and a bad person. Why?

When did we become so reliant upon group-think that it became the very measure of our self-worth? When did we only ever feel validated and valued when we followed the herd of unthinking drones?

Saying that this is a deliberate policy on the part of the media, corporate and political elite might (but only might) be a conspiracy stretch too far. But it is at the very least a serendipitous occurrence that they seem to be in no rush to fix.

It does, however, neatly explain the rise of UKIP and the other bottom-feeding traders in lowest common denominator thought processes.

EU referendum: Time to write-off my own country.

I am fully in favour of a completely integrated European superstate that is financially, politically and culturally one country. I think that Britain could contribute in an incredibly positive way to the building and maintaining of such a state because of our huge experience, our technical expertise and our influence.

We should be at the very heart of such a project, driving it forward for the benefit of all Europeans, including us.

Sadly, Britain these days is run and populated by intellectual minnows who think the last world war is still being fought and who lack the vision, intelligence and determination to see anything beyond the English Channel as positive. We have become a nation of under-educated, racist morons who are content to be dictated-to by wealthy tax-evading oligarchs like Murdoch and the Barclays. Dumb sheep in all but name that would depress and embarrass Winston Churchill and other great leaders of his time.

As such, for the European project to succeed, we need to be outside of it. We are the killjoys; the sulking losers sitting at the edge of a playground, determined to spoil it for everyone else. The under-endowed bully with minuscule genitalia, lashing out as an unconvincing diversion from our own pathetic shortcomings.

So, as a commited pro-European, I shall be writing off my own country in June and voting to leave the EU.

With the USA, China and a slowly re-forming Soviet Union playing their global power games, the only way Europe can compete is as a united continent, and having us polluting it with bile and selfish bitterness will sabotage that.

I shall feel incredibly sad to be voting that way, but that will not stop me. It will mark the start of Britain’s entry to the also-ran list of countries that were once great but fucked it up. It will mark the point at which we finally lose the Cold War.

It will not be a good day.