There I was, on the Halifax Waterfront Boardwalk just outside Privateers Warehouse, enjoying the beautiful, hot, sweltering day: the sort of day that made it difficult to lick all the drips of the Cows chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream cone I had just salivatingly acquired as they began their rapid trek down the cone onto my hand, threatening to turn my arm into a sticky mess and prompting me to lament the fact that I had forgotten to ask for extra serviettes.
My colleague and I were out for a lunch time stroll, enjoying the cloudless indigo sky and the emerald water, passing Nova Scotia’s trademark Bluenose schooner at its usual dock and dodging tourists coming from the opposite direction, likely from one of the three gargantuan cruise ships that had docked farther down the harbour that morning at Pier 21. They were undoubtedly also on their way to purchase one of those delicious Cows delicacies, firm in their knowledge that the tourist brochure held rolled up in their sweaty fist was leading them to an unusual guilty Haligonian experience.
Since we both served on the same local volunteer board, we fell into a conversation about servant leadership and what it all meant. I expressed my belief that mentoring and coaching was a big part of being on any board, especially in volunteer organizations, due to the limited lifetime of a volunteer role. She conjectured that it didn’t really matter what happened after you left a volunteer organization, because you were no longer responsible, and it was up to those who stayed behind to do their part.
Well, that got me going. I posited that a volunteer board is exactly like an ice cream cone in the heat. The cone is the framework of the organization and the ice cream is its volunteer base, formed of board members and committees of the board. As volunteers finish their terms and leave the organization (those drips of ice cream racing toward their next role in life) they must leave something behind - a fresh scoop of ice cream that has been formed to fit the cone, and well prepared to withstand the heat of the day.
I have to confess my metaphor dwindled into indistinct mumbling at this point.
After gently informing me that my example was fraught with drips, if not gaping holes, my esteemed colleague agreed that one must leave something behind. I said, “Got ya! So you agree with me after all!”. Begrudgingly, she admitted that perhaps she was somewhat hasty in her previous rather heartless assertion and agreed that volunteer board members need guidance and succession planning to keep the board alive and true to its original mandate, providing continuity of purpose.
In our case, the mandate was to provide value to members through networking, professional development and certification. You probably have already guessed the organization in question. You know - the one that provides incredible value to its members and through them to the profession and many industries they serve.
So are volunteer organizations really like Cows ice cream cones in the heat? Of course not, but if that playful similie coerced you into reading this article, my purpose is served. I admit it. I am a shameless snake oil salesman.
But to get on with the real topic, the one that has you on the edge of your seat, seeking answers, allow me to suggest that in a volunteer organization servant leadership is indeed required. It is required in other organizations too, but in this one, because of the fluidity of the board and its committees, even more so.
As a president of a volunteer board or a director of a portfolio, it is your job to develop people to fill your shoes to ensure the organization continues to live on within its original mandate. Because board roles are often quite short, as normally dictated by some fairly stringent by-laws and articles of incorporation, replacing yourself with someone who has been indoctrinated into the volunteer culture of the board has to be a main preoccupation of yours. I’m sure you will agree that bringing someone onto a board with zero experience of the organization’s inner workings is not a way to do this.
So develop your replacement. Lend them a helping hand. Give them an opportunity to see how that finely tuned engine works so they can strive for the success you’ve achieved and learn from the failures you’ve experienced. Succession planning is crucial. Grooming your fellow board members for a leadership role, and encouraging them to also groom their committee members to step into their roles is one of your primary jobs as a volunteer board member.
As you ponder your role, always remember that as a steward of a volunteer organization, it is your job to leave it better than you found it. And what more effective way is there to do this than by preparing those who succeed you to reach for an even higher pinnacle of success than you and your colleagues achieved?
To those of you in the warm part of the globe, I wish you a fabulous summer season, and may you catch all those drips of delicious dairy confection before they leave the bottom of your cone. And to those of you who are not, enjoy your winter sports, resting in the certain knowledge that your ice cream will not melt.
I was fortunate to begin my career on the most expensive highway project in the United States, The Central Artery/Tunnel Project (also referred to by the Boston locals as the Big Dig). For those that don’t know, this was a mega-project in Boston that rerouted the major Interstate from above ground to below ground. The final costs to complete exceeded $16 Billion. Indeed, with a project of this size there was bound to be at least some problems. Most of these issues led to escalating costs, schedule issues, and questionable execution. However, after all was said and done, it has led to much more enjoyable harbor front views, public parks and allowed the interstate to run underground throughout the city. Back then, I had very little appreciation for what I was learning and what I was a part of.
When I started working, I had an eyes wide open approach to everything at all times. However, even though this project was the most expensive in the US, I knew nothing different in the Engineering and Project Management world. I thought this was normal and would be like the rest of the projects that I would be on. Twenty years later, I look back and realize that I probably won’t be on such a project again and if one comes around, I probably will treat it a bit different with regards to my appreciation for it. However, I also remember that I wanted to learn. I wanted to get the most out of it. So, I steered towards the people that had been on the project a long time and felt I could learn the most from them. By definition mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge and support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career or professional development. Little did I know back then that this would be my first opportunity to have many mentors. I didn’t know what a mentor was back then. I guess I thought that a mentor would be someone who would come to me in a graduation cap and gown, sit with me, teach me the ropes and not let me fail.
Within my first month, I started asking more questions. I remember sitting in my first large program level meeting and being in awe of the knowledge the team members had. While I was nervous, I learned quickly that these people… these mentors... were all around me and wanted to help me be all I could be. That being said, I was very fortunate to have an amazing boss at the time. His name was Al and while I had no idea at the time what he was to me, looking back he was the first mentor to whom I always found myself turning when I had questions or concerns and wanted to seek his approval on what I was doing.
My first recollection of finding out that a 20-something didn’t know-it-all was on a simple task of providing a construction overview schedule for Al for an executive meeting he was going to be attending. I was so proud of myself. I was ecstatic that I had completed this task with little or no help and thought what I had done was perfect and required no editing. Little did I know, that was one of Al’s first tests for me. I handed over my printout the morning of the meeting thinking I was all set. Al thanked me and said he would review it. I thought to myself, “Review it?!… It’s perfect. It shouldn’t need any review. It’s ‘good-to-go’”. About an hour later he called me over to his desk. He had markings all over it. The one comment that has stuck with me out of all of the edits was that the coloring that I had chosen was all wrong. He then explained to me that the executives would think it was too busy and would not be forceful enough for the message that it was portraying. Now, he didn’t make me feel bad or feel like I failed, but he made suggestions on the basis that I could improve my messaging. For years after I left that first job, I turned to Al for direction and even approval on my career decisions. To this day, whenever I provide a dashboard or report I think back to this comment and still try to improve upon my deliverable.
Mentoring can come in all shapes and sizes. It can occur when you least expect it or when you have signed up for a mentoring program. Our local PMI Chapter has a great mentoring program of which many people take advantage. When they are done they are so glad they went through it. Many of the mentors and mentees are first timers. They also don’t have to be mentors who are perfectly aligned with the mentee’s main line of duties. I am currently mentoring a handful of supervisors. I find that while they can run circles around me on many of their day to day responsibilities, I am able to provide them with some guidance, more specifically in the Project Management profession since they have no formal training or formal PM education. They find out about things that may help right away or even a year from now, much like Al did for me.
In conclusion, I urge any and all of you to get involved with mentoring, either with your own company, with your PM organization, or even with old colleagues. Mentoring entails communication which we all know is usually the area of breakdown in most conflicts.
The company I work for is based in the U.S. Midwest and the magazines around the office are different than those that may be found in my living room. This was a magazine about the outdoors and hunting. One magazine cover caught my eye. It was a picture of a man on a horse slowly climbing a mountainside only to have his horse rear back because of a ferocious looking, growling black bear creeping around the bend towards them. The feature article was titled, “Places of Peril: How Sporting Art Made Us Fear the Outdoors”. It got me thinking.. In Project Management, have we been steered away from chasing our goals because of places of peril?
About Ten years ago, I was coming to the realization that my career, no matter how many twists and turns I took and how often I thought I would feel comfortable in another role, I was geared towards having Project Management be a part of my full time profession. It just felt comfortable to me. So, like the man on the horse, I slowly began climbing the mountainside of Project Management. I knew I needed to start somewhere. I joined an organization that I thought would be the best to further my career and would give me the ability to meet people that were just like me; those colleagues that shared the same drive and it was at that time when I signed up for membership with the Project Management Institute (PMI).
As the journey began, I figured the best place to start was to attend a few local Chapter meetings. I remember the first meetings I attended and that I was very intimidated. As I entered the conference room I looked around and convinced myself that everyone there was already well versed in this Project Management profession, they all already had created close bonds within the membership, and they weren’t looking to meet anyone new. This was all in my head of course, but at the time I was just plain scared to leap into the fray. I now, more than ever, felt like that man on the horse where all of the members were the bears creeping towards me just getting ready to scare me away. Ignoring those fears as best as I could I decided to take a seat at the first open table and began introducing myself. To my surprise, everyone was very friendly and interested in meeting new people, and sharing their own project management knowledge and support.
Months passed and by now I had felt comfortable attending these meetings and even looked forward to meeting new people. The members were awesome, inviting, and even wanted to help a young Project Manager with finding his way. They knew that they, too, were once like me and were similarly afraid like the man on the horse. I also found out that the best way to fight the fear was to get more involved. I found that I had to ignore the feelings that I was “dinner” for the black bears creeping around the bend. At times, I even forgot about that place of peril in my mind,
Within the first year of membership, I became an active member and chairperson of a small breakfast time roundtable group. Within four years of being a member, I was voted in as the Executive Vice President of the local Chapter and stayed on as such for four years. And, no places of peril along the way! The first year in the organization brought me to new places within and away from the Chapter. Specific to the Chapter, I made numerous new friends and contacts. I remembered the fear that I once had and used it as motivation to approach members who looked lost as they entered the conference room. I made sure I headed over to a table in the conference room where I didn’t know any of the attendees. I wanted to make these people feel welcome, just like those who did that for me ten years ago.
What I learned in my years as a member is probably what the man on the horse learned pretty quickly. The visions that are sometimes created in our minds aren’t necessarily the truth and should not be seen as places of peril. Sure, the artwork created in our minds can be exciting and raise our heart rates a little bit, but it’s those visions in our head that can cause us to miss some great opportunities. What amazes me now, being closer to black bears myself in my time working in the Midwest, is that while these animals are very large and scary looking creatures, they are actually more frightened of humans than we are of them. Next time you head into a Chapter meeting or a new group or organization, I implore you to look past the corner on the mountainside and realize that there are rewarding experiences to be found.