Giving back to get ahead

The best way to get better at something is to practice. To make mistakes, to learn from those mistakes. Unfortunately work isn’t always the best place to practice your management skills. If you make a mistake with an employee, the ramifications can be huge. Your team won’t trust you, won’t know how to react, or worse yet feel you’re not a good manager.
You need a place to see where you can lead from the front, taking charge and having the people follow you, or if you should step back and direct traffic. Obviously each method has its own place, but where is that line, and how to people react when you change from one to the other.

Where can you find a place that will give you the room to try different ways of managing, where the risk is low to you, but the upside is high?


How I volunteer
I help out with 20-25 running races a year. With each race I work with other volunteers, where I am generally in a management position and each week I try different things, and see how the volunteers react. The most effective races for me are the big ones where there is lots of pre planning and coordination. ( Yes it is a bigger time commitment, but I get more out of it then I ever put in)

Today I helped out with a 5k where I was in charge of setting the course, and general finish line area duties. At this race I opted to see how the volunteers would react and their performance would increase if I did simple things to make their life better. I brought them water. I said thank you. I found some popsicles and brought them to the volunteers. At my day job I would translate this into lunch on busy days, perhaps even new equipment, like a new monitor, headset, etc.

Effective management looks easy
Yes, to the unaware, this may look like hey this guy is being a gopher and bringing me things. What was really happening? I was anticipating their issues. ( its hot and they can’t leave their station, so what is needed? water. ) They have done well, what kind of simple reward can be offered that will increase their moral? popsicles.

Measuring performance
As the cliche goes, you can only get what you measure, so what can I measure, and how do I know what works and what doesn’t. Since this area has people who remove chips from shoes at the end of the race, I can only look at two key metrics.

  • How happy did the volunteers seem?
  • How many times do they smile at the participants?
  • Were they friendly to the runners?
  • How fast did they help the runner remove their chip.
  • If they were standing, how quickly did they drop to the ground, to remove the chip?

There are some challenges with the measurements, since I haven’t worked with these volunteers before, I don’t know how well they react in general. Maybe they never smile, maybe they are crabby, having an off day, are tired, or some other factors I didn’t take into account.

Making new friends
Yes, there is that dirty word of business, networking. I view it more as making new friends. Every time I volunteer i get to meet some amazing people I never would have the opportunity to otherwise. Sometimes they are people who just have different interests than me, are in different fields, etc. Other Times however they are key influencers, they work for business partners, future people who we may do business with, potentially even a future employer, or a great reference. At one time I had four people who are Vice Presidents in their day jobs reporting to me, all of us as volunteers. It is a nice thing to have someone like that know exactly what your personal and leadership skills are like.

Where to start
Finding out your start with volunteering is easy. even being in a leadership position is easy. You need to do two key things.

  1. Find an area of interest
  2. Ask to be a part, and let them know you’ll do anything.

Once you get the hang of things, ask if there is more you can do. Generally they are looking for people to be in leadership positions, so be nice and don’t isntantly demand it, just learn the ropes and then say “hey this is great, do you need help with anything else?” or “ I really enjoyed this, do you need more help?”


Even though you don’t make money from volunteering, treat it as you would your job. Its great experience, and you never know who you’ll end up working with, or have working for you.

Where are you going to volunteer at?


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