Heather Comstock Connects

Helping nonprofits and other volunteer organizations develop strong relationships and a clear voice in the community.

A Tale of Three Presidents: Lessons from the Front Lines

Just because your gavel is bigger than everyone else’s, doesn’t mean you can run roughshod over the rest of your board or that you’re on your own! (photo courtesy J.C.)

Selling the Presidency

I am the member of the nominating committee for a small volunteer-based nonprofit in our area. I am not running again this year as other commitments don’t allow me the time to be able to do it. I dreaded making the recruitment calls as the pool of volunteers are mostly stay at home moms. I have had a difficult time in the past “selling” volunteer leadership positions to this particular demographic as they all believe they don’t have what it takes to be, in particular, President.

I think it is the term that scares people. They picture U.S. Presidents or other high profile Presidents such as CEO’s and believe that if there’s failure, it will fall solely on them. Stay at home moms tend to under-value the work they do. Their role in the household is not unlike a presidency. They have to coordinate everything and everyone, keep track of schedules and calendars, ensure everyone is on task, and allocate adequate resources. Most of all, they need to remember that they don’t carry out this work alone.

I was happy that at last we were able to fill all our vacant slots so we can conduct elections.  As I leave this board, I am going to do everything in my power to give those new volunteers what they need to feel comfortable and be successful.

I’M the President!

Contrast that to my own presidency. I am taking the reins as the incoming local president of another group (which I why I am not running for the other group). Mostly because nobody else wanted to to do it. The wonderful outgoing president is working with me to help transition. We need to have a business meeting but unfortunately, despite advance warning and three weeks’ notice, we can’t get enough membership commitment to have a quorum. What do we do?

In the back of my head a little voice pops up and says, “well, you’re president, you can move the meeting and advise people that if they won’t commit to attending, there’s no point in having an organization.” Fortunately, my predecessor isn’t quite as bombastic as I can be and advised another tact – which I am not thrilled about as it will take longer and I prefer to be done with tasks, brush off my hands, and move on to the next thing. However, she’s got some good points and I would be stupid to ignore the advice of someone who has more experience with the group and its dynamics.

So, I have to put the brakes on my attitude and realize, being President isn’t going to be about forcing my vision on everyone else. I need to build consensus and weigh the input from others. I have to create a welcoming community so members will want to participate.

Solo Presidente

The third president is with another local group I have worked with. This particular president has moved from being indecisive and unsure of how to handle to issues to taking complete control and acting without the input of the other board members. There is refusal to delegate and there’s a distrust of the other board members and in the work processes. Places where it would be appropriate to exert authority, there’s no action taken. In other cases, decisions, often ones with financial ramifications are made with out consulting the other board members. Contentious items are left off the agenda or placed where time doesn’t allow ample time for discussion. I can see the burnout coming for miles. This president has no help or support and is now solely responsible for all aspects of the organization. There is an acute fear of failure, but the actions taken have made the fear a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The president is kind of like the ring-master in a circus. It is that person’s role to coordinate the work of the board and ensure everyone is working together, not to do all the tasks on their own. The most important task of the president is to keep meetings moving. Its a key skill to balance giving everyone an opportunity to voice an opinion at a meeting with moving an unproductive discussion forward.

You don’t have to be an expert or perfect to take on a leadership role. You just have to be willing to try things, move outside your comfort zone, and most of all, be open to other people and ideas.

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