While I’m still an active board member for the International Association of Business Communicators, Ottawa Chapter, (IABC Ottawa) my tenure is coming to an end this June and I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned from the experience.
I spent a total of five seasons as a board member: two as the Vice President, Professional Development, and three-years in the executive as EVP, President and now Past-President (an automatic year succession for each). I was 25 when I joined the board and I will have just turned 30 by the time my term has ended.
First, what an incredible opportunity it was to do this so early in my career. I’m thankful for some of the amazing board members before me who saw my potential (or maybe just realized I was too young and naive to turn down the opportunity when no one else wanted to step up?). I am grateful for the wonderful board members, volunteers and members I was able to work with, learn from and get to know. The opportunity changed me. It allowed me to grow professionally more so than I have in any job and build great relationships with many amazing communicators in our city. It’s made my career path a little clearer, even if I am still not sure exactly where I want to go.
There’s a big gap between having leadership ability and being responsible as a leader
I’ve always had natural leadership tendency. Starting at 15, my first job was as a receptionist at First Choice Haircutters and my colleagues joked I was the receptionist/assistant manager because I had such a strong knowledge of our processes and procedures and was best suited to resolve issues when our manager was away (and we had no assistant manager). At most of the jobs I’ve worked since I’ve been a go-to person, a trusted advisor, a mentor to colleagues, it’s my nature.
However, being accountable and responsible in a position of leadership is a totally different story. I’m sure my learning curve was steep from the combination of my own lack of professional experience coupled with my drive/desire to excel in the position.
While it was exhilarating, exciting, fun and rewarding, it was also completely and utterly exhausting–to the point where during my year as president, I spent virtually EVERY weekend on the couch in a state of near comatose. I love to sleep–and get enough of it–but it meant many, many nights up late to complete tasks and get organized or even worse–tossing and turning with worry about the issue of the day.
Secondly, being a leader means you have to make tough decisions. A lot of tough decisions, and often. Whether it’s mediating conflicting priorities, dealing with an underperformer, or solving unanticipated challenges, often times you have to be decisive and swift. Sometimes you make the wrong decision and have to live with it. You’ll feel guilty, people will judge you. It happens.
There’s never enough time
In each of my positions on the board, and particularly as president, there were goals I set out to accomplish with the respective teams. In the early planning stages it seemed so attainable and realistic but as the season unfolds, you have unanticipated challenges, team members who drop off, other opportunities that present themselves or just the rest of your life getting in the way.
While I am so happy and grateful of what we’ve achieved over the last five years, I’m also crushed by what we weren’t able to get to. There’s never enough time to get everything done, but it’s still a good idea to set your limits high and try to get it done.
Never expect anyone to be as passionate or engaged as you are
Sometimes I can’t help but function on the brink where passion meets insanity. I can get so much accomplished when I’m really jazzed about what’s going on, can’t get it out of my mind and really want to push it further. It’s an amazing feeling even if everything else in your life is about to blow up. However, the hardest thing in the world is feeling like that and coming to terms with the fact that everyone else around you does not–and probably will not–ever feel the same way about that particular thing you are doing. When you are leading a team it means being aware of what will motivate and drive other people and focusing your energy serving their needs and not jumping in and doing it all yourself (something I still haven’t really learned, by the way). It also means being self-aware of what’s going on and showing others how you feel–passion is contagious after all.
That being said, you can never expect anyone around you to be as passionate or engaged as you are. Everyone has different priorities and situations in their lives that influences how they are feeling and being hyper-focused on your own mission can blind you to those around you. This can lead to misunderstanding or conflict.
The great news is sometimes you will get to work with those who are as passionate or engaged (or whoa, maybe even more so!)–and that’s a fantastic bonus!
Not everyone will like you
I hope it’s because of my age, but this has been the hardest lesson to swallow. And while it’s something you hear all the time, I guess I’ve just grown accustomed to being an agreeable, likeable person. However, being agreeable and likeable is in definite conflict with being in charge. I’ve grown a good understanding that everyone has a different viewpoint and opinion and most of the time you don’t have enough information to understand everyone’s viewpoint. And even if you do, sometimes you just have to go against it because it’s the right thing to do. I’m sorry, but not sorry.
BUT… Accepting the fact that not everyone will like you doesn’t give you free reign to be rude, dismissive, or disrespectful towards others. I note this because sometimes this notion is confused.
Volunteering is real experience
My last point is really more of a rant inspired by a couple fellow board member over drinks one day. Not every volunteer has this experience but for the few of us discussing–we put so much time, effort and energy into volunteering–on top of our jobs, on top of our family and friends and many other things that may be happening in your life. And sometimes you get a comment from an outsider “Oh, well that’s just volunteer work.”
It’s not just volunteer work. It’s real work. It’s real work we choose to do on top of other priorities without monetary gain. Someone who volunteers (particularly in their chosen career field) is demonstrating a real commitment and a level of dedication that others are unwilling to do. The real value of volunteering is experience gained, but you really do have to put in the effort to learn and grow through volunteering. You get out of it what you put in, and when you put in A LOT, it’s irritating to be marginalized by someone who doesn’t understand this…
Experience comes from a sense of accomplishment, and despite my own roadblocks, stumblings and challenges I’m proud of what IABC Ottawa has accomplished the last five years. When I joined the board we were recovering from financial hardship, with a brand new board we had little access to corporate memory, membership had been declining steadily, and we were combatting a general sense of apathy towards professional associations in our market.
Today, IABC Ottawa is a vibrant, thriving community (not to mention, the International Chapter of the Year!). Where we used to beg other chapters for templates and advice, now other chapters look to us as a great example for what to do.
When then-President Sandra Markus recruited me, her vision was to make IABC Ottawa the hub of the communications industry in Ottawa. With all our struggles to manage the association day-to-day it seemed like a far-off fantasy.
I can say now through our diverse programming, partnerships with other industry associations, our amazing website (including our nationally syndicated podcast) and especially our engaged volunteer base, IABC Ottawa is very much the hub of communications in Ottawa and beyond. We’ve attracted and retained some amazing leaders (with much more experience than me, I might add) who already have and are taking over the reigns and I leave with confidence the association will continue to thrive–while still evolving. As I hope I will be able to do in my own career.
*Photo: the 2012-13 IABC Ottawa Board of Directors by our volunteer photographer extraordinaire, John Finnigan Lin. While I hate how I personally look in this photo, it’s kind of my favourite!