Why I love this practice and know it’s worth the commitment

Of all of the trainings that I have offered since starting Twenty Hats, I am proudest of the two Volunteer Manager Leadership Circles that I initiated.

A Leadership Circle is a common practice for business owners, corporate CEOs and nonprofit executives.

In a Circle, like-minded professionals gather to discuss common challenges, suggest solutions, and expand their overall leadership skills. Lasting six months or longer, these groups are safe spaces to grow professionally, surrounded by colleagues who share similar experiences.

I wanted to create this same opportunity for Leaders of Volunteers, so I did – twice. The first circle, which lasted for three years, included a handful of members from local nonprofits and government agencies. My second circle was much more specialized. For eight months, 30 museum-based volunteer managers gathered to explore challenges specific to their brand of volunteer engagement.

Both groups followed a similar format.

  • Before each session, Circle members would read an assignment on a relevant topic, such as giving feedback or making decisions.
  • After discussing the topic, the conversation would segue into a conversation around the particular issues that group members were facing.
  • Separate from the discussion, group members set stretch goals for themselves. They would pick one thing that they wanted to accomplish but would probably never do unless they stated their intention and reported back. There is something about publicly owning your commitments that ensures that you meet them. A little accountability goes a long way.

Two volunteer leadership circles. One small and intimate, the other large and specialized. You might think these cohorts would have different outcomes. In some ways, that’s true. In the smaller Circle, members came to rely on one another at a deep level – they were willing to share their vulnerabilities and allow their peers to call them out when they dropped the ball. In the larger group, the diversity of experiences and viewpoints in the room led to rich discussions, with plenty of information-sharing.

If I were to name the biggest common takeaway for either group, it would be this: in both Circles, the members had the time and space to explore the mindset skills that lead to professional growth. The practical volunteer management skills – the supervision, the policies, the strategies – it’s easier to find instruction in these areas. Think of all of the great webinars, conferences, workshops, and social media forums around these topics.

You cannot grow as a leader, though, without also tackling issues like moving beyond your comfort zone, managing change, or dealing with uncertainty. And while there are some webinars and workshops that cover these topics, you’re more likely to master these skills by making a long-term investment and working with peers that you know and trust.

My Circles required a financial investment to reflect my time as planner and facilitator. Also, there’s something about putting money on the table that ensures your follow-through with the process.

It’s possible, though, for colleagues to band together and establish their own groups. Here is what you need to do:

  • Find at least three other colleagues who want to expand their professional development.
  • Determine how long the group will last, how often it will meet, and how long each session will last. To see results, you must meet for at least six months with monthly meetings of at least 90 minutes.
  • Set some basic ground rules for your meetings (who talks when, what’s the format, etc.)
  • Designate one group member as the Lead for the upcoming session. The Lead will select a topic, research topic-related articles or videos to share, and facilitate the session.
  • Start the sessions by celebrating what’s going well for you. You’ll be spending a lot of time on challenges, so it’s good to start with a reminder of what’s working.
  • Then, report out on any goals that Circle members have set for themselves.
  • Set aside time to discuss the topic, and then move on to peer brainstorming. In the brainstorming, Circle members discuss a current challenge that they are experiencing and receive input from the group. Factor in about 20 minutes per person, give or take. In my experience, this is the most popular part of the Circle. After all, how often do you get a block of time devoted just to you, where your peers are focused on solving your problems?
  • Wrap up with each member setting a new goal to complete by the next session. Make it a stretch goal, something you would not finish on your own. This is generally the most difficult part of a Circle – it’s easy to punt on a challenging goal. It’s also where you stand to accomplish the most.

You may want to start a Leadership Circle but fear you’re too busy to keep it going. That was true for every member of my Circles. They were overworked, under-resourced, and still made room for intensive professional development. The dedication of time and effort is worth it. I have witnessed first-hand how Circle members become stronger, more strategic, and sophisticated Leaders of Volunteers.

Want to learn more about influencing up, down, and sideways? My Principles of Buy-In will keep you focused on success.  Email me to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.