How to leverage volunteering to grow as a leader

This is my third blog specifically for emerging Millennial leaders who want to grow their career and make a positive impact in their company and beyond.  Check out the first and second blogs here if you missed them!

Once you have settled into your new role, it may feel as though you can let your professional development go for a while. Certainly you need to become competent in your role, but there are so many other ways to learn to lead. You need to consider position competency as broader than what you just learn “on-the-job”. If you see yourself making a significant impact in your company and beyond, I recommend that you continue to develop your skills, but not limit your growth opportunities to what your company provides. Consider volunteering.

Anyone who has worked with me during a career transition or for leadership development will know that I am a huge advocate for volunteering as a career development tool. Volunteering can help you in many ways. Done well, it can help you develop leadership skills (and typically in a safe environment). It is the perfect way to practice new skills, learn more about your industry and positively represent and influence your industry.

My personal experience may give you some ideas about leveraging volunteer experience for ongoing leadership development.

In my early career, I worked for a great restaurant company – Restaurants Unlimited (RUI) in Seattle. They not only focused on running exceptional restaurants, they encouraged company leaders to take advantage of both internal and external development opportunities. Once I transitioned from restaurant management to the corporate office in a training and development leadership role, I recognized that while I was good at leading a team of waitstaff, I didn’t know the first thing about influencing peers and senior leaders. I also thought that if I was going to make my mark as a leader, I wanted to get involved in the broader industry. Thus began my leadership development through volunteering.

Practicing your leadership skills

I knew enough about myself in those days to know that I needed to get involved to feel as though my efforts had a clear purpose for the organization and for me.

I would not learn if I stood on the sidelines.

CHART – an association of Hospitality Trainers – provided me a leadership opportunity almost immediately. It only required a “yes” and a willingness to work and to learn.

My experience began simply – my volunteer job was to make sure that materials were organized and that the hospitality suite was stocked (always a very important aspect of conferences!). My second year I ran for office and spent the subsequent several years in every leadership position available. And, I wasn’t always doing something I knew how to do. I stretched by taking roles that I knew almost nothing about, like conference marketing and as treasurer of the organization. I led conference teams and ultimately took my place as president of the board.

Did I have the requisite skills for all of these positions? Absolutely not. But I had colleagues who were willing to show me the ropes, answer my endless questions and support my development. This experience not only helped me lead more effectively, it also broadened my opportunities as I began to understand and be recognized in the industry.

Learning more about your industry

In the process of learning and developing essential leadership skills, I began to understand my industry better. Why does this matter? To truly be effective as a leader, I believe it is essential to, first, understand the ins and outs of your own company and then see what you can learn from other companies.

  • How does the organization make money?
  • What is the organizational structure and what are managements’ responsibilities?
  • What is the company culture?
  • What economic and social impacts affect the company?
  • What are the company’s strategic objectives and how do you contribute to their achievement?
  • What is the role of technology in the company?

As you understand how the industry works, you have the ability to more effectively influence your company by leveraging the knowledge and tools that you have gained in your varied volunteer roles.

Positively representing your company

My involvement, as well as that of my company peers, served to provide greater awareness of the positive, connected and growth-oriented company in which we worked. It also created more curiosity about what we were doing in the industry. In fact, I received an annual award from the National Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers  for my contributions to the restaurant industry. I like to think, that by leveraging my companies’ professional development focus, I represented my company with integrity, pride and enthusiasm.

So what’s in it for you?  Why keep stretching and looking for opportunities to learn and grow?  Because, before you know it, you have become, not only a better leader, but you have gained the skills, knowledge and relationships to positively represent your own company and to influence your industry.

Find more food for thought on growing your career and impact in the blogs below:

Developing your self- awareness and skills: The Muse.

Strategic leadership skills for the future: Fast Company.

Making time to think: HBR

Look for my 4th blog in this series where I’ll talk about how to drive your professional development.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *