Earlier this week, I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Toronto chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC/Toronto). As the outgoing president recapped the last year’s accomplishments and the incoming president shared her plans for the year ahead, I reflected on my own journey with the organization that has been a huge part of my life for several years. I joined the volunteer board in 2009 with the intention of staying for one year and then leaving. But, much to my delight, I really enjoyed it. I signed up for another year and then another and eventually shocked myself when I volunteered to be chapter president for the 2013/2014 board year. It has been a full year since I passed the presidential torch and now seems like the perfect time for a candid reflection on the experience.
I want to stress that these are my thoughts about my experience as chapter president in my local chapter. My fellow past-presidents may feel completely differently about their 12 months in the hot seat and that’s cool. Okay, now that’s out of the way, here are six amazing things about being an IABC chapter president…and a couple of not-so-great things thrown in for good measure.
1. You will develop new skills – It’s unavoidable. No matter what you have done in your career, there is nothing like being at the helm of a volunteer-run, volunteer-managed organization. You will quickly become an expert in association management, budgeting, governance, talent management, event planning, trend-spotting and coalition-building. Sure, you’re donating hundreds of volunteer hours but you’re also getting invaluable training and life lessons for free! No matter what, you will end the year with skills you didn’t have when you started.
2. You will face your fears – One of the reasons I took the president role was to finally conquer a life-long fear of public speaking and I can honestly say the toughest part of my entire year as chapter president was the 20-minute speech I delivered at the annual general meeting. I had a lot of public speaking experience but it was mostly in the relatively safe setting of a training seminar or panel discussion. So the idea of standing in front of a room of highly engaged members and convincing them that I had what it took to lead the association for an entire year filled me with terror. But guess what? I got through that night, and many more throughout the year and by the time I gave my farewell speech a year later, I didn’t have even the slightest pang of nervousness.
3. You will have an amazing sense of accomplishment – Running a chapter of 1,300 members is a huge volunteer role with lots of highs and lows and and it’s easy to doubt yourself and your decisions. Whenever my confidence dipped, I repeated this mantra to myself: “Any member of this chapter could have signed up to be president but you’re the one who actually did it”. When I kept that thought top of mind, I felt brave, strong and accomplished. My pride and confidence grew with every passing month and even now, when I face tough challenges at work or as a parent, I draw strength from my year as a chapter president.
4. You will learn balance – As president of IABC/Toronto, I spent about 20 hours a week on routine IABC business like preparing reports, emailing members, fixing problems, mediating conflicts and motivating volunteers. I spoke with at least one member every single day and I often sent chapter emails long after I had put my kids to bed. On top of that, there were board and committee meetings to attend, dinners to host and speaking engagements to plan. While I was deeply committed to the role, I was clear that it was a volunteer role and could not take precedence over my full-time, paid job or my family. I decided early on that I would only spend one evening a week away from my family on IABC business (which was still a lot) even if that meant saying no to some events and disappointing some members.
5. Your network will explode – In my year as a chapter president, my network grew by leaps and bounds. I met hundreds of fellow volunteers in Toronto, formed friendships with communicators all over the world and worked side-by-side with some of the brightest and most inspirational people I have ever met. I also had the pleasure of spending time with students and recent graduates who were full of optimism and and enthusiasm for the communications profession. And, it may sound dramatic, but some of my best friends and people I trust implicitly, are only in my life because of my involvement with IABC.
6. You will learn to delegate – The day after I was “sworn in” as chapter president, members started to call and email me with requests for lunch, dinner and coffee meetings. At first I agreed to all of them but I quickly realized I would burn out long before the finish line if I didn’t prioritize my time and start to delegate. I had to accept that I would likely only accomplish one or two of the “big changes” I had planned for the year and that I needed to lean on my entire team of board members for help. Most importantly, I had to let them do what they had signed up to do so that I could focus on what I had signed up to do. If you’ve ever struggled with do-it-all-yourself syndrome, this role will vanquish it forever.
And now, since I’m being candid, I’ll share a couple of the tougher things about the role:
1. Some people will let you down – IABC/Toronto relies on hundreds of volunteers at every level and the vast majority are fabulous but some people just won’t come through for you. Whether it’s a volunteer who doesn’t show up to work the registration table at an event or someone who bails on a major board role, it’s really disappointing, especially since you are also a volunteer. In some cases, volunteers have a major personal crisis and their change of heart is understandable. But mostly, people just decide that they don’t want to put in the effort anymore. Regardless of the reason, these situations cause more work for you as you try to fill the role, step in to do it yourself or explain to disappointed members why you’re unable to provide the service they expect.
2. Some people are never happy – In my year as president, I received many calls and emails from members who wanted to tell me what I was doing wrong and how I could do better. I believe these members had the best of intentions and many of their ideas were great. I just couldn’t implement them. They required extra hours, extra bodies and, in some cases, extra money. These people probably exist in every member-based organization. They are “idea-people” who like to comment from the sidelines without actually rolling up their sleeves to help you. At first, I listened to them and promised to consider their suggestions but by the three-month mark, I felt comfortable telling them that my plans for the year were already in place and if they really felt strongly about the organization, they might consider volunteering for next year’s board of directors. Sometimes this meant that they didn’t like me anymore but accepting that I couldn’t please all the people all the time was one of the greatest lessons from my year as chapter president.
So, those are my takeaways from the biggest volunteer role of my life. I’d love to hear from other IABC chapter presidents. Did you have these same experiences and what did you learn?