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A helping hand to herd the cats

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

In Christina Emery’s day job, she’s the general manager of MediaWorks Whanganui. On the side, she’s on the board of the Women’s Network, and the chairperson of the Business Promotions Committee for Main Street Whanganui.

These board roles were new for Christina, and she was running into trouble. It’s a problem common to people with backgrounds like hers. Here’s how it goes: a person develops a solid commercial background. They’ve carved out some skills, they’re in charge of some pretty significant budgets, and they’re generally confident that they can make things happen. Then they move into the NFP space….and everything changes. Things that were easy become more difficult; things that used to be completed quickly start to slow to a crawl.

This happens because NFPs tend to depend heavily on volunteers. And motivating a team of volunteers is different from motivating a team of employees. The reason for this is clear when you think about it: volunteers don’t get paid. When you take away the financial incentive of of a regular paycheque, the dynamics start to change.

It’s not that volunteers are lazy – it’s just that everyone has a finite amount of time in each day, and when people are juggling work and family commitments, as well as volunteer commitments, the volunteer commitments often drop on the priority list.

How do I make it happen?

This is the situation Christina found herself in. She was on the boards of these two organisations – and in one case the chair – but she still couldn’t get them to move in the direction she wanted them to move. Things happened slowly, if they happened at all.

She needed some help, so she got in touch with the Mentoring Foundation, who paired her with Nicole Dryden. Nicole has lots of experience working with volunteer-based organisations, so she was the perfect match for Christina.

Pulling levers

The problem boiled down to this question: how do you motivate people? How do you keep energy levels up, and make sure things happen? This is a complex problem, and doesn’t have a simple solution. Rather, the solution comes from pulling a whole bunch of different levers.

One of the levers Nicole helped Christina pull was around the basics. She joined Christina for a meeting of one of the boards she sits on, watched her work, and gave her tips afterwards. She helped Christina with some day-to-day strategies, like making sure everything was crystal clear around who’s doing what, and when.

But that was the easy part. As with a lot of mentoring, the real work was around Christina’s personal qualities. One of these qualities was around understanding the nature of organisational energy. Energy in organisations ebbs and flows; sometimes people are high-energy and eager to keep things moving, and other times, people are lower energy. Nicole helped Christina identify these ebbs and flows, so she could figure out the difference between temporary and permanent low energy.

She also helped Christina delegate a bit more. Christina describes herself as a “doer”. When things need to get done, her style is to just handle them herself. But when you’re the chair of an organisation, this approach doesn’t really work – there’s no way you can get all the work done yourself. On top of this, when you don’t collaborate with people, it can make them feel even less ownership – and lower energy! It’s a vicious cycle.

So Nicole worked with Christina on these issues. They had regular meetings, every six weeks or so, and used them to develop the skills Christina needed to thrive.

The results

So far, they’re getting there. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Christina reckons she’s starting to move the organisations in a more positive direction.

Christina’s really pleased with what she got out of the mentoring, and how it went. “I don’t need someone to stroke my ego,” she said. “I needed someone to challenge me and help me be better.” And that’s exactly what Nicole did.

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