A leader’s job: How I handle complaints from a volunteer board

July 23, 2012

Sarah Eaton - leadership blogThis year, I took on the role of President for a non-profit board that I sit on. I have sat on boards before and held the position of President before. At that time, I was in my early 30s. Now, a decade later, with a completely different board, it feels very different. I feel less “attached” to the position itself, but feel a deeper responsibility to lead wisely.

I often ponder the Native American concept about considering the impact our decisions we make today will have on the people living seven generations in the future. This shifts my perspective from the idea of trying to balance everyone’s input and views today to a more complex model that also considers the long-term impact of our decisions, into a future that we can neither know, nor predict.

The decisions we make today are not just about us as a board. Our decisions are not even about our members. They are about both the elected directors and the members we represent; and not only those who are involved today but those whose lives may be impacted in the future. Our leadership decisions impact not only our work today, but also the future.

I recently had a board member come to me with a complaint. He seemed angry and insistent that his ideas be heard and implemented immediately.

As a younger leader, I may have gotten angry with another board member insisting that I do something a certain way. Or I may have caved into his insistence and done what he wanted without thinking it through, in an attempt to keep the peace.

Now, I think that my first job is to listen. Instead of being emotionally involved, I am curious as to what he has to say. I am wondering about his point of view, his insights and his concerns. I did not promise that I would agree with him and I also promised that I would not ignore him. I promised to listen.

After I have listened, I have said that I will do one of the following:

  1. Address the concerns in a fair and just manner (take action).
  2. Explain why the concerns cannot be addressed in the exact manner that the complainant would like (give a clear explanation that is solidly grounded in evidence).
  3. If I lack adequate expertise, then take the concerns to either a governing body (i.e. the rest of the board) or a specialist with more more depth of experience (e.g. staff, outside consultants, etc.) who can offer guidance, provide additional knowledge and/or propose a course of action.
I take a strength-based approach to my leadership work. That means that I start with the assumption that everyone brings strengths, talent and expertise to the table.

Starting with that assumption changes the leadership game. It means that rather than reacting immediately, that I take the time to consider the strength that the individual brings to the situation. This often means setting my own opinions and feelings aside. I may be angry or frustrated, but I still have a job to do.

Being in a leadership position doesn’t mean that we have all the answers. I means that others are trusting us to be wise and fair.

I believe that as leaders, our first job is always to listen. Then ask questions. Then think seven generations ahead. Then either seek more advice or take action.

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Cold-Handed Collaboration: Why it Worked

January 17, 2011

When I talk about “cold-handed collaboration”, I mean it literally, not metaphorically. I live in a condominium townhouse in Calgary, Alberta. I’ve been on the board of directors for our condo association for three years now. I love working with other owners who live in our community on projects to improve the complex.

In Calgary there is a municipal recycling program, which means that the City will collect recycling from homes, just as it picks up garbage. The problem is that right now, that program does not extend to condominiums. We pay for private garbage pick-up in our complex, just as all condominiums in the city do.

Last year, we decided to bring recycling to our condo complex. We started with a pilot project. Four of the board members (including me) tested out the services of Harvest Recycling for a couple of months. At our regular board meetings we reported back with feedback. We were pleased with the results and decided to extend the program to the entire complex.

We arranged with Harvest Recycling to deliver bins to our complex, which would be paid for by the condominium corporation. Our plan was to deliver one bin to each house hold. Since the bins were paid for out of the “common pot” so to speak, one board member had the idea of writing the unit number of each house on the bins. We agreed this was a good idea.

We sent letters to every unit, with details of the new program and how to participate.

We arranged with the company to purchase and drop off the bins for us. We agreed to make time in our schedules to deliver the bins to each unit, writing the house number on each bin as we went along. One board member bought markers to tag the bins.

The bins arrived on Saturday. For those of you who don’t live in Calgary, we’ve been having a bit of a cold snap lately. On Saturday, the temperature was -23 C (that’s -9 Farenheit). Once you factored in the wind chill, it felt like -30C (that’s -22 Farenheit).

Jan 15 2011 weather

The truck arrived with the big blue bins. Not only did they need to be delivered, they needed to be assembled. The lids came separately from the bins. We had to snap a lid on to each bin, deliver it to a unit and tag the bin with the unit number.

Five board members and one other volunteer all bundled up and went outside into the frigid temperatures to tackle the project. As I reflect on this, I can see some reasons why it worked so well:

We made a commitment

We had previously agreed to work together on the day the bins were delivered. We had no idea that it would be so cold on Saturday, but we had all said we would be there.

We kept our word

Despite the cold, no one reneged on their commitment. I don’t think any of us particularly wanted to be doing our volunteer work outside that day, but we did it anyway. We had an agreement and we kept it.

We had a purpose

We were committed not only to our date and time, but also to our recycling project. We had been talking about it for months at our board meetings, working on our pilot project for several weeks and we knew that we wanted this.

We worked together

When you’re outside in -30 Celcius windchill, there isn’t much point in standing around. You stay much warmer if you keep moving. We hustled. We collaborated. We figured out what had to be done and we did it.

We grumbled, but not about each other

Really, how could you not complain about the cold? We commiserated about the weather and fantasized about summer coming. There’s a difference between being a complainer and commiserating. The complainer stands out by being grouchy when no one else is. Commiserating, on the other hand, actually means “to be miserable together”. We bonded through a shared (and thankfully, temporary) experience. We were in it together, by choice – and that didn’t change the fact that it was freezing outside.

We socialized

All work and no play makes for miserable working conditions. We took the opportunity to chat as we worked, catching up with one another. It made the time pass faster and gave us a chance to bond on a personal level, too. We laughed. We smiled. We joked about our eyelashes freezing. We had a good time. A few of the neighbors who saw us working said hello and we chatted about the recyling program that will start next week.

We took breaks

There was no one cracking a whip out there in the cold. As directors of the board, we all have leadership positions and we’re all adults. When one person said, “I’m going to go inside and put on some long underwear”, we saw the good sense in that. Someone else chimed in and said, “Why don’t we all go inside for a few minutes and warm up?” Heads in hoods, toques and other hats nodded in agreement. Within a few minutes, three of us sat in my kitchen drinking warm chai lattes and hot chocolate. We reconvened after our break, during which many of us had donned additional clothing.

We acknowledged a job well done

At the end of it all, we acknowledged the efforts of the others by saying things like “Good job, guys!” or “Nice work, team!” The acknowledgment was brief and sincere. That’s all it needed to be. Then we all returned to our respective homes to warm up and carry on with our day.

To do the job alone would have been utter misery. To collaborate and have six of us working together was effective and efficient. By the end of it all, we had cold-hands, but warm hearts, as they say.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.