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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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

Share your story, share your wisdom: How to make learning memorable

June 14, 2012

There I sat in my professor’s office, sobbing. “But it is such a lousy grade,” I said. “I’ll never get another scholarship. Then, how will I pay for school? I’ll have to drop out.”

I hated statistics, but it was a mandatory course in my research program. My grade was a passing one, but just barely.

Tim, in his Northern English fashion, didn’t really have much use for tears, but he knew that I was hurting. He retorted, “Look, you’re not going to drop out of school. It will work out just fine.”

“But how?” I sniveled.

“Let me tell you about the time I got a terrible grade in one of my courses in grad school…” He went on to tell me about an experience that paralleled my own. “I made it through OK, and so will you. After you’ve crossed that stage and you have your degree in hand, no one is going to ask you what your grade in statistics was! You passed. That’s enough. Now go on, and get back to work.”

Having my teacher and mentor share a story with me about his own shortcomings did not diminish his professional excellence in my eyes; in fact, it made me respect him even more. My point to you is this: Through our personal stories, as teachers we have an opportunity to create memorable learning experiences that motivate, inspire and teach our learners.

Here are some tips on how to incorporate stories into your teaching practice:

Be vulnerable 

Stories that show your humanity and your vulnerability are likely to resonate the most deeply with others. We are not talking about melodramatically pulling all your skeletons out of the closet and putting them on parade. It is about show-ing that you, too, are human. Adult learners in particular, can be hampered by a fear of failure. By sharing our failures and vulnerabilities, we become approachable and believable.

Get personal (just a little) 

Stories that are drawn from your own experience will have the most impact. Professional speaker, Patricia Fripp calls it “mining your experience”. Find the golden nuggets of your life and polish them. Then offer them as gifts of the heart.

Unless there is a good reason to do otherwise, tell your stories using the first person. They are your stories, after all.

Speak your truth 

Your stories will be more believable if they are true. A little bit of literary license is allowed, but at least 90% of the story should be accurate and true. If there is too much embellishment, others will pick up on it. If they do, then you lose credibility as a storyteller — and as a teacher. It is OK to massage the truth, just don’t stretch it too far.

Keep it short 

Keep your stories crisp, clean and to the point. Someone once told me that a story that relates directly to your lesson should take up a maximum of 5% of your teaching time. In a 60-minute class, your story should be a maximum of 3 minutes. If it is longer, students may tune out or get impatient. I have used that guideline in my teaching practice and it seems to work well.

Focus on the learner 

Your teaching stories may be about you, but they are for your learner. Edit out unnecessary details. Ask yourself, “How will this story help my learners?”

Make a point 

In teaching, we do not tell stories to simply to entertain our students. We use the entertainment and emotional elements of a story to create memorable learning experiences. The connection between your story and the point you are trying to make may not be obvious to the listener. Use transitional phrases such as “My point to you is…” to help others contextualize the story you have just shared with them.

How can you create memorable learning experiences for your students with stories? Your life is a gold mine of experience. What nuggets of life do you have to share with your students? The wisdom contained within them is priceless.

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.