Volunteering—particularly with an industry or professional organization—provides an opportunity to develop your leadership skills in many ways. Volunteers can gain different perspectives, build relationships, and master new skills—often, ones they might not have the time for or opportunity to work on at their jobs.
To explore the ways volunteering can build leadership skills, I spoke with IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) Leadership Academy faculty members Rinku Bhattacharya and Pem Smith about our experiences volunteering for IMA. Here are our top seven tips for making the most of your efforts.
1. Learn planning and organization skills. Volunteers learn to plan effective meetings, organize events, and coordinate with other volunteers. After I joined IMA’s Louisville Chapter board, I spearheaded our student nights, continuing professional education (CPE) conferences, and other events. The inventories and activities I coordinated for the chapter required leading a diverse group outside my day job, learning to plan and execute time-sensitive activities with many moving parts, and building in contingencies. I was able to translate those skills developed as a volunteer into my professional role as a cost accountant, which enabled me to better plan and execute the company’s physical inventories.
2. Improve your time management. Volunteering pushes you to learn how to juggle work, family, and volunteer priorities to maintain a reasonable balance. A friend and mentor advised Smith that volunteering in a professional association could help his career, but it requires active involvement, making reasonable commitments, and prioritizing meeting them. It taught him the value of splitting tasks into manageable pieces and getting the essential work done on time.
3. Develop mentoring skills. Most volunteer roles rely on more experienced volunteers to share information and knowledge with newer recruits, and as you change roles, you mentor new members who assume a role you previously filled. Bhattacharya was unfamiliar with the concept of mentoring when she moved to the United States to attend university. As a young professional, she was appreciative of the support she received from other professionals, but she was unsure how to pay it forward. She identified several structured mentoring outlets. In her particular environment, she has developed her skills while serving as a mentor for IMA’s Young Professional Leadership Experience. She serves on IMA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and is spearheading an initiative to create a meaningful and rewarding experience for emerging volunteer leaders from a variety of backgrounds. And this can be done likewise within countless organizations and institutes.
4. Grow your people skills. Learn to motivate, communicate, and collaborate by working with people from diverse backgrounds and persuading others to assist in your cause. In my own volunteer work, I found myself leading significantly more experienced board members, many of whom had a decade or more of active service. It was great practice for how to develop a team and inspire change as a relative newcomer. I leveraged this experience when I stepped into my first supervisory role leading my company’s accounts payable department. Learning the value of diversity, mutual respect, strong communication, and cooperation in my previous volunteer roles helped me to build a successful team.
5. Find networking opportunities. Expand your network organically by breaking out of typical work circles and partnering with others from various industries and career stages. Smith hadn’t considered professional networking before joining IMA; like many, all his professional relationships came from colleagues at his job. Volunteering in IMA’s San Diego Chapter helped him to build relationships with hiring managers, recruiters, and professional peers. He was able to leverage these relationships to find mentors to further his professional development and offer advice to him. These relationships were deeper than casual acquaintances formed at events because they had worked together on volunteer projects and boards.
6. Experiment. Volunteering gives you the space to take risks without fear of financial or career repercussions. Having the freedom to experiment helps you to become a more versatile leader. Faced with dwindling attendance at our monthly CPE meetings, my local IMA chapter was stuck in a rut of repeating the same lineup every year and hoping for a different outcome. I appreciate the support of the chapter members in allowing me to experiment by switching to a full-day CPE conference and incorporating more high-profile speakers. It also sparked in me the inspiration to put aside preconceptions at work. For example, when developing Indiana University Southeast’s first online introductory financial accounting class, I didn’t simply tweak my face-to-face class. I started from scratch. I found better ways of delivering my course and then translated those to my face-to-face sections. Along with a colleague, I developed an approach called “supported learning,” which received an innovation award, and I’ve since mentored other accounting faculty members in using this approach.
7. Get out of your comfort zone. Volunteering challenges you to work with new people and explore new surroundings. Bhattacharya isn’t comfortable speaking publicly. Being a part of the IMA Leadership Academy and making presentations with more confident, eloquent speakers has improved her effectiveness making presentations and communicating effectively.
You can develop all these important leadership qualities by volunteering with IMA. It’s all about asking the right questions and taking a strategic approach to your volunteer roles. The Volunteer Service Leader Framework can help you navigate IMA’s various volunteer opportunities and choose the most appropriate role based on what leadership skills you want to hone, the level of impact you want to have (local, regional, or global), what interests you, and how much time you have available. The framework uses personas in combination with a deployment matrix of questions, considerations, and guidelines to help you scale your volunteerism. Your career will get a boost from building your leadership skills through strategic volunteering.