Tips for Seniors

Volunteering – A Great Way to Learn Executive Leadership

Dec 21, 2011

One of the most powerful ways for younger managers to understand and experience the type of leadership needed for the C-Suite is to do volunteer work early in their careers. This is because the type of leadership at the top is akin to being a leader of volunteers, it is not about carrots and sticks but about persuasion and getting people to grasp and follow your vision.

This is written with Richard Pound.

It’s an irony of modern corporate life, but one of the greatest challenges in motivating employees to sustain strong business performance is to make them feel like there’s a larger purpose to their lives than just meeting financial goals and this need is only getting strong with the younger generation, the Postmoderns. Although business success and the raises, bonuses, and perks that come with it are intrinsic motivators, money and corporate extras aren’t everything for most people.

Having corporate programs that encourage employees to work as volunteers for organizations in their community are one way to offer an extra corporate benefit that makes employees feel pride and satisfaction, and makes them happier and more productive workers. Marc Benioff, CEO of, promotes what he calls “the 1 per- cent solution”: 1 percent of the company’s equity, 1 percent of its profits, and 1 percent of its employees’ paid work hours are devoted to philanthropy. Software maker SAS, which has for years been among the Top 20 in Fortune’s annual list of the 100 best companies to work for, offers a volunteer initiative that lets employees use flexible schedules to take paid time off for projects in the community, or even work in teams with their managers on a volunteer effort during business hours.

To our minds, though, volunteer work isn’t just an outlet for employees in search of more meaning in their work lives; it provides an excellent way to prepare for a senior executive position. By volunteering for projects in nonprofit organizations, experienced executives can hone their supervisory and leadership skills, and aspiring executives can gain the experience and networking opportunities that could lead to plum positions in the company.


Permission Leadership

The management environment in volunteer organizations is often extremely challenging. Without the compensation and organizational authority to keep their teams productive and working toward shared goals, volunteer managers must be adept leaders and persuaders as they tackle all the same management issues they face in their corporations: setting objectives, developing strategies, raising and allocating funds, motivating and guiding people, and complying with regulatory structures. Because corporate managers volunteering in nonprofits don’t have titles to define their positions, they have to practice what some call “per mission leadership.” That is, they have to earn the trust and respect of the people they are supervising. Also, they need to do all this with what are usually much more limited resources than what they are accustomed to in their ‘real jobs’, which often requires significant creative skills.

Executive awareness of social issues, and of the needs and characteristics of different socioeconomic groups, is also sharpened through volunteer experiences. This is important for corporate managers who must increasingly reconcile the various, and often conflicting, demands of a multitude of stakeholders and special interests, many of which they may not completely understand. Volunteering in nonprofits isn’t just a charitable act; it’s a way for executives to hone their management and leadership skills.

For younger managers, nonprofits offer rare chances to learn intangible leadership skills, such as persuasion and mediation. With recreational, religious, political, or social organizations, a manager also has the opportunity to meet and establish friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds and vocations. For younger managers, a stint in a nonprofit organization provides rare chances to socialize with senior executives and work closely with them to learn intangible leadership skills — such as persuading others to follow your vision, mediating between conflicting parties, addressing workers’ concerns and insights, and knowing when to spur a team to action and when to let the team relax. Senior, financially secure executives who donate their time and energy with enthusiasm are role models for younger executives.


Incentives and Support

If helping others and the community is undertaken purely for the opportunity to network, the full and lasting meaning of volunteerism is missed. Some people who approach it with this attitude will surely lose interest. Still, many of those who start out as volunteers merely to add a credit to their CV begin, in time, to grasp the bigger picture. Even with all of the advantages of volunteerism — it’s good for society, companies, and employees — many employees still resist getting involved. Their main objection is that they don’t have the time to volunteer and do their “day jobs.” Or they say volunteering is not appreciated at their companies, and it certainly is not viewed as a way to climb the corporate ladder.

In fact, some employees feel that by volunteering, they are potentially derailing their chances for a promotion because of the time they’ll spend out of the office. Because of these attitudes, there is a growing recognition in both the public and the private sectors that corporations need to be more proactive in promoting employee volunteerism. To do this, companies must freely provide time off for participation in volunteer programs; publicly acknowledge, either with promotions or awards, employees who volunteer the most and do it successfully; and set up mentoring programs in which senior executives work with employees in one-on-one sessions to help them navigate obstacles that arise during volunteerism. Karl’s old firm IBM, has set up a program for high potentials where they go and live for several weeks in another part of the world and do volunteer work in dramatically different societies than their home country, a great idea!

Only when these approaches, and others, are used to demonstrate the corporation’s full approval of and engagement in volunteerism will these companies inspire reluctant employees and give them productive volunteer experiences that are good for them, for the company, and for the community.

This blog was written with Richard Pound. Richard Pound( is the Chancellor Emeritus of McGill University and a partner in the law firm Stikeman Elliott. He has volunteered with the Olympic Games for more than 40 years. An earlier version of this was published in 2004 in Strategy & Business, since then the things we talked about have only become more urgent and more relevant to organizations and to their people, particularly their younger employees, the Postmoderns.

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