Volunteering at Work in 2013

The late Peter Drucker, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002 in recognition of his path-breaking contributions to the field of management, believed that organization leaders should always think of their employees as volunteers.  He wasn’t suggesting that good work should go unpaid.  Rather, he was highlighting the fact that there is a substantial difference between the performance required of most workers to keep and progress in their jobs and the performance those workers could deliver if fully-engaged in their work.  In other words, fully-engaged employees are almost always volunteering to a great extent, choosing to give their all not because they have to but because they choose to.  This voluntary aspect of work is particularly important for “knowledge workers,” those who have significant discretion in how they do their jobs.

Drucker’s insights on employee volunteerism force all of us to rethink our roles as leaders and as employees of our organizations.  He reminds us of our human desire to motivate and be motivated, and to work for someone and something that we believe in.

Tapping into employee volunteerism isn’t just the right thing to do; it is increasingly a business imperative.  In industry after industry, traditional structural sources of competitive advantage – such as regulatory protection or privileged access to key resources – are becoming less common in the wake of global competition, deregulation and privatization.  As a result, most companies find it increasingly difficult to differentiate themselves through structural advantages alone.

Intangible assets, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly important performance drivers and sources of potential competitive advantage.  Corporate culture, intellectual capital, and the ability to spot and move quickly on new opportunities are examples of such intangible assets.  These assets cannot be separated from the attitudes and behaviors of the organization’s people.  In fact, it is safe to say that fully-engaged employee “volunteers” lie at the heart of advantages that companies like Southwest Airlines enjoy in otherwise poor-performing industries.

I am fortunate to know Jim Parker, the former CEO of Southwest. Jim’s book, Do the Right Thing: How Dedicated Employees Create Loyal Customers and Large Profits, is rich with inspirational tales of employee volunteerism at Southwest and how they paid off for the company.  When off-duty flight attendants and pilots help serve in-flight beverages and service planes on the ground, customer satisfaction rises, and Southwest gets its most expensive assets – its planes – back into the air faster, allowing for more flights and more passengers to pay for those planes.  When a Southwest gate agent goes out of her way to personally return a passenger’s lost Blackberry, she has earned the company a customer for life – one who will stick with the airline even in the toughest economic times.

Why do employees at Southwest choose to volunteer on the job seemingly more so than employees at other airlines?  They believe in the organization’s mission and values.  They believe that their work matters.  They respect, and may even really like, their bosses and co-workers.  Not surprisingly, these are the same reasons you might volunteer to coach a Little League baseball team, serve food at a homeless shelter, or lead community outreach efforts for your church.  If you keep these simple truths in mind, you can be a better and happier boss and employee.

Let us all resolve to put Peter Drucker’s and Jim Parker’s ideas to work in 2013.

If you are a boss, resolve to:

  • Share and discuss your organization’s mission and strategic plan with your staff, explicitly identifying the role each person plays in the organization’s success.
  • Spend more time on staff professional development, giving more timely praise and direct, constructive feedback so that all are better positioned to reach their full potential and appreciate how much their work really matters.
  • Get to know your staff as people.  They don’t park their relationships, aspirations, interests, and non-work-related capabilities at the office door.  If you want to inspire volunteerism at work, you have to understand what matters most to your people.

Even if you don’t manage others, resolve to:

  • Identify the times in life (work or otherwise) where you have chosen to volunteer.  What compelled you to volunteer?  Why did you engage so fully?  And if you aren’t volunteering in your present job, try to identify why not.
  • Armed with this information, make a conscious choice about whether to look for a new job or organization to work for even in this difficult job market.  If you aren’t fully engaged at work, you owe it to yourself and colleagues to increase your engagement if possible, and if not, to find a place where you will volunteer.

Don’t let yourself or your staff spend another year merely working for the weekend.  Let 2013 be the year that you start volunteering again at work.

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