I remember just like it was yesterday. I was this bright eyed and bushy tailed go getter, star struck by city council members inviting me to be a part of something new and progressive. We loaded up on a local real estate developer’s private plane and off to MPact Memphis we went to see how they had accomplished attracting and retaining talent so successfully.
I was naïve back then. I was pumped that I would be a part of something great… something that would truly make a profound difference in our community… something that would engage my generation of young leaders scratching at the door of opportunity… something that would build tolerance among diversity… something that would fill the gaps in our leadership and ultimately attract and retain great talent.
I didn’t realize how much leadership played a necessary roll in these endeavors until recently. It was so clear to me what needed to be done, and I was confident we had the team to make it happen. Six of us started out, four of us chosen by our two fearless leaders freshly elected to serve our city as council members and young professionals themselves. We did our research and took time for planning, meeting every week for months in preparation for our launch.
I had served on boards by this point and understood the 80/20 rule (20% of the people do all of the work while the other 80% take the credit), but I wasn’t expecting it with such a young and energetic group of passionate leaders. I made it to our breakfast meetings every week at 8:00 AM, sometimes even earlier, but if more than one or two people even showed up, everyone seemed to be asking, “What am I supposed to be doing?”.
I understood my role as Chair of Membership and was developing an action plan to attract members, but it didn’t take long to realize that we all needed action plans that stemmed from one strategic vision in order for all of the working parts to actually work. Our months of organizational planning ultimately resulted in one successful event attracting approximately 300 people from diverse backgrounds. But then what?
We had all of this energy and enthusiasm but no where to channel it. We stacked our board with friends and friends of friends, virtually everyone under the age of 40. Who needs ‘em, right? We know what we’re doing! Just leave us alone and we’ll show you! Ha. Lessons were learned my friends.
Lesson #1: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Lesson #2: Surround yourself with wisdom.
As time went on, our succession plan of filling the board with all of our friends proved the 80/20 right when we could never even form a quorum to vote on anything at our monthly board meetings.
Lesson #3: First rule of leadership, show up!
As attendance faltered and accountability standards crumbled, I got the big idea to make some suggestions. Why not create a nominating committee to ensure we diversify the board based on skill sets? Our Chair of the Board was wearing three hats including Chair of Development and Treasurer, which all in one equaled our Finance Committee. That seemed a bit fiscally irresponsible, so why not suggest finding a CPA to serve as our Treasurer?
We didn’t know how much money we had from month to month or where it might possibly be coming from in the future. We burned through board members who actually tried to do some good because we lacked organization, accountability and resources to sustain ourselves. And eventually, we almost had our 501(c)3 incorporation status stripped away from us.
That’s when I began to realize how much leadership actually played into everything. We were all inexperienced leaders and some with ulterior motives… some resume builders and others with political aspirations. Those with the vision and determination to see things through were few and far between, and any mention of a suggestion to the leadership team was taken as a personal insult.
Lesson #4: Empower those willing to serve.
I don’t fault those members who came along after our initial group of founders. We failed to build a foundation with a solid infrastructure, clear vision and committed leaders to the very end. We became disagreeable rather than work together through the inevitable trials and tribulations. We became exactly what we had set out to not become.
Lesson #5: Agree to disagree respectfully. Diplomacy is always the best policy.
We were there initially to facilitate collaboration, limit duplication, and bring people together in the community. It sounded easy enough. But as we failed to plan, include experienced leaders, show up to board meetings, and respect one another’s opinions, I began to understand just how difficult organizational planning and collaboration could be.
We were not alone in the world of young professional organizational development though. We fit the mold to a tee according to research studies of YP start ups. The founder and 2EO of Next Generation Consulting, Rebecca Ryan said, “The first one out of the gate is usually the one who gets shot,” and man was she right.
So have we learned from our mistakes? Time will tell, and hopefully this Chronicle of YP Leadership will lend some helpful insight into what not to do for the new leadership team. Gen X and Y are the future leaders of tomorrow, and we will never learn the leadership skills necessary to lead if we don’t put ourselves out there. But we must be willing to learn from our mistakes in order to overcome adversity.
Lesson #6: If we don’t learn from the lessons of the past, we’re bound to repeat the same mistakes.
As we move forward as an organization, a new dawn is possible. We have shed our old skin and have fresh new bright eyed and bushy tailed foot soldiers who believe in the cause again. We have people who care, people who plan, people who advise us, and people who actually show up and follow through with their promises.
We continue to have turnover on the board which will hopefully change with a little more diplomacy, accountability and appreciation from the new leaders. Sustainability is at our fingertips with prospects of future collaborative measures. All in all, the trials and tribulations of starting Columbia Opportunity Resource (COR) were totally worth it just by knowing that:
• We helped so many young professionals serve on boards and committees.
• We recruited so many volunteers to participate in the community.
• We provided so many with the opportunity to lead and learn.
• We inspired so many to care about the politics surrounding them.
• We brought so many together even if they were kicking and screaming.
At times, I may have cared too much while others didn’t seem to care at all. My intentions were misunderstood. I searched for others to join the cause and believe in it the way that I did. I was disappointed, insulted, frustrated and eventually burned out like the rest. But I learned more about leadership through this experience than I could have ever imagined.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and to settle for anything less is not leadership at all in my opinion. It is hard, so don’t be fooled when you decide to get involved. 1) Plan ahead. 2) Ask for advice. 3) Be present. 4) Empower others. 5) Agree to disagree, and 6) learn from the past.