I was told, many years ago, by somebody very close to the old Microsoft management, in Bill Gates times, that they had a layer of around 70 VPs, below Gates, that people called ‘The Volunteers’. They called them like that because they had made so much money, that they didn’t need to be there. If they were there, and showed up every day, it was because they chose to be there, that is, they were ‘volunteers’
Since then, I have been using this metaphor to explain the ultimate goal of Employee Engagement. It does not get better than aspiring to ‘a company of volunteers’. And I am not talking about the 70 MS VP style. It’s a powerful anchor. Some people may think that it is a bit naïve, or unrealistic, but it draws the attention to what people’s real authentic engagement may look like.
Not a long time ago, these ideas were dismissed by a senior HR person of one of my clients: ‘Everybody is a volunteer; everybody has a choice, if they don’t like it, they don’t have to be here’. And it sounded to me as if she was saying ‘Don’t you see it? This is not North Korea’. It was a facile, arrogant dismissal, and it missed the point…
Studying the dynamics of volunteer organizations should be part of the curriculum, formal or informal, instructional or ‘real life’, for anybody in leadership. All the ingredients of empowerment, motivation, collaboration, control and autonomy are often very quickly found in these organizations. They are very vivid. When I tried this with a UN Refugee Organization, I learnt for example how normal it was to run the NGO with little control at the top and full empowerment of people on the ground. They had no other choice! And they mastered that. Not the case for our standard business organizations!
I have suggested more than once to leaders, to literally embrace this as their number one Personal Goal. Explicitly, written down: “I will lead a company of volunteers’. Just the thinking behind this idea, the effort required to understand what it would take, what would need to change, what would be the barriers to this company of volunteers, what ‘employee engagement’ might mean, and what that organization might ultimately look like, is well worth the effort. Imagine it! I suggest you try it.
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