Fighting the Good Fight

What working with volunteers taught me about being a better manager.

Among my first full-time design gigs was a role at a small, socially motivated non-profit in the deep south. Having no idea people anywhere were willing to pay someone to work as an in-house designer you can imagine the naive enthusiasm with which I accepted a (very) minuscule paycheck and a cross-country move.

This was also my first foray into working with volunteers, which are inherently different than employees. They have no fear of being fired, no incentive of a yearly bonus. Volunteers are there simply because they wish to be and, although I work primarily with paid employees now, there were a few key takeaways from my time which have really stuck with me.

Don’t Just Delegate. Empower.

The first of many rude awakenings throughout my tenure occurred when I tried to be (what I perceived as) a boss. Authoritative, critical, and willing to do anything to achieve my own version of success. After all, demanding better performance is what leaders do, right? Wrong.

Rather than delegating task lists, I started to be intentional about discovering what people were passionate about and, eventually, helped them build teams to see their visions through. The crazy thing is the more ownership I gave, the more work I received.

Being a very detail oriented (see “anal”) person, this isn’t a skill that comes easily for me. The overseer in me wants to constantly stop people before they even take their first step to tell them they should do things differently. However, I truly believe a bet placed on great, driven people is always worth the risk.

It was in that first year of work I realized a very important lesson: Management is a call to serve, not to be served.

Embrace Transparency

A great advantage of not being traditional ‘co-workers’ is the ability to bypass all of those little voices in your head that constantly remind you of the importance of doing everything perfectly. The ones that tell you to camouflage any hint of weakness in the interest of job security.

It’s okay to fail. We say this all the time when it comes to the products we build but somehow often seem to forget it when we lead teams.

“I have no idea if this is going to work or not, but let’s give it a shot” has become a common phrase of mine when we test new initiatives. The truth is I often have no idea if it’ll work or fall on its face. I just sell the team on the value, put it out there, and iterate on what doesn’t work. Just like our products, our process should be on a continual road to betterment.

Get Real

Another advantage of not being ‘co-workers’ is that the lines between work and life begin to blur. We were all friends. We shared meals. We met each other’s families. We simply enjoyed living life together.

The truth is we probably spend more time with our colleagues than we do our own families. Why not embrace that?

Go to shows together. 
Talk about your personal lives.
Eat together (even when it’s not expensed).

Going beyond the obligatory “How was your weekend” will do wonders for office relationships and team camaraderie.

TL;DR

At the end of the day, all of this can be summed up into some of the best management advice I ever received:

“Being a good manager is largely just caring about people.”

Keaton Price is a product designer and creative director. He also leads a product design team at WeWork.