Joys & challinGes of werking with A detail-orented volonteer
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By David Ewald, CAE, President

One of the things attracting many of us to the world of associations is the opportunity to work with the talented, passionate and intelligent volunteers who serve as leaders of the organizations. In my 23-year career, I have met and served with more than 5,000 board members from many professions. As you have probably observed in your career, while every board member is different, their styles commonly fall into one of several types. This article discusses one type of personality — call it "detail-oriented" — that can be a useful type of volunteer to have on boards and committees.

People who take pride in their attention to detail help organizations meet deadlines, follow processes and spot and correct errors. What starts as a small typo (like spelling a sponsor’s name incorrectly on an annual meeting brochure — or omitting it entirely) can turn into a huge problem. Detail-oriented volunteers often are the ones preventing those mistakes from going to the membership and beyond. They also draw attention to important provisions in bylaws and can be excellent leaders who help find and implement solutions to complicated problems.

On the challenging side, detail-oriented volunteers can drive staff crazy when they delight in their ability to find and point out what they consider errors. Often the venue they use to demonstrate their acumen is with a "reply all" or “cc: BOD” e-mail. Focusing on finding something, anything, to correct, change or disagree with is one of the most difficult and exasperating habits of this person. In its extreme, over-attention to detail or strictly adhering to processes handcuffs an organization while its volunteers and staff wrestle with minutiae at the expense of the big picture.

Why is dealing with details such a challenge? Many working in the association world consider themselves to be "people-people" or "big picture thinkers." Those who think of themselves in one or both of those categories often use those descriptions while they are apologizing for their lack of attention to detail. Working with associations and volunteers requires all leaders to be people-people and big picture thinkers. Thinking "big picture" can't be an excuse for not paying attention to important details. Effective leaders have to balance staff and organizational attention to detail while keeping their organizations focused on important big picture priorities. This is especially true in the difficult economic climate being faced by associations and their members.

Here are some tips to help make the most of your work with detail-oriented volunteers:

Identify them

Sometimes they make it easy by saying, "I'm a detail-oriented person." Other times you need to figure it out yourself. Often this type of volunteer will be a quiet observer during board or committee meetings, speaking up only when asked or when he or she feels passionate about an issue. The length and detail of their e-mails and number of questions asked is another sign.

Appreciate and involve them

The detail-oriented volunteer prevents embarrassing mistakes and can help sort out complicated processes. Once you identify these people, use their skills to help your organization. They take their roles as leaders seriously. A president will have a plan. A treasurer will have questions and make sure the budget is done on time and is being followed. The detail-oriented individual usually is reliable at following through on his or her promises and obligations.

Adopt the best of their skills

Observe their habits and adopt the best of them. It doesn't take much more time for a second, careful review of a document that can prevent a lot of problems. Reliable follow-through is an expectation you should have of yourself regardless of your position or work style. Thorough communication and asking questions are things we all need to do. Plan ahead. Understand and follow appropriate processes.

Watch out for arguments

Disagreements are healthy but be wary for the "Always Right, Even When Wrong” Syndrome. In paying attention to detail, volunteers may argue a point or process to exhaustion and go to great lengths to unearth data proving they’re right. After demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that indeed you are right, you may be trumped with an argument that they weren’t privy to a key piece of information, leaving you both exhausted and frustrated.

Communicate in their style

Think about and provide the details that detail-oriented people want before they ask for them. I use a headset and voice recognition software to more easily dictate thorough responses to their e-mails. Spending more time providing details up front prevents the aggravation of repeat e-mails asking for "just one more thing." Try it — if this isn't your natural style, you will learn something about yourself and probably gain respect from those who thirst for detail.

Know when enough is enough

This is the most difficult aspect of dealing with this type of volunteer. I've seen situations where detail-oriented treasurers disagreed — incorrectly — with seasoned CPAs over appropriate accounting processes. E-mails are sent by board members requesting information that would take hours to research and provide negligible additional gain. This can be exacerbated when those volunteers are going straight to staff without your knowledge or the knowledge of the board. Staff leaders need to make sure volunteers have the appropriate amount of detail necessary to make decisions. They also need to make the best use of their most expensive resource (staff) and ensure productive and appropriate volunteer-staff relationships. At some point, enough is enough; and it may be necessary to become involved in setting boundaries to avoid excessive distraction, poor use of staff resources and slow organizational decision-making.

The best organizations embrace diversity of all types. Besides ensuring diversity in the areas as typically defined, it is important to create diversity of personality styles. Detail-oriented volunteers are essential components of well-managed associations. Take advantage of their strengths to augment the strengths other personalities bring to the table. For organizations that have failed in the past to properly manage detailed processes, seeking participation from these individuals may be the key to getting back on track. Recognize and understand the motivations of detailed individuals, then work with them in the style they desire to help them function best in their leadership roles.

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