September 8, 2014
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Rebekah Johnson, Immediate Past President, NYS TESOL, New York, USA


Good leadership is largely managing personalities and using everyone’s strengths (maneuvering around weaknesses) and negotiating with people to get things done, work delegated, and compromises made.

The diversity and various backgrounds that our membership and our elected leaders bring to the organization is beneficial but also makes it challenging to organize everyone’s efforts. Some differences among volunteers with New York State TESOL include: various levels of commitment, focus on different educational settings (K–12 vs. higher ed vs. adult ed vs. administration), and various amounts of experience in organizational leadership each person brings to the table.

Working With Volunteers

Most people we work with as officers on the executive board are volunteers. Other than staff positions, all board members and SIG <Copyeditor note: Please spell out> and regions leaders are volunteers for our organization, and this presents some challenges:

  • They are busy professionals
  • Some are over-extended
  • They have different levels of commitment
  • They have different passions (e.g., some are focused on the Common Core Standards and others on higher education—people may be lobbying for various uses of state funding)
  • There can be personality clashes

To successfully lead the organization, we need to be aware of what areas of work our volunteer leaders are interested in, who can work best with whom, and who is available to do larger projects.

Addressing Performance Issues
What if the volunteers in the organization are not performing the duties of their elected roles or not fulfilling agreed upon commitments for the board?

First, some good guidelines to follow to avoid performance issues are as follows:

  • Clear job descriptions:First, the responsibilities that each position must fulfill need to be clear and written out in detail.
  • Checking in: Leaders must “check in” with other volunteers to see if they have any questions, need any help with their tasks and responsibilities, or are having any problems.
  • Accountability: It is important to hold people accountable and note when deadlines are missed, tasks are not completed, or there is confusion about who is responsible for particular tasks.

We have reached out via multiple phone calls to people who have had attendance issues at meetings, have stopped answering e-mails, or have not fulfilled important duties. We first ask them how things are going, to address the person and their work-life balance, and we find out if they need a little more time to do things, need help from others, or otherwise need some support but want to continue in the role. It can be difficult to determine when to encourage someone to continue in their role with support or when they should step down for the good of the organization and for themselves.

If there are ongoing issues in performance for a particular volunteer leader, here are some steps we have taken in the past to address the problem and, if necessary, replace the person who is unable to fulfill his or her role:

1. Call the person.
The first step is to call the person who is not fulfilling his or her role and check in. Urge him or her to voluntarily step down from the position if he or she is no longer able to fulfill the role, or discuss support you can provide if he or she would like to (and is able to) fulfill the role from now on.

2. E-mail or send an official letter.
It is important to have a written record that you suggested that the person step down if he or she is unable to fulfill the role. This gives the person an “out” and allows him or her to end work with the organization of his or her own volition.

3. Vote him or her off the board.
An extreme measure if the person does not respond or continues to neglect his or her role (and misses many board meetings, etc.) is for the board to vote the person off. This needs to be done in accordance with the bylaws of the organization. In our case, NYS TESOL has a bylaw that states that if someone has not attended three board meetings in a row, that person can be removed from the board.

Using Technology
Technology can help you to manage documents, meetings, voting, and more. To effectively use the technology available, all organizational members must be trained to use the systems and must have ongoing technological support available.

Some examples of technology that have been useful to our board:

  • PBWorks – a shared Wiki and document storage center.
  • Google Drive – a shared document storage system.
  • GoToMeeting – an online meeting service where people can all view the same documents, and can use video or audio or can call in on a phone line to join an online meeting. 
  •  E-mail voting – our board has a bylaw that states that votes can take place online—but only with 100% participation.

We have increasingly held meetings of various subgroups (Finance Committee, Publication Committee, or ad hoc groups to accomplish certain tasks) online using GoToMeeting (but Skype, Google Hangout, or other systems could also be used for this). We have also found that calling for votes for certain budget approvals or other pressing issues (particularly when people are not able to meet in person over the summer) has allowed us to get more accomplished than does holding all action items until the following board meeting.

Having some of our board meetings online rather than in person has allowed people who live upstate or farther from our usual meeting place to participate more easily, and it has also saved the board money, as we cover the costs of travel to and from board meetings for members.

Managing Strengths
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and it is best to get to know your fellow organizational leaders well so that you can delegate tasks that fit people’s strengths and avoid their weaknesses.

One way to learn what strengths and weaknesses people have is to do a training activity that explores personality types when new board members join. Members who are detail-oriented and like to get things done are great at managing finances, helping the group follow Robert’s Rules of Order (Robert, Honemann, & Balch, 2011), and keeping track of event proposals, but these go-getters may have some trouble with e-mail etiquette (being more of the “get it done” mindset than carefully massaging egos or couching complaints or requests within pleasantries). Board members who are not as detail-oriented may be “global thinkers” and can see the big picture, help the group strategize long-term goals, or outline the vision of the leadership, but may not be adept at taking the minutes (a detail-oriented activity). Someone who is good at nurturing should mentor new leaders or perhaps do the checking in on people who are missing meetings or not fulfilling roles. Each person brings valuable experience and particular qualities to the organization, so we should tap into these abilities in each volunteer.

What if the leader does not have the skill of managing personalities? She or he should work with other leaders on how to approach various members and get help when needed—recognizing her or his own strengths and weaknesses.

Sometimes working with the various strengths people have and managing various personalities takes a lot of interaction. To have successful meetings or come to difficult decisions, it may first take many phone calls to individuals to find out what each person thinks and then conference calls to small groups to continue the conversation.

Ultimately, volunteer leaders need to be motivated. The membership also needs to be motivated to attend events and become involved in initiatives our organization wants to promote, so it is important to motivate all involved.

Some ways we can motivate our leadership (and the membership at large):

There should be a sense of fun and enjoyment to the leadership gatherings and board meetings, while still focusing on work to get done.

A Sense of Purpose
Everyone should know why they are at the board meeting/organizational event/rally. What is the organizing principal or the vision of the organization? Is there a clear and simple (memorable) mantra or mission? Why are we working hard to help teachers and students?

Leaders and members should feel that they benefit from meeting colleagues, connecting with fellow educators, and hearing what others are involved with outside of the work done at the meeting itself. Jobs, friendships, and new ideas are gained from good opportunities to network, so be sure to build in time for chatting, meeting new people, or catching up with others at your meetings and events.

Show Appreciation
The most important and effective way to motivate people to work hard, and continue to help the organization in various ways, is to show appreciation. Do you tell people you appreciate their efforts? Do you recognize the hard work people have done behind the scenes at organizational events? Do you personally thank people with letters, phone calls, certificates, or other ways of recognition? What can you do to recognize the time people have given to your organization?

Challenges and Rewards
It may be that while you try hard to recognize and appreciate others in your organization, no one does the same for you. That’s okay—a successful event or a well-led organization seems to run smoothly because of the extensive behind-the-scenes work by you and others that no one knows about!

Remember that effective leadership is managing tasks and people but not doing everything yourself. If you try to do everything, you can get burned out and not be of use to your organization. Leadership is about delegating tasks, letting go of some things, trusting that your colleagues will do their best (and supporting them if they have trouble), managing expectations, and, to some extent, massaging egos.

There is no one way to lead, and the best leaders go with the flow, know their colleagues well and work with their best abilities, and adapt to challenges and changes. Like teaching or parenting, being a leader can make you question yourself and your ability, but you can always “fake it till you make it”—showing confidence even when you don’t feel you are completely in control helps others have confidence in you and then leads to positive results that can give you more control, and then more confidence in what you are doing.


Robert, H. M., III, Honemann, D. H., & Balch, T. J. (2011). Robert’s rules of order newly revised (11th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Perseus Books.

Rebekah Johnson, EdD,is New York State TESOL affiliate representative 2014 and immediate past president of the NYS TESOL organization 2014, and an assistant professor at LaGuardia Community College.
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