Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thoughts on ... the Firing of Volunteers

I've been fired three times in my life. Two were about 30 years ago, one was this week.

Way back when I was young and didn't know as much about diverse communication styles as I do now, Nick and I ran camporees (many troops go camping together, workshops are held) in our Girl Scout service unit. After one, a staff person, wise, very wise, called me to have lunch. She told me that she hated doing this but there had been complaints that I "yelled at the girls." Well, I did loudly make some of them stop running in camp [a well established rule -no running, too dangerous]. It was a clash of my direct, high interrupt communication style with a very different style.

So, the team didn't want me in charge any more. BUT she said, we want you to stay involved because you and Nick are the only ones who "cross the freeway." The freeway is highway 101 at the bottom of San Mateo county. Most of our service unit lives on the west, primarily affluent, white side. The others lived on the east, mixed ethnicities, lower socio-economic, side. And indeed, we did go over an help the leaders there and championed them on our side.

Digression(feel free to skip) because I just remembered it. Once Nick & I collectively convinced the entire team that if they wanted to really be inclusive, they should hold Panorama (everyone share activities they've been doing) Day at the then new school in East Palo Alto. The week of the event, the newspapers blasted an article about how EPA had the highest per capita murder rate. Panic on the east side. I give major kudos to the troops leaders and parents who didn't pull out. Nick arranged for the police to drive by periodically. Everyone who attended had a fabulous time. As my sister Caren points out - 2am is the major crime time; certainly not 9-noon on a Saturday. Digression over.

My point above is, there are classy ways to remove a volunteer from a position. I was angry and hurt, but she kept me as an active volunteer.

I was laid off of my first engineering job, two weeks before I was planning to quit. That was actually quite sweet, so it doesn't count.

Now on to now. Back in 2000 I was recruited by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between SWE and Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA). We knew that there were many places where SWE women were working with girls in Girl Scouting. But there was no formal relationship. In June 2001, the MoU was signed.

Then, I was tasked with making things happen. I found a great co-chair, Sue Anderson. She and I became close friends as we gathered other SWE members who were also Girl Scouts and were holding workshops and teaching girls about engineering.

The relationships built - within SWE and between the two organizations. We developed the Girl Scout Getaway, Engineering Your Future, held at SWE annual conferences. We've had over 60 girls attend through the years, learning about engineering and SWE, making friends, building self-esteem.

As time went on, I thought about successors and knew I couldn't do this forever. This week, I was asked to step aside. Well, so actually, a discussion happened. I thought I agreed to mentor new chair and co-chair with transition in about 6 months. Turns out I didn't get it, transition is happening now. When I realized this, I felt a lot of negative feelings. I felt I was misled but in retrospect, I think it was communication styles differences, that direct vs indirect styles. So then I felt stupid, because I know about these differences. But mostly, I felt hurt, angry and seriously fired. I wanted to walk away from the committee, even from SWE.

See, for me it's all about the relationships. And in Girl Scouting - where we're helping girls become leaders of courage, confidence and character, it's about relationships. But for many in SWE, it's more about being professional like in the workplace. Is it the engineering side? Is it the need to succeed in a still male-dominated field? I think that's a big part of it.

But, I'm in mourning - I've had my "baby" taken away. I built that committee on relationships, got things done on relationships. Heck, I'm now friends with the woman who makes our SWE Girl Scout event patch whom I've never met in person. True, I've been asked to stay in the group and mentor and advise. I won't share my first thoughts on that one but they weren't good. I've had a good long talk with my successor. We became friends through this committee years ago. I will make sure the transition is smooth for her sake as well as the sake of our common goal. As we say in Girl Scouting, it's about what's best for the girls.

When I was in college and things went wrong, I often said "chalk one up to experience." Four decades later, I analyze and plan and think. I draw from the experience. I learned long ago, there's a fine art to firing a volunteer.

One way step I've already used is find something else, better if possible, for the person to do. Second, do it in person; not over the phone and certainly not by email. Third, pay attention to timing. When a person is in the midst of her busiest time of year, that's not the time to insist on a hurried phone call. Finally, start and end with thanking the person for the work s/he has been doing. There's a lot to be said about saving face and acting with grace. I'll find ways to allow all involved to do the former and I'll definitely do the latter.

Shana Tova all!


© 2009 Esther A. Heller

1 comment:

  1. I know you wrote this a while ago, but I was just catching up on your blog today. This one particularly caught my eye, as you know about the long term volunteer position that I was "fired" from last year. Your comment on it being all about relationships really resonated with me. Today I returned to the setting of my former position for an event held there, and I was happy to see that many of the relationships and programs that I had established are still thriving. I also understand all too well the process of mourning in a situation like this, and I only wish that the person who decided my fate had held our relationship in higher regard.