Five Management Lessons Learned from Volunteers (the plants)


The world would be better with more volunteers:  they sprout on their own, grow strongly and are great additions to any garden (or team…read my e-doc, “Grow Your Team”).

“Volunteer plants” are those that grow on their own rather than being deliberately planted by a farmer or gardener.  The concept holds well for people volunteers, too—those who make a difference by taking action on their own, growing where they find themselves.  In this sense, some volunteers are traditional (unpaid) and some are actually employees in an organization.  What distinguishes the latter is how they behave.

The analogy is profound.  And the implications to managers and leaders are critical.  A few key points about volunteers (paid or unpaid):

  1.  Volunteers appear in unlikely places.  The tomatoes in the photo came from a garden that is not intended for vegetables, but I had thrown some old tomatoes there to break down and become compost.  While the intent was to create nourishment for the existing plants, an unintended outcome is that I now also have plants that will provide nourishment for me.  The unobservant manager or leader may not notice the behaviors and performance of others who begin to grow outside their roles, job descriptions, etc., but the wise one will see the benefits.
  2. They may be self-directed, but volunteers still need to be nurtured and tended.  Just because a volunteer appears on its own because of its behavior and growth, don’t assume that it is so sturdy as to not need the care, attention and nourishment that a deliberately placed plant needs.  Consider its appearance a gift, a serendipitous outcome that can provide great value.
  3. Don’t judge too fast or you may pull them thinking they are weeds.  A lot of useful volunteers are pulled because “they don’t belong there.”  Farmers and gardeners know enough about their fields or gardens, and about their plants, to tell if something is a “good” plant or a negative weed.  At the very early stages of a volunteer’s growth, it can be hard to tell which it is.  Time and patience reveals whether the plant is an asset or needs to be removed.  The same can be said for the people volunteers of which we speak here:  when you see growth in a person outside of their title, role or place, watch carefully to see whether it is a negative or a positive, and don’t be too quick to remove unexpected growth just because you’re are unaware of the person, their potential or the new opportunity found in their growth.
  4. To transplant or not, that is the question.  Once a volunteer appears and it is obvious that it is an asset, the next question is whether to let it grow where it is or transplant it.  I say the answer is “Yes.”  Or “No.”  Perhaps “Maybe.”   There is no single answer.  For example, if a member of your team (again, paid or unpaid) sprouts like a volunteer plant in an unlikely place—like a self-directed assignment, committee role, etc.—don’t assume that the person should be promoted into a new role (remember the Peter Principle?)  All professions suffer from seeing growth in someone in unexpected ways and then making that the person’s new role.  It takes time, patience and knowledge to know whether to let the growth remain where it is, or to transplant it, which is akin to moving someone to a new position, title or role.   Timing is everything, though, and one must consider the impact of leaving a volunteer for too long; it could end up suffering in its own growth and negatively impacting those around it.
  5. You may have had nothing to do with a strong volunteer’s appearance.  The tomato plants in the photo are there because of an action that I took, though I certainly had not expected the outcome.  In a plant sense, volunteers show up because seeds find their way to new places thanks to wind, animal droppings and other natural occurrences, or they may be tracked in by shoes, or they may be springing up from the roots of a plant many feet away.  The point is, the appearance of a strong volunteer likely has nothing to do with us…but don’t ignore the positive outcomes.


For me, I’m leaving those tomato plants right where they are and am looking forward to a harvest that will be part of salads, jam and tomato sauce.  The volunteer tallowood tree sprouts that were next to the tomatoes?  They’re history so the tomatoes have a better chance.




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