Career Coach: Spirit of volunteerism can help the bottom line

By Hugh Courtney
Monday, January 3, 2011

Will 2011 be the year you become a volunteer? I'm not talking about working for free, but rather going above and beyond at your place of employment. The late, great management pioneer Peter Drucker believed that organization leaders should always think of their employees as volunteers. There is a big difference for any worker between what he or she has to do to "succeed" and what he could really do if he was fully engaged in work. It's those truly engaged employees who are almost always volunteering -- giving their all not because they have to, but because they choose to. There is incredible untapped potential in all those who could be volunteering at work.

Channeling this sense of volunteerism can do more than just make employees feel good. It can also have big impact on your organization's bottom line. With global competition and other forces leveling the playing field, an engaged workforce is one of the intangible assets that can really become a firm's crucial competitive advantage. Take Southwest Airlines as a prime example.

I was fortunate to hear Jim Parker, the former chief executive of Southwest, speak at a recent event sponsored by the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Parker regaled the audience with tales of employee volunteerism at Southwest and how they paid off for the company. When off-duty flight attendants and pilots help serve in-flight beverages and service planes on the ground, customer satisfaction rises and Southwest gets its most expensive assets -- its planes -- back into the air faster, allowing for more flights and more passengers to pay for those planes. When a Southwest gate agent goes out of her way to personally return a passenger's lost BlackBerry, she has earned the company a customer for life -- one who will stick with the airline even in the toughest economic times.

Why do employees at Southwest choose to volunteer on the job seemingly more so than employees at other airlines? They believe in the organization's mission and values; they believe that their work matters; they respect, and may even really like, their bosses and co-workers -- the same reasons you might volunteer to coach a Little League baseball team, serve food at a homeless shelter or lead community outreach efforts for your church. If you keep these simple truths in mind, you can be a better and happier boss and employee.

So, let's all resolve to put Peter Drucker's and Jim Parker's ideas to work in 2011. If you are a boss, resolve to:

-- Share and discuss your organization's mission and strategic plan with your staff, explicitly identifying the role each person plays in the organization's success.

-- Spend more time on staff professional development, giving more timely praise and direct, constructive feedback so all are better positioned to reach their full potential and appreciate how much their work really matters.

-- Get to know your staff as people. They don't park their relationships, aspirations, interests and non-work-related capabilities at the office door. If you want to inspire volunteerism at work, you have to understand what matters most to your people.

Even if you don't manage others, resolve to:

-- Identify the times in life (work or otherwise) where you have chosen to volunteer. What compelled you to volunteer? Why did you engage so fully? And if you aren't volunteering in your present job, try to identify why not.

-- Armed with this information, make a conscious choice about whether to look for a new job or organization to work for even in this difficult job market. If you aren't fully engaged at work, you owe it to yourself and colleagues to increase your engagement if possible, and if not, to find a place where you will volunteer.

-- Don't let yourself or your staff spend another year merely working for the weekend. Let 2011 be the year that you start volunteering again at work.

Hugh G. Courtney is vice dean and Professor of the Practice at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He oversees the school's undergraduate and graduate programs. He is a best-selling author and leading expert on business strategy and competitive dynamics, also heading up Smith's executive education programs.

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