Sustaining ISA’s tradition of strong volunteer leadership

  • By Jim Keaveney

As you recall, last month I focused my column on the issue of Alignment, one of four important areas of emphasis for ISA in 2016. This month, I tackle the second: Leadership.  Leadership is a complex topic and incorporates several key aspects:  The Search, Identification & Nomination Process; Succession Planning; Training & Education; and Diversity & Inclusion.  Let’s review each one in a little more detail.

Search, Identification and Nomination Process – If you have ever served as a volunteer leader in ISA or any other association, think back on why you said yes and agreed to take on additional commitments.   For most of us, a principal driver was to make a difference in assuming a greater degree of personal responsibility.  Some of us also were attracted to the networking opportunities and the potential to learn new skills that we could also use in our day jobs.

Now think back on how you joined.  For most of us, it was because we were directly asked by someone.   Studies tell us that while the younger generation (Millennial and Gen-X) tends to be slightly less engaged, they actually believe more strongly in the importance of volunteering.  In this case, recruiting teams, rather than individuals, may be more effective.

Lastly, think why you may have stayed engaged as a volunteer leader.  My guess it is because the experience has been meaningful and you feel that you have made a real difference.  If you disengaged, it may have been because you became frustrated, your role was not clear, you felt the organization was not structured properly, or your voice was not heard. It also might have been because your company no longer supported your volunteer efforts.

Succession Planning – In order to thrive, all organizations need a thoughtful succession planning process.  This involves identifying the right person and skill set for a position.  Too often, we conduct replacement planning and base decisions more on availability or tenure in order to get a seat in the chair.

As part of ISA’s restructuring process in 2013, we actually created a need for more volunteers at the Society level.  We’ve been fortunate that many of our leaders have stepped up to serve in multiple and continued roles, but we clearly need more help and new perspectives.

Training & Education – Once we get someone to say yes, it is our responsibility to provide that individual with appropriate training, both on the new position and well as some basic leadership skills.  Leading in a volunteer organization can be much different than leading a team in the corporate world.  It is incumbent on us to clearly define expectations, provide ongoing coaching, and help educate new leaders on “what good looks like.”  

Diversity & Inclusion - In his 2008 book, What If, Steve Robbins notes that the more we surround ourselves with diverse perspectives, the greater likelihood that we’ll arrive at solutions we could not find based only on our own experiences.  Diversity includes dimensions of race, race, ethnicity, gender, culture, and age. It is about good business and governance through inclusive discussions and perspectives. 

Recently, one of our district leaders from India confided to me that members in that part of the world only understand or relate to about 70% of our internal discussions—an interesting data point.  ISA’s Executive Board this year has only two participants that are not based in North America (and those two are from Ireland)—another useful data point. In addition, last year, four of our seven Society positions were uncontested and only had one candidate—a third important data point.  Though we are very fortunate to have outstanding volunteer leaders, these data points caused me to pause. How about you?

I’ll be leading our Executive Summit later this month and Leadership will be the focus of one of our brainstorming sessions.  I’d love to hear your perspectives and suggestions on how we can do better job on our leadership pipeline.  Please contact me at  

 Jim Keaveney
2016 ISA President