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Principles for Retaining Volunteers Part 3: Enforcer or Coach?

By Daniel C. Olsen, Senior Consultant, Special Districts Association of Oregon

Poor supervision, or lack of, is often mentioned as a reason for volunteers leaving an organization.

Supervision is “face to face” leadership. Leadership spans a wide spectrum of behaviors. What styles of leadership do you see your supervisors using with your volunteers?

The two ends of the spectrum of leadership are control and inspiration. Control focuses on compliance. Coaching focuses on development. Yes, both are needed. However, they must be appropriately, and wisely used. They are tools of the supervisor. Tools that are used to build the organization and ensure it is running smoothly.

Examples of the” Enforcer” and the “Coach”

I worked for Mike. Mike was a good Fire Chief. However, his primary style was that of an enforcer. To illustrate my point, I remember one day telling him that Pete, one of the engineers, had taken time, in the evenings, to letter the tires on the engines. We took considerable pride in our apparatus. The lettering of tires just added an extra plus to our rolling stock. When I mentioned this to Mike and suggested he might want to say something to Pete, he abruptly stopped and spun around to face me, nose-to-nose. I remember his words distinctly, “he’s expected to do things like that.  If he screws up, then I’ll be talking to him.”  He spun around and walked off.

Now let me tell you about James Groat. I met Chief Groat at a New England Fire Chiefs conference. Chief Goat was 94 when I met him.  He was still active, only “semi-retired”.  Chief Groat was well respected and liked by others in the profession. I remember talking with him. I asked Chief Groat, “what advice would you give to a new fire officer just promoted”. He looked thoughtfully and then told me, “I would tell them, there are two types of people you come into contact throughout your life. There are those who give others a bump up the ladder of life. And there are those that give people a knock down the ladder. My advice is to give others a bump up the ladder of life.

One person focused on the “Enforcer” style, or end of the spectrum and the other focused on the “Coach” end of the spectrum.

So, I ask you again, what supervisory style is most often used by your supervisors?

The Challenge of Supervision

It is a challenge being an effective supervisor. Are your supervisors respected and trusted? Do your supervisors inspire your volunteers and bring out their best? Are your supervisors assisting in the development of your personnel? Are they taking them to the next level? Are they uplifting their spirit?

At which end of the spectrum of supervision are they spending most of their time?

Spend more time on development and less time on control. Spend more time on encouraging them and less time on compliance.

The perspective of the supervisor significantly has an affect. How do they look at volunteers? Do they hold elevated expectations of the volunteer or low expectations? Their perspective will indeed influence their leadership style.

Here are a few ideas to help focus on development and uplifting the spirit of your personnel.

Ideas for emphasizing development

  • Job assignments that provide new opportunities for development skills or techniques.
  • Asking them for input, or ideas, on a new project or how to improve a current procedure.
  • Assign a new duty to them and provide coaching or instruction.

Ideas for uplifting the spirit

  • Identify specific items the volunteer is doing very well and provide them with positive feedback.
  • Verbally thank the volunteer for their time and effort.
  • Provide a written note of thanks for something they have done.

Steps to improve supervisory practices

As a starting point for improving supervisory practices, consider these five simple words: Firm, Fair, Friendly, Clear and Consistent.

  • Firm- don’t be wishy-washy.  Before deciding, be thoughtful. Think it through. Then move forward and implement your decision.
  • Fair- Be equitable and inclusive. Treat all your personnel the same. Treat them with respect.
  • Friendly- Being a supervisor does not mean being adversarial. Being a supervisor does not exclude a friendly attitude. We are all on the same team working toward the same goal. Being open and receptive is important in getting feedback from your personnel.
  • Clear- “Say what your mean; Mean what you say” Be direct and forthright in expressing yourself.
  • Consistent- Being dependable in your words and actions is important. Earning the trust of others means they can depend upon you.

Effective supervision is paying attention. Paying attention to your volunteers. Paying attention to what you say. Paying attention to what you do.

If you are seeking to improve retention of volunteers, then seek to improve the supervision that is being provided on a daily basis.