If someone else can do it, delegate

Newly elected leadership teams face a daunting task. There is a lot to do, and so little time. Although you may have joined the leadership because you are bursting with ideas and energy to tackle specific advocacy issues, there are only so many hours in the day. You also need to run the association and host activities for the community. If you go too hard, too fast, you run the risk of burn-out (like so many before you). So how do you make time for these commitments, when you’re already leading a busy life performing your research?

It’s not surprising that the elected leadership team members are often the most active volunteers. You take responsibility for the elected role and want to achieve something meaningful. However, you are often also among the most time pressured of the community, juggling research and personal relationships in addition to volunteer work. As a result, your ability to organize your time sets the tone of the whole volunteer organization.  Momentum and energy for activities often comes from the top-down, and if your organization senses that you have limited enthusiasm, others will also be less engaged in the process.

And so you have to be engaged, and it is true that the best way to organize a good event is to get involved yourself, especially when other people can flake out. But we found that carrying the burden of all of the enthusiasm and doing most of the work for activities is counterproductive in the long run. We burn-out, become bitter, and find our productivity decreases. To try to counter these problems, in 2013 we tried something different.

When it came time to organize and carry out an activity, we would ask: can someone else do this? And when the answer was “Yes,” we decided to find somebody else to take it on. We started delegating tasks.

At first we gave tasks to council members, but soon followed by recruiting postdocs from the wider community. For instance, when we wanted to organize a tennis tournament, instead of organizing it ourselves, we asked postdocs what they thought should be done.  We sought other postdocs with an interest in sports activities to contribute by taking responsibility for smaller specific tasks, such as making the tournament schedule, or arranging prizes. And we asked one person to take charge of the logistics. We set no deadline. And while sometimes people dropped the ball (no pun intended), pushing the event further in the future, more often than not they delivered. In the end the tournament did happen, with only occasional encouragement from the leadership team. This had the dual benefit of saving the leadership time and energy, and extending participation into the wider community.

When you want to delegate tasks, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, be sure to differentiate between important and unimportant tasks. If it is important that a task is executed well and quickly, delegate to someone who you trust will deliver. If not, delegate to whomever is interested. Second, give ownership and accountability. That way people will take responsibility. You can enforce this by building in social controls, for instance by asking people to give updates on their progress, or by asking groups to collaborate. For our sports committee, we often ask them to collaborate with other groups such as the transportation committee or the postdoc initiative fund. Such interactions enforce accountability among peers. Finally, dare to let people fail. Sometimes activities will fall through and that is ok. Everybody involved is volunteering their time and effort and everyone is learning how to manage their time. If you allow people to fail, it promotes creativity, and they will be more inclined to take ownership of their tasks.

In 2013, the tournament was one of many activities. By the end of the year, SURPAS had more than 20 active committees and a network of more than 50 active volunteers. Even council seats became contested in elections. Delegating effectively protected against burn-out among the few volunteers that previously would have shouldered all of the responsibility, and widened the visibility and credibility of SURPAS among the broader postdoc population. We now have a system where we can tap into the human power of our community and actively contribute on multiple fronts (advocacy, social events, career development, etc.)

Our advice to you on the leadership team: delegate, delegate, delegate. You’ll be stronger for it.