Sunday, June 21, 2015

Learning and Improving through Volunteering

Among all the volunteering work I performed in the past 10 years, the one that I utilized my management and leadership skills the most was the the "big" STEM event I organized, MathComp/MathFun, which was completed successfully two weeks ago. In the process of event preparation and execution, I also learned a lot from other volunteer leaders.

Learning from past experience

This event involved over 120 volunteers on event day, and close to 800 total participants. The event preparation and execution involved about a dozen functional areas, from fiance to marketing, to logistics, from test preparation, to volunteer recruiting, to contestant registrations ......

As a first time organizer, I relied heavily on  learning past experiences - especially documented processes. I also asked for as much help as needed, and was offered a lot of help which I happily accepted.

getting ready to start on the event day
Building the Right Team

The event leadership team - team leaders for each functional areas, was nominated. I knew of most nominees via some other volunteer work. I then contacted the nominees directly about areas I wish they would work in, specific responsibilities etc. I dropped those who did not respond or who could not make a commitment, added a couple who were not on the original list. Half of the recruited team leads had past experience, half had no past experience with the event at all, but all were willing to contribute to the event.

The event kick-off meeting was held about 6 weeks before the event day on a stormy Friday evening. I was pleasantly surprised that all team lead designates attended the meeting! I was confident then that I had a good chance to organize a successful event.

The scene on the event day
Delegate, Trust and Enable

Once we were clear of the objectives of each functional areas, I let the experienced leaders to have total control of their functions, only to check their status one week before the event. For some inexperienced leaders, I worked with them to identify experienced past leaders who could help, and let them work with those experienced leaders; for others, when no past experienced leaders were available, I studied archived documentations more carefully and helped them to figure out what to do and how to do on their own.

I delegate, trust and enable my employees at work as well, but not as extensively and as widely. Preparation and execution of this event at this scale on limited spare time made it an absolute necessity to delegate, trust and enable as much as possible, and allow me time to pay attention to the big picture and focus on items that required my attention

Tactical and Decisive

At the initial phase I quickly identified what have to be done ahead of time, what can be done a bit later, what are the priorities, what are less important. For this event, test problem preparation, recruiting contestants and volunteers were some of the things that must be done ahead of time. For the 6 week preparation period I had only two meeting for the whole leadership team, one for kick-off, one for final week event organization and coordination. I spend much time communicating and working with team leads individually as needed.

The main purpose of second meeting was to 1) identify gaps in preparation and  ways to quickly address them; 2) coordination of related functional areas. It was clear by then that the contestant registration was behind 2014 numbers by 5%. I decided that a massive promotion campaign was critical to the success of the event and initiated one.  In the end 2015 registration was ~ 5% above 2014 level with contributions of the whole team. Another important tactical and decisive decision was related to the volunteer recruitment for proctor and grader. Our rule was that we needed one adult volunteer and one high school volunteer for each test room but we did not have enough adult volunteers in the final days. In addition to trying to recruit more adult, I decided that we could allow some high school graduates to be in the role of an adult. This allowed our volunteer coordinator to finalize the volunteer assignment in time for name tags to be made for the event day.

Setting the right priority for each phase of the project, making timely and decisive decisions in the process was paramount for efficiency and minimization of work load.

Lead by actions!

Lead by example and action is important especially for volunteer leaders. That was the examples set by other volunteer leaders, and that was what I did. Visiting the rented facility ahead of onsite preparation day, Be there the first on the night of onsite preparation, be there the first on the event day morning - just to ensure everything moved as planed and do anything needed.

group picture of part of the volunteers

There were ups and downs, there were worries at various stages of the event preparation, when I talked to my wife about them, she encouraged me "don't worry, you will pull through" "(the event) will magically be successful in the end" - and indeed!! To me, the magic is the volunteers' capability and more importantly their desire to make what they volunteered for a success. It has been a privilege and pleasure to work with all the volunteers for this event

Organizing this event was a great learning experience. It brought me  great satisfaction. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The flowers worth waiting - by Lily

When Allan and I were dating 20 some years ago, flowers were never the “wooing” power. The only time I remember was when I visited him in Virginia he showed up at the airport with a bouquet of flowers wrapped in newspaperJ.  The truth is Allan is a practical guy, he uses his words and action to win my heart. He also takes my words seriously. So when I say flowers are short-lived not worth the money he takes it to the heart L

But this last Friday, when I got home from work I was super surprised to see a giant and beautiful flower bouquet sitting on my kitchen counter. I know what it is for; it’s the flowers I’ve been waiting for… it’s our 20th wedding anniversary! But Allan was nowhere to be seen, he was out for a volunteer meeting. In fact he has been extremely busy all last couple of weeks. He took up the task to organize the biggest yearly youth event for a local organization (CIE/USA-DFW), and had worked every night late last week. But out of his extremely busy schedule he remembered our special day and made the extra effort to surprise me with such a gorgeous bouquet! As I breathe in the fresh scent of the flowers I am touched.

Twenty years of togetherness, for better or worse, we’ve been through. At each stage of our lives there are always new challenges to face, we learn, we adjust, we focus on our priorities, we work together, we help each other along. We spend times to reflect on our lives and figure out how to make it better. And we do make it better!

Looking at the flowers, I realize this is the flowers worth waiting, for 20 years, and for many more.