As a frequent speaker for student associations and staff development seminars, I am often asked, "How can I become a good leader? What can I do to set myself apart from my peers?" One response I offer is to step forward as a volunteer leader. I recognize that many professionals may be reluctant to donate their time, questioning the value of volunteering in relation to the commitment required. In fact, recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows that the volunteer rate — just over 25 percent — is at its lowest level since 2002. Yet volunteering helps cultivate professional skills that may not be achievable in a nonvolunteer setting and provides experience that is all but imperative for aspiring audit leaders.
Effective leaders must be adept in many areas, including the ability to reason and think clearly, generate good ideas, and communicate effectively. They must also project enthusiasm and maintain a sincere interest in other people and their concerns. Internal auditors will have ample opportunity to apply themselves in these areas as they address the challenges of volunteer leadership.
Practitioners can also put their powers of persuasion and employee motivation skills to the test in volunteer positions. Convincing other volunteers to act on ideas requires salesmanship and morale building. Working with others in volunteer roles can help build consensus-development skills, as well as the capacity to inspire others. Respect, goodwill, and altruism — all qualities necessary for successful leaders to possess — can be brought to bear and honed over time in volunteer positions. In a work environment, these skills will elicit improved performance and can help leaders gain respect and loyalty among the workforce.
By volunteering, auditors with upper management aspirations will also be making an important addition to their resume, as volunteer leadership experience is often considered a prerequisite for senior management positions. Most senior managers have likely volunteered at some point in their career. And while participation as a leader of a volunteer organization does not guarantee someone a chief audit executive position, the absence of volunteer activities may well be a disqualifier for upper management hiring. Professionals without this experience may lack the leadership skills, professional network, and support from the profession and community that many volunteers possess.
From a goodwill standpoint, the reasons to volunteer are numerous. But taking on a volunteer leadership role, or working up through different volunteer leadership roles over time, can also provide a tremendous boost to one's professional growth. By picking an activity or organization they enjoy, volunteers have an opportunity to help others — and themselves. Volunteer leaders set themselves apart from their peers, gain valuable experience, and eventually may find themselves at the top of their company's organizational chart.