Business Lessons from Volunteering



May 18, 2018

By Keith Sones

Sports have always formed a big part of my family’s daily life. Whether it was coaching a group of five year olds tearing around a soccer field or pushing my burning legs up a hill for the tenth time while training for a marathon, an increased heart rate and pouring sweat have always been important to my wife, my kids and me.

We lived in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia for more than 10 years, an area with dense pine forests, rugged mountains, hot summers, and deep snow in the winters. With outdoor recreation being a primary attraction in the area, we quickly adopted the lifestyle and added cross-country skiing to our repertoire of activities. As is normal for us, we dove into it head first and before long my wife Rosanne and I were grooming trails and coaching the kids program every weekend.

Our daughter Hollie and son Hunter spent every weekend learning the techniques required to glide, grind to the top of a hill, carve sharp corners at high speed and, most importantly, how to get back on the skis when they ended up in a snowbank. They became very good skiers and, as a result, very fit athletes.

One Sunday afternoon the grandfather of one of the young children we taught asked if Hollie would like to show up at the local biathlon range and try it out. Biathlon? I had no idea what that was, so when he told us it was a combination of rifle marksmanship and skiing, I was both intrigued and confused. They were going to put a rifle in the hands of a child? Are they insane? Guns are dangerous! However, in the end we relented and went to see what it was all about.

We were immediately struck by the focus on safety and athleticism. Whatever else it might be, the sport was highly professional and not the “let’s shoot some beer cans from the back porch” event I had feared. Hollie immediately gravitated to the ancient Nordic tradition but Hunter, at the ripe age of five, was considered too young to participate. Boom! Showstopper. This just wasn’t going to work as we couldn’t exactly head into the mountains twice a week and leave our young son to his own devices. However, after some further discussion, the coach told Rosanne “Okay, he can participate but I can’t coach him. You’ll have to do it.”

Now, neither Rosanne nor I had been raised around firearms, so being told that she would have to coach shooting, a very precise skill which takes many years to accomplish, was like telling a bear that the only way he can cross a river is by sailing a catamaran. It just ain’t gonna happen. However, whereas I may have (okay, would have) given up at that point, Rosanne is a very determined person. Provided with only an old but specially shortened .22 calibre rifle, and armed with approximately zero experience, she and Hunter began their journey.

With a lot of practice, a willingness to learn and dogged determination, it turns out that the seemingly impossible can indeed happen. As a family of both coaches and biathletes, we started to see improvement, followed soon enough by a growing collection of medals from the various competitions around the province. Rosanne had become very proficient at intuitively knowing how much the rifle sights needed adjustment when the wind was howling, what the athlete needed to (exactly) look like when they were in shooting position, and how to tap into that extra bit of mental power that is the difference between a gold medal and tears at the finish line. Meanwhile, Hollie and Hunter got better and better, taming their minds and bodies to drive harder than they ever imagined and still shoot five consecutive shots through a target the size of a toonie in a blinding snowstorm. The Norwegian infantry of old would have been proud.

With the family coaching and athlete spots firmly in hand, I focused on understanding the rules of the game in greater detail. It turns out that biathlon requires more data to be passed between the hands of the officials than any other Olympic sport. Targets hit, targets missed, ski times, penalties — there is a lot going on. And like so many other things, doing it well requires a well-rounded knowledge of the entire event, an appreciation for detail, and the ability to communicate well.

I’m not talking about the kind of communication that happens when a score sheet is passed along to a senior official. A biathlon competition is somewhat unique. You generally have a very few people who understand the full scope of the event, and a large group of enthusiastic volunteers that you rely on for success. No volunteers, no race. So, when they show up to shovel snow, clean targets, lay out shooting mats and do a million other things, you need to very quickly tell them exactly what they need to do, show them how to do it, and ensure after the fact that it’s done properly. No second chances, no long talks — one shot to get it right.

And the one final, really important, thing. The volunteers need to be happy. No one is getting paid to crawl out of bed way too early on a cold and dark Saturday, so you need to make sure they feel appreciated, are fed and know they are a key player in the event, no matter what they are doing. Because if they don’t feel this way, they won’t show up next time. And the show is over.

Out of passion and necessity, we built a small team of local officials that, like great coaches and athletes, worked together to make it happen. Whether it was a small regional race or the BC Winter Games, everyone knew their role, did it well and kicked their ego to the curb. It operated very well and the volunteers knew they were wanted and appreciated.
In late 2006 we decided, for reasons related to work (the kind that pay the bills), to move to the Vancouver area. We settled in Squamish, a former industrial town between the city and the ski resort of Whistler that was gaining new appeal as an outdoor recreation destination. It was also just down the road from the under-construction Olympic Park, home to be of the Nordic events at the 2010 Games. It looked and felt like a big deal, and it was.

In the ramp up to the Games, a number of competitions were held as test events in advance of the Big Show. This included national championships and a world cup, intended to both showcase the venue and work out the kinks. It also attracted a large number of volunteers, eager to help the cause and walk away with the memories of being part of history. With our previous experiences, Rosanne and I became part of the blue clad Smurf Club. If that’s confusing to you, Google “2010 Winter Olympics Volunteer Outfits” and all will be immediately clear.

Now, just so you know, the Olympics are far, far different from regional, national and even some international sporting events. There is a lot of money available. There are lots of professional organizers that show up to run things. There are people everywhere. And they all want to be in charge.

The Olympics are a well-financed professional event that attracts billions of TV viewers, and everyone seems to want to be in the limelight. While some of the organizers are wonderful people who haven’t forgotten the thrill of the sport, others tend to be, shall I say, more focused on data and less so on people. As a total event, the 2010 Games were wonderful. However, it cost a lot of money for it to end up that way, and many of the volunteers found themselves fatigued after the curtain closed.

Working in the high voltage industry for almost 30 years, I’ve had the privilege of both working on and seeing many different projects across Canada and beyond. Some have been similar to our small group of likeminded biathlon officials, with the owner, First Nations and contractor all working together to achieve a common goal — a transmission line, substation, or getting the power back on after a hurricane has struck. A few others have been closer to the Games experience, when lots of people all want to call the shots, even when it’s at the expense of another team player. It’s often these projects that can lead to higher costs, delayed schedules and enduring frustration.

Fortunately for us all, the recipe for success is evident:

• clear contract scopes for all players
• a great communications plan so everyone understands what is good for the project, not just themselves
• using the people involved to create a well performing team, no matter which company logo is on the pay cheque, instead of a collection of individuals
• keeping the number of “chief cooks in the kitchen” to a minimum, to make sure people aren’t working at cross purposes
• selecting the team members based on their history of successfully delivering what the customer needs and wants

When I watched Hollie and Hunter compete successfully, and when I saw the look of realization on Rosanne’s face when she realized she was the coach of the national shooting champion, it reinforced what I’ve known for a while. Successfully achieving a goal comes from working hard, knowing what needs to happen, and always focusing on the destination. It is not the result of having more people, throwing more money at it or achieving one target at the expense of the others. That tends to lead to newspaper headlines that read, “Government Demands Inquiry into Huge Cost Overruns.” And sometimes, publicity is overrated.

Keith Sones is Vice President, National Business Development, The Valard Group of Companies.


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