Thinking Big: reflections on four qualities of a great Non-Executive Board Director

Welcome to the first "Thinking Big". Over a bowl of mie goreng, AASYP Chair Hayley Winchcombe and CEO Cameron Allan reflect on the qualities of a LIT non-executive board director #KopiwithCamley

Introducing our blog series

(Skip if you’re only here for the rec’s, read on if you love a good backstory)

Welcome to our first Thinking Big, a space where we will reflect on AASYP, what it means to us, what we have learnt, the mistakes we have made and where we hope it goes. 


When we catch up with friends or Zoom our families, all conversations lead to the perennial question … oh … you’re still doing AASYP? ((pronounced “ay-sip* for the uninitiated). 


When we hear “The Question”, we automatically launch into our rehearsed (but nonetheless true) talk points: we love the community and friends we have made through it, we love working on a project outside of work and we are addicted to the progress we are making in bringing together Australian and Southeast Asian youth. 

Sometimes, this question is not so easy to answer. After a long day at work, the thought of jumping on Zoom calls can be crippling. Sometimes, it’s tough to shake the heavy feeling of knowing we are piggy-backing a work to-do list with a whole other volunteering to-do list waiting for us at home. 


We know it’s not just us; every single one of us has an interest we wish we had more time to pour our hearts into or a career we would pursue if we had the courage. Each and every day, we all dance a tango, trying to reconcile the things that set our souls on fire with our limitations. 


It is this dichotomy – of both loving a project and sometimes dreading it – that we want to unpack and explore with our AASYP community. We want to celebrate our AASYP achievements, but we also want to reflect on the long nights, tough deadlines and failures that made them possible. Because the reality is simple: things like AASYP don’t just happen by themselves.


Today’s musing: what makes a #slay Non-Executive Board Director 💼

To celebrate our recently-launched search for new Non-Executive Directors, it was only fitting to kick-off this blog series with some lessons we have learnt about coordinating a youth-run organisation, and in particular in running our board. We are no Master Splinter (#TMNT), and you will still find us regularly mucking up at board meetings, with either Cam going on a spiralling tangential rant or Hayley setting an overly ambitious agenda. But as we like to remind ourselves: better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of skills and mindsets for being a #slay Non-Executive Board Director at AASYP.

#1. A keen understanding of volunteerism

 Volunteer organisations are exactly that …. run by volunteers. Whilst other organisations benefit from a full-time dedicated effort to delivering their projects (we are aspiring for this but not quite there!), we have to juggle the good, bad and ugly of volunteerism.

Don’t get us wrong – volunteering is the #ZestOfLife 🍋 Volunteers are phenomenal people doing incredible work. Why? They are deeply passionate, which injects life and colour into their work. They are time-poor, so they intuitively whip-up creative ways to make tasks more efficient. They know that things don’t get done through sheer authority or discipline, so they bring a soft kindness to their teamwork. It’s all these things that make volunteer work so nourishing and fulfilling. 


But there is a flip side. An organisation run by volunteers has perennial limitations, principally the lack of a stable workforce. If a volunteer becomes busy in their own life – which happens to all of us – their volunteering will slip. When they leave the organisation, rebuilding that lost capability can take months. This is why creating a nurturing volunteer experience is so important; your volunteers are all you have. 

An astute non-executive board director of a volunteer organisation should understand these dynamics well. They have grand ambitions and vision, but are able to temper these through a volunteerism prism. In doing so, they are able to marry their idealism with the inherent chaoticness of volunteer life. 

#2. An ability to systematise creativity

We recently listened to a HBR IdeaCast podcast episode called How Leaders Can Encourage Imagination. The interviewee made a magical point: we usually frame imagination as individual, mental, momentary and illusive, rather than as something actively practised. The interviewee goes on to explain the benefits for organisations of building work processes centred on creativity. 


In our experience leading AASYP, success is born from a culture of imagination. This culture is sustained by little acts of encouragement: making sure everyone in a meeting has their voice heard, using brainstorming techniques to avoid anchoring bias and celebrating innovative thinking. An imaginative culture also requires restraint: never shutting down new ideas (even if they are crazy!) or resisting leading a discussion with your own ideas. 


But building a culture that centres imagination runs deeper than individual acts of entrepreneurship … imagination needs to be embedded in your organisation’s risk tolerance, KPIs and how your board compares and assesses your organisation against competitors. As we have grown AASYP, we have always cast our mind to how we can embed and systematise imagination into our decision-making. 


(Hayley hot tip: imagination requires breathing room with no devices … take a quick shower to think through that new idea 🔥💦)


(Cameron in response: I think 90% of my best ideas have come from a run. Hit the pavement! 🏃👟 )

#3. Understanding and delivering on team needs

You could read five books about organisational psychology and they would all tell you different ingredients to a successful team. Some teams thrive with consensus-driven decision making, others are driven by high performance cultures and or through having clear roles and purpose.


In our experience, all of these can be true. A constantly evolving organism in its own right, a team will need different things to grow and develop over time. Early in establishing a team, some things – such as fostering trust between team members – will be more important than other factors. As a team matures, its needs will change. An ability to understand the needs of a team throughout its life cycle is crucial to getting things done.


At AASYP, there are some fixed considerations that affect how we go about teamwork. For example, we operate completely online, so we need to work extra hard to build meaningful friendships and stay lighthearted. If you see an AASYP team photo online, you will notice we ask everyone to quickly grab something in arm’s reach. This is completely silly, but it’s a ritual that prompts interesting conversations and ends our meetings on a light note. 


Likewise, we are a team of volunteers from across 11 countries and many many cultures. To capitalise on this wonderful diversity, we need to consciously deploy strategies in team meetings to ensure everyone is heard. An AASYP board director is clued in and cognisant of both the transient needs and structural conditions of our team.

#4. Breaking the overthinking circuit

We have fallen down rabbit holes of self doubt more times than we care to admit. As the to-do list piles up, the overthinking and overwhelm quickly creeps in: Why can’t I keep on top of this workload? Why does this always happen? What am I doing wrong? Are my teammates going to hate me? This stream of negative self-talk can be deeply paralysing.

It is important to remember that it’s not just you. Everyone experiences self-doubt, in different hues, coalescing around different insecurities. Some people are self-conscious about their written English so will put off writing a blog post, whilst others get nervous about opening their email inbox. When self-doubt strikes, the best leaders open up, discuss the things making them feel self-doubt and put in place strategies to deal with it. This is a behaviour we have enshrined as our number one value in our AASYP Who Are We Statement: have the courage to be vulnerable. 

Doing important volunteer work also requires self-awareness and self-care. To manage overwhelm, Cam will visualise himself in the future and ask himself “how will you feel when this task is complete.” Other strategies he uses include immersing himself in nature (🌳🌺☀️) and talking to himself in the third person (as though you are giving yourself advice)(side note: why are we so good at giving others advice but not sticking to it ourselves 😅). Hayley is also prone to giving herself pep talks in third person when facing a difficult task or combatting negative self talk, but recommends refraining from doing this outloud (😉). Whilst these strategies only work SOME of the time, having a toolbox of options is essential to managing your volunteerism alongside your life commitments.

The good news is: we are all learning! Whether you have the above four skills in abundance or you are still in the infancy of your leadership journey, joining a board is a great opportunity for personal and professional development. Check out information on our non-executive board director vacancies and consider joining our team. 

Until next time,

#KopiwithCamley 🕺💃

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