News from the Illinois PTA Convention—Leadership

conv logo 2At the 114th Annual Illinois PTA Convention, National PTA Executive Director Nathan R. Monell gave a presentation on Tomorrow’s Leaders: Attract, Develop, and Orient Leaders through Transition that focused on an issue that every PTA faces—recruiting and developing new leaders. He began his presentation with the PTA mission:

To make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children.

He asked the audience how does engaging and empowering families and communities help make every child’s potential a reality? The audience’s answers echoed what research has shown, that engaged families lead to children who are more successful in school and better prepared for life and that communities that value education are economically more prosperous. It really does take a village to raise a child.

Selling the “Why” of PTA

Mr. Monell then asked the audience about why they originally became involved with PTA and why they are involved now. The reasons for originally starting with PTA were the reasons most people give: to help their child, to learn what was happening at the school, or to improve the school. The reasons for currently being involved with PTA were broader in scope: to help all children, to make a difference, or to improve all schools and communities.

He tied why people are involved with PTA with Simon Sinek’s TED talk on leadership. Sinek said, “You want to attract people who believe what you believe. They don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Thus, to recruit new members and new leaders, it is essential that we share not just what our PTAs do for our schools, but also why we do what we do.

PTA Values

There are five key values that PTA holds, and successful PTA units are usually strong in all five of them. These values are:

  • Collaboration: PTA values partnerships with teachers, principals, and school districts, with other organizations, and with our communities.
  • Commitment: PTA is one of the largest volunteer organizations in the world, and the reason people volunteer for PTA is a commitment and dedication to the PTA mission.
  • Diversity: PTA values diversity because we cannot speak for every child if we do not accept that every person brings strengths and a unique perspective to our association.
  • Respect: PTA respects every member as having an important voice in our association, helping to provide new ideas and connections.
  • Accountability: PTA leaders are responsible for ensuring that the PTA mission informs everything that the PTA does.

Vision for the Future

So what are the tools and talents that have been effective in seeing our mission and vision realized? There are three key tools in moving from values, vision, and mission to effective PTA leadership:

  • Communication
  • Influence
  • Teamwork

The key to effective communication is to ask open-ended questions, to listen to the answers, to appreciate the feedback, and to affirm the value of their voice. By doing so, we can empower people to participate in joint problem solving, encourage better connections between people, and engage other people to want to help PTA leaders.

Exercising influence is a critical skill for PTA leaders. By developing the ability to influence the beliefs of others and using that influence to promote the mission of PTA, leaders can become talent magnets, bringing together a team of believers who inspire collaboration with other people and other organizations. A crucial part of wielding influence is developing a “yes and” strategy when barriers are presented. That means that when an idea is brought forward, a PTA leader doesn’t say, “No, we tried that before, and it didn’t work.” Instead, the answer should be, “Yes, that’s a good idea and something we’ve tried before. When we did it last time, these are the problems we ran into. Has our situation changed since then so that those are not problems, or can we think of new ways to solve those problems?”

Teamwork is the third key tool of PTA leaders, and the PTA values are essential in building an effective team. PTA leaders should be seeking out individuals who have a passion for the mission of PTA, and then use the communications skills above to make connections and to identify the skills that others bring to the PTA. PTA leaders must encourage others and influence them to bring their passion and strengths to the PTA leadership team. Finally, PTA leaders need to reach out to diverse populations for new ideas and learning opportunities.

Expanding PTA Leadership

It is not enough to build a PTA leadership team. You must put in place processes and procedures to help your team members to be successful. Essential parts of those processes are:

  • Orientation
  • Mentoring
  • Inclusion

When a new volunteer joins your PTA team, you need to make sure that they understand how the PTA functions and how they fit in with the rest of the team. Orientation is how you accomplish that. As a PTA leader, you should engage with those interested in joining the PTA, explain not just the mission of the PTA but the reason for the work, and determine what goals and tasks best fit their skills and time. You need to make sure that they understand the connection between their role and the intended results so that they have a sense of what success looks like. You can’t put someone in charge of a fundraising event, tell them that $12,000 was raised last year, and then after the event say, “Last year’s fundraising was a disaster. The $12,500 you helped raise was our second worst fundraising event ever.” You must lay out the goals and expectations ahead of time.

Another effective tool in making PTA team members successful is mentoring new board members. Successful mentoring of new PTA leaders requires a plan for ongoing communications, whether that is pairing a new leader with an experienced one or having other PTA leaders check in regularly to answer questions and provide advice. Effective mentoring helps a new PTA leader understand how their work is contributing to the mission of the PTA, reassures the leadership team that the new leader is making progress, and ensures that the new leader is not losing their passion for PTA because they feel unappreciated or do not see how they are contributing. Finally, PTAs need to offer leadership training to encourage new leaders to build their PTA skills, making it possible to move into positions of greater responsibility.

One PTA leader at the workshop shared how their PTA had implemented a mentoring program for new leaders. They had noticed that it was not unusual for someone to chair an event for many years in a row, especially if their children were spaced out well, resulting in a leader running a program for a decade before moving on with their last child and only leaving behind a procedure book. To solve this problem, the PTA implemented a standing rule that no one could be on an event’s leadership team for more than four years. The first year was to serve as an apprentice for the existing event leader, followed by serving as the event leader in years two and three, and concluding the fourth year as a mentor to the incoming leader.

Finally, inclusion can be an effective tool in supporting PTA leadership. This can be done by inviting potential PTA leaders to be a guest at a PTA board meeting, to serve as a committee member, to be part of a brainstorming process on new programs or initiatives, to be involved in planning a new activity or program, or to participate in training. Illinois PTA training courses are open to any PTA member, not just elected PTA officers or chairpersons. Likewise, National PTA has created several online training courses that can be taken by any PTA member.

Building a Legacy of Leadership

Building a successful PTA leadership team is a significant accomplishment, but a PTA is at its best when it has built a legacy of leadership to sustain those successful leadership practices. Building a successful legacy involves being aware of what has already been accomplished, demonstrating our commitment to the children of today, and appealing to our next generation of leaders. It requires focusing on the PTA mission in everything that we do. Most of all, it needs us to share and demonstrate that which keeps all PTA leaders going—passion.

Mr. Monell concluded his workshop with four questions for every PTA leader to ask themselves:

  • How do you contribute to the sustainability of PTA?
  • Are you moving in the direction that will help PTA grow?
  • Would your passion show in your “elevator speech” to engage new leaders?
  • Are you leaving PTA in better shape than when you arrived?