The traditional career path is largely sequential and structured. The trajectory of the average job is a linear one, and it will typically take you 10-12 years to be promoted into a role where you manage other people. On an individual level, the point at which you will exercise leadership is thus actually quite late – in your 30s or 40s.
However, if you start or join a nonprofit on the side, you open up the option of jumping straight to a leadership role. Not only do you have the autonomy to shape the capacity of your involvement to be as small or large as you are comfortable with, you’ll also be forced to think of yourself now as the leader. When you frame yourself as a leader, your personal growth will be exponential. From the types of skills you acquire to even the types of books you read – you’ll approach things very differently.
There’s also a monumental difference between being a leader in a corporation and in a nonprofit or volunteer-based society; the two types of leadership will demand different skills from you. Suppose you’re a director in a corporate entity. While people may disagree with your way of doing things, they also know that you’re the boss. People do what you tell them to do because you’re in charge: you have the power to give them their bonuses or fire them. Your employees will obey you, but they may not necessarily like or respect you. In my view, this is management, not leadership.
In a volunteer-run nonprofit group, you’ll need to come from a different approach. Your volunteers only show up because they care about the mission, and nobody is obligated to do anything. In order to motivate the team to deliver results, you can’t offer bonuses or threaten punishments; you need to inspire them. This is a very different skill set that you’ll need to hone, where you’re able to successfully convince people to give up their free time, hit pause on Netflix, and use their free time and skills to work towards a cause that won’t give them financial gratification. That type of leadership skills are invaluable.
Ultimately, you hold the reigns and can design your leadership path based on the variables that matter to you. When I graduated from college, I joined a few of my friends in the newly-formed Debate Association (Singapore) as its Vice President. We had no real plan at the start, and we were all learning. When we got more comfortable, we realised we could take on a larger team and lead others. We started persuading other volunteers to join us to train students, run competitions, and do more.
Eventually, the few volunteers grew to hundreds of volunteers, which eventually reached out to thousands of students. I became the President, and we grew faster and bigger than we had ever dreamed; we were training the best student debaters to debate at international competitions (and our students ended up ranked top in the world!); we co-created a debate TV show that got nominated for an Emmy award; and most importantly - we made a positive difference to so many students. As a leader in that setting, I had to work with each volunteer to design a role that made sense for them, excite them about the potential impact we could have, and motivate them to do their best. We created our mission together. You won’t always have this kind of leeway in a corporate setting.
And taking on nonprofit responsibilities won’t be frowned upon by the organisation you’re working for full-time either, so there’s no hurdle from HR! From the company’s perspective, they’d love to have people on board who are able to corral teams and motivate them. When you bring your whole self to work, the organisation also benefits. You have a spark, you bring cross-sector insights, you are driven by a deeper purpose. When you bring your entire self to work, you enrich your life as well as those of the people who work with you.
Many people get into volunteering in order to build their personal brand, which is a parallel conversation. The key is to be authentic. Make sure you’re building a community around a cause that you genuinely are passionate about. If you’re in it just to pad your CV, your volunteers will quickly smell a rat and walk away. On the other hand, if you’re able to get your volunteers excited and motivated to stay on, it’s a great sign that you have something of value to offer.
With running a nonprofit, you have the opportunity to build an identity that is separate from your professional identity – one you’re in full control of. With your professional identity, you likely won’t be able to have this level of control as to how you forge your path ahead. Your professional life, by and large, will be impacted by the vagaries of chance, promotions, or postings. This is far from ideal for most of us.
Conversely, your personal brand is entirely your own. If you’re a photographer who lives and breathes photography, why not choose to build a community around your passion and become known in those circles? Outline your goals going in. Do you want to be internationally renowned, or train other photographers? The beauty of this is that you can choose the direction in which you move, and scale up or down based on your other priorities in life. Need to shift your focus to family for a while? You can always just scale back. This kind of flexibility isn’t always an option professionally.
And this second identity of yours isn’t just a nice addition to your CV until you land your next job. Instead, it becomes your reputation that follows you, not the job you’re in.
Let’s say you’re a director in a prominent bank. You’ll have tons of people interested in your views or following you online because of your job title. They care less about what you have to say, and more about your insights based on that particular role. In a sense, you’re just a spokesperson for the bank, and the majority of those who follow you are interested in what the bank has to say. This is useful until you change jobs. You’re seen as your role, not as an individual.
Your personal identity, distinct from your professional life, is one that is deeply entwined with the things you care most about as an individual. Whether you’re a passionate photographer or a tech advocate, people will want to hear your personal views. You’ll be invited to talks to share your thoughts and experiences, and people will respect your opinion regardless of the official job title you hold.
Well, this is all well and good, but does it really add up to anything? The answer is a resounding yes. Let’s say you’re applying for a job alongside numerous other candidates. HR checks you out on Google, and what do they find? An interesting, awesome person who is worth talking to and definitely worth finding out more about. Your personal brand, when built well, can open doors to a much deeper conversation. When HR sees your online trail as being credible, thoughtful, and intelligent, you’ve already become an achiever in their eyes. You’re not just another applicant. You’re someone who is already successful who happens to be looking for a job, and that’s an entirely different dynamic.
Of course, there will be opportunities to monetise this personal brand of yours if that’s what you prefer. When you’ve gained enough momentum, you could pivot out of your current sector and transition to your passion full time. Even if you choose to stay in your current full-time job, the traction you build personally will come in handy. Not only will you open doors, but you’ll also widen your network and gain access to people and experiences that might have otherwise seemed like a reach.
I was recently on a panel with the General Manager of Microsoft and a VP at SMU, which ordinarily I wouldn’t have had the chance to do. Yet it was because of my nonprofit work in the space of innovation and tech advocacy, I was invited to share my views. This anecdote is an example of how being intentional about your passion will help you rub shoulders with cool people outside your work circles.
In terms of compliance, most companies in Singapore don’t take issues with their employees being involved in nonprofits. You might have to declare it to your HR department, but as long as you’re not earning a sideline income or making consistent revenue from your involvement, compliance shouldn’t stop you.
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Ex-Deputy Commissioner of Cybersecurity