How to cultivate a happy volunteer team: Advice from veteran TEDx organizers

TEDxENIMonastir's team (Photo: Elhanni Ghassen)

TEDxENIMonastir’s team (Photo: Elhani Ghassen)

The key to a great TEDx event? Not just a great stage or great speakers, but great volunteers, making the entire event possible. We asked veteran TEDx organizers Dylan Wilks of TEDxVictoria, Reza Ghiabi of TEDxTehran, Samir Beshry of TEDxYouth@Alexandria and Ioannis Iliadis of TEDxHeraklion to share how they inspire, encourage and support their teams. Below, their answers:

TEDxVictoria's 2012 team.  (Photo: Brian Van Wyk)

TEDxVictoria’s 2012 team. (Photo: Brian Van Wyk)

What do you wish someone told you about managing a team before you organized a TEDx event?

Wilks: The biggest piece of advice I can give anyone is: Don’t ask people to volunteer — the reason being that the passion to work on a TEDx event in a volunteer capacity needs to come from within. It cannot feel in any way like an obligation.

It is very tempting to ask friends for help, and they will often give it, but the effort put forth by extremely passionate volunteers (with exceptional work ethics) just cannot be matched by any other kind of person.

Ghiabi: That it is not “management.” It takes “leadership” instead. It cannot feel in any way like an obligation.

Beshry: A great team helps in terms of setting more relevant and realistic expectations and plans at least.

Iliadis: Yoda has already told us: “Patience you must have, my young Padawan.”

TEDxTehran's 2014 team

TEDxTehran’s 2014 team

What have you learned about managing a team from organizing your event?

Wilks: Really take your time to form your team – hire people you would be friends with, people you feel a genuine connection to on some level, people you respect.

It is very tempting to hire people based on the skills they bring to the table, but it’s the *people* that make each TEDx event what it is. Hire slowly and carefully, and you will end up with a phenomenal team that works very well together.

Ghiabi: I learned to be transparent and communicate clearly. I try my best to keep the team fully informed of goals, priorities and important deadlines. I also learned to walk my talk. If I devote time and energy, I can expect devotion from the team.

Beshry: Love matters! You can manage, set plans, KPIs and whatever, but as long as you don’t ensure a healthy culture, values and behaviors, as long you don’t have a common goal that all strive to achieve, these plans fail to achieve ~50% of their potential, and more importantly, you lose value and give more effort into upkeeping rather than innovating with it.

Iliadis: That the best feelings are after the end of the event when an awesome experience has been delivered to everyone and you see their eyes star-gazing.

TEDxYouth@Alexandria's 2014 team

TEDxYouth@Alexandria’s 2014 team

What is something special you do for your volunteer team?

WilksWe do game nights out at the local board game café on occasion, and we do organizer dinners — our final meeting for our last event, the debrief, was held at a high-end restaurant here in Victoria.

We also throw a mean afterparty and also plan to host evening dinner parties this year with alumni speakers and organizers.

Ghiabi: I become their friend. By this, I mean I actively work to understand why they are part of the team, and if it is for the right cause, I’ll make sure they get what they came for.

Beshry: A lot. Most importantly:

  1. Engaging them in most organizational decisions, so they feel ownership in the event.
  2. Every general gathering or so, I bring chocolates, cookies, sweets or other similar incentives to the ones who come early, who excel in their positions, etc.
  3. In general gatherings, we watch a TED or TEDx talk for two reasons: One, to set the theme or message of the meeting through the talk, and, two, to study the talk through the lens of each division we have in the team. For example, the coaching team tries to analyze how well the speaker presented their idea and by what factors did they manage to do so, the media team focuses on camera angles and editing, etc.
  4. Most importantly — be there for the team (functionally, humanly, etc.). Our main product is inspiration; we have to be that for our team members.

Iliadis: We play a lot of team building games. We have one of the best volunteer coordinators we could have and he always creates the best climate for co-working and proactivity. After all, working on the event should be a memory that will never be forgotten for each volunteer.

Members of TEDxHeraklion's 2014 team

Members of TEDxHeraklion’s 2014 team

If you could give a new TEDx organizer one piece of advice on managing a team, what would it be?

WilksDon’t ask people to volunteer.

Ghiabi: Be professional, transparent and empathic. Be your best when you are among your team. Volunteers are there to feel good about themselves, so be someone they feel good around.

Beshry: As the first act — set your values as a person and set the event’s values and objectives. Then:

  • Make sure you align these two values in how you talk, what you plan, what you do.
  • Create a clear organizational hierarchy, workflow and management system. It shouldn’t be random and should be efficient.
  • Engage the team always in what lifts their spirits and enriches their knowledge … in what inspires.
  • Keep a healthy environment through open discussions in different topics, seeing each other regularly, balancing between working hard and playing even harder, by being a leader and an inspiration.
  • You have to work hard to be all that, but it’s so rewarding for you and for the ones you are “responsible” for.
  • Have fun and inspire.

Iliadis: I would advise them to keep it simple:

  • Always smile
  • Always look your conversation partner straight in the eyes
  • Be proactive
  • Train your leadership skills
  • Forget sleep

Anything else you’d like to share?

WilksMuch of the best advice on organizing teams and management can be seen in Simon Sinek’s talks.

Ghiabi: When I first became the organizer of my event, it was because the previous licensee — Sara Mohammadi — passed me the torch. She trusted me, and that is inspirational to me. It is worth a million when someone trusts you with something worthy. I had some serious challenges with the team afterwards, but what kept my heart in place was a clear vision of what we were going after.

Beshry: It’s been and will always be a roller coaster ride. Each event is unique, due to the difference of factors of culture, backgrounds, goals, etc. so each equation for good management is different, but they all are similar in the prospects above.

Iliadis: Dear prospective TEDx event organizer,

Be prepared ’cause the next years will be totally different than the previous ones.
A completely new era is starting for you from the moment you choose to organize a TEDx event.
I strongly advise you to keep a journal to remember each moment

–Ioannis

3 Comments

  1. Alexandria Tiedtke

    I just wanted to add that you need to say “thank you” to the large group and to individuals often!

  2. david pla

    Really inspiring. Thanks!!!!!!!

  3. Koutouan

    Très inspirant pour moi membre de l’équipe TEDxAbidjan.

Leave a Reply to Alexandria Tiedtke Cancel reply

Your email address and name are required fields marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>