guestbloggerGraham Jones (Surrey, BC - IT Professional)

Leading VANTUG

I have written here several times about running User Groups and the important part that I believe that they play in the IT Community. When I took over as Leader of VANTUG a little over 6 years ago I had absolutely no clue how to run a User Group. In contrast to many UG Leaders, many of whom should be credited with and congratulated for starting UG’s, I never considered myself to be a technical “expert” in any particular area. When asked I usually respond by saying that I know enough about a lot of things to be dangerous but not enough to be really useful :). However, I did have a wide range of business, management and leadership experience, which stood me in good stead. So I have always approached it as if I am running a small non-profit (read always looking for money) “business”. Of course, there are some definite advantages in having specific technical expertise but, just like in any business, sufficient knowledge to communicate with your vendors (speakers) and understand what your clients (members) want is sufficient from an operational standpoint.

The Importance of Leadership Stability

Over the past 6 years the VANTUG Board has remained largely intact with very few changes, something which has been a great benefit to me and the VANTUG members. Stability permits longer term plans to have a decent chance of success. Having taken a little time to assess the situation, at my first Board meeting I declared that I thought VANTUG would be an 8 – 10 year project. As you might expect that created some quizzical looks! For an organization, which is now 11 years old,  that up to that  time had basically lived “day to day”, was not in great financial shape and had no real “plans” the idea of looking that far ahead was difficult to comprehend. What did I mean by an “8 – 10 year project”? Experience has taught me that it takes a minimum of 7 real years (not planned years) to bring about a stable and successful paradigm shift in approach to pretty much anything in the business world. This is one of the reasons why the political system is such a problem because, regardless of your political leanings, very few governments are around long enough to complete their plans before somebody else comes along and starts again. A great example is Maggie Thatcher’s 12 year reign as PM in the UK. She may have been the “Iron Lady” but she completed some important changes. If you consider the part-time volunteer world it is bound to take longer.

The Importance of a Real, Living Vision

Did I have a plan? Not really. But I did have a “Vision” which is where you have to start from. Very often you will see a written Vision statement for an organization and there is nothing wrong with that. VANTUG has one, “To be the best Information Technology Professional community in North America by providing excellent value to our membership”. I wasn’t around when this was “concocted” and I guess it is as good as any but why not “the world”? As you have probably gathered I am not against Vision statements but I am not a huge fan of them either because “what do they really mean”. The kind of Vision that I am talking about is the Vision that a Leader must have in their “mind’s eye” to constantly take an organization forward. It must be shared with the other Board members for the most part but may not be easy, or necessary, to share with the members. The members will give their “nod of approval” by attending meetings regularly in good numbers and by providing positive and constructive negative feedback.

I believe all Leaders of note have a Vision in their “mind’s eye”. Obviously it should not be in conflict with any written statement but it is the “real, living” version that evolves over time that counts. If you think that “real, living” version won’t change then you either haven’t been there or you are not opening your mind to change. That “real, living” Vision must of course be translated into plans and actions but that will always be easier if you have a clear “picture” in your head around opportunities, connections between events and particularly around building relationships. We as individuals rarely actually achieve anything on our own. Successful Leadership is achieved through others. Leaders coach, encourage, support, educate and do some “star gazing”. The Management functions of facilitate, organize and account are still important and may or may not be wholly or partly vested in a UG Leader depending upon the group.

Evaluating Progress

So why this post? Well, we are 6 years in and I found myself taking stock. There is no question that we have made good progress. At one time we were in fairly serious financial trouble and membership was dwindling. Now we have a pretty healthy membership and, whilst the VANTUG Board annual Hawaiian Cruise isn’t quite in sight yet, we are quite stable financially. At this point I must give great thanks and credit to Microsoft Canada for the support and assistance that they have provided over the past 3 – 4 years. I truly believe that we would not be where we are today without them. Are we there yet…? Not even close (I do set very high standards). 10 years looks like being a reasonable target, or is it? One thing that we should all recognize is that we never really get there because the “goal posts” move. The instant that you take your foot of the “metal” you are going in the wrong direction. Although VANTUG may be my prime responsibility, the goal posts that have changed for me is the realization that it was never about that. The playing field is the “community as a whole” and improving that should be our collective “mind’s eye” Vision.