Building leadership skills through strategic volunteering

Asking the right questions before taking on a volunteer role will maximise your contribution and the leadership skills you can gain.
Jenny Okonkwo, FCMA, CGMA, says it is important to volunteer in roles that provide opportunities to learn and grow.
Jenny Okonkwo, FCMA, CGMA, says it is important to volunteer in roles that provide opportunities to learn and grow.

Volunteering can provide a number of benefits beyond the obvious help it provides to the community or profession. Every hour spent in a volunteer role is an opportunity to build relationships, gain different perspectives, and master new skills.

One skill that many accountants seek to strengthen through their volunteer roles is leadership. Whether they are veteran C-suite executives or first-year professionals who have recently graduated from university, volunteering can place accountants in positions to explore leadership development in a way that may not be possible in the workplace.

Jenny Okonkwo, FCMA, CGMA, founder of the Black Female Accountants Network in Canada, and Amal Ratnayake, FCMA, CGMA, CIMA president and chair of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, share in this Q&A how to take a strategic approach to volunteer roles. Okonkwo is an international keynote speaker and an inclusion and diversity ambassador. She co-chaired and spoke at the 2019 AICPA and CIMA Women's Global Leadership Summit in London. Ratnayake has held a number of volunteer roles including on the CIMA Canada board before becoming CIMA president in June 2019.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What are your general thoughts on the importance of volunteer roles?

Jenny Okonkwo: Volunteering is very much part of the cultural fabric over here in Canada. I myself started the volunteering part of my career when I moved here. It was a great way of expanding, and creating and developing a professional network and also to understand and get an appreciation of the finance and accounting landscape.

People do give a substantial amount of their time in this area. If I talk about my own volunteer work in particular, it has really been focused around professional volunteering.

A strategic volunteering approach has helped me to build leadership skills. It's a very different competency set to still produce results in an unpaid setting and get that level of cooperation that you would get in the workplace. It calls for a different level of skills and a different approach.

I also more recently have done a number of speaking engagements and mentoring. I have also been invited by CIMA Canada to represent it on the AICPA National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion. Amal, you're CIMA president, but you've had several volunteer roles previously?

Amal Ratnayake: I can echo Jenny's words on the importance of volunteering. I started volunteering with the CIMA Student Society in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. When I graduated from CIMA, I started volunteering on the Education and Training Committee of CIMA Sri Lanka.

Then more recently, I volunteered with the CIMA Canada board and for some of its committees in Canada. All of that has brought me to where I am today as president of CIMA and the chair of the Association between CIMA and AICPA.

If you think about it, the business case for volunteering is very clear. For example, volunteer work can help individuals get hired for roles.

According to a piece of Deloitte research that I read recently [see "The Two-Way Benefits of Volunteer Roles", FM magazine, 29 January 2018), 30% of the CVs that come across the desks of those influencing hiring positions mention volunteer work — candidates' volunteer work. A total of 82% of those surveyed said that they would be more likely to choose candidates with volunteer experience.

It goes even further than that because 85% of those surveyed said they would be prepared to overlook some CV weaknesses for those that have volunteer experience.

It's therefore very clear that volunteering can also help you on your career journey.

How can volunteer roles help your career while at the same time allowing you to make a contribution beyond your day job?

Okonkwo: The expansion of one's professional network has never been more important. What professional volunteering does is give you access to those influencers and decision-makers that you wouldn't necessarily have access to.

For instance, the organisation I founded in 2016, Black Female Accountants Network, is a professional finance and accounting women's network with membership that goes from the C-suite all the way to youth — undergraduates on finance and accounting programmes. Those undergraduates and the members who are at the start of their careers now have access to senior managers and leaders. And that can absolutely help them in terms of mentoring, career advice, and career pathway clarification.

Having access to those leaders also provides opportunities for support from sponsors. For instance, if you were looking for a promotion or to be considered for a project at work and you hadn't yet had the chance to demonstrate some of the role prerequisites within your workplace, volunteering gives a senior leader an opportunity to vouch for your work should you be looking for another role either inside or outside of your company.

Then the other side of it, of course, is if you have demonstrated or had the opportunity to develop a particular skillset or competency within your volunteering space, you can transfer it right back into the workplace and add value to your company's goals and objectives. This is why it's seen as absolutely critical by many employers, too.

Amal Ratnayake, FCMA, CGMA, CIMA president and chair of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, says volunteering helps develop professional and leadership skills.
Amal Ratnayake, FCMA, CGMA, CIMA president and chair of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, says volunteering helps develop professional and leadership skills.

I think volunteering also really helps you expand your network. It helps you develop new skills sometimes or expand skills that you already have. In fact, research shows us that nine out of ten influencers of hiring decisions believe that professional skillsets and leadership skills that include communication, accountability, and commitment are improved by volunteer work.

I can attest to that. My skills of motivating and inspiring teams to go the extra mile have grown significantly due to my volunteer work. If you think about it, volunteers do what they do because they're inspired to do so and not because it is their job to do so. As leaders of volunteer teams, you double up those skills of motivating and inspiring others, and that helps you become a much better leader.

Okonkwo: It's your own growth, and also bringing others with you and seeing them grow and watching them go to their next level. That's when it's very rewarding.

What questions does a volunteer need to ask?

Okonkwo: The first one is, what is the organisation looking to achieve? What can I bring to the table to help it achieve those goals, and what am I looking to learn? I think it's important to have that balance. If you come into a volunteer role where you know absolutely everything, it may not be as fulfilling an experience as it could be. It's always good to try and leave some room for learning.

Coming in with some skills and competencies that the organisation needs is always a great way to start because it brings confidence. It means you're able to make an immediate contribution and at the same time find out if there are opportunities where you can learn and grow further and also where you can influence others.

As volunteering is the investment of one's personal time on an unpaid basis, you want to feel that you're able to completely contribute to the mission, vision, and core values of that organisation that you're volunteering for. At the same time, you would want complete alignment with the vision, mission, and core values from your own personal perspective for it to work.

Oliver Rowe is an FM magazine senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at