September 12, 2011

Guest Blog: Sparkplugs? Really?

Judi McCarthy and Pam Fiorini in the Golden Empire Gleaners' Warehouse

Guest blog by Judi McCarthy, Immediate Past Chair of Kern Community Foundation's Board of Directors and Founding Chair of The Women's and Girls' Fund.

That I would ever write anything with an automotive reference is beyond belief.  I know zip about cars, my oil always needs changing, and I keep AAA on speed dial.  I understand as much about changing a flat tire as I do about jumpstarting a dead battery. Nothing.  So, forget about sparkplugs as a blog topic.  Let’s talk about sparkplug leadership instead.

Last fall, I had a special reason to contemplate “sparkplug” leaders:  who they are and what makes them dynamic drivers of an organization’s success.  This was a happy assignment, as it culminated in my choosing a nonprofit recipient for a grant from Kern Community Foundation.  This grant would honor my service as the Foundation’s Chair and support leadership development for one local organization’s top executive.

My choice for the first recipient of the Kern Community Foundation Board Chair’s “Sparkplug Leadership” Award is Pam Fiorini, Executive Director of the Golden Empire Gleaners.  Why did Pam stand out in my considerations?  What makes her a sparkplug leader?

In 2004, Harold S. Williams wrote Sparkplug Leaders for Projects and Organizations, identifying five indicators and descriptions of this leadership style.  These were helpful:

    Energy - This is the commodity that not only “winds up” the leader but proves a galvanizing force to get and keep the involvement of others. Without strong human energy many projects will begin…but few will finish.

    A bias toward action - Many people are at heart critics, planners or observers. Our sparkplugs are actors. They focus on solving a problem, they focus on opportunities, they have a sense of urgency.

    A results orientation – Sparkplug leaders feel a sense of achievement and competitive instincts.  They keep score and value the challenge of a finish line.

    Personal responsibility – Sparkplugs believe that people own the consequences of their own behavior in bad times as well as good ones. As a result, they are excellent learners who can make needed course corrections.

    Use of teams - The concept of a team brings the full set of needed leadership skills, as well as the

    full complement of “people power” to get the job done

Would you be surprised to learn, as I was, that Pam is one of only two paid employees in the Gleaners organization?  Her title is “Executive Director,” but her official duties are broad: much of the organization’s business and administrative work, facility management, grant writing, fundraising, donor management, communications, community relations, and event planning.  Unofficially, Pam has been known to work the phones, drive trucks, pick up surplus produce, work food drives, cook lunch, and clean the office.

Pam Fiorini believes that good leaders share two traits in particular.  Good leaders care, both about the people they work with and the people they serve.  “That’s a hard thing to fake,” she believes.  Good leaders are also prepared to be unpopular (like parents, Pam suggested).  While a leader should provide opportunities for input, “the buck stops somewhere,” and a good leader must be prepared to “be the heavy” and make the decisions.

During our discussion about leadership, Pam often turned the conversation away from herself as a leader and focused on the Gleaners’ volunteers and board instead.  “The story of the Golden Empire Gleaners is the story of our volunteers,” she said.  Pam credits the board for staying true to the organization’s mission.  “We actually do what we say we do.  We keep it simple: getting food to people in need.”  The organization’s budget hasn’t changed since the 1980’s, yet they are able to handle 2,000,000 pounds of food annually, feeding approximately 200,000 people every year.  “The only way that gets done,” according to Pam, “is by keeping our overhead low, paying as we go.  Our board is a good steward of our donations, both food and money.”

I pressed Pam to describe her own particular strengths as a leader.  She quickly answered, “I’m willing to get my hands dirty, and that’s a good fit for this place.  People notice that.”  Moreover, Pam identified a good work ethic in herself, a willingness to work hard, but also to work smart.

Pam was thrilled to receive our “Sparkplug Leadership Award.” The Gleaners budget has no line item for training.  Pam quickly determined how to apply the Foundation’s grant for leadership development.  She found two seminars whose topics fit the Gleaners’ new strategic plan.  One seminar taught strategies for developing a healthy board, cultivating members whose experience and skills complement the organization’s work.  A second seminar focused on recruiting and training skilled volunteers. This is where Pam expects to focus next.  She described their ideal volunteers as “committed, follow-through types of people, flexible, and willing to fill in where needed.”  Much like the Gleaners’ sparkplug leader herself.

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