Nina Arwitz is CEO of Volunteer Ireland, the national volunteer development organisation that celebrates, supports and advances volunteering in Ireland. Nina has worked in the non-profit sector throughout her career, mostly with environmental and animal welfare organisations.
Originally from Sweden, previous jobs have seen her living and working in the Middle East, Central America and the UK – so it’s been interesting learning about work and life quirks specific to the Irish since she moved here three years ago. One day, she hopes to understand what the immersion is!
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
I do think you can teach some elements of leadership – for example, you can teach how to be a good manager, how to negotiate, etc. But most leadership, I know for myself, comes from experience. I was made a manager of a large team quite young, in my early 20s, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t very good at it in the beginning. What made me better over time wasn’t any specific lesson I was taught or training I attended, but just experience and learning from my own mistakes. I’m a big fan of 360 appraisals, because I know I learned a lot from that and became a better leader as a result.
When you are filling a leadership role in your organisation what qualities do you look for from candidates?
I sometimes get caught thinking that a person is either good at thinking big picture/strategically/creatively, or they are a “do-er” who is good at executing and getting things done. But of course people can have both qualities, and what I look for in a leader is someone who can do both. I also try to gauge a candidate’s leadership style, to make sure it matches with the organisation. For example, here at Volunteer Ireland, we have a culture of setting clear goals and expectations, but then trusting and giving colleagues space to deliver, as opposed to micro-managing. People skills, diplomacy, flexibility and ability to negotiate and compromise are also important to me. And perhaps most importantly, humility and a willingness to learn and listen. A leader doesn’t have to know everything, they just have to be willing to listen and learn from others – and then give others credit instead of taking it for themselves!
If you had to leave your organisation for 1 year what would you ask of your team and what advice would you give them?
Well, I just did that for 9 months’ maternity leave so I can speak from recent experience! I was in a lucky position in knowing that we have a very good team in place at Volunteer Ireland, and appointing an excellent individual to take on the maternity cover as Acting CEO. I don’t know if I left them all with any parting advice other than “ don’t break stuff” – I probably should have – but what I did do is leave some extremely detailed handover notes and clear targets for the organisation’s annual plan. If I did it again my advice would be to trust yourself and use it as an opportunity to step up; and if in doubt to go back to our core mission and strategic plan to guide decisions.
What are you doing today to make sure your organisation will be relevant in 10 years time?
Four specific things: (1) We’ve just completed a strategic planning process for 2018-2022, that is based on thinking where we want volunteering to be in the future and how we will get there. (2) We are advocating for a national vision and action plan for volunteering on a political level. (3) We are compliant with the Governance Code for Community, Voluntary and Charity organisations in Ireland – not because funders or the public expect us to be, but because I genuinely think that if we get our governance right it will make us a more effective organisation that is better at achieving our goals. (4) Networking and partnership building – I think that for non-profit organisations to survive in the future, we have to build relationships and work collaboratively with other non-profits, with the private sector and with the public sector. Having said all that, I do also think that most non-profit organisations should fundamentally aspire to make themselves redundant, to make the problem they are trying to solve disappear – it might take 10, 50, 100 or more years, but we have to keep that as our ultimate goal.
What leaders outside your own organisation do you admire and why?
This sounds very cheesy but I admire my dad because he always enjoyed going to work and went with enthusiasm. That’s something to aspire to.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
To be honest I’m not a reader of leadership books and blogs. I try to follow the latest thinking in our core business, i.e. volunteering, so I follow “thought leaders” on volunteering internationally on social media and try to make time to read their blogs. In terms of courses, I did Prince 2 but I don’t think I’ve used anything from it apart from “manage by exception” i.e. a project running well doesn’t need a lot of interference; only get involved if there is a problem. Finally, I love Oliver Burkman who writes a column in the Guardian called “This Column Will Change Your Life” – he seems to find really interesting research and applies it to the choices we make, and although it’s aimed at the personal level a lot is applicable to the workplace, for example https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jan/12/stop-racing-get-there-as-quickly-oliver-burkeman.