The Picket Fence Dilemma

Being an entrepreneur has its advantages. There’s flexibility, the ability to do work that aligns with your vision and values, the challenge of generating new business and balancing sales with service. Every day, an entrepreneur gets to choose what action steps she needs to take that day to meet her goals and objectives.

Being an employee has equal advantages. When you work for someone else, you have the satisfaction of being part of something larger than yourself and working with a team. While there may be politics, and no company is safe from change, working for a company typically provides stability that includes a steady paycheck, benefits and other perquisites.

What, then, do we do when we can’t decide between the two–entrepreneurship or employment?

Picket FenceI call this “The Picket Fence Dilemma.” You might also call it The-Grass-Is-Always-Greener Syndrome. People who are employed have wild fantasies about what it would be like to work for themselves. “Isn’t it great being your own boss?” people asked me when I left my job as vice president of marketing for a hospital to launch my coaching practice full-time. “Don’t you just love the freedom?”

“Yeees,” I would reply cautiously. How could I communicate the cost, and benefit, of being an entrepreneur? How could I tell people who are dreaming of bolting from a corporate cubicle that running your own business isn’t really being your own boss? Running a business is like having dozens of bosses, and they’re called “clients.”

When I work with career coaching clients, one of the first things we have to discern is which side of the fence they are choosing: employment or entrepreneurship. Getting a job and keeping it involves a host of skills and talents that are quite different from running a business. Choosing self-employment is not, I would venture to say, the easier choice. Gratifying, yes. Challenging for sure. But not easy.

The worst thing of all is to be on the fence about that choice. Whether you want to be employed or grow a business, choose. Pick a lane. Then give it all you’ve got. Otherwise, you’ll end up straddling that picket fence. And that’s gotta hurt.

Why Volunteer?

This morning I’m rubbing the sleep from my eyes, trying to wake up after spending the afternoon and a late evening in the city of Chicago. Last night we kicked off the first of six sessions for NSA-IL Speakers Academy (see photo, above, of our March 2013 graduating class with Mikki Williams, CSP, CPAE, center).

This is the third year I’ve participated as a “Dean” of the program, along with my “Co-Dean” Steve Beck, an irrepressible speaker, trainer and leader. Steve is also this year’s president of our state chapter, National Speakers Association of Illinois. For both of us, leading NSA-IL Speakers Academy (formerly known as Speaker University) is a labor of love. Thinking about all the work that’s required to organize and administer this program, along with a recent conversation I had with a friend who is considering joining the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, has me thinking. Why volunteer?

First, let’s look at the incongruity of volunteering. When you volunteer, you aren’t getting paid. And for those of us who are entrepreneurs and who don’t get a regular paycheck, that’s a pretty big trade-off of billable hours. For those who are employed, it’s time away from the office which brings its own risk. You may or may not get accolades or visibility; you may or may not get “credit.”

Yet according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 64.5 million people in the United States volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2011 and September 2012. The Corporation for National and Community Service has a boatload of statistics, research and reports on the benefits of volunteering, including data that demonstrates people who volunteer are healthier and live longer. And if you look around you, you’ll see that really successful people always have some aspect of their lives dedicated to volunteering, whether it’s through their professional associations, their organizations of faith or their communities. As a business and career coach, I believe that volunteering is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Here are just a few reasons to volunteer:

  • Being a volunteer puts you immediately in community with others. Our business and career success is dependent on being part of a larger community. Whether you’re a member of your local Chamber of Commerce or your professional association, you have a chance to build relationships with others. And we know that people like to work with and do business with people they know and trust. Volunteering gives you a chance to earn that trust.
  • Volunteering is like an audition. When you’re leading a committee, you get to flex your leadership muscles. As you work together with others on a project, you demonstrate teamwork. You have a stage on which to hone your presentation skills. People are observing you and believe me, they notice. Are you kind to others? Do you show respect? Do you have a sense of humor and not take yourself too seriously? Do you show up on time? Do you do what you said you’d do? In essence, are you “count-on-able?”
  • You get to practice. Volunteering is a great way to build a new skill set. If you’re in marketing, try working on the finance committee. If you’re in finance, join the strategic planning committee. Experiment and volunteer for things outside your “wheelhouse.”
  • Without getting too corny (although I think all good things in life are corny), being a volunteer allows you to leave a legacy. I am amazed at the depth and breadth of people’s commitment to their professional associations, their alumni associations, their churches or their service clubs. People devote countless hours to ensure that the missions of the organizations they support continue to thrive long after they’re gone.

I love being part of NSA-IL Speakers Academy because we’re helping other aspiring speakers reach their goals. I have a chance to share what I know, to lead from a curriculum developed by a dedicated task force of NSA members across the country, and to contribute to a profession that changes the world. One of our core values is continuous learning, and my commitment as a “Dean” allows me to learn as well. And I don’t mind admitting that I relish receiving “love letters” and acknowledgement from our participants and graduates who appreciate our devotion to them.

Over the course of my 16 years as a coach, I’ve heard one consistent theme from the folks who seek my services: they want to make a difference. Being a volunteer for an organization that resonates with you, your heart and your mission allows you to make a difference. Do it because you don’t need the money and you don’t care who gets the credit. But don’t be surprised when you get an amazing return on that investment–a job offer, a contract, a client. That’s the paradox of giving first.