Get Out and Smell the Coffee

You can build a support system through a little bit of cafe life and a whole lot of networking.

by Tim Sullivan


PTO leadership is a lonely job.

This may sound odd considering PTO leaders presumably have to be fairly well-known and well-liked to get their leadership positions. Never mind the fact that they also regularly attend school events and soccer games and dance recitals packed with other parents. “Lonely” isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

But when you get right down to the actual leadership job—how to run a group, what programs work best, what mistakes to avoid, an experienced friend to vent with—there often aren’t many local folks to turn to. The trouble is that isolation not only makes the leadership job much more difficult but also often hampers the success of your group.

Most PTOs are isolated—like silos, to use a term currently popular in business circles. Every three miles another school pops up, and that school community often has very little connection to the community one school over. We each do our own thing, try our best, have our share of successes, deal with our own frustrations, and then move on. Our successors will most likely follow the same pattern.

The silo effect isn’t a good thing for you or your group. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from leaders beating themselves up for some perceived failing because they didn’t know that nearly all groups struggle with that exact challenge. Knowing you’re not alone often makes it easier to keep on trying. On the flip side, it’s obviously also helpful if you can learn from someone else’s successes. Keeping those successes “in the silo,” and thus hidden from others, is such a missed opportunity.

Add a Little Java

The antidote to silos and the key to avoiding the lonely PTO trap is what I call coffee shops. You have to find some for yourself. I’ll elaborate, but these can be actual coffee shops or some other solution that provides the same benefits of comfort, support, discussion, and camaraderie.

Your spouse most likely won’t be a big help in your PTO loneliness struggle. Even your best friends, if they’re not PTO leaders themselves, won’t completely get it. You need someone who knows your pain. It’s basically what we had in mind when we started PTO Today 10 years ago, but you can do it in lots of other ways, as well.

The most straightforward solution is an actual smells-like-coffee, sells-bad-muffins coffee shop. It’s easy enough to find the email addresses or phone numbers of the 10 or 15 leaders from schools closest to you. Reach out and suggest a very casual coffee some morning in a few weeks. You don’t need bylaws or dues or anything more than an interest in getting together and sharing a good idea or two.

Do it once, and I can almost guarantee it won’t be your last. We’re hearing about more and more groups of leaders making this a monthly or quarterly habit. Getting a reference on a great vendor (or avoiding a not-so-great one) alone will make it worthwhile.

The good news is, there are more and more “non-coffee shops” available to you these days. The community on is one good example. Tens of thousands of leaders have shared more than 100,000 messages on our message boards. And later this fall, we’ll be launching a whole new set of community tools that will provide even more sharing opportunities. You’ll even find PTO Today on Twitter.

The proliferation of Web tools like Facebook and MySpace makes it easier than ever to find people who both like to connect and also really understand the unique challenges of PTO leadership. It’s also a great time to think about live networking events like our growing Parent Group Expos as a chance to get together with hundreds of other leaders and dozens of vendors all in one day, in one place.

Whether you do it down the street, online, or at an Expo, the key is to fight the isolation. Because the fact is that you’re not alone. The good ideas and support you need are out there if you take a few minutes to connect. I can tell you from my own experience—and from talking with thousands of other leaders—that the effort can make a big difference in your own experience as a leader and in the success of your group.

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