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Your Toughest Leadership Challenges Tackled

Your Toughest Leadership Challenges Tackled

We asked and you told us—here’s what leaders say are the key ways to strengthen leadership skills.

by Terri Frank and Emily Graham


Whether you’re a first-time parent group leader or have been at it for years, there might be parts of the job you struggle with. The good news is that there are plenty of other leaders facing the same challenges, and if you work at it, you can strengthen your leadership skills. 

We took a poll asking leaders in our PTO and PTA Leaders & Volunteers Facebook group to share their biggest challenges as parent group leaders. The top challenge by far for leaders is delegation, with public speaking and staying organized coming in second and third.

If you struggle to let go of a project or you break into a sweat at the thought of talking to a room full of people (or both), that doesn’t make you a bad leader—there’s always room for improvement! Because the best advice often comes from those who’ve been there, we asked leaders to offer tips and advice to help you tackle these challenges.

Challenge Number 1: Delegation

Why delegate? Simply put, you need to delegate to prepare future leaders and to keep current leaders (that’s you!) from burning out. Almost half of the leaders we polled said they struggle with delegation. “Sometimes I think it’s more work to explain and organize someone than to just do it myself!” says one leader in the poll discussion thread.

But the initial time spent will pay off. Delegation frees up your time so you can spend more energy thinking about a project’s overall scope and goal. Until you start dividing up tasks, though, it can be hard to imagine how delegation will take less effort overall to complete a project.

“It’s often more work, but the payoff is having more people who can be leaders. Once you start delegating more you spread the knowledge and leadership around and it gets easier,” writes Theresa G.

To delegate successfully, leaders need to do one of the hardest things known to humankind: learn to let go. But how?

Start by clearly communicating your goal and how you plan to reach it. Make it more about what and why, and less about how. Leave it up to volunteers to complete the steps according to their expertise. Be sure to include tasks, a budget, and a timeline. 

“Other board members and volunteers are not your employees—trust them to do what they have said they are going to do. And letting everyone know up front what is expected is key,” Alexis M. advises.

All the know-how you need to be an effective and successful parent group leader!

Select the right person (or people) for the job. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of volunteers. Ask them what they’re good at and how they’d like to help. Have a marketing whiz at the ready? Ask her to create social posts about your next fundraiser. Parents tied to work schedules may be able to do something on weekends.

“I'm no expert, but I find that if you ask people to complete specific tasks or give them a list of what needs to be completed/picked up, etc., they can choose specific things they're comfortable doing... it helps them and you!” says Cindy D.

Don't hover. Focus on the goal, not every detail of how the group gets there. Set a timeline, include deadlines with some extra time built in, and check in periodically. If you find a task isn’t getting done, step in with advice or help.

“Let go of the idea that everything has to be your way or be perfect. Give others space to be their own leaders in the area you want them to lead in,” Breanne G. recommends.

Delegate as many tasks as you can, along with the authority to do them. One way to make delegation a part of your routine is to bring a list of tasks that could be delegated to each meeting. If no one offers to take a task, be patient. Some people may be more comfortable approaching you one on one or may want more information before agreeing to take something on.

“Say, ‘let me know if you’re interested after the meeting.’ Nine times out of ten, someone will stop you after the meeting,” suggests Liz B.

Follow up with each volunteer to make sure she understands what’s expected and when tasks should be completed.

Polish Your Delegation Skills

Change Your Micromanaging Ways

Challenge Number 2: Public Speaking

Just over a fifth of the leaders polled said fear of public speaking is their toughest leadership challenge. While many respondents said they’re generally comfortable with their role as the “face” of the group in one-on-one situations or in email, anxiety levels often rise at the thought of speaking to a room full of people.

The first step in dealing with those nerves is to remind yourself that you’re human, you’re allowed to make mistakes, and everyone gets nervous in that situation. We’ve put together tips to help make public speaking less stressful, and group leaders weighed in with their own experiences.

Write it down. Put your main points on a slide or an index card, or print a copy of your remarks in a large font for easier reading.

“Have an agenda/notes in front of you with the key points. Know your material well. Think of yourself as the listener and go back to be sure your words are clear and easy to understand. Anticipate what questions people may have and be ready with answers,” suggests Heather B.

Practice. Rehearse at home in front of family members or a mirror. Ask listeners for feedback. “Practice what you want to say, picture yourself saying it in a confident manner, and then just do it,” says Julie F.
Arrive early to get a feel for the space. If you plan to use a projector or a microphone, make sure all the equipment is in working order.

Relax. Take a few deep breaths and be careful not to talk too fast. Focus on your message more than any nervousness you feel.

Break the ice. You’ll be most nervous at the start of your talk, so take some time to connect with the audience. Admitting out loud that you’re nervous can help you feel more comfortable. “There's something about sharing that fear with your audience that actually gives you confidence,” says Susan C.

Don’t worry too much if you make a mistake. Just acknowledge the mistake, laugh about it if you can, and move on. Leader Amanda P. says laughing about mistakes she makes while speaking helps other parents see her as more approachable.

Think of the speech as a conversation. Refer to your notes occasionally, but don’t read directly off the page. Remember to make eye contact.

“What I find best is to focus on two or three people I know very well. I do look around the room, but I usually focus on them, so it feels more like I'm just having a conversation with them! It's almost a mind trick for me!” says Jenn L.

Public Speaking: Overcome the Jitters

Challenge Number 3: Staying Organized

Keeping up with your kids’ activities and tackling personal to-dos can be a challenge for even the most organized parent. Add a volunteer leadership role into the mix, and it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. Ten percent of the respondents to our Facebook poll said their top challenge is staying organized.

It’s easy to see why. Parent group leaders want to do everything they can to support their school, which sometimes leads to overcommitting. And even if PTO or PTA work is well-organized, there’s a never-ending list of chores to be done at home—and not enough time to do them in.

Before you take a look at your personal organization, take a look at how much you’re doing for the parent group. If there are tasks that can be delegated, ask for help. If delegation isn’t an option, think about other ways to reduce your time commitment. Could your weekly task become something you do twice a month? Could the big event be simplified to make it easier for volunteers to execute? Try these commonsense organization tips to increase your efficiency.

Keep good records and set aside regular work periods to accomplish important PTO tasks. These steps will help you regain some sense of control and keep up with recurring tasks, like reconciling the bank account or writing meeting minutes.

“It felt like I was drowning for the first 6 months,” recalls Katy R. “My suggestions is binders with tabs and a good planner. They help you stay organized and add contact info and notes. Keep lots of notes.”

If you prefer to keep information electronically, set up a Google Drive folder or a jump drive to keep PTO files on. As you work on PTO tasks through the year, take notes that will help leaders next year.

If you wait until you have some downtime to catch up on PTO tasks, it might never happen. Think about how much time you need to do your PTO tasks, and set aside some time when you can complete tasks undisturbed. This might mean taking an hour twice a week to process paperwork if you’re a treasurer, or if you’re a secretary, setting aside an hour shortly after each meeting to type up minutes. Committee chairs working on big events or ongoing projects may benefit from regular times on the calendar to take stock of progress and plan next steps.

Reduce Your PTO Stress

If you struggle with any of these leadership challenges, remember that you’re not alone! Even the most accomplished leaders struggle occasionally with delegation, public speaking, or organization. The good news is you can learn these skills and with practice, you’ll become an even more effective leader.

Download our free New Leader Kit for more tips and know-how on being an effective and successful parent group leader.

Originally posted in 2019 and updated regularly

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