insight magazine

GEN NEXT: How Volunteerism Shapes Your Future

Our 2018 Young Professional Leadership Award recipient shares the insights gained from leading a nonprofit. By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ, CPA WITH DERRICK LILLY | Winter 2018

Michael-Rodriguez-310Michael Rodriguez’s story is “amazing” as many who know him at the Illinois CPA Society and elsewhere would say. The eldest of six siblings, he’s the first in his family to graduate from college, holding both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s also a CPA in the state of Illinois. Since June 2016, he’s served as the vice president of Universities and Student Relations for ALPFA Chicago (Association of Latino Professionals for America), transforming its student programming and presence across the state. In January 2018, he was named to Negocios Now’s Latinos 40 Under 40 list for his leadership of Chicago’s young Latinos.

Today, Rodriguez is a senior Risk and Controls consultant for WEC Energy Group, making the jump to the corporate world following a more than four-year career with PwC where he last served as a senior auditor. But what’s shaping his successes, and the next generation of business leaders he’s influencing, is his continued commitment to the community.

Rodriguez co-founded Sprouting Leaders in 2012, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting continuous academic growth and personal development among youth in some of Chicago’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. In his own words, here’s what he has learned since then.

What started as volunteering after school for leisure evolved into a life-changing experience — both personally and professionally. As a senior in college, a group of friends and I volunteered at Chicago Public Schools to help students with homework. We were most interested in mentoring students with gang affiliations or that participated in similar activities. Soon we realized that many students in these schools lacked role models who looked like them but had college degrees. Their environment shaped how they viewed the world. With very few considering college or any type of vocation, their views of the future were bleak. This is when we decided to act and create an organization dedicated to changing their minds. At Sprouting Leaders, we promote academic growth and personal development through mentorship, education, and service programs. Since 2012, Sprouting Leaders has graduated 202 students from its program and has invested more than 8,700 mentorship hours in Chicago’s at-risk and disadvantaged youth.

I didn’t expect to personally benefit from this experience, but I did. Through co-founding a nonprofit, volunteer-led organization, I’ve gained invaluable experience that has grown my career. Volunteer leadership has offered me the opportunity to test and develop my leadership skills in a safe environment. I can try new things, fail with caution, and learn firsthand from the process without worrying about risking my job.

One of the first skills I learned was how to implement collaborative decision-making. I’ve put this into practice while working to reach consensus among various boards and committees. Everyone has an opinion and gaining consensus can be a challenge. So, it takes practice, patience, and compromise to achieve results. I admit this is difficult at first, especially if you’re passionate about your work. But knowing when to compromise and how to articulate your opinions are valuable skills to have as you advance into management — they’re prerequisites to getting things done. This experience has also given me great insight into navigating politics and leading teams in the corporate world where getting buy-in from those around you is increasingly important.

Another great thing about volunteerism is that it diversifies your experience. After working for the same company for a few years, you’ll notice that the company’s culture starts to influence your leadership approach. Leadership experience gained outside of your company and job helps you develop unique perspectives and insights into new best practices. Every different challenge you face and environment you work in helps you become a better leader.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to get involved in a professional or volunteer organization that touches on something you’re passionate about. There’s an abundance of organizations in need of the skills talented accounting and finance professionals like us can bring. Take advantage of these opportunities because you never know where they will lead you. Most importantly, it feels great to help others!