Thursday, May 24, 2012

So, How Did You Do?

On many days, I think getting Jack Bauer to give up what he knows would be easier than getting my 6-year old to share about his day at school.  No matter how I ask the question, the answer is usually the same:

How was school today?  Good.
What happened at school today?  Good.
What did you have for lunch today?  Good.

I wonder, though, if fraternity and sorority members get a case of the “goods” when they think about the year that has passed.

How is the fraternity/sorority doing?  Good.
How would you describe the year overall?  Pretty good.

As the academic year winds down, I ask that you put a little more thought into evaluating the year that has come and gone.  It was a year in your life, and a year if your chapter’s history.  It deserves more than just “good.”

Before you launch forward on the development of a robust vision for the next year, spend some time thinking about, learning from, and evaluating this year.  By the way, it's about more than checking off a list of chapter goals.  While that should matter, you should be willing to play with deeper questions.  Winning the all-sports trophy, for example, means little to whether or not your organization is truly advancing.

In order to avoid the “goods” and “pretty goods” I’ve thought up some analogies that might help you with your evaluation. 

The Ice Analogy
Every organization and business sits upon a perpetual sheet of ice.  No matter how strong the organization may be, there is always a chance it will crash through to the water below.  The difference between one organization and another is how thick their sheet of ice is.  That will determine if it can withstand a few cracks, or if one more step means it's over.

So think about this past year.  Did your sheet of ice thicken, or did it get thinner?  How sturdy is your sheet of ice?  Are you able to take big confident steps, and perhaps even drive your truck out there for a little ice fishing (sorry, I have a tendency to take analogies too far). 

Or, are you walking gingerly?

A few things can directly impact the thickness of your ice:
  • Finances:  How did you finish the year financially?  Were all the bills paid?  Is your budget healthy?
  • Incidents:  Did anything happen this year that put a target on your back?  Are you on the university’s short list?
  • Leadership:  How is your executive board doing?  Is there a lot of trust in them?  How deep is your bench for this fall’s election?
This analogy can help you think through the overall health and wellness of your organization.  None of us should feel comfortable walking on a thin sheet of ice.
The Ronald Reagan Technique
Ronald Reagan famously led his run for president in 1980 with the question: “are you better off than you were four years ago?”  He was referring to the years governed by the incumbent, Jimmy Carter.  This question and phrase now pops up in every presidential election.  It’s an effective way for the challenger to force voters to evaluate the work of the incumbent.

This technique, for our purposes, is all about evaluating the year through the members’ eyes.  You should ask yourself  “are the members better off than they were a year ago?”  Can you say with confidence that the chapter’s efforts this year led to members growing stronger in three primary areas:
  1. their pride and devotion to the fraternity/sorority,
  2. their feeling of camaraderie with their peers, and 
  3. their personal and academic success. 
You could even take it a step further and ask how your members’ experience is better now than it was for members ten years ago.  Is your chapter progressing in the development of it greatest resource: its people?

The Han Solo Approach
In the original Star Wars saga (the only one that counts), Han Solo had a common phrase that he would say at some point in each of the movies: “I have a bad feeling about this.”  Other characters in the saga also said it as well, and it became one of the most memorable lines from those movies.  So, the Han Solo approach is about intuition.  It’s about listening to your inner voice, just like he did. 

How do you truly feel about the state of your chapter right now?  Are you excited?  At ease?  Worried?  Ready to pull the plug?  Our intuition should not be ignored.  If you have an uneasy feeling about your fraternity/sorority, likely that feeling is warranted. 

We should always be striving for improvement, and our own worst critics.  However, there is a big difference between living in a sea of general calm versus a sea of panic.  The good sports coach knows when there's reason for alarm regarding his/her team, versus being cautiously optimistic.  Most often, the voice you should listen to is within your own head (or gut).

And, if you ever catch yourself saying, “I have a bad feeling about this,” either your fraternity is facing a big problem, or you unknowingly landed your spaceship in the belly of a space monster.

Here are some other questions to help you evaluate this past year:
  • What was your biggest success this year?  Would that success be viewed as a big deal by your older alumni members?  In other words, how does it measure up?
  • The same is true for reflecting on your biggest failure.  When put into context, how big was it truly?
  • Who are the individuals that are blowing wind in your chapter’s sails?  Who are the individuals that are sucking the life out of the organization?  (A good summer activity for chapter presidents is to send a handwritten letter of encouragement to each of these segments) 
  • If you were given the chance to talk about this past year with the founders of your organization, what would they say was significant?
  • If a story were to be written about this previous year, what would be the plot?  Who are the heroes?  Is it worth reading?
  • Name at least three turning points in this past year, when a different choice could have been made.  What is the result of the choice that was made, and what would be different if another direction were chosen?
  • If your chapter’s strength over its existence were drawn as a line graph, how would this past year appear? 
  • Why would this year matter to members 25 years from now?

You’ll find a lot of evaluation tools out there if you search for them.  Hopefully, this spurred some thinking.  If most of the answers to the questions above left you feeling just blah, think about how you can get to better answers next year.

Did you achieve your goals?  Hopefully so.  Did you move your fraternity forward in a substantial way?  That may be an entirely different question.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thank You and You're Welcome

She had taken these tree-lined sidewalks so many times over the last four years, and who knew when she would walk them again.  After all, she was already two hours into her new life as a college graduate.  She had asked her family to give her just an hour alone to wander the campus, wishing for a final chance to soak in the memories before her overstuffed car took her down the hill.  Away from here.

Her feet took her first to her freshman dorm.  She could almost feel the nervousness of four years ago return.  The dining hall where she spent most of her meals came next.  She smiled at the thought of the table in the northeast corner.  Room for eight, but they always found a way to squeeze in twelve at least. 

Her feet took her past the academic buildings where she earned cum laude grades.  She saw the fitness center whose beckoning she tried her best to answer.  Sometimes.  And then the hockey arena, the library, the auditorium where she saw the Dalai Lama, and even the bench where she liked to sit in between classes.

And then, her feet took her a little further.  She had one more place to see.  Upon arrival, she
looked up and saw the same Greek letters that dominated her T-shirt wardrobe.  And the house, which had been her home.

She was a girl who hardly ventured down the road while growing up, and going hours 
south to a new town and a whole new life was hard on her.  But by chance - or perhaps destiny - she found a sorority.  This sorority.

She closed her eyes and reflected on the days spent here.  The sorority gave her so much, 
starting with a language by which to measure a life well lived - it was the creed she couldn’t wait to recite at the start of every meeting.  It defined for her a set of values which were eternally stored in her heart.

The sorority gave her laughter.  Oh, so much laughter. 

It gave her sisters.  Some who would be lifelong friends, and some who would probably just make her smile whenever she pulled out the old composite picture.  Sisters all the same.  Even some she didn’t like too much, but who still taught her things.   

As she stared at the letters on the outside of the house, she had a humble feeling.  What a blessed privilege it was, to not only be a college graduate, but to have taken the ride in a vehicle such as this.  To have had experiences that gave her confidence, took away her insecurities, and bolstered her self-esteem.  To be given a chance to lead.  To follow.  To work alongside so many other wonderful people.  To be something more.

Her feet had taken her here so that she could say two simple words.  Two words that signify a college life well lived.  She had said them to professors, advisors, and peers.  And now she stared at this entity that she had wrapped her college life around, and was moved to say those words out loud.  She glanced up, with a knowing smile, and said:

“Thank you.”

It was time to go.  As she started to walk away, and her reflections continued, a sense of accomplishment washed over her.  She remembered her sorority years for all the gifts that she received, but her mind also turned to all the things she gave in return. 

She remembered the long nights during recruitment, when heated arguments turned to hugs and laughter. 

She couldn’t begin to count the number of minutes spent consoling a sister, cheering a sister on, holding a sister’s hand, or just listening to a sister.  Listening, and knowing there was nothing she could say.  Those moments of silence between sisters - wow - it’s amazing how unforgettable they are.

She remembered the sweat.  She showed up to service projects early, and stayed late.  When others complained about peeling paint on the house, she was busy borrowing a neighbor’s ladder.  She found that tremendous sweet spot when something you love collides with something you want to work for. 

She remembered the stress of being a chapter officer - of learning the powerful lesson that being a best friend has as much to do with accountability as anything.  She was cursed and criticized.  There were many times when she needed to close a door and cry, before she walked through another one to lead. 

There were sacrifices; ones that she knows will seem minor to her someday, but at the time felt quite significant.  She skipped a spring break trip in order to attend a leadership conference.  She had to turn down many nights on the town so that she could save money for dues.  She decided to stay in the house her Senior year instead of moving into an apartment, so that she could provide leadership and help the chapter’s budget. 

And then there was the incident.  She’s still not quite sure how she held it together.  She had to decide how much this place truly meant to her; how much did she really have to give.  It would have been so easy to walk away.  But she didn’t.  And the chapter stands as tall today as ever.

She knew her journey wasn’t over - that to be a sorority alumna didn’t mean she was done.  But, the door was certainly closing on her undergraduate era.

There were countless reasons to say thank you to the sorority.  But there were also countless reasons to have pride in the amount of effort it took to keep this place moving.  There were both euphoria and exhaustion in those walls. 

And so, she sprung around and looked back up the street at the house.  In addition to thank you, she had one more thing to say.  She cupped her hands around her mouth, and with a smile and a tear, shouted:

“You’re welcome!”

Now, it was time to go.

[Congratulations to those graduating this year, and especially to those who received and gave as much as they could, so that they could proudly say both thank you and you're welcome.]