Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Follow me to tjsullivan.com

I have moved my blog to my new website at http://tjsullivan.com. Please visit me there or at the Facebook Fan Page at http://www.facebook.com/tjsullivanblog. You can do an RSS subscribe from the new blog, if you like. I'll be leaving this site live indefinitely for those who have linked to existing articles. Thanks for all of your support!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Make them show their work along the way

Think back to high school when you had your first big paper due. Remember how the teacher wanted you to turn in a preliminary outline, then a draft, then another draft, then your bibliography, and then finally your final paper?

If you were like me, you probably found the whole process annoying. I hated all the steps – showing my work along the way. I wanted to do the damn paper hardcore, right at the deadline, counting on the pressure of the due date to inspire me.

That's how I worked dammit! I worked better on deadline!

But, the teacher wasn't having it. She wanted to make sure I was thinking the thing through instead of simply pulling it out of my butt six hours before the paper was due.

As a student leader, it's now your turn to be the annoying teacher.

Do you have officers with big projects? How do you know your officer or committee chair is thinking it through and planning things out well? How do you know she isn't just going to pull a half-baked effort out of her butt at the last minute? Is it smart to simply trust that everything will work out OK?

No, not really.

Smart leadership, like smart teaching, sometimes means asking people to show their work.

Several weeks out, ask your officer to show you his plans, his list of deadlines, his to-do lists. Have him give a complete, exhaustive presentation to your executive committee about 3-4 weeks out. Ask lots of questions. Are we on budget? What are some of the trouble spots? Where can others pitch in to help? Are lots of good ideas being brought to the table, or is everything riding on one person?

Applying this pressure along the way causes your officer to "show his work" before procrastination turns into excuses. More importantly, it gives you a chance to spot a leader who is slacking on the job.

Be warned: some people will hate this. They will say you are micromanaging. They will ask why you don't trust them. They will assure you that everything's under control, and they will be eager to assure you they have everything well in hand. A lot of people simply hate to be managed.

Well, too bad.

Bring it to the table. Show us what you've done so far. We have a lot riding on this, so it's important that we all feel confident about the planning and the thoughtful implementation. What's working, and where are the struggle points? Plus, it gives us a chance to get excited and contribute to the project.

And, if your officer or chairperson can't produce some demonstration of progress, remove them from the project now before they completely screw it up. Or, make them sit with you and other leaders to get things on track.

Your teacher was pissing you off for a reason. She was trying to teach you that a thoughtful well-done product comes from a developmental process. It's time to pass that lesson along to your officers and chairs.

Monday, March 15, 2010

In defense of old-school Greek Weeks

Greek Weeks have been with us for a very long time. Whether the tradition is viewed as good or harmful depends largely on your campus, the local history of the event, and on the attitude of your fraternity/sorority advising professional.

For many decades, Greek Week was a big party excuse, and a chance for chapters to compete. It was a marquis event on campus. In the afternoons, there were contests. In the evenings, there was beer. Lots of it. Admittedly, it was a very male dominated tradition. IFC fraternities loved the opportunity to inflict as much pain and shame on each other as possible, then drink until the bruises felt like badges of honor.

In the last two decades, however, Greek Week has changed dramatically. The games and sporting competitions were supplanted with other events: speakers, service, blood drives, award banquets, etc. The alcohol was discouraged, or eliminated entirely.

It's easy to understand why this happened.

The competitions had gotten ugly and out of hand in many places. Greek Week became a massive expenditure of money and effort that many believed could be better focused toward more positive community service activities. Poorly managed events were a giant headache for all involved, particularly the Student Life professionals who escorted fraternity men to hospitals with concussions.

Some argued that a competitive Greek Week was also exclusionary to smaller historically-black and culturally-based fraternities and sororities who had neither the person-power nor the interest in competitive events. In the minds of most campus advisors, eliminating old-school Greek Week became a moral imperative. If the event wasn't inclusive of everyone, it needed to change.

This week, the AFLV organization posted a blog about Greek Week which pretty much reflects the prevailing attitude among those professionals who shape the interfraternal mindset. The dominant conventional wisdom tells us that Greek Week is a big pain in the butt, emphasizes all the wrong things, and doesn't reflect the values of our organizations.

Because these days, everything needs to be about values.

So while many fraternity and sorority advisors nod their head in agreement, I offer a different point of view. We've moved pretty far one direction, and now it might be time to move back toward the center a bit. Including service and education in Greek Weeks is a positive evolution, but it's time to bring back some of the fun that made old-school Greek Week a beloved campus tradition.

Many of the things that motivate young people were present in the old-school model. People were having FUN together. They were spending time with their FRIENDS. There was COMPETITION. There was a strong social element, food, prizes. Love it or hate it, Greek Week was among the most motivational of all things our members did all year.

I only took part in one Greek Week at Indiana University, but I can tell you, mine was a lot of fun. It gave my brothers and me the chance to "play" together. We lost miserably at every competition, but it was a fun time for bonding. I still have my t-shirt. I loved that damn t-shirt. Wore it non-stop.

It's important for fraternity and sorority communities to do some things simply because they're fun and bring people together. That's not a bad thing. Student leaders – properly advised and given resources – can find positive ways to accomplish this without concussions and alcohol poisonings.

Could we not find ways to inject some of the motivational things – the prizes, the games, the bonding, the bragging rights – with some of the newer stuff? Could we not play games and do community service? How about a social event with food and music after the speaker? Can competition serve a positive purpose in our communities?

If building interfraternal spirit is the underlying idea, then fun needs to be part of the equation. And, ladies and gentlemen, there are few things more entertaining in this world than a sorority tug-of-war.

It might not demonstrate our values, necessarily, but it's a hell of a fun way to spend an afternoon.

There are a number of campuses that have done a good job of preserving the games alongside the other positive events. There are several that have de-emphasized winning in favor of simply having fun together. Let's celebrate those who have found the right balance.

Because enjoying your friends while having some good, clean fun is a value I find exceptionally fraternal.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

When you meet with someone, bring something to the table

One of my most valuable leadership lessons came from Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). It was a humbling and humiliating lesson, but one I still carry with me.

In the Nineties, I made my living speaking about HIV/AIDS prevention with my good friend, Joel Goldman. By the mid-part of the decade, we were getting lots of attention. We were speaking at about 100 campuses a year, and we had gotten a fair amount of national and local press coverage. We were doing good work that many admired, and we were getting lots of validation for it. People all over the country were opening doors for us. We were winning awards and meeting lots of celebrities. Truthfully, we were getting pretty big heads about the whole thing.

A friend of Joel's was a staff member on Capitol Hill, and he offered to set up a bunch of meetings with Senators and Representatives for us. We jumped at the chance, because we both had strong interests in politics, and it was a chance to rub elbows with a bunch of cool names. I was particularly interested in meeting Rep. Pat Schroeder, the legendary Colorado Democrat.

We went to Capitol Hill and began our day of visiting famous lawmakers. Schroeder was awesome. I remember New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg being incredibly pleasant (probably because he knew Joel's dad). We were impressed with the offices, and people were very welcoming. Our meetings were short, but pleasant, and we were floating on air.

Then, we went to Barney Frank's office.

He's a busy guy – lots of aides running in and out. He's a work horse in a stable full of show horses. More than any other office we visited that day, we knew that lots of important activity was going on around us.

We were ushered into his private office, shook his hand, and we took seats on the other side of his desk. He's an intimidating presence –gruff, badly dressed, twitchy. I felt like we were meeting with Jim Henson's grouchiest Muppet.

We proceeded to tell him about our travels, what we were doing, and how little college students seemed to know about safer sex at the time. He listened politely. After we had been speaking to him for about three minutes, he said the words to me that I will never forget.

"Great, but what do you want?"

Joel and I quickly looked at each other. We didn't want anything. I stammered and answered that we were just there to share our story, to meet him, to let him know what we were learning as we traveled the college circuit. We thought that as an openly gay Congressman, he shared our interest in the issues surrounding HIV awareness.

He pretty much cut me off, thanked us for coming, and ended our visit. He wasn't mean, but he made it pretty clear that if we were not there asking for something, he didn't really have time for a social visit. We realized that he was bombarded all day long with people lobbying him, and we had claimed a 15-minute appointment time with absolutely no real purpose in mind. At least,no purpose that served his needs.

We definitely felt stupid for wasting his time, and needless to say, our big fat heads were deflated a little bit.

"Great, but what do you want?"

For a while, I was pissed. I thought he was a jerk. I told everyone I knew how rude he was to us. But of course, eventually I put it into perspective and extracted an important lesson.

Thanks to Mr. Frank of Massachusetts, I always make sure I go into every appointment with a few goals in mind. What information do I want to share? How can this person contribute to an outcome?

I don't just meet people so I can say I did. I treat every person I meet with as if he or she was a very important, busy person. I respect his or her time, and I make sure there's a reason for me being there. I don't just meet people to meet them.

As a student leader, you will probably get lots of face time with VIP's in your college community. When you get time with someone who is busy (your university president, a member of the Board of Trustees, a visiting VIP), you need to bring something to the table. Ask some relevant questions. Share some information. Let them know how they could contribute to a goal or need.

Before you go in there, have a few ideas in mind. Go in there with something.

Busy people aren't interested in killing time with you, particularly when their to-do list is 100 items long and growing longer. Even someone much friendlier than Barney Frank wants their time to be used respectfully.

If they invite you to visit, and they want to sit and chat about nothing in particular, that's a different thing.

You may never have the benefit of the direct, blunt lesson Representative Frank gave me. When you ask for a person's time, give him or her something – information, a need, a challenge – that makes that time worthwhile for them. Make that meeting count.