Category Archives: culture change

Wells Ellenberg 2014 College of Chapters Keynote Address

Sigma Nu Leadership conference

I can’t believe it’s been two years since I was standing in your shoes as the newly elected Commander of my chapter. At the time, I thought I had all the answers.  In retrospect, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.

As you will soon discover, this year is going to be one of the most difficult and challenging of your lives. The responsibility is great; the liability, even more so.

But when the stakes are high, so too are the rewards. Tonight, I want to share some advice and perspective that will hopefully help you make the most of your term as Commander.

I want to begin by asking three simple questions. Your answer to each of these questions will be a good indicator as to how successful your term will be.

First:  Are you in this for the right reasons?

There are two types of leaders in this world: those who seek to add value to every endeavor, and those who seek to extract it.

As Commander, you should be focused on creating value for your organization by leveraging your strengths and the strengths of your members to solve problems.

If you are in this for yourself, for a line on your resume or a letter of recommendation, you will almost certainly fail.  How can you govern each act by a high sense of honor if your decision to run for office was based on dishonorable motives?  You will lose the respect of your members and ultimately yourself.

Second:  Will you be an ethical leader?

Much of your curriculum these past few days has focused on the concept of ethical leadership.  In my opinion, ethical leaders are those who lead with vision and courage.  They have a vision of a better future for their organization and are willing to make the courageous decisions along the way to turn that vision into reality.

I cannot think of a more appropriate venue that the Virginia Military Institute to share this message with you.  One of the Institute’s Latin mottoes, when translated, reads: “By vision and courage.”

Ethical leadership often involves saying “no,” and choosing the harder right over the easier wrong.  This is no easy task.  But make no mistake – your members elected you to lead; to make the difficult decisions they themselves are not willing to make.

Third:  Will you leave a lasting legacy?

Twelve months from now, at the end of your term, will your members be willing and able to fill the void you leave behind?

I am not suggesting you handpick a successor; quite the contrary. Identify those individuals who are capable of following in your footsteps. Give them opportunities to prove themselves, and provide them with support and guidance along the way. Then, let them compete for the hearts and minds of their would-be constituents. Let them prove they have the vision and courage to take your place.

One of your most important responsibilities as Commander will be to cultivate a sense of ownership amongst your members.  You may be their leader, but this is their chapter, and they are stakeholders in both its successes and its failures.

Remember:  Your obligation to excellence, at its heart, is an obligation to others.

Having considered these three questions, and their implications, you may feel a little overwhelmed or apprehensive.  Allow me to offer some words of comfort: you are not in this alone.

College of Chapters has provided you with a roadmap for success; a guidebook for achieving excellence. And, as you have seen over the past few days, the Fraternity offers a wealth of resources to help you along the way (if, of course, you choose to take advantage of them).

You will undoubtedly face adversity. And you will undoubtedly make mistakes. I did. But if you commit yourselves to leading with vision and courage, your alumni and this Fraternity will stand beside you every step of the way.

But you, and only you can make this commitment, and the time to make it is now.

Last year, your predecessors were asked to make this same commitment. Some of them chose to lead with vision and courage; others chose to maintain the status quo; to accept mediocrity; to shirk their obligation to excellence.

In particular, two Commanders from last year come to mind: one from North Carolina, the other from Ohio. Each had inherited a once-strong chapter facing serious operational deficiencies.  Each left College of Chapters with a vision, and a framework for achieving that vision, knowing that the survival of his chapter was on the line. But only one had the courage to govern his chapter with the high ideals and noble purposes of this fraternity – Love, Honor, and Truth.  The other saw his chapter’s charter suspended and its doors closed, on his watch.

Tonight, though he is not in attendance, please join me in thanking Brother Josh Cherok from the Zeta Gamma Chapter at Kent State University for his hard work and dedication to excellence.

Sigma Nu Leadership conference

The question remains:  Will you follow Brother Cherok’s example and lead your chapter with vision and courage?

I want to share with you three pieces of advice that served me well during my term as Commander.

First:  Be kind.

Kindness inspires results. People enjoy working for those they enjoy working with. Whenever possible, let your members know that you respect them and appreciate their contributions. No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot run a successful chapter on your own.

In their book Remarkable!, Randy Ross and David Salyers draw an important distinction between leadership and power. Leadership is about influencing others.  Power is about dominating them.  And nothing of enduring, positive value ever happens by force.

Second:  Be humble.

The position of Commander is a thankless one. Your best will never be good enough. Your achievements will be minimized and your mistakes blown out of proportion.  But, at the end of the day, if you can look back on your term confident that you left everything on the field, you can hold your head high and be proud that you did your level best.  What more could anyone ask?

In times of trial, I often look to a passage entitled “The Penalty of Leadership.” The passage comes from a 1915 Cadillac advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post. Cadillac had just introduced the first mass-produced V8 engine automobiles. The company’s competitors said they were destined to fail.  Cadillac responded:

“If the leader truly leads, he remains – the leader.  Master poet, master painter, master workman; each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live – lives.”

Third:  Have fun.

Your experience as Commander will serve you well in the real world. And though you have taken on some real world responsibility in this new role, you are not in the real world just yet. Take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy yourselves and spend time with your friends. You will look back on college as four of the best (but also four of the shortest) years of your lives.

Take a moment and look at the person seated to your left and to your right.  Collectively, we are a diverse group of individuals representing a diverse group of chapters.  For example:

Garrett Oberst from the Epsilon Mu Chapter represents 103 members.  Tony Lee from Eta Omicron represents 49.

Jon Paul is the Delta Gamma Chapter’s 106th Commander.  Brendan Hall is Mu Psi’s 9th.

Glenn Walls leads the Iota Delta Chapter from Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Cody Wagner leads Delta Iota from Pullman, Washington.

And yet, despite these differences, each of these chapters is on pace to achieve Rock Chapter status.

The metrics we use to judge success from one campus to another vary.  But ethical leadership is the constant; vision and courage will always be the keys to success.

I want to leave you with the words of General George Patton, best known for his command of the Seventh and later the Third United States Army in the European Theater of World War II.  Patton, an alumnus of the Virginia Military Institute, is remembered for his fierce determination, capable leadership, and ability to inspire men on the battlefield.  He said, “Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way.”

Gentlemen – I hope you choose to lead; to lead with vision and courage; to meet and exceed your obligation to excellence. Your chapter needs you. This Fraternity needs you. And this country needs you, desperately.

I am honored to call each of you “Brother.” Good luck, God’s speed, and remember: there is no honor in mediocrity.  Honor can only be obtained through excellence.

Wells Ellenberg (Georgia) is a past Collegiate Grand Councilman and the 2012 Sigma Nu Man of the Year.

Illuminating a Path

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By Merritt Onsa

Photos courtesy of TJ Martin/The Weinstein Company

Brother Bill Courtney (Mississippi) just wanted to coach football again. But when his life intersected with the players on one of the worst high school teams in the State of Tennessee, he not only helped the team turn things around on the field, he showed them where true character and manhood come from.

“Football doesn’t build character. Football reveals character.” It’s a common refrain for Bill Courtney (Mississippi). And he should know, since he’s spent most of his life playing or coaching the game.

“In a lot of ways, football is a microcosm of life. There’s pain, triumph and loss. You have to work with other people and listen to someone else’s instruction. You have to learn the difference between hurt and injured. And when you get hurt, it sucks, but you still have to keep going. Those are all the same things that happen in everyday life, and how you respond does, in fact, reveal your preparation to deal with those things,” he says.
Ever since Undefeated — the documentary featuring Courtney and his role in turning around the Manassas High School football team in Memphis — won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Courtney has been invited all over the country for speaking engagements. He talks about leadership — as in, leading yourself and leading others — which is something he learned not only through football but also in Sigma Nu.

He regularly recalls what he first heard as a candidate: To believe in the Life of Love, to walk in the Way of Honor, to serve in the Light of Truth. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s an amazing creed; that’s something worth thinking about and implementing in your life. If you could just take that creed and walk the rest of your life doing those three things, by and large, you’d be successful.’ Those words have always meant something to me,” says Courtney.

As he coached the Manassas Tigers from 2003 to 2009, Courtney closed every team prayer with this challenge from the Sigma Nu Creed. It made no difference that the players didn’t know where those words originated; they still provide the guidance a young man needs in deciding how to live his life.

Before He Was “Coach”

For as long as he can remember, Courtney played sports, especially football. Raised in a single-parent home — Courtney’s dad left when he was just four years old — the only male role models he had were his coaches and teachers.

He lettered in six sports and played competitive chess in high school. He describes himself as “a fair athlete but pretty bright.” At the time, that didn’t necessarily seem like a good thing to Courtney. But one of his mentors, the chess coach and math teacher, had also played football in high school; he showed Courtney that being smart wasn’t necessarily weak. Courtney joined the chess team his freshman year, and four years later they won third place in the national tournament. “I learned a lot of valuable stuff from him. It was guys like him and my other coaches who formed my thinking as an adolescent,” he says.

Courtney was recruited out of high school to play football at several smaller colleges; but Ole Miss offered an academic scholarship. He accepted and planned to walk-on the football team, but six days before tryouts he separated his shoulder. And, as it turns out, once he saw the skill level of the guys on the team he knew he wasn’t good enough to play with them. “I just wasn’t that caliber of an athlete,” he says.

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When Courtney graduated with a degree in psychology and English, he decided to be a teacher and continue coaching. By the age of 22, he was a head varsity football coach, the youngest in the state of Tennessee.

So he got involved in other things during college; he wrote for the student paper and joined Sigma Nu, where he served as Lieutenant Commander in 1989. “What I remember most about Sigma Nu is living in the house and the relationships, fun and the understanding of people that I developed there,” says Courtney. He also played a key role in launching Epsilon Xi’s renowned Charity Bowl, which has raised more than $1.2 million since its inception. (See the sidebar about the history of the Charity Bowl.)

During his junior and senior years of college, Courtney coached soccer at Oxford High School and soccer, baseball, swimming, track and basketball at a private school, Oxford University School. When he graduated with a degree in psychology and English, he decided to be a teacher and continue coaching. By the age of 22, he was a head varsity football coach, the youngest in the state of Tennessee.

Once he got married, Courtney couldn’t afford to keep teaching and coaching. In 2001, he started a lumber business out of his living room. Classic American Hardwoods, Inc. sells lumber to companies that manufacture flooring, cabinetry, trim and furniture. His company, now with 120 employees and offices all over the world, is headquartered just blocks from Manassas High School near some of Memphis’ most underprivileged neighborhoods.

Building a Promising Football Program

It was two years later when an employee and fraternity brother Jim Tipton (Mississippi) had been volunteering at Manassas and asked Courtney if he was ready to get back into coaching. Tipton said there were 17 kids on the football team, some of whom looked promising; but in the last three years, they’d won only a single game. Courtney saw it as a challenge. “I didn’t go there to save anyone,” he says. “I went there to coach football. But it didn’t take long to realize the inherent dysfunction of those kids’ lives. That’s what turned ‘I’ll try it for a year’ into a six-year exercise.”

In his first year at Manassas, the Tigers won four games and went to the playoffs. Every year after that, the more success they had the more the program grew in terms of team members and local volunteers. And, at the same time, Coach Courtney fell in love with the perseverance of these kids who’d faced more than their share of hard knocks primarily because of where they’d been born.

According to Courtney, an 18-year-old male from the neighborhoods around Manassas is three times more likely to be incarcerated than go to college by the time he’s 22 years old. Most of the kids he coached didn’t have a father at home; many had at least one relative in prison. They were hungry to learn about life and how to be a man. Courtney understood those desires; he’d faced them growing up without his father.

“I was able to say to them, ‘I know where you are. I came from where you are. I may be a white guy with a business and all that, but I really do understand what’s hurting you and what’s driving you. I was there; and if I can do it, you can do it,’” he says.

But he also knew from experience that “doing it” wasn’t something that happened in a vacuum. “The Lord put some unbelievable men in my life in the form of coaches. I don’t think I would be a third of what I am today if it weren’t for the men I played ball for, and that goes all the way back to elementary and junior high school,” he says.

Remembering that, Courtney knew he had an opportunity to reach these kids through something they cared about — football. Aligned with his mantra that “football doesn’t build character” he set out to help them figure out what does.

Committed to Character

What builds character? For Courtney, it’s living out those words he learned as a candidate. “It’s a commitment to integrity, hard work, honor and keeping your word. All of that comes straight out of the Sigma Nu Creed. The guy who wrote that meant it. The whole idea is to think about those words and make them a part of who you are. That’s where you build character. So when life hits you in the mouth, what you’ve built is revealed in how you handle those circumstances. The game doesn’t build character, but it will certainly reveal it.”

Day after day of hard work on the field and encouraging his players to keep their focus in the classroom, Courtney and his fellow coaches modeled what it means to be men of character. After reading Tony Dungy’s book Uncommon, Tipton introduced “The Uncommon Man Award” to help team members recognize the importance of doing well on and off the field. Every week, during their devotional time with the team, Tipton read a chapter from the book. The player who most illustrated what it means to be “uncommon” over the last week received the award before the pre-game meal.

Building a team of uncommon men wasn’t going to happen overnight; and it certainly wasn’t going to happen without help. Over time, at least 200 other volunteers served at Manassas in one way or another. Courtney eventually gathered a full staff of volunteer coaches; and members of local churches cooked pre-game meals, sent mentors to campus and hosted football camps for the team. “Every day it seemed someone new was asking how they could help at Manassas. Over the course of six years, with so many volunteers surrounding the team, it became a program,” he says.

And that program was attracting some attention. In Courtney’s sixth year, documentary filmmakers T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay had heard about O.C. Brown, a promising lineman at Manassas; they wanted to create a 30-minute film about him. But once they saw the bigger rising-from-the-ashes story of the Manassas Tigers, they decided to temporarily relocate to Memphis to film the whole story. What resulted was an inspiring documentary that is well-illustrated by its title: Undefeated.

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Most of the kids Courtney coached didn’t have a father at home; many had at least one relative in prison. They were hungry to learn about life and how to be a man. Courtney understood those desires; he’d faced them growing up without his father.

Not Just about Football

The film, however, isn’t just about a once-failing football team’s rise to success. Courtney would be the first to tell you there were far more lows than there were highs in those six years. Four of his players were shot and killed in the course of his time at Manassas. This was about far more than the game of football.

In his words, “Undefeated has nothing to do with what happens on the field. It’s about being undefeated by your circumstances, and this group of people was not going to be defeated by their circumstances.”

And, it seems, the “people” he’s referring to aren’t just the kids on the team. “This is about two very diverse groups of people from very different socio-economic walks of life who put aside their preconceived notions and social inhibitions and just came together to work for a common goal. That’s the beauty of it.”

But just like football, it was a combination of pain and triumph. Every bit of those six years with the team was excruciating as Courtney worked and coached 16 hours a day before coming home to spend a few moments with his family. But he says it was all worth it.

“The rewards were immeasurable as more kids came to the program, as they started to win on the field and as they started to change the way they were approaching their lives. In our last two years, we graduated 36 seniors, and 35 went to college. When you see change happening in kids’ lives, you’re absolutely drawn to it. That’s the satisfaction you get by giving of yourself,” he says.

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“What builds character? It’s a commitment to integrity, hard work, honor and keeping your word. All of that comes straight out of the Sigma Nu Creed. The guy who wrote that meant it. The whole idea is to think about those words and make them a part of who you are.”

In those years Courtney changed, too. “Ten years ago I would have told you, if you don’t succeed in this country it’s your own fault. I’m here to tell you today, that’s just not true,” he says. “That sounds right, and it should be right. But the truth is, even in a country with all the opportunity in the world, until that opportunity is explained and that path is illuminated, you can’t expect a kid to just find it.”

To continue to help illuminate that path, Courtney and Tipton created The ManRise Foundation — a mentoring program for young men in Memphis schools. Mentors encourage morality, good character and responsibility through biblical principles and personal encouragement. Now that Courtney is no longer coaching at Manassas, several local churches continue to carry the torch and invest in the lives of the young people in Memphis through the foundation.

In 2003, he just wanted to coach football. A decade later, Courtney has a platform to spread the word about what it takes to impact the life of another human being. “All the money in the world is never going to fix this problem [of poverty]. This is a very human problem. The only thing that fixes it is in-your-face compassion, mentoring, real-life love and teaching about the healthy ways to live life. These kids are lost. But you light that human spirit with a little bit of hope and a little bit of guidance; and it’s amazing what can happen.”

And all it takes — is character.

Undefeated is currently available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix streaming.

How Well Do You Know Your Potential New Members?

By Director of Risk Reduction Fred Dobry (Indiana State)

Have you considered how the expectations, experiences, and assumptions you had when you arrived on campus as a freshman may be drastically different than those of the current freshmen class? Have you modified your chapter’s recruitment strategies to reflect these differences?

“68% of first-year college students identified themselves as “non-drinkers.”

One of the more significant trends to recognize is the evolving change in attitude and behavior regarding alcohol use.  For instance, 68% of first-year college students in 2012 identified themselves as “non-drinkers,” a 9% increase from 2007.  And the number of first-year college students defined as “high-risk drinkers*” has decreased by 6%, down to 19%, in that same timespan (Source: AlcoholEdu National Survey Database).  Additionally, 25% of high school seniors in 2012 reported being drunk on at least one occasion, a decrease from 32.9% in 1999 (Source: Monitoring the Future, 2012).

What is contributing to this increase in college freshmen choosing to be alcohol-free?  One study concluded “abstainers’ decision not to drink appears to be a lifestyle choice, supported by multiple reasons including personal values, religious beliefs, not wanting the image of a drinker, and beliefs about alcohol’s effect on behavior.” (Huang, DeJong, Schneider & Towvim, 2011)

How is your chapter supporting members who choose to not consume alcohol?  Remember, most incoming freshmen already have the incorrect assumption, reinforced by pop culture, that high-rate alcohol consumption is a major component of the fraternity experience.  Are your recruitment strategies effectively debunking this myth?  How many non-drinkers who would be great members of our fraternity do we overlook by not seeking them out or creating recruitment events that appeal to that portion of the student population?

If your chapter doesn’t adapt to the evolving demands and expectations of our potential recruits, you will have a difficult time competing with all those other student organizations attempting to attract those same recruits.  How will you ensure your chapter experience will continue to be attractive for incoming students?

*Defined as having 5 or more alcohol drinks

What Jay Bilas and the NCAA Have to Do with 40 Answers

By Nathaniel Clarkson (James Madison)

The NCAA announced last week that it would stop selling jerseys and other team memorabilia on its website after acknowledging it could be seen as hypocritical, according to ESPN.

As the governing body for college sports the NCAA prohibits student-athletes from receiving financial benefits in an effort to preserve the players’ amateur status. The NCAA’s decision to shutter its online merchandise shop follows a series of tweets by ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas in which he drew attention to the NCAA’s inconsistency in profiting from student-athletes who are barred from doing the same.

If not for Jay Bilas’ tweets it’s unlikely the story would have been picked up by major news outlets whose coverage eventually pressured the NCAA to change direction. The NCAA’s reversal on selling team merchandise illustrates the potential for one person on Twitter to achieve change through mere words.

This week marks the beginning of the 4th annual 40 Answers in 40 Days, the Twitter campaign that invites participants to crowdsource answers to the 40 most common excuses for hazing in the 40 days leading up to National Hazing Prevention Week.

From the very start 40 Answers is always filled with enthusiasm and passion – Twitter users from fraternities, sororities, teams and other organizations eager to stand up and share their rebuttals to the most ubiquitous ways their peers rationalize hazing.

Equally predictable is the occasional Twitter troll who turns up each year to tell us why tweeting “isn’t actually doing anything” and “we need to actually do something.

But as we’ve seen in so many cases – most recently by Jay Bilas tweeting the NCAA into submission – Twitter and 40 Answers have the potential to achieve real change. Equipping student leaders with the intellectual firepower to change their organization is doing something. After all, you can’t change a person’s actions until you change their mind.

Fixing a Toxic Culture

The resignation letter from a former Goldman Sachs executive, published today in the New York Times, has been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter this morning. As former executive Greg Smith walks readers through the reasons for his resignation, he touches on a number of lessons surrounding group culture and ethical leadership – two subjects that couldn’t be more relevant for fraternity life.

Smith wastes no time in identifying a lack of leadership as the culprit for Goldman Sachs’ increasingly negative work culture.

How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

It’s hard to say where profit fits into an analogy between a business and a student organization. As you read on, know that Smith’s letter is not an indictment of profit-seeking per se, but rather a lesson in what happens when an organization strays from its core purpose.

These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, “How much money did we make off the client?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about “muppets,” “ripping eyeballs out” and “getting paid” doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.

For better or worse, the fastest way to change the culture of a group is the behavior of the leadership. As Smith witnessed, younger employees would observe and later mimic the insidious behavior of the senior analysts. Sure enough, new members are likely to take cues from older members, particularly the leadership. When upperclassmen abuse alcohol, act irresponsibly, and otherwise neglect their duties, the new members will undoubtedly do the same.

Smith closes with some advice for the remaining Goldman Sachs executives – people with the ability to reshape the company’s culture.

Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons.

It’s not easy to tell a peer, one who might even be a good friend, that he can’t be in the fraternity anymore. But that’s what being in a fraternity founded on the Honor principle is all about – self-governance and peer-accountability. That aside, a chapter that lacks the fortitude to remove members who contribute to a toxic culture will not be around for very long.

//Nathaniel Clarkson (James Madison)

How Your Chapter Can Benefit from the Hacker Culture

Earlier this week, as his company was filing its historic IPO, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg published a buzz-worthy letter explaining the company’s “hacker” culture for potential investors.

Though often associated with unlawfully accessing computers, “hacking” has taken an entirely different meaning in recent years. “In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done,” Zuckerberg explained. “Hacker” culture has been in the tech/DIY lexicon for a number of years now thanks in large part to the popular DIY site Lifehacker.com.

“The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration,” Zuckerberg continued. “Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.”

The spirit of hacker culture, particularly the idea of continuous improvement, resonates closely with Sigma Nu’s vision statement Excelling with Honor. Additionally, embracing the concept that something can always be better fits right in with Regent Durham’s focus on chapter strength.

“We all have an obligation to make sure our chapters operate at the highest level of excellence, delivering our mission, pulling their own weight, and always striving to improve,” Regent Durham said in a recent interview. “[Sigma Nu's Founders] were not interested in mediocrity or being average.”

So you might say Sigma Nu was practicing the hacker culture before it was cool (that is, rejecting the status quo in favor of continuous improvement).

Even companies outside the tech industry are starting to realize the importance of testing the boundaries of how something should be done as they strive for excellence. And, more to the point, so are many of our collegiate chapters.

//Nathaniel Clarkson

Give your chapter meetings (and chapter culture) a makeover

Here’s a small excerpt from a must-read piece by Martin Lindstrom:

The first thing I do during the course of my change-agent work for Fortune 100 companies is to establish the 4:30 rule. The maximum number of people in any meeting should be four, and meetings should never last any longer than 30 minutes. No phones allowed. You may think this a little radical but, if you want to act entrepreneurial, then these are the most important steps to take.

If you’re able to get the right people into one room over two days, the stage is set. Make sure the room is far from the office and prep everyone on the notion that it’s essential to not only come up with ideas for change, but actually lock them in by the end of the second day. If the incentive is great enough, and everyone’s prepared to roll up their sleeves, in my experience, it will happen.

Do yourself a favor and set aside 5 minutes to read the full story.

How could you apply Lindstrom’s other ideas to your chapter?

What your chapter can learn from a resurgent magazine

By Nathaniel Clarkson

Print is dying, we’re always told, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Magazines and newspapers are losing readers–and revenue–to blogs and other forms of new media. There’s just no way print can compete when everything is stacked against them. Or can they?

The unfolding story of The Atlantic offers a refreshing counterexample to the idea that print is helplessly disappearing.

More generally, the magazine’s resurgence during a particularly hostile climate demonstrates for our chapters that achieving success against the odds is quite possible (and the perceived odds are often illusory).

The following story also provides a number of other lessons for student leadership organizations looking to reach the next level.

Reports Ad Week:

For eight years, [Bradley] been trying to staunch the flow of red ink at what was then called the The Atlantic Monthly, only to see the losses increase (one year, to more than $10 million).

On recruiting the right people (values-based recruitment):

When the story of The Atlantic’s turnaround is told, the credit tends to go to the 58-year-old Bradley. But Bradley himself believes his greatest talent is finding talent, and he gives the majority of the credit to Smith, who he calls “unmatchedly gifted.”

On the importance of innovation (i.e. not getting caught up in what “everyone else is doing”):

By rethinking everything about the company, however, Smith found a way to make that pay. Think Silicon Valley, but without the free food and massages. (Smith did away with perks like free bagels in the mornings.) “We don’t have foosball machines, but we filter for entrepreneurial talent,” Smith says.

On admitting mistakes:

Bradley, looking back, is candid about his own failings.

The Atlantic’s losses mounted quickly under Bradley’s hands-off ownership style, growing from $4.5 million to more than $10 million. [...] Realizing he had to be more involved, he then tried every fix he could think of: He upgraded the paper stock, moved subscription prices up, then down, took advertisers on exotic retreats, to no avail.

==> People make mistakes and chapters err. Acknowledge the mistake, fix it and move on.

Again on the importance of innovation and reinvention:

“One of the great flaws in traditional media companies is they pay lip service to innovation,” Smith says. “They can’t restructure because they’re supertankers. They don’t reinvent themselves to their core.”

There will always be some reason to explain away poor chapter performance. “Numbers were down for everyone this year.” “Every other student organization hazes too.” “Our university president is anti-Greek.” (Have you ever asked her why?) “We’re waiting for the seniors to graduate to fix problem X.”

So what. The odds were against The Atlantic and they made it happen anyways. How will your chapter rise above the everything-is-against-us narrative and defy the trend to achieve excellence?

Leverage the power of feedback loops

Wired is currently running a story about how one California city got speeders to slow down in school zones, all without the consequence of earning a speeding ticket:

In five Garden Grove school zones, they put up what are known as dynamic speed displays, or driver feedback signs: a speed limit posting coupled with a radar sensor attached to a huge digital readout announcing “Your Speed.”

The results fascinated and delighted the city officials. In the vicinity of the schools where the dynamic displays were installed, drivers slowed an average of 14 percent. Not only that, at three schools the average speed dipped below the posted speed limit.

The signs leverage what’s called a feedback loop, a profoundly effective tool for changing behavior. The basic premise is simple. Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors.

They are in fact powerful tools that can help people change bad behavior patterns, even those that seem intractable. Just as important, they can be used to encourage good habits, turning progress itself into a reward. In other words, feedback loops change human behavior.

This story got us wondering – how can our chapters apply the idea behind feedback loops to improve their chapter’s performance? Here are a few possibilities we came up with:

1. Post the grade for every exam on the wall above your desk.

2. Track the number of hours you spend studying vs. playing video games (or whatever variation suits your work vs. leisure habits). Post the numbers in a place where you’ll see them throughout the day.

3. Tally the number of minutes your chapter spends discussing social events vs. philanthropy planning or LEAD programming and post in a central location in the chapter home. Ask the chapter – what do these numbers say about our chapter’s priorities?

4. For the wellness-inclined, track the progress of your workouts and post them in your kitchen.

Use the comments section below to share some other ways your chapter could employ the idea of a feedback loop.

As the article notes, the more effective feedback loops rely on automated data collection (such as Your Speed signs or other automated sensors). Still, feedback loops present an innovative opportunity to help chapters change negative behaviors and encourage good ones.

The full story is a must-read.

How Does a Group Change What You Think?

The Wall Street Journal reports:

How is it that so many people started saying “Awesome!”, or started wearing Uggs?

These are examples of how individuals’ behavior is shaped by what people around them consider appropriate, correct or desirable. Researchers are investigating how human behavioral norms are established in groups and how they evolve over time, in hopes of learning how to exert more influence when it comes to promoting health, marketing products or reducing prejudice.

Have you observed how behavioral norms are established in your chapter? If your chapter needed to make a serious change (e.g. reforming a questionable practice during candidate education) what members would you need on board to shift what is considered acceptable by the others?

Here’s another excerpt on the power of leaders to shape the culture of an organization:

Group leaders, however, help perpetuate or shift the norm. Unlike innovators, leaders tend to be high-status “superconformists,” embodying the group’s most-typical characteristics or aspirations, says Deborah Prentice, a social psychologist at Princeton University. People inside and outside the group tend to infer the group’s norms by examining these leaders’ behaviors.

As the oft-repeated phrase goes, the fastest way to change the culture of a chapter is the behavior of the leadership. With such influence over the accepted norms of behavior, leaders must be the paragon of conduct at all times.

The story then offers a word of caution on observing the behavior of others:

The researchers found students often overestimated how much others drank. The amount students reported drinking was closely related to their beliefs about how much others drank: Students who thought others drank more tended to report drinking more.

What do you think? Are leaders merely products of their group or do they possess the potential to change a group for the better?

The full story is worth a read.

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