Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Retreats that Work

In last week’s post, I argued for more active learning in fraternity and sorority life. One of the vehicles for this kind of learning is the chapter retreat. I’m a big advocate for the organizational retreat. In an environment that is constantly shifting and changing, retreats are needed more than ever. They allow us to refocus on our mission and objectives. They can also unplug us from the gadgets that rule our lives. There is something about an easel pad, markers, and honest eye-to-eye conversation that is just simply healthy.
Now, retreats can also be a phenomenal waste of time. They require thoughtful planning in order to be effective. Below are five points I’ve learned about retreats over the years, and I encourage you to add your own.

Point #1: The retreat needs to be productive.
A retreat should never be all about play. A retreat can be fun, but it’s a work day. Going to the local amusement park is not a retreat. If your supply list includes bathing suits, koozies, and suntan lotion, it’s also not a retreat. A retreat is a learning activity, and should be treated as such. It’s out-of-the-classroom learning, so it is indeed different in many ways. But it’s still generally an intellectual exercise. 

A brotherhood- or sisterhood-building social activity (such as rafting, camping, theme park, etc.) is fine, but “social activity” describes them accurately. Reserve “retreat” for the times in which participants are focused, ready to roll up their sleeves, and prepared to chart a better future for the organization. This doesn’t mean you sacrifice the teambuilding aspect. Don’t assume that brotherhood or sisterhood is built only through social events. In fact, the greatest teams are forged through collective action towards shared objectives. In other words, your “working” retreat will build greater connections and teamwork than any social activity could.

Point #2: It’s called a “retreat” for a reason. Go someplace different.
Brain science has proven that a change in venue can lead to a change in perspective. Retreats work best when participants feel that it is a special event, worthy of a different level of participation and thinking. A different venue can contribute to this feeling. Stay away from your chapter house, a classroom, or a meeting room in the student union. These are too ordinary. I personally encourage you to consider camps or other settings that incorporate nature. These types of venues can add a layer of calm and peacefulness to the event.
Any of the following are good options: Official retreat/conference centers, Boy Scout/Girl Scout/FFA/YMCA/Kiwanis camps, church facilities, restaurants with a unique feel, state parks, etc.

Cost might be a concern, but planning well advance will give you more options. Camps and parks are typically cheaper. Also consider distance and transportation when selecting a site.

Point #3: Your retreat needs a purpose.
Why do you need a retreat? Why is it being considered? What do you need to accomplish?
  • Identify and get problems out in the open.
  • Promote communication among all members.
  • Establish common goals and objectives.
  • Identify and relate the philosophy of the organization.
  • Transition new officers into their positions.
  • Have the members get to know each other on a deeper level.
  • Motivation; re-centering on purpose.
  • Discussion of values/Ritual.
Thinking about this beforehand will help you organize a retreat that best suits the members' needs. You could also plan a retreat that concentrates on one critical function of the organization, such as:
  • Recruitment Preparation - Educating members on effective recruitment and setting group recruitment goals.
  • Values Clarification - Helping participants understand themselves and others.
  • Leadership Development - Developing leadership skills to promote better committee members, committee chairs, or officers.
  • Risk Management - Teaching, clarifying, and gaining agreement on policies and procedures.
  • Scholastic Goal Setting - Giving members an opportunity to set personal and group goals in the area of academic achievement.
  • Pre/Post Initiation - Offering an opportunity for members to fully understand the impact of the oaths they are about to or have just taken.
  • Alumni Relations - Setting goals for improved alumni relations and programs. Gather suggestions from alumni or invite alumni to participate in this program.
Point #4: Beware the curse of the comfy couches.
Your retreat location should be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean you should sit all day. Full-day retreats commonly suffer from group malaise after lunch and as the afternoon carries on. Do as much as you can to make the retreat interactive, instead of a just a rotation of talking heads. Here are a couple of common tools for adding interactivity to a program:
  • The Partner Share: Instead of discussing a question or idea with the full group, ask participants to first talk about it with a fellow participant. This gives the quieter members a chance to share their ideas. After a few minutes, open it up for a larger discussion. You’ll likely get more and better responses.
  • The Small Group: Having ideas discussed in smaller groups of 5-8 participants works for many of the same reasons given above for the partner share. However, you can ask the small groups to accomplish more, such as solving one component of a larger question. For instance, if you are discussing academic achievement in the organization, you might assign smaller groups each of the following issues to discuss and make recommendations for: (1) recognizing academic achievement, (b) revising chapter academic standards, (c) utilizing campus resources, (d) programs to encourage academic success. You could also use small groups to teach a big topic, such as risk management policies. Assign small groups portions of the policies to review and teach back to the larger group in creative ways.
Breaking into smaller groups is also a great way to split up pledge classes, age groups, cliques, officers, new members, etc., which can add to the teambuilding element of the retreat.
Although they are often a target of complaints and groans, teambuilders and icebreakers can be effective for setting up a positive learning environment as well. You may get some evil glares from the participants, but weigh that against the boredom and lethargy that comes from inactivity. There are thousands of books and websites with ideas for teambuilders. The NIC resource “Brotherhood Building Activities” is one to add to your library, if it’s not already there. Also, your advisors and headquarters staff likely have a lot of options to share with you.

Point #5: You don’t need to do this alone.
The life of a Fraternity/Sorority Advisor can often be a constant deluge of negativity. They are always putting out fires and reacting to unfortunate incidents. Imagine a chapter leader walking into their office and inviting them to help facilitate a proactive retreat intent on building a stronger future for the fraternity or sorority. That’s the kind of work they want to be doing! The basic point is this – you have several caring individuals who would be willing to help you plan and implement the retreat. All you need to do is ask.

If you have a budget, there also many talented professional facilitators available to you.
I hope this has been helpful in some way. Leading, managing, and growing an organization like a fraternity or sorority is hard work. Going at it every single day can wear down even the greatest chapter. The strongest organizations know that in order to keep up their strength for the fight, on occasion, it’s necessary to retreat. Good luck!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Our Love Affair With Lectures

Why is the lecture so cool again?

I mean, I thought we were working towards banishment of this age-old crotchety form of education. The era of the one-way teacher-centered face-forward podium-and-powerpoint education was to be replaced by a new era of two-way, student-centered, sit-in-a-circle, flip charts-and-facilitation education. Yet, the lecture seems to be growing in strength.

This essay isn’t about classrooms, where the lecture is still the preferred method (unfortunately). Not much we can do with that. It’s about our choices in student affairs.

Higher education is following a societal trend back towards lecture-based learning. Every other minute of every single day I’m receiving an e-mail or a Facebook message directing me to the latest TED talk. TED is a group of conferences that feature 18-minute lectures by renowned experts. The talks are often shared online, and they can definitely be engaging. However, they are still a classic lecture: a sage-on-a-stage imparting their ideas and knowledge on a passive audience.

Quick tangent: what’s with our country’s fascination with the British accent? It’s a cool accent for sure, but it seems like every expert on TV, radio, or TED has a British accent. I bet 30% of them are faking it.

Maybe I should start writing these posts in a British accent.

As opposed to academia, student affairs has often been the locus for different methods of education, including experiential learning and institute-style programs. Student affairs was the place where real-life learning took place. We rescued students from the suffocating confines of the classroom and gave them a way to actually get involved in the learning.

Experiential learning is essentially making meaning from a direct experience. It involves a real or simulated experience along with analysis, reflection, and applied learning.

An institute-style experience is one that involves a progessively challenging curriculum that all learners experience. It typically involves facilitated discussions on core concepts followed by processing in smaller groups. It can also usually be marked by a longer duration - such as five or six days. LeaderShape and UIFI are great examples. So is Key Leader - a Kiwanis program for high school students.

Obviously the lecture is different from these in that it typically features a single expert transferring knowledge in a one-way fashion to an audience of learners. The problem with this approach is that without the chance to do something, learn from it, and apply it, we have a tendency to struggle with using the information. In a lecture, we may remember the core lesson, but not know how to apply it.

If I asked you to recall the last TED talk you watched online, you could probably recite the primary points. If I asked you how you’ve used the core points in your leadership, I’m guessing most of you would not have much of an answer. Without active practice, not much can be expected. It’s like watching a instructional video on baseball without swinging a bat.

One of my favorite speakers/lecturers, Jeff Cufaude once described the typical keynote speech as one that starts with a humorous story, contains 3 main points that are easily comprehended, extremely benign, and quickly forgotten, and closes with an inspirational story or poem. It’s the truth.

And I fear we are relying to much on those. We’re even getting so excited about lectures again that some national conferences for college students are including TED-like mini lectures as a prominent feature. Also, the professional speaking circuit is as big an influential as ever before.

Professional speakers can fall into the “lecture” category simply because their format doesn’t allow for much meaningful interaction. The audiences are usually large, with rows of chairs facing straight ahead towards the expert speaker. They really can’t be deeply interactive (and asking the audience to stand and do a cheer does not make the program interactive).

But do they need to be interactive? That’s not the purpose of a lecture. The purpose again is to transfer knowledge from an expert to the audience. And that's okay if that's the purpose. Most good speakers (hello T.J., Rick, Ox, Stollman, Phired Up, and others) use techniques to transfer that knowledge in a more interesting way - mostly through humor and stories.

So why use a lecture-based program at all? A few reasons:
  • It may be most important for you to get a single idea across to a large group of people (such as risk management).
  • You need “edu-tainment” to kick off a big event such as orientation, an awards night, or Greek Week.
  • You don’t have time to plan something more involved.
These programs can be compelling, buzzworthy, and cause individuals to gain a new perspective. However, if you really want to create change, I encourage you to go experiential or institute-style. What does that mean? It means full-weekend retreats instead of 60-minute keynotes. It means facilitated small group conversations instead of big auditorium events. It means role plays instead of movies. Scenarios instead of articles. Full semester leadership classes instead of workshops.

There are times and places for lectures. I love hearing good professional speakers. And you can occasionally grab a lesson from them that sticks with you. For example, Ed King flipped my perspective upside-down (in a positive way) on the role of Ritual in fraternity. Dave Westol forever shaped my thoughts on hazing. T.J. and Joel caused me to care more about H.I.V. and AIDS.

However, don’t rely on these speeches too much. While they can be a spark, expecting them to change your Greek community is like expecting a diet pill to take the weight off for you. The same could be said for blogs by the way!

Also, look at your budget. What’s the best return on investment? How can that $3000 go the furthest?

The problem is that experiential learning or institute-style programs take more effort to coordinate. Those that are planned poorly can be a waste of valuable time for students. But, if the objective of education is to provide information that leads to new behaviors or actions, these methods are the best way to go. They provide the learner a chance to actually practice leadership. They hold up a mirror to each participant and ask him/her to question their own assumptions. They push students hard on questions of ethics and integrity. They demand more from the students than sitting in an auditorium chair.

So, I encourage you to look at your campus’s educational offerings in a holistic way and to find a place for more institutes and experiential programs.

And to help, next week I’ll share some thoughts on how to make the classic retreat a really effective experience.

Until then, I’m going to work on my British accent. Cheerio!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Greetings From Behind the Podium

Guest essay by a recent college graduate

The author of this post wrote the following after reading a previous post of mine: Greetings from the Back Row.  He wanted to add the perspective from the other side of the room, so to speak.  This post is an honest reflection of this author's recent fraternity experience - hence its more personal feel in comparison with mine (and his wish to remain anonymous).  The author graduated last May. He became a founding father his freshman year, vice-president for two years, and president for one. He tries his best to remain involved with his colony (soon to be chapter) and his organization as a whole as much as he possibly can. -- John

I’m the brother you are going to miss.  I’m the go-getter.  The one that rallies the troops before a big event and makes sure that all of the t’s and i’s are crossed and dotted before it starts. I’m there to drive you home and I’m there to pick you back up when you fall.  When your parents come to town I’m the brother you introduce them to so that they keep the checks for dues coming and don’t feel like you are wasting their time and money.  I’m the first one to get to chapter meetings and the last one to leave.

I’m Mr. Involved.  I’m Fraternity Man of the Year.  Better yet, I’m Brother of the Year.

But let me tell you how I came to be this way.  I honestly had no intention of joining a fraternity.  When I walked the university’s involvement fair my freshman year I was lost in a sea of people that I didn’t know.  Granted, I played sports and was involved a lot in high school, but I was more of a “behind the scenes” kind of person.  I never wanted to step into the limelight.  I’ve always been very loyal and committed to anything that I do but never did things for the glory.  I walked past the fraternity’s table and saw a bunch of guys that would rather be someplace else, anywhere but stuck there having to talk to freshmen. I saw where I could make a difference. Make an impact.

I started off holding any position that I could.  Attending every event that I could.  Volunteering for whatever I could get my hands on.  Everyone, even my pledge class brothers, soon called me “super pledge."  Brothers showed me off to the sororities like a prize won at the fair and always let me slide whenever I messed up.  I soon found a liking for being involved and started running for committee chairs, and winning. Everyone liked me - or so I thought - because I brought a lot of passion to everything I did.  Most seemed to like my ideas, except those that felt their “fun” was in jeopardy.  But I ignored the critics because my intentions were good.  I wanted to make us better.  To make us The Best.

I worked my way up and ran for my first executive board position - and won.  I was eager to participate.  I actually felt like I was starting to matter and that people had respect for me; that people liked me.  I started to enjoy the limelight.  Other entities on campus took notice of me and asked me to get involved with them also and I did.  I figured it would make the fraternity look better in the end.  But then a series of things began to happen.

My grades started to slip.  I started to notice that I wasn’t “superman” and couldn’t do it all on my own.  I soon realized that I had nowhere to turn to and no one to ask for help.  I had taken on too much and was over-involved.  Everyone expected me to do it all.  To plan everything.  To make sure people follow the rules.  To keep in touch with everyone.  To do each person’s position for them.  It’s what I had done in the beginning so why should things change now?

The brothers started to doubt my intentions - and doubt me for that matter.  They began to question what I had in mind for the organization and my dedication.  I started to grow bitter. It was me who had worked behind the scenes while everyone else was out partying to make sure that our organization didn’t sink to the bottom.  I skipped social events so that I could catch up on schoolwork missed because of covering everyone else’s bases.  But no one noticed the fact that I was doing the work of many, just that I wasn’t in attendance at social events. They didn’t know what it felt like to be all alone when I was getting phone calls from administrators.  No one was standing next to me when I had to meet with the Greek Life advisor in the aftermath of whatever trouble some brothers caused, so that I could try to explain their actions, make excuses for them, and promise to handle it.

It doesn’t help matters that after reviewing manuals from our headquarters I realized that we were doing everything wrong.  Meetings were being run the wrong way.  Reports were done incorrectly.  To make matters worse our image on campus was atrocious.  No one respected us.  Our recruitment numbers declined.  Our GPA fell.  But when I started to make some changes, whether small or big, brothers started to take a stand against me.  There were things that we should have been doing all along but since I was going against our “traditions” brothers started to talk about me behind my back, fight the entire process, or worse, drop their membership.  Think of a hot plate pulled out of the dishwasher and put into cold water. Too much, too fast.

All I really wanted was for us to start doing things right.  The way that our founders and executive council members wanted us to.  You know, simple stuff like be respected on campus, follow our values, and live our ritual.

It doesn’t help matters that I would get emails, phone calls, or text messages from brothers filled with hatred because they didn’t like having to go in front of the judicial board.  Or were mad because I didn’t beg them to stay active as they threatened to leave.  Others started to lash out and tried to tear down everything I attempted to instill in our organization.  I started to feel more alone.  I started to question what I was doing this for.  I started to wonder why I was still involved or even still a brother in the first place.

All because of what?  Starting to hold them accountable?  Starting to expect them to live our ritual?  What happened to the days of “super pledge?”

Once my position’s tenure was over I disappeared.  I retreated back to being the behind the scenes guy.  And I found myself in the back row at meetings, whenever I did attend.  Even sitting behind the guys that disrupted them on purpose.  Younger and newer brothers wondered who I was at times.  My legacy was gone.  I found excuses and reasons to avoid going to any meetings or events.  I blamed it on being a senior and being busy.  I have been counting down the time until today, when I get to walk across this stage.  Some brothers have started to notice what I accomplished for the fraternity.  Others’ respect for me has started to recover after realizing all that I did.

Today, I’m not sitting with any of the brothers that are also graduating.  I’m sitting with the people I made friends with outside of the fraternity.  They don’t dislike me because I asked too much of them.  They can’t resent me for following or believing in a shared ritual.  They were there for me when my brothers couldn’t be.  Refused to be.  When I stood on homecoming court representing the fraternity at the big game, they were the ones that cheered me on when not a single brother was in sight.

The funny thing is, I joined a fraternity because I wanted to make friends.  You know, the kind where one day their kids call me “uncle” even though we don’t share a single gene.  The jury is still out on that one.

As a disclaimer, I’m not looking for you to feel sorry for me.  I brought it on myself.  I could have backed down and let them push me around.  Even resigned from the position.  But I don’t think that’s what our founders would have wanted, so I stuck with it.  If I didn’t believe in living the ritual then who was going to?  In fact, through all of the opposition that I faced, it made my love for the organization itself grow stronger.  Why else would I be wearing my organization’s graduation stoles today?

I just wanted you to see how things feel for someone like me, the one behind the podium.  I sacrificed a social life, time that I’ll never get back, and even my G.P.A.  I’m sure my family would love to hear Latin terms pronounced after my name today as I graduate, but hopefully they understand.  I’m just hoping and asking that you take it easy on the next “go-getter” coming up behind me.  To know what it felt like for me so he doesn’t have to go through what I did.

Maybe you can keep him from getting burned out.  Maybe from time to time you could pretend that you want to be at a community service event as much as the next mixer.  Maybe you’ll spend as much time planning our philanthropies as you do your parties.  Maybe you’ll realize that those letters you’re wearing on your chest are mine too.  To an outsider, you don't only represent yourself.  You represent me.  Our school.  Our organization.  Our founders.  Our Ritual.

I’m sure he would appreciate that.

I don’t want you to think that as I sit here waiting for them to call my name that I’m bitter or resentful.  I fact, I happen to not regret a single thing I did for our organization.  It’s an experience that I would recommend and encourage to anyone.  It made me a better person.  I hope to one day receive a phone call from my son or daughter saying that they are thinking about becoming Greek.  I just hope that maybe one day you’ll realize that my actions were for good.  That I had your and our organization’s best interests at heart. That I’m still here for you because that’s what brothers do.  It’s a realization and hope that I’m willing to wait around for.