Wednesday, August 30, 2017

If You Always Look for Problems, That’s Always What You’ll Find

The time is upon us when thousands of fraternity and sorority members will return to campus and begin another year.  Many of those groups will do the smart thing and have a retreat to plan out the year and set goals.  At the minimum, almost all fraternity and sorority leaders will think about questions like: what do we need to do to reach our potential?  To achieve excellence?

This post isn’t meant to answer those questions, for each situation is unique.  Rather, let me offer you some thoughts on how you get to those answers.

Fraternity and sorority life is a “problems-based” industry.  We are constantly talking about problems.  We seem to always be focused like a laser on what’s wrong with us and what needs to be fixed. 

It can be depressing.  I only have my hunches to back this up, but I think one of the reasons there is so much turnover in campus Greek advising is that individuals just get sick and tired of the constant negativity. 

I don’t believe that we can ignore our problems, especially the ones that could jeopardize our future in an instant.  But, what if we focused on our problems just a little bit less?  You might ask, well what would we focus on instead?

We would focus on what’s working.

You have a choice for where you put your energy.  You can put it towards finding problems (and if you look for them, you will find them), or you can put it towards finding the life-giving forces that make your organization thrive.  When you do the latter, you likely increase the exceptional stuff you want and overwhelm the negative stuff you don’t.

This whole approach is called Appreciate Inquiry.  There are scores of books and articles on this very scholarly topic.  I invite you to investigate it further, but here is a quick summary in terms of fraternities and sororities:

Appreciative Inquiry means that you ask questions of each other in order to unlock what is often hidden from view: namely, the parts of our organizations that are working and should be emphasized.   But, we tend to do the opposite.  At a typical fraternity or sorority event, we might ask questions such as:
·         What is holding us back from success?
·         What are the biggest challenges we face?
·         How do we fix our problems?
The answers to these questions would come from the standard fraternity/sorority problem index: poor recruitment, risk management, brotherhood/sisterhood issues, member apathy, Senior member motivation, etc.  We would then try to develop 3-5 targeted solutions for each of these problems.  Sounds reasonable, right?  

The only thing is it’s not very effective.  If it were, we wouldn’t still be as stuck with these problems as we are.  

What if instead, we focused on what’s working?  Maybe your chapter has an awesome calendar of service projects.  Why do your members get so excited about service?  After investigating that question, maybe you find out that members see it as a great vehicle for camaraderie.  Now we know that members hunger for opportunities to work together on significant things.  Can this new knowledge be applied to chapter academics (which haven’t been very good)?  Could this lead to more collaborative and social study sessions at the chapter house?  Let’s try that.

If you had instead started by asking “why does our chapter GPA suck?” you may never have reached the idea of building camaraderie.  You probably would have designed another unsuccessful points system or something like that.

Appreciative Inquiry sometimes is as simple as re-framing the questions that we ask.  See below:
Typical Questions
Appreciative Questions
Why aren’t we getting the number of recruits we want?
Why do we have the recruits we do?  What did they see in us that compelled them to join?  How can we use those reasons to our advantage?
What’s wrong with our brotherhood/sisterhood?
When in the recent past has our brotherhood/ sisterhood felt the strongest?  What was going on that made that happen?
How can we force members to follow our risk management policy?
What was the last social event we had that felt really safe and really fun?  What made it so?
Where did all the Seniors go? 
Who have been Seniors that have been really engaged?  Why did they stay involved?
How do we stop our downward slide?
What is the best thing we did last year?  What made it the best?  How can we apply those lessons to other things we do?
Why do we suck as a chapter?
In what areas do we excel as a chapter?

Do you see how simply re-framing those questions makes them much more exciting and positive?  By using appreciate inquiry, you are learning from your successes, not your failures.  You’re putting a spotlight on what works, not what’s broken.  And yet, in doing so, you are making repairs.

Appreciative Inquiry is based on several principles, some of which are particularly germane to fraternity and sorority life:

The Constructionist Principle says that “words create worlds.”  In other words, how we talk about something helps to create it.  For fraternity and sorority, this means the more we talk about ourselves as endless problems, the more likely we are to become that.

The Poetic Principle simply says that whatever we focus on, grows.  If we focus on problems, they may only get bigger because we are elevating them.  Likewise if we focus on positive elements.  One of the primary tenets of Appreciative Inquiry is that by allowing the positive forces to grow, they will overtake the negative ones.

The Anticipatory Principle says that “what we believe, we conceive.”  If we put in our minds-eye an image of our organization as vibrant and dynamic, that vision will direct our actions.

I think these principles can be a stretch for analytical thinkers who only want to diagnose
problems and prescribe solutions.  There is still a time and place for that.  However, too often  we let that “fix the problem” mentality dominate at all levels of our organizations – all the way up to boardrooms.  Save that for the small stuff.  For the big things – vision, goals, future – focus instead on the best of what you are.  Let those discoveries determine the course you take.

It is a maxim of Appreciative Inquiry that in every organization that exists, something is working.

And it’s there for you to find.





This post was originally published in July 2011 and has been updated

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Chapter President’s Guide to Starting the Year Off Right

The chaos of August is about to set in on college campuses across the land.  And you, Mr. Chapter President, are about to lead your troops for another few months.  Don’t make it a weak finish!  The following ideas can make the difference between your year being just another ordinary one or a truly impactful one.  It’s all about paying attention to the details and how you start a new semester. Here are some tips to help you start right:

1. Prepare a chapter retreat.

World-class athletes get themselves “into the zone” before they take the field.  That’s what a retreat can do for your chapter.  Retreats are not just all fun and games.  Good ones have a purpose, and I suggest the purpose be twofold: (1) assess the previous year and (2) set goals for the coming year.  Did you attend your organization’s convention or leadership conference this past summer?  Here is a good chance to summarize some of the best of what you learned.  See this post for more ideas to help you prepare a successful retreat. 

Power tip: Invite your advisors and campus staff to help facilitate this retreat.  They have the skillset to do this and would be honored to take part in something that’s so positive and forward-thinking. 


2. Get the team back together.

Huddle up with your officer team as soon as you can to review early plans for the year.  Likely there are some immediate needs in terms of finance and recruitment.  It’s also a way to make sure they are as invested in the remainder of this year as you are.   

Power tip: If you have the means, treat them to dinner (or coffee or ice cream) as part of this meeting.  Show them how much you value their commitment and leadership.


3. Visit with your Greek Advisor.

Schedule a time early on to reconnect with your Greek Advisor in person.  They remain your greatest supporter and advocate on campus.  Besides just catching up, use this meeting as a way to update him/her on how you assessed the previous year and the goals you have for the coming year (great way to pass along the retreat output if you had that first).  Be sure to thank the Greek advisor and ask him/her for any thoughts on how your chapter can perform strongly this year. Listen as much as you speak.


Power tip:  Bring along a small token of appreciation.  Maybe a food product from your hometown – nothing too elaborate or expensive.  It’s just a nice courtesy that your advisor will appreciate.  Also – be sure to compliment him/her on how tan and well-rested he/she looks!


4. Greet your brothers/sisters.

This one may be a challenge for the very large chapters, but it’s not impossible.  Can you stretch yourself to personally say hello and shake the hand of every single member within the first two weeks of returning to campus?  There is no greater show of leadership than personal interaction.  It trumps any speech you can give or any decision you make.  Perhaps tie this to an invitation to the first chapter meeting of the year, so that you can get some brothers/sisters reconnected who have drifted away.  It’s easy to dismiss an email or phone message.  It’s difficult to dismiss a personal greeting and invitation.  Plus, it shows that you care about the most important thing any chapter president should care about – the members. 

Power tip: If you have a chapter house, move in early so you can be there (and your other officers too) to help move in your brothers/sisters.  Plus you can say hello to the parents and make sure they know who you are.


5. Hug your house manager.

He/she may need it this time of year.

Power tip: Don't let it linger.


6. Meet your chapter advisor for coffee.

For many of the same reasons you want to connect with your Greek advisor, now’s a great time to build the relationship with your chapter advisor.  The reason I suggest coffee or some other way that feels less procedural is because it immediately makes it a more relational conversation.  It also shows maturity because that’s how many modern meetings are conducted between colleagues these days. 

Power tip: If you don’t already have a system in place, be sure to use this meeting as a way to establish a regular communication pattern with your advisor.  And then stay strict to that – another sign of leadership maturity (don’t let your advisor ever wonder if you’ve vanished).


7. Prepare extra hard for the first chapter meeting.

Many times, this first meeting of the semester is the one of the most well-attended.  Spend time preparing so that it comes off as professional, efficient, and effective.  Don’t shy away from a little humor and fun in this meeting as well.  If you want members to come back, they need to see value to the experience. 

Power tip: Start the meeting with an open forum for members to share the best thing that happened to them over the summer.  Don’t be too cautious with what’s shared and how – let the personality of the group take over.  You’re likely to find laughs and applause as a result.


Best wishes to a great start to the year, and thank you for accepting the role of chapter president.  If you spend the time to do those things above, and be rigorous in your preparation and planning, then you will find yourself more relaxed and able to enjoy this experience.  Ready, set, go!