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Monthly archives: September 2014

    Greek life at most college campuses conjures up images of all-night parties and rowdy fraternity guys. But there’s a side of fraternity and sorority life that most people don’t see unless they’ve been part of it. At its core, Greek life — specifically being in a leadership role in the chapter — is hands-on training for many essential life and business skills.

    Most fraternities and sororities have an executive council of leadership (“Exec”) that runs the chapter, spearheading things like budgets, rushing new members, and philanthropic activities. Each member of Exec is responsible for his or her elected office plus the house as a whole. As an active Exec member— and eventual president of my chapter at the University of Minnesota — here are some of the incredible lessons I learned that still apply to my career today.

    1. The art of diplomacy

    When you lead a group of more than 100 women, you’re going to experience tension, especially when you have to live with them while leading them. You can’t go home at night and tell your spouse about your crazy co-worker and come back the next day with a fresh start — you also have to eat dinner, participate in events, study, and maybe share a room with other members who may not like the decisions you make.

    The art of diplomacy helped me understand that:

    • What you say is just as important as how you say it. People usually give the benefit of the doubt, but only if leaders are honest and straightforward — especially when it comes to difficult decisions.
    • You need to be empathetic. As a house, we were wired to work as a team, so when one person was impacted by something, it impacted everyone. Listen to what’s being said (and what’s not being said) in any situation, and seek to understand first — deal with facts first and emotions next. Both play a role in leadership and decision making.
    • It’s important to maintain positive and constructive relationships with people, whether you live with them or not. Believe it or not, you can be civil even if you disagree with someone! I’ve found that using candor, humor and authenticity usually yields good results.

     2. The basics of running a business

    Just like any business, Exec makes difficult decisions regarding expenses, staffing and house rules. The committee is responsible for the full operations of the house year-round — things like feeding the chapter members, paying house bills, budgeting for activities, and dealing with unforeseen expenses. If you didn’t do your job, you were going to hear from 100 angry girls who had to take cold showers!

    3. The right thing to do might be against the rules

    One of the other responsibilities of the Exec team is establishing and enforcing house rules — including taking action if chapter members needed to go on probation for not following the rules or meeting the sorority’s mandatory GPA. You can imagine how sensitive and difficult this was.

    Once we had a member who had to go on probation because she was behind on paying her bill for two semesters. It’s not because she couldn’t or didn’t want to pay: Her parents were going through a divorce, which tied up the family’s finances and hindered her ability to make payments. That’s a legitimate reason for missing a bill — after all, it wasn’t her fault — but we had to look her in the eye and tell her she was on probation because she was technically in violation of the rules.

    Nobody can prepare you for life’s gray areas, but you do the best with what you know. Being a rule-follower, I enforced the probation, which eventually led to her leaving the house. We lost a great gal who was very smart, contributed to our chapter, and otherwise followed the rules. We lost her for something that could have been addressed with some creative problem solving.

    I try to learn from this experience, knowing that sometimes you have to do the right thing at the sacrifice of the rules.

    4. How to have a difficult conversation

    Nobody likes awkward conversations. Most of us avoid them, dancing around issues or make someone else do the deed. But if you can learn how to have difficult conversations effectively, it can be tremendously valuable both personally and professionally.

    Remember lesson No. 1: you need to be candid, authentic and caring when you do it. But if a conversation needs to happen, you’re better off looking the person in the eye and being honest about the situation. Most of the time the other party knows it’s coming, so you’re not fooling anyone by avoiding the topic.

    In my case, it happened during our spring formal the year I was president. I learned that a chapter member (and good friend) who was on probation was planning to attend the event — despite knowing that her probation rules excluded her from attending. I was forced to ask her to leave the formal at risk of an awkward “scene” in front of everyone. But if I didn’t take action, it would send a very public message to the other chapter members that the rules don’t mean anything.

    I quietly pulled her aside and reminded her that she was not permitted to attend. She ignored me and stayed — when our other officers got involved, they were ignored, too. In the end, I did the best I could even though I didn’t get the results I wanted.

    I addressed the situation at our next chapter meeting, and we dealt with the individual the following week. Some two years later, that same person sent me a handwritten letter apologizing for her behavior that night. Apparently it had weighed on her, and she realized it was unfair of her to put me in that situation. I’ll never forget this lesson and the bravery she demonstrated in offering a proper apology.

    5. Appreciating individual contributions

    Not everyone wants to be a commander — some just want to be soldiers. Often times in our chapter, several people would raise their hands to participate in an initiative, but it took longer to find a captain.

    While leadership skills are important, in reality, you need more worker bees than queen bees, and every volunteer can contribute.

    In business, if you can understand each person’s strengths, you’re more likely to use those strengths in a capacity that helps everyone win. This understanding also helps when managing expectations for team members and setting them up for success — either in their current role or in future roles where you can see they have potential for advancement based on their skills.

    {This article was originally posted in the July 2014 Business Journals publication}

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