“Leading a student group represents a unique opportunity to supplement your in-class learning and effect positive change on fellow students and your institution”.
Leading a student organization at university is a rewarding endeavor in the realm of project & people management. As future leaders in your communities and beyond, you might treat this experience as a vehicle for introspection, enabling you to assess your leadership competencies within a relatively controlled environment. This undertaking will present you with challenges and opportunities to develop skills that you will value beyond your university years.
University student groups are more self-directed than their high school counterparts. With less oversight, executive group members are given greater access to information and financial resources. In both formats, executives are unpaid volunteers and the overarching goal of the group is to enrich the student experience rather than to turn a profit for itself or the institution. Leading a student group represents a unique opportunity to supplement your in-class learning and effect positive change on fellow students and your institution.
During my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, I was affiliated with several student groups in various capacities, including as a general member, as an executive member, and as a group leader (i.e. chair). One of the groups that I led aimed to promote undergraduate research taking place on campus and initially focused its efforts on engineering students. We had three major initiatives: A research experience programme that annually matched over fifty undergraduate students with on-campus research positions during the academic year, an academic journal in which undergraduate students could publish original research and review articles, and events held throughout the academic year such as technical skills workshops, laboratory tours and industry talks.
With my experience executing initiatives in various capacities, I hope that the following guidance will help you achieve your student organization goals on campus.
Getting started and getting recognized
“After establishing an executive team, a useful team management strategy is to establish and maintain a team charter, which outlines internal standards and protocols.”
People, including executive and general members, are the most important component of student groups. Long-standing student groups typically adhere to a formal group constitution that dictates procedures for selecting the executive team. New groups, however, must make preliminary decisions around leadership and executive team structure prior to filling positions. In addition, new groups must coordinate with the university and/or student union to gain official recognition. This important step gives groups the ability to request funding for events and initiatives.
If given the opportunity to make hiring decisions as a group leader, hiring strategically is key. Hiring a diverse executive team (in terms of major and year, for example) can facilitate idea generation and help to mitigate groupthink. After establishing an executive team, a useful team management strategy is to establish and maintain a team charter, which outlines internal standards and protocols. These may include the group decision-making process (whether it is autocratic, democratic and if certain executives hold veto power), maximum length and frequency of group meetings, and communication standards (such as choice of communication platform and expected response times). Unlike a group constitution, a team charter should be updated each time that there is a personnel change to the executive team, particularly at the beginning of the academic year.
During my tenure as group leader, my executive team initially totaled ten members but swelled to fifteen by the end of the school year. This was a result of permitting certain executives to recruit subcommittee members (sub-executives), which is a common practice in student groups to help ease the workload. However, group leaders should treat this practice with caution; while subcommittees can benefit productivity, they also produce a, “group within a group”, which can be difficult to manage.
Group initiatives & promotional activities
“Drafting an initiative roadmap with projected dates and preparation time, then identifying periods of expected high and low group activity can help a group to optimize the initial schedule”.
Initiatives, such as events and activities, are the means by which student groups enrich the student experience on campus. The group that I led coordinated various initiatives over the school year. Some were long-term initiatives that required planning and execution spanning the entire school year, while others required only weeks of preparation ahead of execution.
A group leader will typically organize a large launch event early in the school year to generate excitement around their group’s mission and planned initiatives. This is particularly important for new groups, which lack the benefit of continuity from a successful previous year.
While launch events provide little direct value to the student body, they are effective at generating interest in a group. Planning and executing quality initiatives throughout the academic year will sustain this interest. The months prior to the start of the academic year are a great time for a group leader to strategize with their executive team and set a scope for initiatives. Drafting an initiative roadmap with projected dates and preparation time, then identifying periods of expected high and low group activity can help a group to optimize the initial schedule.
“Faculty advisors can help groups to identify needs among the student body and in suggesting solutions to obstacles”.
Official recognition by the university can provide a student group with access to club fairs and other university-organized events that enable group executives to network with prospective members. Most student groups employ additional promotional tools such as email lists, targeted social media advertising, group websites, and physical & digital on-campus advertising. These formal promotional vehicles complement organic word-of-mouth marketing. Another benefit to being officially recognized is gaining access to faculty advisors, who are employed by the university to support students and student groups. Faculty advisors can help groups to identify needs among the student body and in suggesting solutions to obstacles. They may also advise on fundraising and promotional strategy. For instance, our faculty advisor’s suggestion to display digital advertisements on university computer log-in screens became part of our group’s on-campus promotional strategy.
Strategizing as a group leader
As a group leader, surrounding yourself with a diverse executive team can facilitate promotional activities. This was particularly useful when expanding our group’s research experience programme initiative to serve students beyond engineering programmes in the science and arts faculties. Strategically hiring executive team members who were students in these faculties allowed our group to immediately establish a presence and make headway in outreach and promotional activities within these otherwise unfamiliar sectors of the campus population.
Regardless of the make-up of a group’s overall promotional strategy, it is important to be able to quantify the success of each activity. This information is invaluable to a group’s leader and executive team as it provides an indication of which strategies should be iterated upon and which should be eliminated. This allows a group to progressively improve its decision-making with regards to its use of resources, namely financial resources, since most promotional and outreach activities have associated costs.
Managing & using information
Many student group leaders and executive members hold their posts for only a single academic year. To allow for continuity and for a group to improve year-over-year, it is important for group leaders and executive members to share information with their successors. An end-of-year internal initiative for a group leader and executive team may be to develop a transition report, a document containing an overview of the group’s initiatives over the past academic year, implemented promotional strategies with their levels of success, suggested future initiatives, and a snapshot view of the group’s finances. The transition report that I received as an incoming group leader from my predecessors even included explicit advice on promotional strategies to avoid and funding sources to revisit.
Gathering information is the first step in making data-driven decisions. Paid targeted advertising and social media analytics can enable a group to collect and analyze large amounts of information pertaining to its social media activities. Student groups should also seek to analyze data that may be accessed free of cost. Such data may arise as a byproduct of a group’s initiatives and activities.
“As a group leader, collecting, storing, and internally sharing information is important to the long-term success of the group”.
One of our group’s goals during my tenure as leader was to improve the research experience programme initiative. An insight that we derived from archived data was that the applicant pool for the programme was becoming less diverse each year, with most applicants being students of one of only several engineering programmes. Our group then cross-referenced this data with the profiles of the group’s executive team members over the years and noticed a correlation, specifically that the make-up of the executive team was changing in parallel with that of the applicant pool. The lack of diversity in the executive team may have led to biases in the group’s promotional strategies and procurement of research projects that went undetected and resulted in an increasingly homogenous applicant pool for the programme. As a result, our group set goals to diversify the student applicant pool for the research experience programme, as well as to increase the overall number of applicants to and placements in the programme.
Without data being archived and made available to our team, this analysis could not have taken place and this issue may have never been addressed. As a group leader, collecting, storing, and internally sharing information is important to the long-term success of the group. However, throughout this process, it is important to respect privacy policies and ensure that data is being handled responsibly by anyone with access to it.
Managing group expenses
While university student groups are typically not interested in the prospect of turning a profit, managing expenses is vital. For this purpose, executive teams usually consist of at least one finance executive member who is responsible for submitting funding applications, releasing funds to other executives, and monitoring group expenditures. Group leaders will often assist the finance executive in procuring funding for the group. It is common practice for a group to set up a bank account with direct access restricted to the finance executive and group leader.
It is useful to forecast a budget for each planned initiative (when drafting the aforementioned initiative roadmap) and to re-evaluate these budgets once funding information is released. Student groups generally receive less funding than they request through funding applications, and thus re-evaluating spending is key to the long-term financial health of the group.
Having a diverse executive team and general group membership can afford a student group access to a large set of potential funding sources. It is important for a group to document its use of funds over the academic year, as certain funding sources may expect end-of-year reports detailing how their funds were used. Organized events, which may last only a few hours each, typically account for the largest total expense to a student group. Many groups make the mistake of spending too much money on a beginning-of-year launch event and are left with insufficient funds for other planned initiatives. Coordinating with other student groups and co-organizing events is a means of splitting costs and promotional effort while increasing the visibility of all groups involved. In one instance, our group collaborated with another student group to promote and deliver a technical skills workshop to introduce the R programming language. Co-organizing this event enabled both groups to combine insights and reach a larger than normal audience.
“Whether you intend on putting your teamwork skills to test or are just trying to make a difference while making memories, consider joining a student group and if you’re brave, leading one!”
As a group leader, it is important to trust your executive team members to own the details of their efforts. It is not possible for a group leader to oversee every detail of every corner of a group. In addition, since your executive members will be busy students like yourself, it is not practical to expect a constant level of effort or interest in the group—it is normal for this to vary over the school year. Furthermore, it is important to accept that conflicts will arise, particularly early in the life of your team, and to use this to your advantage. Tuckman’s, “forming-storming-norming-performing”, model of group development states that each stage is necessary for a team to grow, plan and tackle problems. An ability to listen and take feedback is vital, as is a willingness to alter your group’s direction when presented with new information.
The shift to online learning has created new challenges and opportunities for student groups and their leaders. Naturally, many groups are focusing on purely virtual promotional activities and initiatives. Since few student groups have ever operated exclusively virtually, this is an exciting time to get involved! Whether you intend on putting your teamwork skills to test or are just trying to make a difference while making memories, consider joining a student group and if you’re brave, leading one!
Liam D’Souza is a graduate of the IB Diploma Programme (DP) at Turner Fenton Secondary School in Canada. He completed a B.A.Sc. in Engineering Science at the University of Toronto and is currently working in software consulting. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and volunteering as an editor for an undergraduate scientific journal. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.
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