Most student club advisors will tell you that club engagement goes through waves; some years are rockstars and others are duds. Almost every club starts the year with aspirations of rockstardom, but within a couple weeks, the excitement and motivation of the leadership team fades, and thus, the entire club activity withers. In pondering this problem, I've been talking more and more about an idea called engagement-based leadership (EBL), meaning that leadership is not a one-time elected thing, but rather an ongoing, ever-changing position rewarded based on engagement. Before I talk more about EBL, first let's dissect the problem of why student leaders fade within a month of being elected.
Several years ago, I walked the second day of a 2-Day Avon Walk For Breast Cancer with my wife and some friends. Anyone who's ever done the walk knows how grueling it is. Blisters alone are painful, but the average Avon walker can expect to endure multiple layers of blisters building up until his or her entire foot becomes one big blister. It's disgusting and painful and makes the second day of the walk intense. The organizers know that completion of the walk is extremely difficult without a continuous onslaught of support from spectators and volunteers. That's why for every walker, they commit to line the entire path with at least five cheerers. On the last leg of the walk, my feet blistered up and shot a pain through my body with each step. Mentally and physically I was ready to quit. My motivation was gone. But then, as we turned the corner, there was a smiling old lady sitting in a wheel chair, wearing a cap to cover her bald head and holding a sign that read, "I'm why you're walking, Thank you." Like a bolt of electricity, my whole body reenergized and plowed toward the finish line. Imagine if the only rewards for walking the race were in the beginning when they pumped us up, and at the end when we crossed the finish line? The attrition rates would be horrendous!
Like the Avon walk, student leaders begin the year excited and motivated about the idea of the journey they're about to start. They might have just attended an award ceremony where the outgoing leaders were showered in praise for the hard work they did throughout the year, which further motivates the incoming leaders. So much support. So much praise. And then, let's say within a month or so, reality sets in. The real work starts, and the "blisters" of being a leader build up. But unlike the Avon walk, with a motivational checkpoint waiting for you at every street corner, the next motivational checkpoint for student leaders most likely won't be for another six months, during their outgoing ceremony when they are praised for all the hard work they did throughout the year. Thus, within the first couple months of being a leader, the excitement and motivation fade and the attrition rates go up. It should be noted that some leaders drop off for other reasons, such as class overload, work overload, or personal issues.
What's a solution look like?
As the advisor, you could make sure to set up a collection of individual checkpoints for your leaders throughout the year, so you make sure they stay excited and motivated. At bare minimum, let's say you create checkpoints that happen once per week for ten minutes where you praise them for the work they are doing and remind them of the bigger picture of student engagement. Just one leader multiplied out for eight months, that's just under five hours of your time. Now expand that to 50-300 leaders. If you don't think you have a life now…
Enter EBL. The goal is still the same, keep the leaders motivated on an ongoing basis so they can survive through the typical student leader burnout, but in EBL, the tactics change. In EBL, you are moving the motivational checkpoints away from you as the admin/advisor and pushing it to the students. EBL builds in a peer-to-peer motivational system that is ongoing and ever present. Now it doesn't matter if you have 50 or 5000 student leaders. Actually, the more leaders you have, the better.
How does it work?
It's no secret I'm a fan of Whole Foods (also known as Whole Paycheck). Because there's a WF on my way home from work, I tend to frequently stop in and grab a few items. Over time, I realized that WF is one of the top five places I visit the most every week, which makes me a pretty darn engaged customer. In fact, WF should probably be rewarding me for being so engaged. Enter FourSquare, Yelp, and SCVNGR. For those unfamiliar with these three sites, they are, simply stated, mobile check-in tools. I can be anywhere in NY and check in that I am there via my mobile phone. Nothing special yet, until you start to receive prizes, titles, and recognition for checking in more often. For a while, I was crowned the Mayor of our WF because I was the most engaged customer. But then my speaking travel schedule picked up and for several months I disappeared and rightfully so, someone else took over as Mayor.
EBL rewards students based on their engagement. The more engagement "points" you score, the more rewards, titles, and recognition you receive. To repeat from above, leadership is not a one-time yearly elected thing, but rather an ongoing, ever-changing position that is rewarded based on engagement.
There certainly is much more to debate and discuss here, but consider this post only a surface-level introduction to the idea. I'm not interested in getting into the weeds just yet, so I purposefully left out many of the operational details.
The Value of EBL?
Admin/Advisor – Student Leader attrition rates will drop, which means student leaders will stick around longer and be more active in their clubs. The increased activity will make clubs more successful throughout the year. The admin/advisor also won't have to do as much individual student leader motivational check-ins.
Student Leaders – Like a video game, the rewards and benefits built into EBL will keep the student leaders motivated throughout the entire year on an ongoing basis. They are going to have more fun because their clubs are more active and engaged. They also won't feel as much guilt about dropping off the map and letting the club die due to some personal issues they didn't plan for ahead of time. A new leader with the most engagement points is ready to step up to Mayorship.
Students – They will have a larger group of active clubs to join. After joining they don't have to rely on a disengaged elected leader to keep the group going. Leadership is open to anyone who wants it and is willing to work for it.
EBL is a blend of game theory and student engagement theory. Every student affairs professional knows the pains of deadbeat leaders and thus dead groups. EBL is a new paradigm in thinking about leadership. If we want to break out of the normal student engagement levels of 16-40%, we have to think differently. The ideas, tactics, and tech tools we use have to embody this new way of thinking. It's not just about making paperwork more efficient, that's just extracting more energy from the resources you already know exists. It's about exploring new potential energy that is sitting dormant in the 60-84% of the rest of your student body, that's a massive untapped pool of energy.