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Taking Curiosity to New Elevations

May 1, 2013

I recently finished a 26 mile hike with the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets and it will forever be one of my best memories of working at VT.  The Caldwell March is in honor of Addison Caldwell who on October 1, 1872, walked from his home in Sinking Creek to Blacksburg to become the first registered student of Virginia Tech.

For the past dozen or so years the Corps of Cadets first year students have made this same trek in two 13 mile installments.  The first in the Fall represents the end of the Red phase of their training, while the second leg in the Spring completes the White phase which leads them to their final preparations to become sophomore cadets.

The first leg of this is hands down one of the most difficult, both physically and mentally, activities I have ever taken on.  To begin with, when we started, I was certainly not physically in shape for what lay ahead.  I had not gone walking for anything more than a stroll with the kids in more years than I can remember and the last hiking trip we took was only 2 miles a year earlier.  Couple this with the fact that I was at the front of the march with Commandant General Randy Fullhart and more than 500 cadets behind us…just a little motivation to keep going.  Fortunately, I had three new “civilian” friends who were on this same journey.

The march began at the CaldwellImage homestead at the very same place Addison started and his family still lives today.  It was great to see these folks come out and support this historical tradition, and along the way, many others came out of their homes to pay their respects, my favorite being a veteran who was waiting for us in a chair at the border of his farm and the entire staff of the Corps stopping to thank him and take a photo.

Together, we hiked 8 miles of a traditional road march in two hours.  When we got to the bottom of THE HILL the Commandant advised us to just grab our MRE’s and keep moving…he was right.  We spent the next hour going one mile up almost 1000 feet elevation through a cow pasture (complete with landmines…fortunately growing up on a farm, I was used to avoiding these).  As soon as we made it to the top of this grueling incline which included the last quarter mile of needing trees to pull ourselves up, the cadets were upon us having made the same hike in less than 30 minutes.  After a break that included military rations and hilarious skits from the cadets, we began our homemade journey down through the brush, which in many was was more challenging than the incline.  I’ll put it this way, I’m not convinced Addison was the first to make the hike, I just think he was the first to make it out.  We closed out the first leg with another 3 miles on the dirt roads before getting picked up and brought back to campus.

The second leg of the march was just a few weeks ago and after experiencing the first part, and now personally being 30lbs. lighter, was much less strenuous.  In many ways mentally I was far more prepared for this hike and the mile incline and 10 mile road march were much less overwhelming to me.  In the end, we finished at the VT campus and witnessed one of the most heart-touching ceremonies in which each and every Corps of Cadets member greets the first year students and welcome them to the ranks.  Every single upper class student, in uniform, goes around and shakes the hand of every student who just completed this journey.  There is no lack of respect among these students and they are an inspiration to all.

So why do I share this journey with you?  I recall a question my new Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr. Patty Perillo, asked of me when she met us at the finish: “so do you like to hike?”  My answer, with a laugh that gave my answer…”absolutely not.”  “Then why do this” she asked.  To which I replied, “because it’s the Corps and it’s a Virginia Tech tradition that I wouldn’t miss for the world.”  I can now say that I am one of the few “civilians” to complete this march and I hope and encourage many others to do so.

We in the VT Division of Student Affairs have five aspirations for student learning, one of which is curiosity.  For me personally, this journey challenged my own longing for life-long learning.  I wanted to not only  hear about, but I wanted to experience and really understand as much as I can, what these Corps of Cadets students go through.  This is only one snapshot in time, but I continue to learn more and more about this magnificent group rich with history tied to the foundation of Virginia Tech.

So what’s next for me?  Next up is the Corps of Cadets obstacle course and I’m considering an offer to attend an intensive 3-day Army training specifically designed to give faculty from college campuses an in-depth look at Army boot camp.  Regardless of what my next steps are, my profound respect for this group of staff and students will be held with my highest regards forever and I am proud to have shared in this experience with them.  I have some new very close friends as a result of this, who we can reminisce together about our journey and new colleagues across campus who I have a little better glimpse into their worlds.  Thank you for sharing with me.

What have you done to push your own curiosity to new limits?  If you haven’t done something yet, what is that one thing you’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t mustered up the courage to try out?  My challenge to you…just get out there and do it.  As a wise one once said “Do or Do not.  There is no Try” (thank you Yoda).

The Day My Students No Longer Needed Me Was A Great Day

April 20, 2013
Lasting Impressions

Lasting Impressions

There are very few more fulfilling times in student affairs than working directly with students and watching them have that milestone ah ha moment when they no longer need your guidance.  My first professional job in student affairs was as an Assistant Director of Student Activities and serving as the advisor to a campus programming board.  I had an incredible group of students who all embraced learning from each other, planning unique and creative events for the campus community, and who taught me more than I ever taught them…how to know when to let go.

During transition time between officers and through the first few events, they needed the most guidance.  They were unsure, they were still learning how to have conversations with agents, how to develop marketing plans and day of show timelines, how to involve their committee members in the entire process and how to teach them what to do.  As the year progressed, the same amazing thing happened that happened every year, they needed less and less guidance because they were becoming comfortable with their roles, their responsibilities and how to put it all together.  They were becoming the teachers themselves to each other, always supporting each others programs, collaborating to make the events richer for the community, and even planning for who would be their own successors, training those students.

Still, I would pop in with a few tidbits of advice, helping to fill in small details that were forgotten or overlooked, giving guidance through issues as they arose.  It feels good to be needed and respected as someone who helps in their personal development.  This is the core of what student development theory is all about, helping students to grow.

Throughout my four years in this position, I was always looking to build upon each previous year by helping the students to be able to run the program themselves with the returning students becoming pseudo advisors themselves with the newer students.  I distinctly remember the day it happened, the day when I knew I had accomplished everything I could as their advisor and it was time to move on.  We were at our midnight breakfast and I was talking with the Assistant Director of the program board, checking to see if everything was in order for the program to being.  As he was rattling off each item, he stopped and said, “Justin, we’ve got it all covered, go home and don’t worry about it.”  This was the sign that I was no longer needed, and it felt great (it was also the sign I was probably driving them nuts and a way to get me out of their hair, but I’ll focus on the former part for my own conscience).  To this day, I am still good friends with that former student, and he is extremely successful and is kind enough to remind me regularly how he owes so much of it to the lessons we learned together.  Not all of our students share this with us as they move on, but when they do, there is nothing more rewarding.

Advising is not easy, but the first ingredient is a simply and devotional care for our students.  That desire to help see them succeed on their own is our gift to them in their education.  We may not teach in the classroom, but we are absolutely educators.

ACUI’s Student Learning core competency includes the skill set of Advising.  The knowledge, skills, and abilities required for this competency include:

  • Understanding of individual and group counseling theories, techniques, and processes

  • Ability to develop effective advising relationships with students and staff

  • Ability to adapt advising techniques and styles to meet the needs of an individual or group

  • Ability to identify resources and materials to remain current in literature related to the profession

  • Ability to identify individual or group needs beyond the scope of one’s ability and identify additional or outside resources

The one common bond that we all share working in student affairs is our desire to work with students in one form or another.  Many of us had been fortunate enough to learn just as much, if not more, from our students than we have taught them.

What have your students taught you that you will forever cherish?

Succeeding in a Politically Charged Higher Education Environment

February 4, 2013

When I first began my career in higher education more than a decade ago, I swore I’d never get wrapped up in the “political games” played in the business environment.  I was convinced that office politics were bad and only resulted in bickering and in-fighting.  Fast forward and boy was I wrong.

Understanding organizational politics is an essential skill that, when implemented appropriately, is a series of very positive strategies for accomplishing your individual and organizational goals.  I see this as coming down to two essential components: Relationships and Leverage.

To begiPolitical Adeptness (Borrowed from with, as the ACUI skill set of Political Adeptness within the core competency of Leadership states, we must have a foundational knowledge of group dynamics.  This includes understanding theories and applications such as Tuckman’s Stages of Group Dynamics (Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing) and Peck’s Stages of Community Building (Pseudocommunity, Chaos, Emptiness and True Community).

To get back to our two main components of Relationships and Leverage, let’s look at some organizational facts of life:
1) Organizations are not democracies;
2) Some people have more power than others;
3) Virtually all decisions are subjective;
4) Your boss has control over much of your professional life;
5) Fairness is an impossible goal (and it’s irrelevant);
6) The person with the most power usually wins.

Decisions are inherently subjective because they are made by people who base conclusions on their own values, beliefs, goals and preferences.  In order to be successful at office politics, you must learn how to leverage your own power and that of others.  And remember, the boss does not necessarily always have the most influence.

In any organization it is important to have a “knowledge of institutional and organizational constituencies and relationships among individuals and groups” (as stated by ACUI).  Relationships can be divided into Allies and Adversaries.

Allies take time to cultivate, so spend time with these people and get to know them.  They include:
1) Friends – colleagues with common interests and similar temperaments;
2) Partners – colleagues who depend on each other to produce results;
3) Connections – people you can temporarily hook-up with with you need assistance or information.

Adversaries on the other hand are people who stands between you and the accomplishments of your goals.  When you come across these individuals (or groups) you need to decide the best course of action which could be to try and confront them and play damage control to protect your reputation or to work towards converting them into an ally or a non-factor.  Much of this will depend on the reason behind their behavior and whether or not it is malicious, emotional, vengeful, or just a series of misunderstandings or disagreements.

The more adept that you can become at identifying these potential Allies and Adversaries, the more successful you will be at leveraging your relationships to accomplish your goals and objectives within the organization and office environment.

ACUI also states that we must have the “ability to assess an environment’s political climate and adapt behavior as appropriate.” To do so, build positive relationships in all directions.  This means with your boss, higher level executives, your co-workers and your reports.

To close, I offer some tips for effective leadership in a politically charged business environment:
1) Realize that you’re a manager, not a monarch (for those of you who have management responsibilities);
2) Worry about being respected, not liked – you must be able to make the tough calls;
3) Learn to successfully manage the performance of other people (motivate, inspire, set clear goals, give helpful feedback, implement changes and address performance issues);
4) Appreciate the power of inclusion – learn when to involve employees in decisions and help them to understand the big picture;
5) Help them “be all they can be” by recognizing superior performers and help them reach their goals.

To hear more about this and other ideas please take the time to join us for a more in-depth examination of this skill set on the next College Unions and Activities Discussion (CUAD) podcast on November 29, at 2pm ( and then further discussions on Twitter by following #ACUICC.

This post was originally seen on the Association of College Unions International’s (ACUI) Blog The Commons as part of a year-long series of educating about the association’s Core Competencies.

Even When They’re Not Right, How Do You Provide Excellent Customer Service?

January 14, 2013

From beginning to end, in our college unions and activities programs, we are ultimately a service industry.  We answer questions at the welcome desk, help student organizations plan events in the reservations office, maintain safe and clean facilities, and plan events ourselves for our students.  However, regardless of how we interact with our customers, how do we ensure we are providing the absolute best services possible?  We focus on first and last impressions.

Whether we call them customers, clients, patrons, guests or any other terminology, in the end we are addressing the same topic…creating a culture of service excellence.  The key to this is keeping it simple.  Let’s look at a very simple and straightforward service model.  In this model the customer is in the middle, everything we do, decide and say should come from the lens of the customer.  How are our services and programs perceived?  Are we making it easier for our students to successfully program events?  Are our facility hours convenient and efficient for when our students need us to be open?  Do we have overly complicated systems and processes?  These are the types of questions we should be asking.

Overlapping each other are the two fundamental components of the model: 1) the service environment and 2) service delivery.  First, when evaluating our environments, remember that everything speaks.  It is vital to play close attention to details, they say everything about our organizations.  From the trash left behind for hours on the couch in the union to the exposed wires running across the stage at the concert, the little things send big messages.  Second, how we deliver our services is what our clients are always on the look out for, so surprise them.  Every interaction is an opportunity to create a WOW moment.  Wow’s do not have to be big, they just have to have emotional impacts and most of the time you’ll never know how much of an impact you had.  This is where we can go the extra mile from what is expected of us.  If a lost parent asks for directions, don’t just point them down the hall, get out from behind the desk and walk them there.  That is how you make lasting impressions.

Finally, surrounding all of these components are the processes we have in place to create our environments and provide our services.  In particular, this area focuses on setting our employees up for success.  Proper selection, training, accountability and recognition of our staff so that they can be experts in providing excellence in customer service should be the focus.  This is also where we should evaluate how easy (or challenging) we make it for our patrons to interact with us.  Try mapping out the processes for each of your areas from the perspective of the customer.  Would you want to continue to work with the office, the staff, the system?

The last piece of customer service information I’d like to share is the Hierarchy of Customer Expectations.  At the very base level is Accuracy.  At the very fundamental level, our guests expect us to have the right answers (or to know where to find them).  Just a step above this is Availability.  We must be easily accessible and visible (clearly identified locations, uniforms, name tags, etc. can all help with this).  Yes, research has proven that most people are willing to wait a little as long as they are able to be assisted when they do finally find someone, this is why it’s not the very basic level.  These two areas are dissatisfiers, meaning that they are expected.  If we do not provide these two basic elements, we will lose the faith of our customers.

The top two elements are the satisfiers, which if we provide, will provide those WOW moments discussed earlier.  The first is creating Partnerships, does the customer feel you truly care about them?  Is your attention 100% on them, or are you looking over their shoulder to see who’s waiting next?  Prove to them you’re in it with them all the way by creating a tunnel vision focus with them.  Finally, at the top of the pyramid is giving Advice.  This is not becoming a therapist, I’m talking about helping them realize something they didn’t know before.  This might be as simple as suggesting the best place to sit in the theater because of line of sight views to the stage or recommending flameless candles when they read about the no open flame policy for their end of the year banquet.

The absolute best thing about customer service is that it’s free.  Simple and free, who could ask for anything more, yet many days we still struggle with doing these fundamental gestures for those that walk our halls and attend our programs.

Customer Service is one of the skill sets within the ACUI Core Competency of Management and everyone of us must understand the basic knowledge, skills and abilities required to be successful.  These include:

  • Understanding of key elements of customer service
  • Understanding of basic hospitality and catering services practices
  • Understanding of best practices related to customer service delivery
  • Ability to provide quality customer service
  • Ability to train others in methods and practices of quality customer service
  • Ability to effectively manage conflict and/or customer concerns

Hopefully this post gives you a starting point for discussions with your staff and ways to evaluate your current practices (the ideas presented here have been adopted from Dennis Snow, a former trainer with the Disney Institute).

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