4 Lessons in management from a student-run organization

My role as the team-lead for a project development team can sound redundant at first — I manage the team that manages teams. We’re a small team that interfaces with project teams to ensure that projects are safe, effective, and responsible. As a group dedicated to mental health innovation, we can’t strive for anything less and I’m passionate about the necessity of ethics from ideation to execution. Unfortunately, my team is also tasked with the more tedious work of project management, which means I’ve read more Harvard Business Review than any philosophy major should.

My thinking was that a well-run student group should resemble a well-run business. I studied up on Fortune 500 Companies and burgeoning start-ups to see what models I could borrow. Now, however, I think the pros could probably benefit from lessons that really only emerge in the bizarre, pseudo-professional context of student-run organizations:

  1. You cannot make work someone’s top priority. This is just a fact in college. It is completely unreasonable to expect a student to sacrifice courses and grades for a group. Even if the projects are incredible, if a job is so demanding that it lowers the value of other experiences, someone will either quit or be fired. This is true in the professional world as well — it’s called burnout, duh— but it’s easier to ignore it in spaces where you only think of colleagues within the workplace.
  2. Effective communication and transparency. Effective communication is not the same as marketing and shouldn’t be treated as a PR tool. The point of effective communication is to create healthy relationships and build people’s faith that you are making decisions that are thoughtful and worthwhile.
    Student groups are under the constant scrutiny of advisers, administrators, and the student body. Because our advisers are respected researchers/academics, we have to remember that our mistakes have their names on them. Administrators are concerned with how our group’s activities impact the Stanford brand. On campus, mental health has become a political focal point for activists and student government. The campus community is small, word gets around quickly, and backlash is felt almost immediately because you’re ingrained in the communities that are criticizing you. Failure to bring the community and stakeholders into your work can lead to mistrust, criticism, and financial probation. :(
  3. Facilitate healthy social dynamics. Watch out for these tensions and reach out to the individuals involved. I’m not advocating that you become the office Gossip Girl, but don’t fall into the opposite camp of expecting everyone to hide their humanity for the sake of ‘professionalism’. Student groups are inherently social. People join groups because their friends are in them and they stay because they’re invested in the work and people. Friendships and romances form and everyone is chipper but then life happens and folks aren’t so happy working with each other anymore. It doesn’t make employees more productive — it makes them disconnected. Ignoring these tensions will only breed discontent and could lead to the loss of valuable team members. 
    Instead, Let members know they are valued and that you want to work with them to create a work environment that feels safe and comfortable for everyone. Bonus points: be proactive about regular check-ins and don’t wait for conflicts to arise before you reach out.
  4. Contemplate your role in the next phase of their life. Think about how you are creating an environment for personal growth and exploration. What values do you I them to absorb after working for you? Groups only get students for four years or less. As a team-lead, I always keep in mind the values I want students to gain and carry forward for the rest of their lives. I’m privileged to work with extremely talented students who will likely become influential in their respective fields.
    For every project we do, I require students to practice a rigorous examination and evaluation of the risks and ethical dilemmas, and have them brainstorm a few exit strategies if things go awry. There’s the idea that Stanford churns out great engineers who are extremely creative when it comes to building something, but don’t really engage with the social implications of their work. If I have the opportunity to work with these students, then I want them to come away values of humility, thoughtfulness, and social consciousness that they might not gain exposure to working in tech. It’s the opportunity to expose people to new and important ideas so they can do better more meaningful work in the future.