This year the Office of Sustainability hired 27 student employees, five of whom are team leaders and manage the work of their peers. When asked about the skills that they’ve developed and lessons they’ve learned as leaders, the leaders reflected on their challenges and boons–some of which may surprise you. Here is what they had to say.
Maren Schermer, ‘17, Certifications Team Leader
In many ways, becoming a Sustainability Team Leader has taught me how to be a manager. I have learned to take a mindful approach to team work, setting goals, communication, planning projects and much more. First, the role of leader has been the ultimate crash course in time management. Like all college students, I am used to following deadlines for classes and assignments, however as a leader you are suddenly expected to set the schedule for the group. This experience has taught me how to set realistic goals for the team, and then work backwards to create a specific timeline to reach our goals. It has been a great lesson in deliberate planning. As someone who has been known to avoid planning for the future, I have had to change my ways and to practice creating timelines for achieving goals. I know that I will be thankful to have this skill in the long run.
Being a team leader has also allowed me to think deliberately about my roles in organizations. For maybe the first time, I find myself thinking on a regular basis about what kind of leader I want to be. What kind of leader would I want to have? What kind of group would I be excited to join? Of course, I want to create an encouraging atmosphere in the group. Suddenly, I have become aware that positive, supportive environments do not just happen – they are the result of time and effort. Leaders must take the initiative to spread a positive energy and communication. Now that I am aware of this, it remains a goal for me to improve on in the future.
Another skill that I have had to develop in this role is delegating tasks to team members. First, there is the obvious challenge of wanting to give people enough work to keep them busy, but not overloading anyone and stressing them out. A rewarding lesson for me has been learning to rely on others. Almost everyone has had disastrous group projects for class that make them wary of “group work.” Thankfully, I have a dedicated and responsible team who I can trust will follow through on all of the tasks that they take on. Becoming a leader has made me even more grateful for the effort my teammates put into their work.
Carl-Lars Engen, ‘17, Communications Team Leader
Being a student leader in our Sustainability Office has been a challenging but rewarding learning experience. Having responsibility for other student workers is far different than having six versions of myself, or more work hours in the week. Given the complexities of college life, students might sometimes show up just looking for a simple task to do, make a few dollars, and feel good about being part of the Sustainability Office. Realistically, the desire to take initiative and push a project through standard inconveniences and red tape can sometime
be hard to find among students who’re primarily worried about homework and academics. During my time as a Sustainability Leader, I’ve learned what I can do to outline responsibilities, set appropriate group goals, and maximize our chances of reaching them.
At first I tried having each team member, including myself, play two roles, project manager and assistant. Operating under the assumption that we’re all knowledgeable and committed to sustainability on campus, each member would have the opportunity to set a proportionate amount of our agenda, and pursue a project of their choosing. This might be an environmental themed radio show, a bold piece of art, or a discussion to facilitate student learning. Everyone would have their own project that they are primarily responsible for, and we would work as a team to make sure each of these were successful. Communication would be excellent, with each member never hesitating to ask for or give assistance when needed. In the end we would have six organically driven goals that were achieved, and each member would leave with a sense of fulfillment.
Unfortunately, students are not always familiar with most effectively interacting with campus staff members, or using the resources that are available to help them start and maintain a sustainability initiative. It can be easy to just fall back into the second role, and merely hope someone else will have a great idea that you can passively assist, instead of actively being critical of our own activities and pushing for something new or better. Realities of college life get in the way, whether it’s getting our radio show stuck in an unworkable time-slot, or struggling to find a common meeting time, what happens on paper doesn’t always get translated into the real world.
Instead, better results are obtained when projects are carefully distributed in manageable pieces. Part of this strategy comes from the understanding that not everyone works in the same way. Some people can be given a task, and they will be able to successfully complete it using their own strategy or creative instinct. Others are detail-oriented people who will produce high quality work, but require exact instructions. Students with complementary strengths often work even better when partnered up with one another. A creative person who finds an entertaining way to portray energy data might pair well with a detail oriented one who will be especially aware of limitations and deadlines. The odds of success are greatly increased when this is taken into consideration.
Recognizing different strengths in students is not the only way to increase student productivity. Other strategies are to keep track of what they’re working on and with whom, to ensure accountability. This applies to myself as well. Instead of saying that I’ll add a mission statement to our website later and check for typos, I’ll ask why it’s not better to do it directly after our meeting. Or if not then, specify exactly when. Students will be more likely to take their work and their accountability seriously if they know that their teammates are doing the same.
Managing five other students with complex college schedules can feel like trying to run a bowling alley in outer space. They float off to other things as soon as I look away, and I myself [do so] if I’m not careful. However, by following a few key strategies, I can maximize the chances of the group reaching its potential.
Skylar Miller, ‘17, Waste Team Leader
Working with and leading a group of my peers has been a constant reminder of how much I still have to learn. That is to say, I am consistently exposed to ideas I would not have thought of on my own and I am continuously adapting my approach to implementing projects and achieving set goals. My position within the Sustainability Office has afforded me the wonderful opportunity to develop my skills working with students who bring many different working styles to the table. Being able to coordinate workers with very different skill sets and work towards a common goal has been a challenge and an incredible learning opportunity for me.
One of the biggest facets of this job has been learning how to communicate clearly and professionally with many different stakeholders across our campus. The projects that my team works on often require working with various offices, faculty, and staff. My job includes leading conversations with these stakeholders, as well as overseeing conversations led by my team members. I’ve seen immense improvement in my communication skills, and that is something I still strive to continue improving upon.
As I move into the final months of working in the Sustainability Office I feel that of the many skills I’ve developed, the most important to me has been learning how to work with people in all of their flawed, idealistic, and exuberant nature. In this job I am reminded time and time again of the capacity of others to learn and change and grow, and I am reminded of the importance of understanding and working with those who don’t always share my worldviews. I am incredibly fortunate in the people who I get to work with, and I am very thankful for those who challenge me and keep me learning and sharing and exploring the things that I love.
Miriam Wilch, ‘19, Energy Team Leader
The one thing that I have gained most from being the Sustainability Leader of the Energy Team is confidence in my ability to lead. I went into the job tentative about how I would lead a group of students to complete projects on campus. Before becoming a leader, I thought of myself as a follower, never as a leader. I always saw leaders in the media and history as people who were outspoken, which I do not consider myself to be. This is why I thought of myself as a follower, I thought that since I am not outspoken, I would not make an effective leader. Through this job, I have realized that many leaders are more soft-spoken, it does not take an outgoing person. I have learned that there are many attributes that make up a leader, none of which are the same for each person. I may not be outspoken but I have other attributes that make me a better leader, such as enthusiasm and being a good listener.
I have also learned about the importance of being positive. Being a leader, it is important to convey optimism to team members, in order for them to be motivated. Sometimes, I have felt that the projects are too big or difficult to do, but being positive and open has opened the doors, and we are able to do so many more projects. Being passionate and optimistic about the projects we do has made it easier for my team members to finish projects.
Overall, the skills I have developed while being the Energy Team leader will continue to help me in the future. They are skills that are useful in whatever I may do after I leave Beloit, whether that be graduate school or getting a job. Learning about what makes a good leader has taught me that not one thing makes a good leader, instead, it is a mixture of things that can help motivate my team members that makes me a leader.
Clare Lanaghan, ‘19, Food Team Leader
As the leader of the Sustainability Office Food Team, an important skill I have learned is how to balance when my excitement for our projects can be motivational and when it is overpowering. I personally hate working in groups where no one seems to care about the outcome or are unhappy to be working together, so, as a leader, my first priority is to make sure that everyone is engaged with what we are working on. A very important part of this is getting to know the members of my group. Who should I ask for ideas first? Who will understand and be excited about what I am trying to describe first, and will they explain it in their own way and build on it with the next person? As a leader, I do not want to come up with every detail of a project and just ask the team members to complete specific tasks; I want to see what ideas we can generate around a topic, so that people can take on a part of it to do themselves. This is how we get the best and most interesting ideas from our group.
Just like me, I know that all of my team members are very passionate about having amazing food sustainability projects on campus, but we are all also very busy. When I come to a meeting, I have usually use ten or twenty minutes before to plan what we will cover, but the members of my team maybe coming from a chemistry class or doing homework or working at another job.
Before we even start the meeting, I am already excited about the topics we are going to be talking about and ready to dive right into talking about the horrors of industrial farming or what types of plants students would enjoy growing in their rooms. [As we start a meeting] I have to remember to have a transition period, so that the whole group is on the same page. Starting from the very beginning with what impact the project can have educating students about a sustainability issue, and making sure that our whole group also understands the issue, is crucial. Slowing down, so that I am not just enthusiastically babbling about whatever new problem I imagine our group could solve, means that as a group we can bring our full momentum and energy behind a project.
Balancing how much of my excitement I throw out at the Food Group to get people motivated and when I temper myself to make sure that everyone adds their perspective and ideas is an important skill I am learning. I try to make it fun by admitting to my group that I could talk about this for hours and they should shut me up. I always aim to use my passion to get everyone excited about the project. As the leader, I see it as my responsibility to make sure that the group will enjoy the projects we are working on and that the projects are the best ones our collective intellect can come up with.