A Lesson In Leadership From Sorority Girls

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of working with a local chapter of Phi Mu Sorority at Grand Valley State University. They’d invited me to facilitate a short session on how to have tough conversations.

It wasn’t going to be an easy assignment. Even with many years of experience most leaders fail miserably at these kinds of conversations (as evidenced by every person you know having at least one cringe-worthy story about a terrible conversation with a current or former boss). So, I set out to distill a topic that could fill days of presentation into a few quick takeaways that would be useful and easy to understand. Notes in hand, I was off to campus.

As I began to work with the group I was struck by how effortlessly they grasped each of the concepts I presented. Make no mistake—I’d fully anticipated that I’d be presenting to a group of highly intelligent women. I’m no stranger to sororities, having been heavily involved in Greek life myself during my college experience. Far from the caricatures in movies and on television, these women mean business. Despite my already high expectations I was astounded by the relative ease with which they breezed through exercises that I’ve watched stump managers and executives alike. In the short time we spent together we covered more material than I’d dreamed possible, and when I left I knew that they’d understood.

What I didn’t understand was how. How had these individuals, with nearly zero corporate experience among them, managed to achieve proficiency in such a complicated topic in so little time? As I reflected, I realized I’d answered my own question. “Nearly zero corporate experience.”

I’d been thinking about it all wrong—the topic isn’t complicated, nor is the execution. In fact, it’s all pretty straightforward. It’s the environment that complicates things. It’s our experiences, our assumptions, and our learned behaviors. As any training professional will tell you, it’s worlds harder to change a negative behavior than it is to create a good one from scratch. These women are living proof of that fact. Absent the bad habits that come from years of corporate exposure, they are able to take each lesson at face value, understand it, and apply it.

So, what now? What about those of us who have experience? We can’t go back in time, but can we benefit from Phi Mu’s example:

Ditch the Corporate Crap

We’ve invented too many ways to insulate ourselves from tough conversations in the workforce—to the extent that once we decide to have an uncomfortable conversation we almost always find a way to render it ineffective. Rather than address what could be an important (yet squirm-inducing) key issue, messages are massaged, watered-down, or padded until they have little to no impact. So, an employee who is perpetually late to meetings gets a discussion about “time management”, and a sales rep who got drunk at a client lunch is encouraged to work on their “professional image”, etc., etc.

The women in Phi Mu haven’t learned to “massage the message” or shroud their intent in layers of corporate jargon and shop speak. In the absence of these, they were able to hone in on key issues with laser accuracy.

How much more effective could we be if we ditched the corporate fluff that does not serve us? How much more impactful would our messages be if they were simple, clear, and cut directly to the point?

Be Invested.

The women of Phi Mu are invested in their sorority experience—literally. As with most Greek organizations, joining isn’t free. But it wasn’t their financial investment that made them so adept at learning to have difficult conversations—it was their emotionalinvestment.

The members of Phi Mu care deeply about their organization and about each other. I didn’t find it surprising that they immediately understood the potential emotional impact of their conversations. After all, for many of them, the fierce conversation they need to have is with a peer, a friend, or a sister.

How much more impactful would our crucial conversations be if we allowed ourselves to be invested (really invested) in the outcome? What if we went into each one with a level of preparation and intention befitting the moment, having carefully considered the emotional impact of our words? Think what we could achieve.

Expect to Learn Something

First and foremost, the members of Phi Mu are students. Learning is their first priority, and for most, their full-time job. During our time together, they were attentive, curious, and unafraid to ask questions. They readily participated in conversation and activities. It was clear that they had come fully prepared to learn.

As managers, many feel that their primary responsibility is to have all the answers. This mindset leads to missing opportunities to do something even more powerful—ask questions. The best leaders know that reaching a certain status doesn’t mean they are done learning. It means they’ve been tasked with learning a LOT more.

What if we had the expectation that each experience would teach us something new? What would happen if we reprogrammed our manager reflexes to ask meaningful and intelligent questions instead of mindlessly giving answers?

I really enjoyed my time with the women of Phi Mu. I left energized and excited to have learned something new, and I hope I left them with something useful as well. The next time we feel stumped by a leadership challenge, maybe the answers we seek shouldn’t come from our experiences. Maybe we should consider what we would do if we had no experience at all.