When it comes to leadership, I find that execution of a “big idea” is as important as the creation of the idea in the first place.
My senior year of college at UNCW, I came up with an idea, in which my literature professor helped me to turn into an on-campus panel discussion.
One Saturday afternoon in the spring of 2006, I emailed my UNCW professor Dr. Cara Cilano some vague (but passionate) thoughts about what I could do to make difference in my generation. I wrote in my email that I was concerned that my generation had an apathy problem. I did not want my generation to be apathetic. Was there something I could do to motivate my generation? The idea had come a few hours before my room-mates and I threw a 90’s party where we dressed up in flannel and moshed to Nirvana and Jock Jams. She emailed me back and said she’d like to meet with me on the following Monday.
When we met two days later, she told me “I think you are big picture kind of person” (which has stuck with me for years). She said a panel discussion might be one way to get students at UNCW motivated and interested in the apathy question. She suggested we create a panel discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the Millennial generation. We could model the panel discussion around this question: “What are the strengths and weaknesses facing this generation?” I thought it was a great idea. At the time, I think I might have attended one or two university-style panel discussions. However, I did not know how to plan one.
I gave Dr. Cilano the idea-------but she knew how to make the idea happen. She had a template in her mind of how this would work. Being a professor, she had experience in taking a question or a general idea and making it into an event that would attract students. Literature professors specialize in generating good discussions.
Part of executing an abstract idea is knowing how to assign small tasks for those who want to help. She assigned me four tasks: (1) Find 3 UNCW professors willing to speak on the panel (2) Find a fellow UNCW student to join me on the panel (3) Write a short speech to present for the panel discussion (4) Advertise on campus and get the word out about the panel. She said she would take care of the rest and also would be the MC of the event.
About fifty students showed up to our Millennial panel discussion in an auditorium inside the UNCW library. Three UNCW literature professors, one other student and myself each did a short presentation what challenges Millennials faced. My hope was that we would have a good discussion about Millennials and we clearly reached that goal. I remember that Dr. Cilano gave me credit at the end of the event for coming up with this idea and making this panel happen. I wish I would have publicly thanked her since she lead me in the right direction and tell me that I had permission to "do" a panel discussion on the UNCW campus.
Since I graduated UNCW, I've organized six panel discussions based off the template that Dr. Cilano showed me in 2006. One way to define a leader is the ability of someone who understands how to make an abstract idea or conversation become a reality. If you only have an idea, without people who are willing to put in the work to make an event happen, it will not happen. If you only have an idea, without any plan or knowledge about what it takes to make an idea happen, it will not happen.
In my experience, I have excellent conversations while hanging out at a local coffee shop where my friend and I begin to dream and say to one another “That idea sounds cool.” I regularly have students or co-workers come up to me at work with creative ideas. To me, there is no shortage of creative ideas. What there is a shortage of are people like Dr. Cilano who understand how to execute an idea and make it into something tangible. She had the sustaining knowledge, experience and vision on what it meant execute a panel discussion.
Why is it that we can end up with "cool ideas" at the coffee shop table instead of an active plan to make it happen?
Following Through to Make the Dodge-ball Tournament Happen
Today, I am in the place of Dr. Cilano. I’m the teacher helping students put their ideas into practice. Over the last two years, I’ve worked with students on a daily basis helping them put ideas into practice. They remind me of my 22 year old self. They are eager to talk to me about the “why” and the “what,” but unsure of the “how.”
Aside from being an English instructor, I have also taken on the role as Student Activities Coordinator. Part of my role is to create monthly events on our campus with 4-5 other student leaders. Students at my community college know that I am the guy in charge of making fun events happen on campus. They regularly approach me about potential ideas.
One influential student approached me in the fall of 2015 and said “It would be cool if you guys put on a dodgeball tournament. Ya know?” I liked the idea a lot and I thought “That sounds good.” Looking back, I remember the student suggesting the idea in a way that put the responsibility on the student leadership team. I talked about this idea with student leadership at our next meeting. We decided we liked the idea and began making a task list of what it would take to put on a dodgeball tournament. We ended up finding out that we could rent out the local SportsCenter and also play in the gymnasium on a Friday night for about $130. We set a date and found the rules to dodgeball online. Our leadership team completed every step except advertising and promoting the event. We needed to get the word out.
About a week later, I saw the student on campus who suggested we do a dodgeball idea. Basically the leadership team had begun to take steps to execute his idea. I asked him if he would help recruit a team to play in the tournament and also help us advertise for the event. He paused for a second when I told him this and did not seem excited. He said he had something going on the Friday night of the tournament. I explained to him that we’d already started to take steps with the idea he came up with. All he had to do help us get people to come out. He simply did not seem interested in helping us. Why was he previously so adamant about the idea, if he didn’t want to help make it happen? We just kept pushing forward hoping we’d have a good turn-out of community college students.
The tournament ended up being a lot of work, since none of us had organized a dodgeball tournament. However, the event was a success (and a good idea) since we had about 30-40 students show up. The grunt work to make the event happen was executed by my student leadership team and myself, but the person who came up with the idea did not show up. I’m thankful that he suggested we do this idea-------but the hardest part of making a dodgeball tournament were the 14-15 small tasks we had to accomplish in order to make the idea happen.
Three Questions That Help Bring Big Ideas out of the Abstract
Ever since the dodgeball tournament, I approach student ideas differently. I want them to feel the excitement of having a creative idea, but I also want to see if they are committed to execute the idea themselves rather than handing it off to my student leadership team. Now, I run “big ideas” through the following steps before I will consider them:
1) Why is this a good idea for our campus? What is the idea? Someone must come up with a plan of who, what, why, when, where and how. The first step specifically deals with the “what” and the “why.” What is the idea? Why is it needed? If these two questions cannot be answer, then the idea is unlikely.
2) Can you create a detailed plan of how your idea will work? This really tests to see how committed the student is to their idea. If they’ve forgotten the idea 7 days later, the idea is not worth it. It is enjoyable to get excited about a “creative,” fun idea, but the fun starts to go away when the possibility of failure is real. If you are distracted by another idea, because you the possibility of failure is scary, then you need to work harder on your idea. However, if they have a plan for how it is going to work and already contacted important people to make it happen, I see that they are committed to working out the boring details.
3) Are you willing to carry out simple, mundane tasks in order to make this idea happen? I try to push them into the role of being the leader of their own idea. Leadership always requires sending out little emails, going to the grocery store to buy Pepsi and ice and doing things that seem very small. If the student is willing to take responsibility for boring tasks, I can see they will take responsibility of the event. Are they willing to put their face on the flyer saying that they are the contact person? Do they want to be associated with this event if it fails?
When they do the work to answer these questions, I am then ready to consider trusting them with making the event a reality. Students (and other faculty) who are not willing to “own” their ideas are subtly (sometimes unconsciously) asking my leadership team and I do to work for them. Sometimes that is acceptable, other times it comes off as entitled.
I've given two examples above when "teams" of people have worked together to make ideas happen. Having a team of people working together to make an idea always makes the an unlikely idea more likely to come to fruition. Whether you are already a part of a team attempting to make something happen or someone who is working alone, there is typically a time for overcoming complications and consequences that come with accomplishing an idea.