I love being a guest on Barry Moltz’s blogtalk radio show. He and I always have such a good time. You can listen in on my latest guest appearance where Barry and I talk about the concepts behind Fierce Loyalty. In it I talk about the fundamental and necessary ingredients for building a fiercely loyal community of customers and clients.
In last week’s post, Building a Community Starts with a Decision, I promised to share the community building strategies I stumbled upon in my very first job out of college. I was a “Community Development Coordinator” in the St. Louis University residence hall system, charged with building and fostering community under less than ideal circumstances.
Through a steep learning curve of trial and error, I learned what worked and what didn’t work. And these lessons have stayed with me for the past 20 years, informing everything I’ve ever done. (And for the record, everything I’ve ever done involved building a community. Quite honestly, I think it’s part of what everyone does if they want to be successful.)
Everything I Needed to Know About Building Community, I Learned from a College Dorm
#1 Give them ownership of the community, even when you think they are totally going to mess it up.
There were no RA’s living on each floor of the residence hall to keep everyone in line. Instead, each floor was given the authority to design and enforce their own rules (with a little guidance of course). With that privilege came the responsibility of paying for any damage that occurred on their floor.
I’ll never forget standing in the stairwell one Friday night listening to a girl totally dress down three drunk boys who thought they were going to knock out a light fixture when no one was looking. She was fierce and she wasn’t backing down. AND her floormates came out of their rooms to support her. It was awesome.
#2 Find the thing that will motivate them to participate in self-governance.
Each floor was allocated a small “social fund”. I decided to tie the receipt of that social fund to participation in a Hall Council which governed the entire dorm. A floor representative had to attend 75% of the meeting in order to get their check.
#3 Give them a group project to work on together.
Each floor was allowed to design and paint a hall theme each year. We supplied the paint and everything else they needed. We even held a contest which turned into a fierce competition (lots of floors kept their designs a secret, barring anyone who didn’t live there from coming onto the floor). I was after, and got, two results 1) They accomplished something as a community and 2) they turned a run down building into something that felt like home.
#4 Connect them with mentors.
I gave each floor the challenge of asking a faculty or staff member to become their Floor Mentor. A mentor’s job was basically just to hang out, socialize, offer guidance when needed and just be there. It was fun to watch as the mentors started showing up for intramural games, helping with the Floor Personalization Contest and handing out in the dorm dining hall. Most of them had never interacted with students outside the classroom and they loved it. The students loved having a “go-to” adult other than me when they were trying to figure something out.
#5 Believe that they are capable, really capable of stepping up to the challenge.
This is the secret sauce and it took me the longest to learn. My students would step up only as far as I believed they could. No more. No less. My job was to equip them, help them, and support them. But if I ever gave them the impression I thought they couldn’t do it, they would prove me right every single time.
These aren’t the only strategies that I used, but they are absolutely my Top 5. They are the ones I pull out again and again and again because they stand the test of time and because they apply universally.
I hope you find these helpful and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas!
My first job out of college was at St. Louis University (Go Billikens!). They hired me to be a Community Development Coordinator in their residence hall system. That was right up my alley. I’d started organizations in college, worked in a residence hall, and loved the idea of strengthening a student community.
However, there were a few unanticipated challenges.
Challenge #1 – Most of the students who lived in my particular residence hall lived in the St. Louis area. They viewed their dorm room as simply a convenient place to sleep, not as a “home away from home.”
Challenge #2 – The physical building of this particular residence hall was old and worn. Poor lighting, poor plumbing, poor windows, small rooms, no common space – all barriers to creating a warm feeling.
Challenge #3 – I was young, fresh out of college, with no real idea of what I was doing.
(Mercifully, Challenge #3 became a huge asset because I didn’t know enough to know what an uphill battle I was fighting.)
Isn’t that true with most businesses and organizations, though? I mean, if we step back and look at trying to create a community, don’t the seemingly insurmountable challenges start to rise up in front of our eyes?
Challenges like – how on earth are we going to find, much less connect with such a far-flung group of people? What are we going to talk about once we run out of our standard marketing messages? How do we draw a group together and foster a true feeling of community that sticks? The daunting list could go on and on.
The only solution I found in my first job and in every other community-building situation I’ve ever been in is that building a community is a decision we make. Just like any other kind of relationship, we have to decide every single day that we want to build a community – no matter how difficult it might seem.
I decided every single day for two years that building a community out of college students was worth it. Worth the frustration, worth the long hours, worth the mistakes, worth it all. And bit by bit, day by day, I watched this thing called community take shape and grow stronger. Pride developed. Trust developed. Passionate commitment developed.
In fact, by the end of my two-year commitment, the students were so invested in the well-being of their community that they sent a representative to interview the candidates for my replacement to ensure he or she would be a good “fit”.
All of this evolved, in spite of the daunting liabilities I listed above.
In another post, I’ll talk about the specific strategies I stumbled into that worked. These strategies apply to college residence halls, Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, and small businesses. It’s exciting stuff, really.
For now, though, you’ve got to decide that you want to build a community. And you’ve got to be prepared to make that decision every single day. Are you in?