5 Tips for Transitioning Leadership in a Student Org

Students for Urban Data Systems (SUDS) started as a student organization at Carnegie Mellon in August 2015 to create a space on campus for students and community members to come together to work on ongoing data projects with community organizations, learn new data tools through workshops, and learn about the “state of the practice” from speakers. Like all student organizations, one of our greatest challenges was the nearly constant turnover of members. Most importantly for us, we were facing the loss of all of our founding Board members in May 2017, all of whom were graduating. While we knew that there was interest among students and community members to keep the organization alive (we had over 400 members), we were unsure how much interest there would be to lead the organization.

Therefore, we put into place an aggressive strategy for recruiting, selecting, and training a diverse group of students to join the Board. The five key points of our strategy are below. While these are SUDS-specific, I think that any student group transitioning leadership can adopt this strategy.

1.       Invite potential leaders to take up responsibilities early. Nearly 6 months before we started the official transition, we began to open up our Board meetings and invited other students who had shown an interest in leadership to attend these meetings and take on responsibilities. In fact, people outside of the Board planned nearly all events that occurred in the months leading up to the transition. By the outgoing board stepping out of the way, they created room for the upcoming leaders to step in. This helped the current Board work closely with these new potential leaders and allowed the potential leaders to “see themselves” in the organization.

2.       Schedule one-on-one meetings. In the 2-3 months leading up to the application process, I encouraged current Board members to meet one-on-one for coffee or lunch with students who had shown an interest in SUDS. At these meetings, we spoke with the students about their aspirations and interests and encouraged them to apply, if we thought SUDS fit with those interests. This direct appeal was extremely successful, and nearly everyone we met with ultimately submitted an application.    

3.       Hold an organizational “open house.” This step would not have been possible without the support of the local civic tech community. We hosted a leadership open house at a nearby restaurant and invited all students interested in leadership and our community partners to attend and share in food, drinks, and conversation. This was a terrific way for students to see the broader ecosystem in which SUDS worked and helped SUDS differentiate itself. Incoming SUDS Director Chris Worley remarked that “the event was attended by community and student leaders and allowed those with an interest in taking a more active role in "doing good with data" a chance to meet with the folks who are doing just that in Pittsburgh.” We also scheduled it so that it occurred the day before the application opened, so that the social aspect of SUDS was fresh on their mind when applying.

4.       Make applications easy and the selection process transparent. We knew at the beginning that we were looking for a transparent, fair way to encourage a broader group of people from diverse backgrounds to apply and join, as SUDS prides itself on being one of the few truly multi-disciplinary organizations on campus. When we finally opened the application process, we sought to make it easy while still being thorough, as we did not want a burdensome application to be the reason someone new did not apply. In addition, we changed our selection process from a voting process to an application process. There were two reasons for this: first, our membership structure is loose so there is a question of who should be eligible to vote and second, we found that voting tended to elect people from the same degree programs that were already in the organization.

5.       Have a leadership retreat. Approximately 2 weeks after the Board was selected, we scheduled a half-day retreat at a non-profit off campus with the new and old Board members, again with the support of the civic tech community. This not only served as a “knowledge transfer” for the incoming group, but also allowed the outgoing members an opportunity to talk about SUDS mission, objectives, and aspirations that they had for the organization as well as allowing the incoming members an opportunity to get to know one another.

What were the outcomes of our strategy? Well, we received 13 applications from undergraduates, graduates and PhD candidates across 4 of the 7 colleges at CMU, a healthy pool for an organization that previously only had 4 Board positions all from the same college. We ended up selecting 10 of these applicants and filling all vacant Board positions, while also creating two new ones – Undergraduate Liaison and Speaker Series Chair.

While we were extremely pleased at these outcomes, and at the enthusiasm and commitment the incoming leadership has already demonstrated, there are always areas for improvement and with SUDS there is no exception. I think the organization can continue to build a sense of inclusiveness by actively partnering with other organizations on campus in order to recruit a diverse membership body (and by extension, a diverse leadership structure). While I am proud of everything we accomplished in the first 1.5 years as an organization, I am even more excited to hear about the good work that is yet to come.