Developing managers…

In my convention and meeting planning class, I have them do a lengthy scenario based project. They are broken into teams, and given a type of meeting or event. Over the course of the 16 weeks, they are given information, and curve balls to develop the scenario.  The purpose of the project is to develop their research, analytical, and problem-solving skills.  It’s 500 points and I’ve had success with the project in the past as well as seen some students not take it seriously.  Former students have commented on the project and agreed that it was a worthwhile exercise. Jenna Blandi-Jurgil was one of my first students in my meeting planning course that I created at Eastern Illinois University.  It was one of the first renditions of the project that has since seen several adjustments.  When asked about the project this past week, when she spoke to my current students, she had this to say:

Jenna Blandi-Jurgil
Jenna Blandi-Jurgil Meeting Planner at American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons

“Everything I did in that notebook, I do now in my real job as an event planner.”  ~Jenna Blandi-Jurgil

Today, I had one of the group leaders in asking questions. She was the only representative from their group for the meeting, and I had an opportunity to talk about their project and what she needs to do as their leader. Over the course of the conversation, I reminded her about the purpose, and talked about the ‘curve balls’ I gave them.  I revisited the process of event planning and roles, responsibilities of an event planner.  Event planning is all about project management from the inception of idea, through the planning and execution of the event or meeting, and finally the post event or meeting stages.  That planning remains a central element of the whole process.

Jenna reinforced several key points that I constantly articulate in class.  That if you are prepared, that your planning is thorough, the attendees won’t ‘see’ the interworking of a meeting or the flaws.  They won’t see any problems.  They can enjoy their experience and network without interference.

I love using examples when I try to explain concepts.  The concept I wanted to talk about because I was aware of some potential difficulty with the group that would need to be addressed was leadership.  I try to use simple visuals that would aid them.  I asked the person if they played any sports.  They told me that they played basketball and volleyball.  Bingo.  I could talk about volleyball.

I played volleyball since I was about four years old because my Mom was a former coach and referee.  She actively took me to games and included me in practices.  My earliest memory is of attending a game at my father’s place of work, his high school, and watching the game, chasing after the volleyballs, and listening to my Mom.  My next memory is of the volleyball players that she coached coming to my hospital room and visiting when I had my adenoids removed.  They brought me orange cream Popsicle to ease my sore throat.  There was a camaraderie about them that I didn’t understand at an early age, but would later on.  Something vital for success.

I really started playing seriously in seventh grade.  I played through high school always earning a spot on the team and playing every match.  I played club ball at Penn State (yes I tried out for the team, but I decided not to continue.  That it wasn’t what I wanted.)  I played Division I in Scotland, but hardly saw playing time due to certain politics and favoritism on the team.  I can’t blame them, those ladies had been playing a long time.  I was a backup but still gave it my heart.  That is another point I stress with any project.  Give 115% and you will succeed.

My brother and I
My brother and I wrestling.  I have my team jersey on from Penn State Club
Lounging in the dorms
Me in Penn State’s West Hall’s Thompson Hall after volleyball practice

I was a back line specialist and setter.  I was in part the quarterback and leader on the court, but also a team member to others that would lead.  I wasn’t the captain, but still had a leadership role.  There has to be a certain cohesion between group members.  There has to be a dialogue on and off the court.  There has to be an ease of conversation in order to achieve a goal.

In high school, we made it to regionals.  Unfortunately, I had injured my ankle and wasn’t able to play.  It was my senior year and played two sports.  Regionals fell during softball season and I was their primary catcher.  During a game, I suffered a high ankle sprain that ended the season for both volleyball and softball.  But I still went to the regional game, and watched us make it through to the final match against our rival.  I supported them from the bench, even begging the coach to tape up my ankle and let me play.  Memories still linger of that year, and I recall the first match of the season against that same rival, and utilized it for explaining leadership.

We are all part of team, don’t get me wrong.  But in such sports, there is more to consider.  That year we were hitting on all cylinders, making a connection that could see us go all the way to State if injuries hadn’t plagued us near the end.  We had this groove, this underlying current that others could recognize.

My high school days playing volleyball
My high school days playing volleyball

Yet, I’m drifting away from my story.  Okay, first match.  Now living in a small town, you know everyone, and more than likely play sports with and against friends from rival schools.  I did.  I had a friend on our rival volleyball team and decided to focus in on her.  I was at service and she was straight down the line from me, with a rather tall hitter in front of her.  I had pretty good accuracy and knew I could place it at her, or on the line.  I waited, watching the other team and how they were lining up.  Watching, observing, examining the other team and your alignment is key to knowing where to place that first shot.  The front line of our opponent had set up to switch hitters, leaving my friend open for attack.  That means all of their hitters were congregated in the center to switch as the ball sailed over the net.  So first service, up and with some power, down the line at my friend.  My friend’s receiving of the ball was off, and it sailed into the stands to her left.  One point to us.

I went back to service and set up again.  Again our opponents lined up to switch hitters, leaving my friend vulnerable.  Second service like the first with even more power.  Let me put it to you this way, and gloating somewhat, but I am aware of what my strength was back then.  My service style was unpredictable.  Hard and fast, or with a soft touch that had people scrambling to get to it.  Yet, I could place it with some deftness at any point.  If I could have utilized a jump serve, and with that accuracy–oh, boy…they would have been even more difficult.  Second service went over the net and right at my friend.  This time, with a slight curve to my palm, I was able to put a curve on it, and she misjudged the line.  As it dropped rapidly, it curved to the left hard, drawing her off her position as well as the girl next to her.  She had remained flat on her feet and stumbled into the other player. The ball ricocheted off her uneven arms, and sailed right into the third person on the back line, bouncing off her thigh onto the floor.

New tactics were called in by our rival coaches and I watched as they made adjustments.  My own team knew me as I knew them.  All along we made subtle adjustments to what I was doing.  They knew what I was up to, my plan of attack.  They knew I would hammer away at one member of the opposing team to get them to shift, to change tactics.  My teammates knew to watch carefully and be prepared, especially our 6’4″ left hitter.  Our opponents stopped shifting players as I served.

Yet, I wasn’t done even with them changing tactics.  I had the confidence to continue my onslaught.  A third time saw the ball skim the back line as an ace.  And then it happened, then I saw what I had been hoping for.  My friend’s teammates started shifting dramatically to help her.  Well dramatically may be overstating the fact, but there was a clear adjustment to aid her.  The front line pulled back to the attack line, abandoning the attempt to shift hitters.  They returned to the classic formation, but with a left leaning.  Moving to shield my friend for another attack.  Beautiful holes opened up, ready to be exploited.

I remember relaxing before stepping to the line.  I remember taking a deep breath, concentrating on what I wanted to do.  I took my time, and focused.  This time with the softest touch, enough to get the ball over the net, I dunked it between the net and their attack line, to the farthest right corner.  I’m sure a collective gasp went up from the opposing teams spectators in the stands as the ball just dropped short, and their girls quickly scrambled to try to get the ball, to keep it in play, but their efforts weren’t enough.  Imagine six players surging forward towards the ball, hungry to get at it, to try to save it, keep it in play, at least to get it back over the net, and failing.  Crash, bam, nada.  One more point.

We lost that match after a furious battle.  Our only loss for the year.  But those moments still resonate with me and helps me to explain leadership.

A leader knows when to direct, when to stand back and trust the people they work with.  Knows when to take the lead and put their foot down to see things accomplished.  Preparation is key not only with you and your team, but also knowing the field of play in which you operate.  If you don’t, you are bound to fail.  I knew my team.  I knew when to take the lead, and direct.  I knew when to pull back and trust the process.  I knew when to be a team player, and let others take the reins.  I didn’t chastise, but encouraged.  I built confidence, not erode it away.  I asked the right questions when they needed to be asked as my teammates did the same.  There was a level of communication that successful teams possess that helps them reap rewards.  Wasn’t always perfect, but no team is.  Expectations were realistic, and goals, objectives obtainable.

And then knowing the field of play in which you operate.  There was some dysfunction on my team, and I won’t go into the politics of it.  We had an uphill battle throughout the year, and yet, we understood our ultimate goal and objectives.  We were on the same page and adaptable to the current climate of play.  We also knew how important it was to know our opponents.  Their strengths, weakness, opportunity and threats.  We knew, even with odds stacked against us, we had a chance.  And we went for it, with the thought that nothing was or is impossible.

I knew those players.  I knew one really well.  I wasn’t intimidated by their presence, their past accomplishments (they were the best team in the state for a host of years and still are) or their ‘rhetoric’ on the court, and by their parents on the sidelines.  I heard them, I listened, and I understood.  I knew their goals and objectives, and what they wanted.  But I had a job to accomplish and would adapt to their desires.  I knew myself and remained true to my convictions.  I read the signs they were projecting and exploited their egos.  Some would argue, since with that loss, I was the one with the ego.  Perhaps.  But I knew I had to ask the questions that needed to be asked.  Those questions were in my service and how I played, how I directed the team, and what I did on the court.  And how I utilized the strengths and weakness of the other team, manipulating them against them.  We beat them the second time around hands down, and earned a spot at regionals.

Joe Paterno
Joe Paterno

As Joe Paterno, who I admire, and not just because I’m a Penn State alum, but more, stated:

“The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.”

Sometimes the best strategy for a leader is to do nothing at all.  Continue with your goal and objectives, and let the opponent fail at their own weaknesses.  This is readily apparent on the field of sports.  Trust yourself.  Trust the process.  You focus on the fundamentals, give 115% heart in their execution, and more than likely will triumph in the end.  You may not succeed at first, and I know, I have been in that position many times and must remember that a dose of failure is also a dose of success.  You learn about yourself and others.  You learn what you need to do for the next opportunity both as a leader and team member.

And so I asked my student, what did you take away from this story.  After teasing them with several questions, because it was probably too early on a Friday morning for the both of us, they came to the point I was trying to make.  Preparation.  Know yourself, know what you are capable of as well as your team members.  Make lists and other aids to help you accomplish your goal.  Know the field of play in which you operate, not just the class, and what the professor wants you to deliver, but also, be cognizant of your functionality as a team–your team, your playing field.  If you are going to lead, set the standard by which you will operate, and stick to those goals.  Be adaptable to the external forces swirling around you, and listen to those voices, observe how things shift, and change with the external forces acting against your desires and all those that are on that field of play.  Try to understand everyone’s internal conflict and make strategies that are both achievable and obtainable for everyone.  It is about moving forward with realistic success.

And remember how to act on that field.  How your actions reverberate around each player.  Act with a sense of morality and civility.  Don’t just assume, but articulate.  Walk the walk, and talk the talk.  Respect isn’t blindly given, it is earned and can be easily squandered away.  Which led in part to a talk about core values.

But that is another post for another day.

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