Category: Management

Mobile Managers

Sophomore Program Director Danny Smith has a busy weekend. His own team for the Entrepreneurs Club’s EIP Program is promoting a local start-up at a big event on Saturday and he is also serving as a mentor in the Husky Startup Challenge and a participant in Engineers for the Greater Good, a 72 hour business and engineering competition. Despite this crazy schedule, a weekend like this is typical for Danny. As a senior leader in the Entrepreneurs Club, he makes it a point to not just focus on the program he runs, but instead go out and help with every other director’s program. As a participant, he learns how each program works so he’ll be able to offer tangible suggestions to his manager colleagues. When Danny is an attendee, he doesn’t expect special treatment – he sits with everyone else and goes through the same learning. This attitude is the epitome of what I look for in an excellent leader: willingness to go beyond your own department and care about the success of the team as a whole. Danny’s desire to learn, help and be a part of the community serves as shining example for everyone in the organization.

I recently read a parable about a tribal leader who always stays in his compound at the top of a mountain and rarely comes down to meet with his people and understand their problems. This is of course the opposite of what an effective manager should be doing. Danny’s actions on the other hand represent a much better way to do things: be a mobile manager. These managers:

  • Talk: go out and speak to the people you manage and their customers. Gain a deeper understanding for their lives and what problems they face.
  • Learn: take what your people and customers say to heart. Go beyond observing and think about what you can learn from the people you manage.
  • Participate: be a customer and use the services that your organization provides. You’ll quickly earn a better perspective on what your people need.
  • Advise: provide tangible action items that the people you manage or other managers can use to exceed their objectives.
  • Go Beyond: go outside your job description and appropriately provide input and participate in other facets of the organization. 

Combined with other important qualities like clarity and respect, having people with a “mobile management” attitude is a great asset for any successful team… I’m glad to have one like Danny on mine.

The Value of Praise

Praise is an amazing thing. It can create powerful feelings and motivate people to perform, and yet it costs nothing and takes minimal effort. Praise is one of the best tools a manager has to keep the team happy and productive. Take the following email example from me to a Director on my team:

Hi Matt

Thanks again for your hard work today on the applications. I know it was a long day but I truly appreciate your input and the apps are going to be that much better because of it. Keep up the great attitude and I’ll see you tomorrow.


I spent about 45 seconds writing that email, and it made Matt’s day. Whether it is from a manager to a subordinate or the other way around, everyone likes to be reminded when they do a good job. Consider the following guidelines to be a praise-centered team:

1. Praise frequently, but make it count

I might send 2 or 3 emails like the one to Matt each day to different teammates. Anytime someone does a good job, I recognize it. At the same time, you don’t want to over do it. Sometimes a simple “thanks!” will suffice while other times an extra sentence specifically outlining what the team member did is better.

2. Be short and sweet

Praise doesn’t need to be in long essays or paragraphs. It can be a sentence or two that fits on a sticky note or takes 30 seconds to send from your Smartphone. Short sentences that get to the point quickly tend to be more powerful.

3. Balance it with constructive criticism

In order to make your praise count more, you also need to call teammates out when they make a mistake and provide constructive criticism. This isn’t to be hostile; instead it is to help them learn and develop as leaders.

4. Mix up public and private praise

While personal emails are a great way to deliver praise, public announcements to the entire team at a meeting or even a blog post about a teammate’s good work can be even more powerful. Consider having a healthy mix of both.

By leveraging these strategies and letting your teammates know when they excel, they will feel happier and learn more, ultimately leading to a better organization for everyone. 

Hire for Passion, not Skills

It is 4pm on a Thursday when Freshmen Rohan Venkatesh walks into the Entrepreneurs Club’s office to meet with Director of Marketing sophomore Matt Bilotti and myself. Matt and I are very excited to be offering Rohan a promotion to Assistant Director of Marketing. We are so impressed with Rohan: his attitude is nothing short of spectacular. He constantly volunteers to help out, like at the sign in table at our Husky Startup Challenge Demo Night. His enthusiasm and passion for the club shines through. Yet at the same time, Rohan is inexperienced: as a freshmen, he has minimal background in leadership or marketing roles. But we have a feeling that he’d be great, so we deliver the news. Rohan’s eyes light up and it looks like he is going to burst with happiness “This is so awesome guys, thank you so much! I can’t wait to get started!” says Rohan, with a grin on his face that seemes like it couldn’t get any wider.

Bringing Rohan in as an Assistant Director ended up being quite a good call. Rohan quickly made up for his lack of experience with his hunger for learning. Rohan constantly asked Matt questions and learned the ins and outs of marketing for the Entrepreneurs Club. When he took on social media marketing in Facebook, our RSVPs went from 45 for an event to 86 the week he started. Rohan continues to volunteer for any task that needs work, whether related to marketing or not. His passion is contagious and at events and executive team meetings he isn’t shy about sharing it. The most impressive thing about Rohan though is how welcoming he is of constructive criticism. Any time someone makes a suggestion to him for something he can improve, he thanks them profusely for caring about his development and quickly implements the suggestion in his work.

If I had two candidates for a role, one with strong established skills for what I need and one with the passion and attitude Rohan has, I’d take Rohan pretty much every time. Someone like Rohan can be trained and he will learn quickly to attain those skills that the organization needs, and when that is combined with his upbeat attitude and thirst for feedback, he is unstoppable.

This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book about how to grow a wildly successful student organization at university. More details coming soon!

The Challenge of Managing Volunteers

Managing a team of people is challenging, fun and rewarding. You need to give them guidance, set goals and deliverables, provide feedback and foster a top notch culture. If someone on the team isn’t living up to the expectations of their role, they risk losing their job and income. Losing the income from a job is key… many people fear it and this sometimes helps motivate them to perform. But what happens when we take money out of the equation… what about managing volunteers?

Volunteers are likely choosing to be a part of the organization, but many times they do not NEED to be there. They have other commitments to balance and sometimes your team doesn’t get first priority. This requires creativity from the manager to motivate their team to be as loyal to the volunteer opportunity as they are to a paid position. Below are some strategies I use at the NU Entrepreneurs Club:

1. Foster the passion

People are motivated to perform when they are passionate about what they are doing. From a management perspective, this means having a deep understanding of the people on your team and finding roles and responsibilities that align with their passions. Asking the computer wiz to volunteer to take on customer service activities might not work too well. 

2. Pay in experience

This holds true especially for student volunteers. Students are constantly looking for new experiences to add to their resume and have as success stories to share during interviews. Provide your volunteer teammates with valuable experience and real responsibility so they can learn. Education and training is highly valuable and in the right scenario can be an excellent form of compensation.

3. Rock the culture

People want to be in an organization with a culture that fits their values. At the Entrepreneurs Club, that culture is based around open doors, transparency, dedication and accountability, among others. Each organization will have its own unique culture, but it must be comfortable and supportive for your team if you want them to keep coming back.

4. Make it fun and interesting

Volunteering is on my own time, so I will likely opt to do something that I actually enjoy. Consider how you can blend the lines between work and fun in your organization. At marketing firm Influences@, my friend Spencer Bramson conducts meetings in a McDonald’s style ball pit and has an entire wall of Nerf guns. Needless to say, I enjoyed my meeting in his office. Perhaps for other organizations it is trips or getting to interact with really interesting customers, or free stuff.

5. Enable ownership

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: people care more about their own stuff then they do about yours. When a person owns something, they feel a deeper attachment to it and are more likely to put in the effort necessary to make it great. This translates to having your volunteers take real ownership over projects or facets of the organization.

CEO is a Lonely Title

Last year, I served as the Director of our largest program at the Entrepreneurs Club, the Husky Startup Challenge, in addition to being the interim Vice President of the organization. I had the honor of working directly under Aaron Gerry, who was President last year and graduated in May 2011. During that year, Aaron served as a mentor and guide for me. I looked up to him and depended on him when I needed help or got stuck with a problem… and he was always there for me.

Having someone there for you is the key here – you get that privilege as a VP, a manager, an assistant or as an employee. You have a boss that you can defer to for big decisions, and who is responsible for you if you make a mistake. 

Well fast forward a year and I was promoted to President. I was beside myself with joy and excitement. Finally, I got to set the vision, lead a group of my peers and architect the building of something great at Northeastern. As I settled into the role, I suddenly realized, “Oh wow, Aaron isn’t here anymore.” And it was then that I realized how much I leaned on Aaron the year before. Because if I messed up, it was Aaron’s problem. If I missed a deadline or couldn’t figure something out, it was Aaron who had to pick up the slack. Now, things are very different. If I mess up, it is my problem. And if any single person on my team messes up, it is my problem. If something doesn’t get done, guess who has to do it? 

I didn’t understand it at all until this year, and I couldn’t understand it until I had the honor of being in the top role in an organization. As the President or CEO, you have to worry about everything, because you are ultimately responsible for everything. Instead of a budget for one business unit, you might oversee 6 different budgets. You go from managing assistants and team members in your division to managing the managers who manage the assistants and team members. That’s a tongue twister. 

So what is the big takeaway?

I have a lot of respect for anyone in the CEO role.

Especially in large organizations, these folks have a tough job. They really are alone in their role. They can (and should) ask their team for plenty of input. But ultimately, they are the ones that have to make the big decisions. And they are the ones that are ultimately responsible for the outcome of those decisions.

Managing Event Mishaps

This past fall, my team put on a kick ass event coined the Zaarly Survival Challenge. The event came out of our organization’s Entrepreneurship Immersion Program, headed up by sophomore Danny Smith. The program is a semester long consulting project where a team of Northeastern students partner with a startup to help build the business through marketing and operations projects. 

For the fall semester, we teamed up with Zaarly, a web startup that enables people to ask for anything from other people nearby. Imagine it as modern version of Craigslist, except buyers can post what they want and sellers respond… very cool app. To bring the Zaarly brand to NU, our team created the Zaarly Survival Challenge, where we locked campus celebrity Drew D’Agostino in a homemade glass box in the middle of the quad for 24 hours straight. Drew had to use Zaarly to post what he needed to survive. It was a fantastic event and everyone involved had a blast.

This was a complicated event. We had to deal with:

  • a ton of materials… we built a freakin’ glass box
  • outdoor electricity and internet
  • loads of cash transactions
  • hundreds of attendees 
  • a team of 20 students working on the event in different shifts
  • complying with safety codes to be outside at night at school

A particularly stressful challenge my team dealt with was when we found out 3 hours before the event was starting that the quad we were working in hadn’t been properly reserved with NU facilities. Which technically meant, we weren’t allowed to be there. Panic time? Maybe. Here’s what happened:

I walked right into the Student Activities office, asked to speak to the Asst. Director, sat down with her and explained everything, talked it out, and 10 minutes later I walked out of the room with the proper reservation I needed, despite their policy that reservations must be made in advance. This worked because I handling things personally. Not via email, not on the phone, but in person. This is by far the most effective way to really get stuff done.

So, the big lesson here is that if there are last minute event mishaps (and probability says that there will be), stay calm, handle things personally and be ready to get creative if you run into road blocks.

The Art of Complaining

If we called my mom right now, she’d probably say that growing up, I was a complainer. If I didn’t like where we were going, what we were doing or what we were eating, everyone was going to hear about it. Now granted this was one I was 10 (ok, when I was 15).

Why do people complain? Well for one thing, complaining makes you feel better. It allows you to vent and blow off steam. It gives you a feeling that you have control and impact on the situation. Thing thing is though, you don’t always have control. That is where we need to explore the differences between the types of complaining. In one type, complaining can be good. In the other, it’s worthless.

There are two different types of complaining:

1. Complaining about stuff you CAN control

2. Complaining about stuff you CANNOT control

Let’s break them down:

Complaining about stuff you CAN control

This can actually be a good thing. If you think there are problems or things that can be done better, speak up! Share your ideas and express your opinion. No organization can be succesful with just “yes-men”… great leaders want to be surrounded by people that will challenge them to be better and complain when things aren’t the best that they can be. 

In this scenario, we want to make sure complaining translates into creative problem solving. Identifying a problem is step 1, but you need tangible action items if you want to actually resolve that problem.

Complaining about stuff you CANNOT control

This is what I was notorious for growing up. A good example was when my dad was picking me up from school, he forgot the car rack needed to bring my bike home. As a result, I had to leave my bike at school. I was ruthless, I wouldn’t let him hear the end of it. The problem with that is that as much as I complained and made sure my dad felt stupid for what he did, I did nothing to change the situation. Complaining in that situation did nothing to remedy it… it was worthless and made me look like a jerk. 

Sometimes you are going to be in situations that suck. But complaining highlights your weakness. It shows that you are difficult and inflexible. So, even when you think it will make you feel better to start complaining about a sucky situation, consider which category it falls into. If it is something you cannot control, keep the complaints internal, and save your energy for taking action on the items that you have control over.

How I Recruit Young Talent

Any good operator spends a significant portion of their time on recruiting. Having fresh talent ready to join the team, getting university students excited about the organization and courting top notch engineers and sales people is key.

I am constantly recruiting for the NU Entrepreneurs Club, especially because at a university there is always a ton of turnover with people graduating, studying abroad, etc. Here are my best practices:

1. Everything is a recruiting exercise

That’s right, every program, speaking opportunity and question asked should be seen as a recruiting exercise. I am constantly judging and making mental notes, considering how someone I am interacting with might fit into a certain role.

At the Entrepreneurs Club, I created a program called the Marketing Marines, which is a team of freshmen and sophomores who want to get more involved in running the club, so they propose and execute on projects that they design. They team up, act as project managers, assist with marketing initiatives, and ultimately add additional value to our organization. Rohan Venkatesh and Dean Brodeur joined the program as freshmen, and just one semester later they have already been promoted to Assistant Director roles. 

2. Start early

I start recruiting for leadership roles at freshmen orientation. They haven’t matriculated yet but that doesn’t mean they don’t have potential to be the next President. 

3. Take people to lunch, and pay for it

If you think someone has potential to join your team, take them out to lunch. Have a casual conversation with them, you don’t even have to talk about work. The goal is to get a feel for them as a person. What makes them tick? What’s the probability that they are actually a serial killer? You want solid answers to all of these. At the end of lunch, don’t forget to pick up the tab. You want them to walk away feeling happy about you and your organization.

4. Sell yourself

Remember, you are pitching your organization and opportunities to new recruits just as much as they are pitching themselves as a candidate. You need to convince them that your organization will be the absolute BEST choice for them to go with for their next opportunity. Practice your pitch and have it flawless when you are out recruiting.

5. Hire interns

Interns are great because you both get to “try before you buy.” You get to see how the person interacts on your team without giving them tons of responsibility for key projects. They get to try out your organization with no commitment, knowing that they can walk away at the end of the internship. So, hire interns that you think would make great full time employees and use the internship to validate your hypothesis. If it proves true, make them an offer at the end for full time.

6. Promote from within

Some of your best talent might be already inside of the organization. Promoting from within is great, cost effective, increases team morale and is overall a good thing, provided that the talent is indeed there.

Event Planning 101

One of the biggest parts of my job at the Entrepreneurs Club is overseeing event management. At the core of our club is the Get Togethers, which attract 100+ students every week and involve a C-level executive speaking, a hands on skill building activity, networking and feeding everyone in the room a free dinner. If we measured my stress levels there would definitely be a spike on Tuesdays at 6pm. 

Event planning and execution is incredibly important, and most organizations need to be good at it in order to engage effectively with their customers. Here is my short list of the keys to putting on great events:

1. You need a hook

Maybe it is a high profile speaker, a fancy free dinner or a sexy venue. Either way, there needs to be something attached to the name or description of the event that immediately entices people to come. The events  that my team put on focus on the speaker as the hook. My rule of the thumb is that for every event, I need to hit all 3 of the following requirements:

  • A big name speaker or company
  • An impressive number to attach to that speaker
  • A speaker that is high energy and knows how to give great talks

For example, “Featuring the CEO of Au Bon Pain, a $250M casual cafe chain that was named one of the healthiest restaurants in America.”

2. Logistics need to be smooth

One of the biggest mistakes folks make is underestimating the amount of little details that go into the logistics of putting on a great event. What time will the speaker arrive? Will they know how to get from the parking garage to the room? How are the chairs being set up? All of these details must be taken into account. Ideally, there should be someone on your team with a “Director of Operations” title who takes on full responsibility (with an assistant) for all of these items.

3. Timing is everything

I break events down to the minute. That means I know what is happening at 6:05 and 6:07. You need to take into account delays like people coming in late, standing up to get food, etc. Don’t underestimate these because they can add up. Before each event, I create what I call a “Logistics Schedule” that breaks down minute by minute what is happening, who is responsible for it, etc and I share it with my team. For example:

6:00 – 6:05 – Greet members – Entire team

6:05 – 6:07 – Member of the week announcement – Matt 

And so on. This way, there is never any confusion for where we are in the progress of the event or where we need to be going at any given period of time during the event.

4. You can’t do it alone

Event planning is not a one person job. If you want to do it well, it needs to be team based. That means one person is responsible for the technology/media in the room, another person gets the food, and another escorts the speaker. Make sure that everyone on the team understands exactly what their roles are and what the action items / deliverables are for them during the event.

5. A boring speaker means that YOU are boring

If your organization is putting on an event, then you and you alone are responsible for every detail, both the good and the bad, that happens at the event. If you bring in a speaker and they speak in a monotone voice, droning on about random nonsense that has nothing to do with your event, here’s what’s going to happen: the people in the audience will think to themselves, “wow, (your organization) sucks!” That’s right, they won’t say “wow, this speaker sucks!” You get blamed. This means that you need to be on top of everything that happens and exert tight control over who gets to speak to the people at your event.

6. Food is a necessity

Every good event has food, and it must be free for attendees (or at no additional cost if they paid a fee to attend the event). Few things warm the human soul more than free food. I’m not saying you need lobster… keep it simple. But feed your attendees and they will be shockingly happier. 

7. There has to be engagement

People’s attention spans are surprisingly short. Esspecially if you are targeting a younger demographic (ie people in their 20s), guess again if you think they’ll enjoy sitting through a 60 minute speaker. No way. Every good event has to be broken up into different chunks of activities.

When I plan events, I use the rule that attendees are never doing the same thing for much longer than 20 minutes. We keep it exciting and shift focus. All of our Entrepreneurs Club activities start with food and networking, then go to a hands on skill building activity, then to a speaker, then to Q&A and finally back to networking. It’s a solid framework and it works.

8. Leverage the F**k Factor

Particularly for younger audiences, people start paying a lot more attention when whoever is speaking does something that they seemingly shouldn’t. This especially holds true with dropping an occasional F-bomb to the crowd. It generally goes hand in hand with ensuring that whoever is speaking, making announcements, etc is doing it with a ton of energy and enthusiasm. 

9. I’d rather “do” than just “listen”

The best events are interactive. That means the attendees aren’t just sitting in chairs the entire time, but instead they become part of the event. Maybe they are creating some plan and pitching it to the group. Perhaps there is a competition involved where attendees break up into teams. Or maybe they just have to answer a question. Either way, people want to be involved, and it will keep their attention. Ultimately, this makes an event more fun.

10. Follow up

Think carefully about the objective of your event. Was it to sell something? Or perhaps you were driving deeper engagement with your customers? Either way, there needs to be a follow up or call to action for attendees. Maybe it is an email sent out after the event with something to check out. Either way, make sure you circle back with your attendees and get their opinions on the event. Ask them what you could have done better and thank them profusely for their feedback. 

Managing Managers

As my organization has grown over the past couple of quarters, I started implementing something I had never touched much before… a reporting structure. We have Directors, who have assistants, and managers who work on the Director’s teams. PR and Social Media report up to Marketing. Video production is a part of Media, while Accounting comes under Operations. As an organization grows, having a structure like this becomes important, otherwise you’ll start to see a lot chaos, really fast.

I was first exposed to a real reporting structure during my co-op at Digitalsmiths as a Project Manager. There, I reported to the VP of Client Services who handled Project Management. However, sometimes I’d interface with the COO, but it was usually going through the VP of Client Services. Why couldn’t I work directly with the COO when it seemed convenient? Well it turns out that policy actually makes a whole lot of sense, because the COO is responsible for managing the VP of Client Services, not me. If he had to manage both of us, he’d go nuts. 

Now that I am in a managerial role, I understand why I can’t answer every question for our Assistant Directors. I’d go nuts. Instead, they work with the Directors of each division of our organization, and I step in when necessary. In short, I am responsible for directly managing the managers (and responsibly for indirectly managing everyone).

So how do you do this well?

1. Give managers the tools they need to succeed

I constantly check in with all of my Directors to ensure that things are running smoothly in their division. Whether it is a budget issue, people problem, etc, you should get there before they even have to ask for help.

2. Don’t be a stranger to anyone in the company

Having a reporting structure doesn’t mean I don’t talk to Assistant Directors. On the contrary, I talk to everyone, a lot. I value everyone’s ideas and input, regardless of role, and I ask for them constantly. I gladly step in and work with anyone on my team. But at the same time, I try to defer the details in each division to the Director leading it. Part of my job is to make everyone better and more effective at doing their own jobs, so my Directors need opportunities to figure things out on their own, make mistakes and learn. As a leader, you are there to guide them along the way.

3. Respect managers authority

Don’t hesitate to override one of your managers if you feel that are making a bad call. BUT, do so with courtesy in a one-on-one environment. Calling out a manager in front of their team is never acceptable and can create way bigger problems in your organization.

4. Be a mentor to the team

As a manager of managers, your team is going to be learning a lot of management techniques from you. That means you need to lead by example, give lots of feedback, support and ultimately act as a mentor for everyone on your team.

5. As people learn, give them more responsibility

I give younger members of my team leadership opportunities as soon as they prove themselves capable of doing quality work and collaborating effectively in a team environment. The more opportunities that you give your team to manage, the better managers that you will have to work with.