Step One: Avoid Common #Fails with these Critical First Steps

It’s difficult to watch a newly elected leader barreling into their position, excited about all the great things they want to accomplish, not realizing they are skipping critical steps that would prevent an embarrassing #fail. This is why RISE created a resource called the New Officer Checklist: to provide detailed instructions for the critical steps every new leader should take in the first month of their term. We teach these steps because they save wasted time, frustration, and major fails later on.

If you’re starting out in a new position, here are some of the fails you should be concerned about and the critical steps we suggest you take to avoid them.


Think ahead to a few months from now, say April. It’s the busiest time of year for programs because everyone is trying to get things done before the end of the academic year. You need to make something happen, and you suddenly realize it requires approval from one person, a special favor from another, and buy-in from a third group. You contact each person and show up at their door for the first time, asking for help. But they don’t know who you are, what
organization you are part of, or why they should bother with you. You are left with no other option but to beg and plead for help, putting your reputation as a capable leader at risk, and hoping they will agree to help you. Even if they help, they will probably only do it reluctantly and out of pity.

Critical Step: Connect with your people

Send an email to introduce yourself to every person you may cross paths with during your term of office. Do it right now. Introduce yourself, your position, and your organization. If you expect to work with them more than once, visit their office or set up a time to meet face-to face to introduce yourself, learn about them, and talk about your work together. If you take the critical step of cultivating relationships now, you are likely to have more goodwill when you need help later, and the less you’ll need to resort to begging and pleading.


If it hasn’t already, the chaos will begin. While working on a project, you will run into a problem you didn’t anticipate. Other people have clearly addressed this problem before, but you have no idea where to look for help. There are plenty of resources, but you don’t have time to do the research – you just need an answer! As a result, you phone it in, show up disorganized and unprofessional, and incidentally violate a policy.

Critical step: Collect and Scan all your Resources

Gather all the manuals and resources offered by your national organization, university, regional association, council, and any other resource providers. Don’t try to read and study everything; simply skim the table of contents, highlight the sections that will be most relevant, review anything you need immediately, and file everything in one place. When problems come up, this critical step will at least make the most important answers readily available, and you will know where to find others when you need them.


Fast forward to the fall when advisors are asking why you haven’t met your goals. It’s difficult to admit, but you set your goal too high because you never paid attention to your starting point. In addition to unrealistic goals, when you don’t have all the details about where you stand, you can’t answer when your members ask for more information. Your project is falling apart because you didn’t check the budget. The Dean is asking for information, and you’re embarrassed because you can’t recite the basic statistics about your organization.

Critical step: Determine your starting point

A map and a plan won’t get you far if you don’t know where you stand. Make sure you know exactly what you’re inheriting: What is your budget? What projects are already planned? Are you in good standing? What information will you need to share with others? Collect all the data used to measure your organization’s performance by the university, alumni, councils, inter-/national organizations, regional associations, and umbrella associations…especially as it relates to your position. Take the critical move now to collect and memorize this data so you have answers to the questions others will ask, and you will avoid setting unrealistic goals.


It can happen with any project:

  • You host a barbecue, but realize at the last minute that you forgot plates and napkins.
  • Just before the talent show, you realize you don’t have a formal agenda, and you only prepared 15 minutes of activities for a 90 minute program.
  • Everyone is excited about your event, but you forgot to file paperwork to receive authorization, and now it’s too late.
  • You’re sending out a publication and promised to deliver it on time, but you overlooked multiple steps in the process and it’s taking months longer than you anticipated.

If you give in to the temptation to jump directly into action without thinking through all the steps in advance, you’ll end up in a situation just like the ones above.

Critical step: Map out every step before you start

Organize all your responsibilities into projects. Break each project into its component parts: list all the categories you will need to address for this to be successful (e.g., personnel, budget, supplies, support, approval, location, transportation, etc.). Build your to-do list in each category, including even the simplest tasks. This critical step will feel overwhelming at first, but it will also free you up to do the work and ensure you don't overlook the important details.

As you start out in your new position, remember this is only the beginning. Let the beginning be the beginning, and don’t be in a hurry to fast-forward to the end. Take these critical steps in your first months, and you will avoid these common fails and more later on.

Dan Wrona is the CEO & Project Leader of RISE Partnerships. He has provided training and consulting on more than 200 campuses over the past 18 years, and he regularly contributes his expertise in instructional design, strategy, risk prevention, and culture change to advance fraternity/sorority life.


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