The Hardest Part is the People

Ask any business owner, and he or she will tell you. The most difficult part of running any business is the people. Employees bring their issues to work, and some behave against the interests of the company. Investors want unrealistic returns. Customers want deals that practically put you out of business. Contractors are out for their own best interests and are constantly watching for loopholes. The politics are never-ending, and no one ever seems truly happy or satisfied.

A person typically goes into business dreaming of working for him or herself, but quickly realizes that you end up working for several demanding constituencies. Every day can feel like a battle with the very people who are most integral to your livelihood.

As a fraternity or sorority leader, you might also find that “the people” is most difficult part. Fellow officers don’t fulfill obligations. Advisors demand adherence to policies without regard for practical outcomes. Members make personal decisions that put themselves or the organization at risk. Sisters resist paying dues they should have anticipated, offering only whining and sob stories about other life problems. Presidents of other groups fail to hold their own brothers or sisters to standards, putting the entire community in a negative light. Your governing council drops the ball on recruitment, or student government yanks funding.

On paper, business should be simple. Provide a needed service or product, develop your customers, keep those customers engaged, and provide good service. On paper, fraternity and sorority should be easy. People pay their dues, we do fun things together, and we all have a better college experience.

But, of course, that’s not really the way it is, and like a frustrated business owner, many top-third student leaders face sleepless nights, tense confrontations, damaged relationships and lack of trust. You might even find yourself disliking your brothers and sisters, wondering why you ever signed on for so much hassle.

Having owned and managed two businesses in the last 20 years, I have learned that many of the essential lessons of business and managing a student organization are the same. When it comes to handling “the people,” focusing on a few core ideas can really help.

People are motivated by self-interest

In the fraternity and sorority world, we spend a lot of time talking about “values” and “building community.” Thanks to business guru Simon Sinek, we now talk about the “why” of our organizations. All of this is good.

What we don’t talk enough about is the fact that individuals in any community are motivated first by self-interest, then secondly (maybe) by shared values, community goals and group experiences. As a matter of pure practical people management, there is probably not enough recognition and discussion of the fundamental truth that people need to feel satisfied before making a real commitment to bigger things.

Your members, the members of the community, and indeed all of the individuals touched by fraternity and sorority life at your campus have self-interest. As a leader, you can’t do much until people feel that they are in a good place.

The treasurer might enjoy the group, love his brothers, and want the fraternity to succeed. He might even enjoy running the books. But, beneath all of that, there is a reason why he enjoys being treasurer. Perhaps it’s the influence of being an officer. Perhaps it’s having a degree of control over the fraternity’s actions. It might even be the pure experience of managing such a complex financial entity. A treasurer who is excelling on the chapter’s behalf is most likely getting something out of the experience. Sure enough, if he isn’t enjoying the experience or getting something out of it, the treasurer might devote less time to his duties, make mistakes, and/or make excuses. If he’s not putting in less effort, then he’s probably complaining more.

The fraternity and sorority advisor wants your council to be effective, but when his or her boss demands a certain course of action, self-interest usually means that professional will be pursuing the goals of the person paying his or her salary. Surely, national fraternities and sororities want to help your chapter, but restarting that chapter at a highly profitable school rich in alumni donations is more in the organization’s self-interest.

When you take the time to examine a person’s motivations in light of self-interest, they start making more sense. As complex as people can be, they most often do not act against their self-interest on a regular basis.

One of the great disappointments I endured in the early years of starting my business was realizing that people were interested in what I was doing to the extent that it impacted what they were doing. When you’re running a company, you can ill afford to believe that people are spending their time looking for ways to contribute your success without some gain of their own.

In my most recent company, I had 50 contractors who were part of the team. We spent a great deal of energy encouraging them to identify with the team and contribute to its success, its values, and its brand. But, at the end of the day, the contractors who were happy were those who were making money. Those who weren’t were less satisfied. They would complain, and they would gripe behind our backs. When we asked them to invest in marketing or training, they would frequently ask, “What’s in it for me?”

As you look at the big-picture goals for your fraternity and sorority community, are you taking time to answer, “What’s in it for them?” Are your officers feeling the importance they aspired to? Are your new members having the cool experience they signed on for during recruitment? Is your governing council (IFC, MGC, NPHC, Panhellenic, etc.) doing anything to make your chapters stronger and more effective? Is your advisor feeling appreciated for the time he or she puts in to your community or chapter?

It’s easier to lead happy people.

When you’re trying to motivate employees toward a shared goal, you learn one lesson very quickly. Happy employees make money for you. They get excited about being at work and achieving goals, and they are more likely to get along with their fellow team members. Unhappy employees create misery.

As an employer and manager, I did my best to be constantly aware of what made each employee happy in hopes of keeping them cheerful and productive. Sometimes I was successful, and other times I missed things entirely.

One woman was saving up to buy her first house, so I knew that salary and financial incentives meant a lot to her. Another was married and trying to get pregnant, so I correctly guessed that job security and a flexible work schedule were her priorities. Another employee really enjoyed new technology, so I was always happy to provide an affordable gadget or technological tool to keep him excited about his work.

I tried to make sure we regularly celebrated birthdays and holidays. I gave employees lots of flexibility to deal with drama in their lives, and lots of vacation time to enjoy life outside of work. We frequently would have fun little events inside and outside the office.

How often do you as a fraternity or sorority leader give some thought to creating happy employees? What motivates and empowers your members and your fellow officers? You might be conscious of what it takes to keep the fraternity/sorority advisor happy, but are you doing things to excite and motivate your officers? What about your new members?

It’s so much easier to do the little things that keep people happy than to try to turn around the attitudes of angry, bitter, unhappy people. Do you pay attention to the fun at your meetings? Are your social and brotherhood/sisterhood events hitting the mark? If you have one, do people enjoy spending time at your house?

If you’re leading a council, are all of your organizations happy? Do they feel good about their place on your campus? Do they feel their voice is heard and valued?

Without the positive feeling, it’s hard to get the bigger picture things done. It’s fine and good to talk about “Panhellenic community” when you’re a thriving sorority with lots of members and resources. When you’re the president of the struggling sorority, last picked for socials and always struggling to make each year’s numbers, it’s a lot harder.

Same goes for individuals in your chapter. It’s fine and good to talk about the necessity of chapter risk management, but that brother who has a hard time talking to women cares more about a raging Friday night party that increases his chances of a hookup.

Taking that extra time to analyze what makes key people happy pays enormous dividends, and people like to return the happiness favor. If you go that extra mile, you might find that your members, officers, and fellow leaders start looking for opportunities to make you smile. At a minimum, they will not begin from an assumption that you’re trying to negatively impact them.

Do business with quality people.

There is nothing more miserable than doing business with people you can’t stand.

In the early years of my last company, we had a contractor who was a foul, narcissistic idiot. He would regularly demand unreasonable attention from our staff, demanding exceptions to company policies and treating customers unprofessionally. He let us know on a nearly daily basis that we needed him more than he needed us. He was generating great revenue for our company (and himself in the process), but he was horrible to work with.

One day, he went too far. He cussed out one of my staff members in the most vulgar way. Ten minutes later, I called and told him that his time with our company was over. I might have been thinking about the financial blow that firing him would bring, but instead, I was overjoyed at the idea of never having to work with this particular person again.

As you look around at the crowd of individuals with whom you interact daily as a fraternity or sorority leader, do they inspire and encourage you, or do they drain you? Do you have friends in other organizations you can turn to for advice and an objective opinion? Or, do you spend your days surrounded by nagging, lying, and others who use and abuse you?

Nothing informs your attitude and your mental health more than the people who surround you.

First thing you need to do – take action to drive better people into your organization. Confront the negative players, enforce standards, and work actively to recruit a better element into your organization. Do what you can to change the human chemistry of your organization.

Then, seek out better people who add value to your experience – perhaps from outside your immediate circle of acquaintances. There are other student leaders on your campus feeling the same pressures as you. Surely in your fraternity and sorority community, there are others who share your temperament and attitudes. Go to conferences, national leadership schools, and other events where other leaders gather, and develop your personal network from other colleges and universities.

As a business owner, there were many days when the negativity would become oppressive. To cope with that, I had certain contractors I could call when I needed a dose of encouragement or good news. I had certain customers who welcomed my suggestions and conversation about industry events. I even had colleagues who were technically in competition with my company who I could call to talk about big picture ideas.

As you progress in life and in your career, you’ll learn that the people you work with will be ever more important to you than other things like salary, title or office environment. Surrounding yourself with good people is the ultimate work luxury. Escaping a toxic environment with unfriendly, unethical, or negative people is the greatest relief I know.

Yes, people are the greatest challenge in running a business or a successful student organization. But, just as people can be the greatest frustration, they are also the source of meaning and fulfillment.   As you grow as a leader, keep in mind the impact of human chemistry within organizations and companies, always seeking to do your part to create a positive environment where thinking about the big things is fun and fulfilling.


By T.J. Sullivan


Welcome! Login in to your account

Remember me Lost your password?

Lost Password