About the Author: Val Chaves is an MBA student from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. During the 2015-2016 school year he served as President for UMass Lowell VSA, leading them to nominations for Most Outstanding Club of the Year and Most Outstanding Community Service of the Year. Val was also individually nominated for Student Leader of the Year.

The 2015-2016 UML VSA E-Board celebrating a successful end to their term.

With VSA election season right around the corner I felt that it’d be appropriate that the newest post will be a guide to conquering the VSA Presidency. President is a wonderful role that I highly encourage individuals to run for, but it must be known that there are plenty of characteristics and traits that are required for your organization’s success. Now just a little disclaimer, there’s not just one single way of approaching the VSA Presidency and your strategy may highly differ from the material that you’ll find here.

This article was written with advice of other successful VSA Presidents and goes through important topics from a single point of view. So please approach this with an open-mind as there is plenty of information that should be taken into consideration. Most importantly though, enjoy the reading!

Your Student Life Comes First

So maybe you’re flirting with the idea of running for President or maybe you’re trying to join an E-Board for the first time. The most important thing in my opinion is understanding that VSA is a student organization. The keyword here is “student” and your academics should be prioritized above your organization. Being a successful President of VSA on top of being a successful student requires good time management skills as well as a decent level of organization. If your grades aren’t up to par with where you think they should be, maybe running for the Presidency or joining the Executive Board isn’t something you should consider. If you’re struggling with both academics and VSA, you may be letting your team down if you choose to step down. But if this is the case, it’s more important to take care of your academics before your club.

Being on VSA E-Board during my undergraduate days of college were an incredible time for me and I’d definitely say they helped me out when it came to improving my own time management skills. But at the same time, if you have a paper due at midnight and a VSA event from 8:00p.m. to 10:00p.m., play it safe. Let your team know that you won’t be able to make it to the event because of your academic workload. It’s better to make sure that your paper is turned in on time to avoid any grade penalties. Any good President will understand that academics come first and a good team will be prepared to pick up the slack if they are short on manpower. After all, VSA is just an extracurricular activity while your student life may very well determine your future. Now I know this is going to seem straightforward and some people won’t like hearing what I’m about to say but if your studies aren’t up to where they need to be and VSA is an activity that’s cutting into your time: step down from your position.

Respect is an Earned Privilege, Not a Right Based on Your Title

As the good old saying goes, respect is something that is earned, not something that’s given. As a former VSA president I find this incredibly important to understand. Let me start off by telling you that nobody is obligated to respect you based on your title. As President of your club, you must win over the respect of not only your E-Board but your club’s general members as well. These are the people who will be the key to your success. Think about this real quick, anybody in the world can be appointed to a leadership position. While there’s nothing wrong with that at all, what’s wrong is using your position as leverage to try and get people to follow you. By trying to demand respect, it’ll be very difficult for your E-Board to work alongside you. Simply put, having a position of power does not translate into influence and those working below you in the chain of command are smart enough to understand that as individuals they don’t have to follow anybody.

To earn respect you must build a relationship with your team. It’s not always about what your team can do for you, but what you can do for them as well. You have to be able to understand your team in order to connect with them on somewhat of a personal level. If you don’t like the team that’s working under you, you’ll have to learn to like them. If there’s anything my years on VSA E-Boards have taught me (as well as MBA school), liking your teammates and being able to treat them as individuals is an important factor in developing influence with them. When you like people, it’s easier to trust them and trust can easily become a two-way street. Also, never be afraid to provide positive feedback to somebody who is performing beyond your standards or is doing an exceptional job. Believe me, these comments really go a long way as individuals on your team will become more comfortable with your leadership and motivated to continue their good work. As President, be prepared to provide yourself as a resource to your team and be ready to lift them up when they fall. If somebody working underneath you is going through personal problems or struggling with their workload, you have to show them that you care and that you’re willing to lend them a helping hand. This is how long lasting relationships are built and this can help create the foundation for respect.

As President, you’ll find yourself in the position to delegate tasks and set a goal (or direction) for those working underneath you. However, your team will only be as invested into the project as much as you are. You can’t simply just give them all the tasks and expect them to do it for you, after all you’re a President and not a manager. You have to show your team that you are also able to produce and get things done. This is how you’ll ultimately build your merit and at this point people will want to follow you because they want to, not because they have to. When work is efficient and is being completed on time then team morale will improve and the amount of conflict and harsh feelings begin to disappear. The more you’re able to produce, the more respect you’ll receive. Respect in leadership is gained a lot through team effectiveness and notice how I put emphasis on the word “team.” This is because as a team you’re moving forward together and at that point, the team chemistry is positive and you’re doing an effective job as President.

You Can’t Do it Alone

“It’s not the tools that you have faith in – tools are just tools. They work, or they don’t work. It’s people you have faith in or not.” – Steve Jobs

It’s no secret that a good leader fully embraces his or her team. In fact the best leaders ask for help and will accept it if needed, they fully understand that they can’t do everything alone. As VSA President, you’ll have to understand that even the strongest of leaders need support. Each and every team usually has a diverse group of people who are equipped different skill sets. Very rarely do teams have multiple people who think the same and share the same skills, which is actually fortunate as that would create redundancy. It’s great to have diverse skills and backgrounds on your team and Presidents should not take this for granted.

As leaders, you must embrace the fact that if we want to conquer large goals we need the talent and support of our peers. This isn’t just limited to Presidents and applies to everybody else on the E-Board as well. Everyone should be in it together in order to accomplish a common goal and not believe that they can do something better by themselves without the input of others. After all, being on VSA is a team effort and as a President you will need to make sure that both you and your E-Board understand that.

Transparency is the Key

The absolute worst thing you can do as a VSA President is isolating your work with the rest of your E-Board. Those who work under you can absolutely tell that you’re not being honest and that you are hiding something from them. For the most part, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be transparent with your team. These days transparent leadership is almost an absolute necessity when it comes to being successful. Speaking from my own experience and observation, it doesn’t matter how hard a leader tries to cover up the truth or hide something they are working on. Teammates will eventually all realize the truth and at that point respect is lost. A lack of honesty will lead to distrust among your teammates which can ultimately ruin team chemistry. As mentioned above, it’s incredibly important to gain the respect of your E-Board and one of the easiest ways to do so is by building trust.

When you’re transparent with the rest of your E-Board, everyone will appreciate understanding exactly what needs to be accomplished. In a perfect scenario, everyone will be standing together as a team and focused on accomplishing goals that can benefit your VSA whether it be short-term or in the long run. By simply being honest as well as an effective communicator, your team should theoretically find you more approachable and accessible. As a transparent President you should be able to achieve great results because throughout the course of the year, you should have built strong relationships with your E-Board.

Confrontation & Handling Conflict

Source: Luke Vu Photography
Val at VES-2 hosting a workshop on how to take criticism.

One of the toughest parts about being a leader in general is addressing any forms of conflict while on a team and confronting those working alongside  you in regards to poor performance. As a leader and the President of your organization, it is your duty to maintain the chemistry of your team. If members aren’t getting along with each other or are showing tension towards your decision-making, you must take the appropriate action to resolve any issues. This portion can be debated by an argument that says leader involvement should be rare and that there’s a chance they have the wrong people on their team. However, I don’t agree with placing the blame purely on your team if something goes wrong. Conflict can absolutely wreck team chemistry and it should not be ignored.

Usually conflict never goes away by itself and it usually snowballs, getting worse over a period of time. Surprisingly conflict can sometimes be positive and can lead to your team finding better solutions. Personally, I like to give conflict a little bit of time before taking action just in case that there is a positive outcome but not long enough for it to actually start destroying the team chemistry. When sides start to form and the E-Board splits into multiple groups, you’ll realize that conflict has become an issue and as President it’s time to address the problem. You must confront the entire team in this situation while trying to protect the mission of your organization. There should be one common goal for the organization and as the leader, you must make sure that everyone is aligned with it. Although it may be incredibly difficult, it’s very important to talk these issues out with the team in order to solve the root of conflict and make sure that all problems are identified. Sometimes conflict results from simple misunderstandings, from my experience this was what happened most of the time. In these types of situations, you can’t be too nice of a leader or you may find yourself being walked on in the long run. You must display strength and establish a mutual respect with your teammates in order to solve the conflict. It’s perfectly healthy that teammates disagree with each other from time to time, but as the leader it’s your job to act as a mediator and make sure nothing gets out of hand.

Confronting under-performing team members is a separate beast of its own. Giving constructive criticism is tough as most people have a general fear of receiving feedback. As a President, it is almost mandatory that you’re able to receive criticism whether it’s constructive or completely negative. Having thick skin is a very underrated trait and those who get upset over small comments should seek other roles. It’s also your role to be able to give criticism on a constructive level. To not be mistaken with pure insults, constructive criticism should be more information based and focused on the issues. Constructive feedback should be straight to the point and sincere especially during negative situations. It’s important to make sure you express concern when giving criticism in a situation like this, it changes the tone and adds a sense of care. Flashing signs of anger or frustration during times of criticism nearly never result in positive outcomes.

The purpose of providing criticism on a constructive level is to create awareness on your team which can often lead to improvement. Sometimes team members are unaware that they aren’t performing up to a proper standard and it’s very important that as the leader of them you are there to address those issues. Although if you are unable to provide criticism in a sincere matter, it defeats the purpose of trying to improve your team’s productivity.

Developing Your Team is Vital

“My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.” – Steve Jobs

This is pure common sense but let me remind you that the Presidency is not just about you, it’s about your team altogether. Once you’ve earned the respect of your teammates, it’s time to take the group of people you have on your E-Board and invest into helping them grow. The quote shown above was said by Steve Jobs, who was known for having a harsh personality in the workforce. Although he may have not been the nicest person to work under, most of everything he did was done with good intention. Those who worked under Jobs claimed it to be one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives as he would test his team and work them to their limits. Now I’m not saying at all that VSA and the business world are the same thing because they’re most definitely not, but making the people around you better is a key to your success. Being easy on people won’t exactly help their growth as leaders, but giving constructive criticism and setting strict deadlines will help them better themselves. The reason for this is actually very simple, when your team has more leaders more of your organization’s goals can be accomplished.

The people you’ll develop can flash major signs of potential or maybe even none at all. Remember that not everyone is born a leader and that’s something you’ll have to respect. If you can’t develop them as leaders, utilize their skills where they can become vital players to the team. In an effective E-Board, everyone should be able to play a key role into the team’s success regardless of the leadership traits they possess. In many cases, you’ll find yourself dealing with both extroverts and introverts. It’s very important to make sure that the more introverted people on your team aren’t having their voices drowned up by the unintentionally more dominant personalities. During meetings, do round table discussions which will force everybody to talk. This helps everyone on the team have their own voice and ultimately become more invested into the E-Board. Also, don’t be afraid of going the extra distance to talk to each member of your team personally if you feel like their voices aren’t being heard enough.

It’s very important to think about the future of your team, after all most Presidents only spend one year on E-Board. It should become a priority for you to develop the younger members of your E-Board as one day they’ll be taking over the reigns of the club. At that point you should feel comfortable walking away from E-Board knowing that you’ve done almost everything in your control to prepare your team for the future. Also, it may sound a little crazy but the more you develop leaders, the more you’ll have a positive impact on their lives. In result, these people will continue to follow you because you’ve helped them on a personal level leading to sustainable relationships that’ll benefit you in the long-run. I can speak from experience as three of my former E-Board members during my Presidency have joined our staff for the 3rd Annual Vietnamese Empowerment Summit. It’s great to know that the individuals from my inner circle are still around me taking up leadership positions and trying to accomplish similar goals. When this happens to you, you’ll know that you did something right during your Presidency and that the relationships you built with your team will be sustainable for years to come.

In Conclusion..

Source: QLH Photography
Even a year later, the E-Board relationship is still as strong as ever.

In no way is VSA Presidency just limited to what I’ve discussed in this article. There’s still a plethora of subjects and knowledge that must be learned such as event planning, fundraising, communication, creating synergy and so forth. There’s a lot more I would love to tell you, but I am going to leave you with this. A successful VSA Presidency isn’t easy and over the past few years I’ve seen many leaders fail to accomplish their goals. The President position is all about growth, it’s about you, those who work alongside you, as well as the relationships you’ll build during your journey. It’s worth noting that not every single VSA President will be blessed with a productive team underneath them and that their performance can vary greatly based on their teammates. It also must be noted that a good President shouldn’t blame their team and take accountability for when things go wrong. They must embrace their need for continuous improvement and continue to work through the toughest of times.

If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for reading my article. Presidency is a very rewarding experience when done right and there’s so many different ways to accomplish success. If this article has convinced you to run for VSA President then I wish you the best of luck on your journey. If there’s something you have a question about, please feel free to send me an email at val.chaves@newenglandivsa.org.

The Greatest Guide to VSA Presidency You’ll Ever Read
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