Spartan Insights: Student Leadership

Spartan Insights: This week we feature two exemplary MSU Students: Kayla and Alexa Weatherwax are both incredible student leaders as the Student Executive Team Supervisors in the MSUAA.

Alumni, do you want to know what it’s like on campus these days? Undergraduates, are you wondering how to balance work/school/life, what it’s like to be in your last semester, how to study AND still have a life? Are you curious about how to develop as a student leader, or how to develop student leaders? Kayla and Alexa Weatherwax are both bright students, and are respected in their shared responsibilities as Student Executive Team Supervisors in the MSUAA. They also happen to be twin sisters with very different career ambitions and a host of interesting MSU memories. (Please view their LI profiles!) These two student leaders volunteered to answer any questions about MSU, life as a Spartan, student leadership, etc. This discussion was open from 02/10/15 – 02/23/15.

Spartan Insights is a regularly scheduled Linkedin discussion thread inside of the MSUALUMNI Linkedin group. Each discussion is meant to give you the opportunity to ask questions regarding one Spartan’s experience within a specific company, industry, or occupation. Answers will be given at the convenience and discretion of the featured Spartan and will be answered from the Spartan’s own personal experiences and opinions which are not meant to be representative of his/her company’s official position. Interested in being a Featured Spartan? Contact me at isbelld@msu.edu.

Kayla WeatherwaxStudent Executive Team Supervisor – MSU Alumni Association

Hello everyone! I’m excited to answer any questions you may have for us!

Dave IsbellAssistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

Hi Kayla, thanks for agreeing to help a few Spartans in this way! I’ll lead off with the first question, aimed at both you and Alexa. What most people have no way of knowing is that you and Alexa are the first people to become “Student Executive Team Supervisors” at the MSUAA. (Basically, we threw you into pool and said “swim!”) You have both done an amazing job and I wonder if you and Alexa might be able to share a few insights for other students who want to become excellant student leaders? What was it like to be the first people in a brand new role? What did you learn along the way that you didn’t know when we hired you? Is there anything you would do differently? What characterstics do you think make a good leader at your stage of career? What questions am I not asking you that I should be asking to help MSU students be better prepared for leadership roles at MSU and beyond?

Alexa WeatherwaxStudent Executive Team Supervisor at Michigan State University Alumni Association

Hi Dave! Thanks for asking the question! When I found out that Kayla and I were going to be moving into the role as leaders of the student intern team, I was very excited to take on the new responsibilities that the role entailed. At the same time, I was unsure of how the transition would go because we were the first to do so. Because we didn’t have an example to follow, we had to depend on trial and error throughout the building process. I learned that some things work and some don’t, but you just have to adjust! Confidence was key in these situations because being unsure of yourself will prevent you from accomplishing things. Looking back, I wish that I would have been more willing to delegate tasks in the beginning. I thought that I could do more than I could at first but learned that we had a really great team that was more than willing to help us out! I feel that delegation is a super important characteristic of a good leader. Recognizing who you have on your team and the skills they have that would apply to certain tasks is key! This goes hand in hand with knowing where and what your resources are because we don’t know it all and can’t do everything! Also, as a student leader, it is important to know your limits. Kayla and I have the mindset that we are students first, then supervisors, and that when our work gets in the way of our studies, we need to reassess and ask for help. Dave, a question that I think would help students be better prepared for leadership roles would be how to create a positive workplace atmosphere as a leader. As leaders of the Student Executive Team, we try to make the workplace in which the members of our team feel respected and valued. A question that we ask our team at meetings is “What can we do to make your experience as an intern better?” We often ask for feedback from the interns, because if they don’t enjoy coming to work or feel that they are not gaining valuable skills for their future careers, then we are not succeeding as leaders. The full time staff at the MSU Alumni Association is great at helping us with this!

Dave IsbellAssistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

Great thoughts Alexa, and also thank you for your willingness to help Spartans! I look forward to hearing Kayla’s as well on the topic as well. One more question for whichever one of you wants to answer: You have the benefit of job-sharing, which can be uncommon in some corporate structures. Can you talk about what it is like sharing the same role/responsibilities and how you have learned to navigate that? (On an aside, you two are twins so it seems like you had a slight disadvantage coming in; at least you know one another well. But it’s been interesting to see how staff has had to try to figure out which one of you is which so that’s an interesting dynamic if you want to talk about it.) However, what I’m getting at is that despite being twins, you also are very different people with different ambitions and ideas. What thoughts do you have on sharing the job, but also on managing/maintaining your own career identity when you share that same job? (For example, what advice do you have for other job-sharers when it comes down to how you decide who gets the credit when things go well, and who gets the blame when it doesn’t? What ideas do you have about teamwork that might help students or alumni to learn from your experiences?)

Maria Kayla and Alexa, we’ve had the benefit of having the two of your on the MSUAA staff for several years and you’re both graduating this spring, along with the majority of our other intern staff. I know that you’re working on succession planning, and I’d like to hear about what you’re going to do to help the next generation of interns pick up where you’re leaving off. How do you keep the momentum going when there is a lot of turnover (even good turnover due go graduation)? What have you learned from your other MSU experiences that will help you navigate the coming months in this transition?

Kayla WeatherwaxStudent Executive Team Supervisor – MSU Alumni Association

Dave – Great Questions! I agree with a lot of what Alexa has said. When we first learned that we would be taking over the position, we were a little bit unsure of what it would entail but we were excited to take on the challenge! It definitely helped having someone to discuss ideas and suggestions with. As Alexa said, there were things that definitely didn’t work and things that went great! I learned a lot during the process, especially the importance of good communication and follow up skills. As we were given the responsibility for so many tasks at once, it was important to communicate with Alexa to determine who would handle it and when it would be done. We were often not in the office at the same time and it was essential to be aware of where we both were at at all times. Communication with the intern team was also important and we found it helpful to schedule monthly meetings. If we had assigned a task to one of the other interns, we learned very quickly that we needed to follow up with them through completion. Looking back, if there was one thing I would do differently in addition to learning how to delegate, it would be learning to give feedback sooner. At first, it was difficult for me to share my opinion on things with others for fear that I would come across as too critical. I have learned however, that as a leader it is very important to give feedback to others. If given constructively, it is a way for the team to learn and grow and become a better unit. My advice to other students who wish to become excellent leaders is to be confident and driven in their role. Don’t be afraid to lend your thoughts to a project or to take the initiative to start your own. Make the best opportunity out of every situation you face. You decide how far your journey as a leader will take you and I encourage you to never stop pushing forward.

Kayla WeatherwaxStudent Executive Team Supervisor – MSU Alumni Association

Dave – As far as job sharing goes, it is something that Alexa and I are very comfortable doing as we have had a close relationship all of our lives. However, we manage to create our own identities within the position as well.For example, we have developed certain tasks that solely Alexa or myself will be in charge of. Being able to take the lead on a project gives us the ability to have a sense of ownership and independence in our role. Most of the time however, we enjoy the opportunity we have to work as a pair and to both contribute as leaders! Most of the team members here at the Alumni Association have discovered the difference between us and can tell us apart, but there are occasionally a few slip ups that always make us laugh. We usually go with Kayla “cut” and Alexa “long”, but it’s great to hear the different ways the staff use to tell us apart As a team, we feel that there really isn’t a decision to be made as to who receives the credit or the blame. The credit and blame are shared by us equally, as we both have a responsibility to the role of supervisor. If something goes wrong, even if it was a mistake made by only one of us, we can both learn and grow from the experience. Some advice that I have for others about teamwork is to always listen. It really does make a world of difference. I often find myself too caught up in what I am working on and fail to recognize that Alexa has been in need of support/ideas/suggestions from me. Being available and always listening to each other has been an integral part of the teamwork we share.

Dave IsbellAssistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

Those were very insightful responses Kayla, thanks!

Kayla WeatherwaxStudent Executive Team Supervisor – MSU Alumni Association

Maria – Thanks for the great questions! We’ve definitely been focusing a great deal of our attention on how we carry over what we’ve started into future MSUAA Student Intern Teams. With the majority of our student interns graduating this Spring, it was important for us to be able to hire and train the new intern teams before we leave. From our experience as the first to be in the role, we have learned that it is much easier to have an example to follow and we wish to provide that example for the future interns. In order to do this, we will be having the current interns train their replacements in the few months before graduation. This will allow the new interns to gain valuable experience and training as well as acclimate into their new positions with those who know the job duties well. It’s important to provide resources and guidance to be able to set the new team up for success and to continue what Alexa and I and the other graduating interns have started. My experiences at MSU have definitely helped prepare me for this upcoming transition. They’ve taught me many essential leadership and organizational skills that will be extremely helpful to ensure that the momentum and success that we have experienced so far will be continued even after Alexa and I have graduated and moved on to the next step in our career paths.

Sue – Alexa and Kayla, over the last couple of years, you’ve responded to requests from other university departments, including the President’s Office, about the Student Executive Team. Soon, our colleagues from Indiana University will visit to learn more. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to start a program like MSUAA’s? What questions should they think about? What advice do you have for taking the first step? 

Alexa WeatherwaxStudent Executive Team Supervisor at Michigan State University Alumni Association

Hi Sue! Thanks for the great question! Our team started as several students who reported to their respective full-time staff members. As a result, there was a lack of collaboration between the interns. If someone needed help or did not have anything to do, there was no communication with the other interns to ask for help or if they could assist with a project. Our first challenge in building the successful team we have now was to change this dynamic. Our advice for someone who is looking to build an effective team is to encourage cooperative relationships. When team members work together and utilize each others skills and expertise, they will achieve greater results than they could on their own. We did this through team bonding, in which our team members learned the skills and strengths of each other. Stronger team bonds resulted in team members being more comfortable asking each other for help as well as creating a positive work environment in which each member feels valued. Also, having a student(s) in a role of leadership is essential for a successful team. It is important for that team leader to be a member of the team team. Kayla and I feel that it is very important for our team to see us as one of them while still acting as their leaders. Also, by having a leader, communication with the full-time staff is more effective. When looking to create a team such as the Student Executive Team, I advise thinking about the following questions: “What career related skills will the interns be gaining? How will the team be structured? Who will make an effective leader? What will be the on boarding and training process for new interns? (especially since there is a frequent turnover with students graduating) How will you build effective, positive relationships between the team members? Most importantly, you should think about how to craft an internship experience in which the students will be learning valuable skills that they can apply to their future careers. We have been able to build a great team by allowing student interns to take charge of certain projects that they have an interest in or that would apply to their future careers.

Jennifer Kayla and Alexa, what leadership qualities are you looking for in students that will replace you as team leaders? What sets them apart from others? If you were to recommend any changes in the current work environment for the student interns, what would they be?

Kayla WeatherwaxStudent Executive Team Supervisor – MSU Alumni Association

Hi Jennifer! First of all, we look for students who are driven and self-motivated. In this position, it is imperative that one is able to take the lead on projects and to act without having to be told to do something. As a leader, it is important to be able to take initiative in everything they do. Additionally, we are looking for someone who is confident in their abilities to lead a team. This includes the facilitating of meetings, organization of events and staff, as well as delegation and follow up. There are many things that set a great leader apart from others. A great leader cares about their team members and provides them with the necessary resources and opportunities to grow as a student and as a professional. They also know how to effectively use the skills and strengths of their fellow team members to accomplish the goal at hand in the best way possible. One thing that I would recommend changing about the current work environment is the set up of the student work area. We feel that it would benefit the work atmosphere if the area was arranged in a way that would allow for increased collaboration among the team members as well as giving everyone their own space. Additionally, with the upcoming turnover of student interns, we feel that it is important to have a work environment that will allow for effective teamwork and communication between the new intern team. Team bonding is critical in this. 

Jennifer – As expected,what a thorough response from a true leader. Thank you, Kayla! When you have time this week, I’d love to meet with you to discuss the work environment further with you. It is our goal to make sure the work experience for our student interns is beneficial and they develop at least a few of the necessary skills to join the work force after graduation. Any suggestions or recommendations from you and Alexa as to how we can make this work experience the best it can be would be greatly appreciated!

Kayla WeatherwaxStudent Executive Team Supervisor – MSU Alumni AssociationThank you, Jennifer! We look forward to discussing this further with you! And we appreciate all of the support and guidance that you and the rest of the staff at MSUAA provide to us and the interns! 

Dave IsbellAssistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment at MSU

Thank you Kayla and Alexa for sharing your insights with us, and thank you to all who participated in this discussion. This discussion is now closed but you will be able to find new discussions each week in the MSUALUMNI group on Linkedin.

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