It starts with Leadership

With the onset of the knowledge economy and the preferential management style of 21st Century Learners, post-secondary administrators are realizing “leaders must raise up other leaders because effective teams will have more than one leader.” (TIMAGE, 2012) If gains are to be made in student engagement there must be gains in the way leadership opportunities are created and presented to these modern learners. In fact, the scaffolding of student engagement is a set of four pillars - the first of which is leadership. So, let’s start here by recognizing the building of student engagement starts by empowering leadership among colleagues and peers.

This reality spans both service and academic divisions within a learning community and reaches to the very center of institutional motherhood statements. The benefits yielded from leadership opportunity development are personal to the individual and to the team they engage.

Before implementing or even mapping out the potential leadership opportunity(ies) in your service or academic program, I propose the following four-step structure for achieving the most desired results.

Step 1: Create the Function of Leadership

A classic case of function over form, the leadership role must allow the individual(s) the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the outcomes of the role while providing opportunity for personal growth and development. This type of development is critical to assisting with the transition through Arthur Chickering’s 7 Vectors of Development.

Adding a leadership role into your programming or class can be relatively simple. Looking to the service side mentorship opportunities are the most prevalent. What if an upper year student facilitates the workshop on your service? Or better yet, what if they co-develop it with you? On the academic side a great place to introduce leadership opportunity is in the program or faculty orientation. There is no stronger retention combination than a returning student and professor acting together as guide and confidant to first-year student.

Be careful though that the role is not about simply finishing a task that needs to be done. There is a significant difference between a Student Worker and a Student Leader. While both are important only Student Leaders inspire others to rise to a call of action and become leaders. But how do you tell the difference? Well, “a student worker will tend to focus on the tasks of the position” while a Student Leader will “bring people together to invest in them and to allow them to use their strengths to complete the tasks that are required.” (Milburn, 2007, p.2) Your role needs to provide this opportunity for whoever steps into it if you are going to achieve a level of engagement.

Step 2: Recognize the Role

It might be surprising to consider how the role is to be recognized long before it is even staffed, but with Gen Y and even Gen X learners the lack of meaningful recognition is a deal breaker. In fact, “Dr. Bob Nelson, an authority on employee recognition, points out that 89 percent of today’s employees report that recognition is very or extremely important to them.” (Achievers, 2011, p. 2). The modern student brings these employment expectations to college with them. There is an expectation that they will be recognized for their contributions to the project, and this not always financial. Often students are seeking recognition in one of three forms:

  1. Peer-to-Peer Recognition

  2. Results-Based Recognition

  3. Social Recognition

These three types of recognition are also the “most significant trends in recognition programs that create more meaningful employee engagement” (Achievers, 2011, p. 2).

In the post-secondary environment this might take the form of a letter of recommendation from either a Dean or a Director for their knowledge portfolio. It might also mean having their names listed as a developer or programming lead. Perhaps the role might even entitle the student to special privileges including early access to campus services like the bookstore or parking for commuter campuses.

There is only one major risk with recognition and that is not being genuine with the offer. While reward must match the task being completed, an undelivered promise of recognition is – generationally - a disaster for any program. Social media and a student who did not receive recognition as promised will not bode well for recruitment of future leaders. Here, it is best to remember that an under promised, over delivered result achieves the most desired effect.

Step 3: Provide Mentorship

Besides being the new form of 21st Century teaching, mentorship offers outstanding retention benefits to the student being mentored. Too often student leaders are left without mentorship opportunities as they are charged with the task of mentoring matriculating first-years. Vincent Tinto (1993) outlined three stages students move through with the last being incorporation. Mentorship for leaders supports Tinto’s last stage of transition. This idea of incorporation, being accepted into both the social and academic community of an institution, is paramount for the types of leaders being connected to the role you have developed.

It can be daunting looking at the schedule for the month, week or even the day when trying to find room for yet another time block to facilitate mentoring. While ideally, you want to have an ongoing reflective relationship with your leader(s) it can be extremely difficult to facilitate. Social media can assist with some of those constraints. Consider using a collaboration tool like a wiki to allow for reflective journaling. Even better, look at your calendar and see if your leader can join you at a luncheon or planning meeting already in your schedule. Finally, you don’t have to be the only mentor! Consider colleagues, other professionals or even alumni.

The challenge in achieving the desired results with this step is the balance. Somewhere between being all but absent - introducing the leader to the task and doing post-task feedback – and being too over involved – regulating so many interactions that neither party can complete the task(s) at hand is the perfect balance. The key is engaging the student and assessing together what will work best for each of you and what you hope to get developmentally out of the process.

Step 4: Reflective Feedback

Altogether not a new concept, reflective feedback closes the loop on Kolb’s (1984) proposed cycle of learning and identifies learning as an experiential process. As practitioners in the post-secondary environment this method of learning is at the forefront of our teachings. Yet, it tends to be the weakest area of the learning process, particularly for student leaders. The process of giving reflective feedback to your leader(s) and having them present their own reflections inadvertently provides you with critical observations on role development. It is suggested by Professor Judy McKimm (Visiting Professor of Healthcare Education and Leadership in the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, University of Bedfordshire) that “if feedback is not given, the learner might assume that he/she has no areas for improvement or development. Learners value feedback, especially when given by someone whom they respect for their knowledge, attitudes or clinical competence.” (McKimm, 2009, p. 158)

The process of reflective feedback can be achieved successfully both informally and formally. It is dependent on the scale, scope and duration of the leadership role being undertaking. If you are a service area and unfamiliar with giving and receiving feedback for the learning process to be effective consult the area of your institution tasked with curriculum development. You will almost certainly hear that the feedback process must connect back to the original learning outcomes of the role. And herein lays the risk of this step.

When a role is developed detached of formal learning and development outcomes it can be hard to achieve feedback that is developmental and not satisfaction based. It means more upfront work in the creation of the role but will ultimately yield a position that is structured, valuable to all involved and adaptable to the changing needs of your students.

Final Thoughts

The modern learner is collaborative and prefers lateral, social management structures. Providing more leadership opportunities for students to become involved, creates roles that future students will aspire to fulfill and ultimately develops graduates with the skills to inspire leadership within their future companies. It is an intentional leadership developer who embraces the outlined steps to start the process of building the scaffolding which supports greater gains in student retention.

Retention really can start with leadership, so the next time you have an opportunity to review leadership opportunities in your service or academic programming, consider building leadership opportunities with this four-step approached. It’s as easy as:

  1. Create the Function of Leadership

  2. Recognize the Role

  3. Provide Mentorship

  4. Reflective Feedback


Achievers (2011). Engaging Gen X and Gen Y Employees. (p. 2). San Francisco, CA, USA: Achievers. Retrieved from

McKimm, J. (2009). Giving effective feedback. British Journal of Hospital Medicine, 70(3), 158-161.

Milburn, T. (2007). Student Worker or Student Leader. (p. 2). USA: Retrieved from

TIMAGE. (2012, May 13). Leaders must raise up other leaders because effective teams will have more than one leader. [Twitter post]. Retrieved from!/timage/status/201686953761046533