July 8, 2020

How to scale your student organization

Back in university, I co-founded the first chapter of User Experience Society (UX Society or UXSoc). Back then, it was just an org I made out of both frustration and inspiration.

First, it was because I was naive to run for an editorial board position for the university school paper and miserably failed. And second, I had all this knowledge about web design and UX coming out of my first internship and experience in high school. I focused those feelings into building an organization, right after freshman year! A choice I would always celebrate upon reflection, and was glad I wasn't scared in pursuing.

Today, UXSoc is a global design network. It has around 7 chapters scattered in the Philippines and the US. We have alumni working for amazing companies and startups, and our members turn out to be incredible forces of design and leadership to their companies and community organizations.

On a discussion in Twitter, I saw co-founders of UX Society chapters who are no longer students asking the question, "what if we wrote about how to scale an organization?"

I think this is a topic for aspiring (student) founders but yes, I'd say I would apply the same principles given the chance that I would start my own company:

1. Provide value to people who will help you grow the organization.

I'd meet with key people from UX Philippines, Philippine Web Designers Organization and a bunch of other companies through their events for the first time. I'll talk to them (Shoutout to Ely, Sophia, Kit, and everyone who took a chance on us!) and eventually convince them to send someone to give a talk at our school. It's good for them because it can fulfill their mandate, give the speakers some public speaking experience, and help them build their reputation. At the same time, it builds a strong relationship. Capitalizing on that relationship, we were able to create win-win situations like partnering up for flagship conferences and events.

Strategically find mentors and advisers who would be a great asset to the organization. Learn about their lives, and find something that you can do to give them value. Analyze who they are, and do something that would benefit them.

For example, I'm a podcaster now for Roots and UX Almusal, what kind of value do you think you can give me? A few ideas are: writing a blog about one of the episodes, leaving a testimonial on the Facebook Page, sharing your learnings about an episode on LinkedIn (and then tagging me), and the list goes on. It doesn't even have to be that complex.

Once you do that, you've created a unique relationship with me and I would definitely find a way to give back. Most people are like that, so when you make that a habit, the quality of your relationships will compound. Sometimes, just talking to someone, praising them for something no one ever notices, is already value. Or like, when you're in a classroom where nobody dares to ask a question to the professor, and you decide to be the one to do it — that's value.

Find ways to lift up other people, and then have the courage to ask them for help.

2. Recruit the right people by showing them real benefits and align it with their goals.

Apply principle #1 to your recruitment efforts and you will end up with an organization full of extremely talented people. You'll have to think like a psychologist, or maybe a McKinsey consultant. Understand the motivations of people, what their goals are, and what they want to achieve. If you're recruiting people you wanna make sure that the opportunities you offer will align to these.

To be honest, recruitment is the most difficult part of scaling. Scouting the right people is a skill in itself. I needed to spot people with the passion for learning, a strong interest in design, or a track record of committed leadership. That's why university recruitment is a difficult game to play, everyone is thinking this way. There's no one else who will help you scale the organization but the people you recruit.

That's why it's important to appeal to them on their own terms. Empathize. Why would they join your organization? How would they benefit? What will it help them accomplish? What skills can they build? How will it build their resume / career / reputation? What's the team and culture like? How will immersing themselves in your org help them grow? Why your org, among all the potential clubs they could join?

3. Create a culture that prioritizes psychological safety, mentorship and a growth-mindset.

In high school, up to the first years of leading UXSoc, I probably had outsized expectations of members. I had extremely high standards because of my own leadership experiences, but at some point I questioned myself if that was the right way to go. This thinking eventually led us to some amazing achievements, and yet, a lot of burn out along the way.

I eventually learned that trusting the people around you, being open to starting as a beginner, and prioritizing mentorship was the way to go. People can't grow if you expect too much right away. Allow them the space to understand the context. Equip them with the necessary tools, mindsets, and methods. Personally show them how to do it. And don't mess around micromanaging everyone, let them do their work — you recruited them for that reason (unless you made a recruitment mistake).

Come from a place of care by building strong relationships with the team first. And then, learn how to give feedback, as well as handle criticism. Once you scale this attitude, you'll find yourself in an organization where everyone values being better than they were yesterday, and braving the path of growth forward.

4. If you’re the leader, you should be reasonably ahead.

Attend talks and workshops. Read the leadership books. Read the design articles. Listen to the podcasts. Do the side projects. Use the tools. Participate in the hackathons and designathons. Volunteer for the event. Do the freelance project. Take the internship. Start the community.

You need to be ahead of people in order to lead. It's okay, not everyone was ready when they started their leadership position, but when you're entrusted with that responsibility, you have to be accountable. You're accountable for your growth as a designer and as a leader, so work on both areas as passionately as you can. Your best will be determined by your circumstances. If you can take away certain hurdles or commitments in order to focus, that would be a wise decision.

In order to attract the most talented people, they have to feel that being your organization is the right choice. They will feel that the most by looking at who the leader is, what they embody, and how ahead they are of the pack.

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