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Leading A Top Student Section: Matt Cranston - Gonzaga Kennel Club (part 2/3)

This 3-part blog series was written by Matt Cranston, former Zags Kennel Club Prez (2019-2020). His blogs highlight his experience as a student at Gonzaga (part 1), what it's like to lead one of the best student sections with a top basketball program and specific insights into the Kennel. (part 3)


Becoming a President of an established student section is like trying to land your first backflip on a trampoline. Even though I’ve seen others do it before it takes many attempts, analyses, and lessons made from failures to ensure success.


The Kennel Club Board is organized by having an executive group oversee and support the other board members. The Executive Board is comprised of the President, VP, and Treasurer.


The executive board along with our club adviser selects the board for the year. Our process has three steps. Written Applications, Group Interviews, and Individual interviews. Each year we have 50+ applicants competing for 11 – 12 spots.


The other executive members and I came up with 3 “Pillars” or traits that we looked for in each potential candidate. We did not have a candidate apply for a specific role, rather we looked to find a group that we saw would have the best synergy and adjust roles to fit each person.


The Three “Pillars” were

  1. Leadership

  2. Critical Thinking

  3. Relatability

At the center of these three pillars was growth/growth potential. We wanted to have candidates that were willing to learn and improve themselves/the club throughout the year.


Picking a solid group of people is very important in the early stages of the year. Ensuring that everyone has a role, knows their role, and has the capacity to execute it is critical at this stage and goes a long way in pursuing success.


As President my role had a few main parts:

  • Keeping the group on track

  • Being keenly aware of brand image

  • Pushing the envelope

This grouping is a simplification of what I believe to be the main facets of being a leader of an established student section. Nearly every challenge I faced throughout the year can be organized into one of these three categories.


Keeping the Group on Track

When I was President, I pretty much had some say in everything, but it was mostly from a supportive side. For example, if a fellow board member came to me with an idea I would help them analyze all angles… What are the pros/cons? How do we market this? What would make this idea successful? What are the roles of the other board members in this?


I found that asking my fellow board members the right questions often lead to a more successful outcome. It would have them critically think about the problem at hand and come up with a solution that outputs a more successful outcome.


I also ran meetings throughout the year. In our meetings, we had a slideshow that would go through the topics of the week. We always started with an outlook of that week’s games/events and what our role was going to be. We did a roundtable discussion where each member updated the group on their project for the week. If a group member needed to go into more detail about what they were doing, we gave them their own slide and space allowing for a longer discussion of what they were working on. In the last part of the meeting we always did “Happy/Crappy’s” where each member goes and tells us about their highs and lows from the week – This was everyone’s favorite part of the meetings.


Keeping the group on track wasn’t always easy or successful, sometimes the group would be split in making a decision, and a resolution needed to be made. Throughout the year if this would happen the executive group would make the final decision/have final say.


At the beginning of the year this process worked pretty well, it kept the group on track and we were very efficient. However, towards the end of the year, I realized that I didn’t do a great job delegating to other members of the group. Looking back on this, I wish I would have delegated more and taken more group input in certain decisions.


Awareness of Brand Image


Our social media guy this last year, Conor, did an excellent job. With the social media position, it takes a little bit of work to come into your own and be comfortable with posting because of our large following. Our Twitter account, like any Student Section Twitter account, is not afraid to take jabs at our opponent’s schools or student sections.


When we played Arkansas State-Pine Bluff this last year, all of us were getting tired of playing these nobody teams and absolutely crushing them. After we beat them by about 40, our social media guy tweeted out something that played on one of the emerging Twitter trends at the time. It was of a calculator and the “screen” said, “According to my calculations Arkansas State-Pine Bluff Sucks”. After the game, I honestly had no problem with the tweet. It was funny, trendy, and true.


However, since we smacked them it was seen as tasteless by a lot of our following. Even though the tweet got well over 300 favorites the comment section was blowing up with complaints by a lot of fans of the Kennel Club. At first, we held our ground, but it was quickly becoming an overwhelmingly negative response. I had a few emails come in from administration and other parties calling for us to delete the tweet.


I spoke to Conor and we both decided it was probably for the better to remove the tweet and that’s what we did.


Looking back at this experience even though it was stressful for all of us, it was very telling. We had found the line for the year of what was appropriate and what was inappropriate for us to say on Social Media. We wanted to dance around the line and not cross it and in this case, it seems like we did.


Brand Awareness involves making hard decisions that you may not understand fully, but doing so in order to keep up the majority of your following happy. Keeping a positive brand image can be a tricky thing especially in today’s age of Social Media. Be risky. Be funny. But, also be respectful of others’ views.


Pushing the Envelope


A main theme throughout this past year was to improve the club in ways that the previous groups had not done before. When leading a successful student section, it is very easy to become stagnant and just rinse and repeat things that the previous group has done. So, pushing the envelope became a common goal for our group throughout the year.


We decided to go after some Corporate partnerships. This is something that the Kennel Club had yet to achieve and we thought that it could increase the value of our membership. Our 21+ section of the club “Social Club” struck a deal with LiquidIV. They helped pay for some of our merchandise and gave us product activations to give out to members. This increased our brand value and the limited amount of memberships for this portion of the club sold out in record time once this partnership was announced.


As President, I continually gave support to my fellow leaders to go out and strike deals with outside corporations. Throughout the year, one of the other leaders went out and worked on a deal with an outside nationally recognized apparel company. Although no deal was struck for my time there, a relationship had been formed setting up a potential contract for the future.


Conclusion


Leading an established student section is a balancing act. Information about how to improve is always coming in from all over. It is important to make sure that your student section keeps the entrepreneurial fire that it had when it first started. As leaders remember that you are trying to increase the overall value to your members. This value can come directly through membership benefits or indirectly by brand perception.


Internally managing the leadership group effectively will directly achieve this. By sorting the short term goals from the long term goals it allows the group to conceive a realistic picture of what is possible for the year.


My advice to future student leaders is to always be listening, both to your team and the overall membership pool. Develop a plan and execute it. Be wary of becoming stagnant, always seek growth.


Your brand value is far greater than you perceive!


Matt Cranston






If you or your school needs help finding or training "growth-oriented" student section leaders, schedule a strategy session with Biggest Fan Consulting today.

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