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Guess Who’s Coming to Meeting: Divine Nine Chapters and Organizational Culture

While taking the requisite time to vege out on Instagram, I have enjoyed hundreds of pictures and videos of Divine Nine initiates and neophyte presentations. Folks have cool masks, they greet, grit, lean, recite poems and history, step, and some even arrive in limousines. And, oh my (fill in the blank chapter with lit nickname), what a big line you have! But the former chapter president in me asks, “How will these neos change the culture of their chapters and are the chapter leaders prepared for what’s coming?”

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. neophytes at Hampton Univ. fall 2012

Every new line brings a culture change. Even if it’s minor, leadership should be aware of and understand the change. As an active, committee-working member of my fraternity, I see every chapter of every organization as a fief. While we know our national missions and organizational principles, our chapters have their own organizational cultures. Heck, some even forget that they’re in a fraternity or sorority.

There are five points that I want us to consider about managing the organizational culture change in a chapter, but let’s understand organizational culture. To paraphrase the Society for Human Resource Management, culture is not tangible, it’s an identity. It is members’ behavior, unwritten codes of conduct, and the ways people choose to get things done. I’ve observed that organizational culture also involves the dominant attitude about organizational outcomes as well as the ethics of members. With that in mind, here is what leadership should consider in how neophytes affect their chapters.

Set the tone.

Years ago, Danny Abramowicz, former New Orleans Saints player and coach, said, “Sometimes the only gospel people will see is you.” He was talking specifically about religion but we can safely apply his thought to leadership, overall. Leaders must model the behavior they expect from their new brothers or sorors. Neophytes respond, in one way or another, to how leaders communicate, organize, resolve issues, put forth effort, collaborate, and create.

Leadership, however, goes beyond the chapter president as I mention to collegiate Divine Nine members in the Black Greek Success Program’s “Gumbo Theory.” The most critical interaction that will influence neophytes’ integration into their new chapter is how executive board members and committee chairs hold each other accountable for their decision-making and behavior.

Know your people.

Who was in the intake process and who will your neophytes be dealing with once they start working with the chapter? Robin Johnson, who holds a doctorate in Strategic Leadership, is the principal at DesignOrg Solutions and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha. She says,

“The best thing leadership can do is know their chapter (including) the culture, its strengths and weaknesses, where they excel (i.e. event planning) and where they can use some help (i.e. fund raising).” Understanding that, she says, leadership can take an inventory of the chapter members—what they do for work, their hobbies, and what members believe are their strongest skills. Dr. Johnson then suggests having new members complete a skills inventory and asking them to serve on committees that compliment those skills.

Robin Johnson, D.S.L., principal, DesignOrg Solutions and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

Keep in mind that there are different considerations for college and alumni members. College members can enlist the help of their student activities offices to get a skills inventory or personality test such as the popular DiSC or Myers-Briggs tests (with other resources here). The office may even offer to work directly with the chapter. Alumni chapters can do this for reclaimed or transfer members in addition to neophytes, and they may consider contracting certified facilitators. By the way, alumni members, don’t let the fear of an outsider seeing our human imperfections get in the way of progress.

Train ‘em up!

Mentor the neos. Depending on the size of your most recent line, this can be a tough task but it is necessary. Even trained professionals who are initiated into alumni chapters need some form of mentoring in order to navigate the culture and politics of the chapter and fraternity or sorority. Too often, I have heard neophytes complain that their chapters’ definition of mentoring is, “Just jump and get to work. It’ll come to you.” The problem is having someone "just jump in” could cost the chapter time and money.

Corporate CEO Jay Steinfeld wrote about five on-the-job mentoring strategies in Inc. and three stood out to me. On having an open-door policy, Steinfeld wrote, “I have one, but I find it works best if I keep an ‘open-mind’ policy, too.” He describes it as one of his “favorite impromptu mentorship tools” because he realized that his employees often have better ideas than he does. Steinfeld also suggests asking questions as opposed to giving answers. Instead of boring our new brothers and sorors with “back-in-my-day” stories and being satisfied with "how it's always done," get their thoughts about the chapter’s operations after they have had some time to work. Finally, I love that he encourages making mentorship a part of an organization’s DNA by making personal growth everyone’s job—each one teach one. We should ask ourselves what we can do to bring even more greatness out of our neophytes as a means of producing even more Divine Nine servant leaders.

Keep your emotions in their lane.

We love our letters. Ooooh, how we love our letters! As a former stepmaster, I need that emotion for a step show, yard show or party train. But as committee member trying to work efficiently and stay in compliance, I’m gonna have to ask you to keep those emotions in check, please and thank you. Emotional intelligence is the truth. It is so important that I firmly believe career success is built largely on emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is how we manage both our reactions to others and the vibes we put out there.

Emotion plays that much more of a role in the change that comes along with welcoming neophytes. “Emotion is what determines if the change will be a relatively smooth transition or if you’re dragging everyone while they’re kicking and screaming,” says Dr. Johnson. She points out that the issue is control. When we feel in control of change, we are likely to accept what comes along with it. If we feel that we are somehow not involved, however, that’s when the drama starts. Making major decisions, therefore, could be compromised by the uncertainty according to Dr. Johnson.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one. A brother hands an event—his “baby”—over to a committee that includes neophytes. After doing some homework, the neophytes recognize ways to cut cost and increase profit, which includes (…wait for it…) raising the price of admission. The brother responds, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it! This has worked just fine for 10 years!” This is a common stand-off for fraternity and sorority chapters. In this tense moment, emotional intelligence wins the day by managing those feelings and paving the way for a rational collaboration. After all, this is about enabling chapter members to reach conclusions for the good of the organization, not to satisfy someone's feelings.

Always look at the big picture.

In the constant grind of wanting to “do the business of (fill-in-the-blank organization), it is easy to lose sight of two things—our organizations’ missions and our bonds. Part of organizational culture is understanding how everyone interprets those missions and principles.

Dr. Johnson sees this as an opportunity to ask neophytes, “What are we here to accomplish? Why do we exist?” More importantly, she says, we must all agree that we are all on board with the fraternity’s or sorority’s mission as well as the chapter’s mission.

As leaders, we must model brotherhood and sisterhood to neophytes. I recently had sharp disagreements with my chapter brothers. Although I believe my concerns were justified, I had to kick my silly ego to the curb. That encouraged me to reframe my concerns in a more brotherly way so that we can all achieve our fraternal mission.

It's critical to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all magic bullet solution for working neophytes into our chapters. This is, without a doubt, a process. After all, we in the Divine Nine say that the real pledging starts after initiation. This is about understanding diversity, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.” We in the Divine Nine are more diverse in our attitudes than we realize. And the true essence of diversity is being comfortable with knowing that every brother or soror brings something that can add to a chapter’s organizational culture.


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