By Coral Azarian, LL’17, Associate Director of College Counseling, Rowland Hall School
In the late ‘90’s John Christensen visited the Pike’s Place Fish Market in Seattle, WA. While standing in a crowd watching the fishmongers toss massive fresh fish to one another, all while effortlessly interacting with throngs of tourists, Christensen came to the realization that despite the smiles, jokes, and radiating positivity, throwing heavy fish for an audience all day was tedious work. Yet the experience for everyone – no matter the day, the weather, or whether it was the thrower’s first hour of the first shift, or the seventh hour of the seventh day in a row – the experience was always happy, because the fishmongers were always happy. They were always positive; they were always present; they actively sought out ways to make the experience of their audience members memorable; and they always had fun.
As complex as leadership can often be, the notion that at its core leadership should be something that we enjoy is critical. The understanding that being consistent and having fun are important characteristics of a successful leader is something that we should foster in all of our students. Authentic leadership is often much more sustainable and impactful for both the leader and those being led than leadership motivated by expectation alone.
For the last four years, I have served as the Associate Director of College Counseling and the Student Council Advisor at Rowland Hall. In the fall, the college counseling office is almost entirely dedicated to supporting the needs and nurturing the anxieties of over seventy seniors. With that number needing our attention, we have often found ourselves at a loss as to how to support everyone to the fullest degree.
The last straw was when one admissions representative visited our school without meeting a single one of our students. The college he was representing was one that my colleague and I knew would be a great fit for a number of our seniors, but because the “name” wasn’t in the twenty-five perennial favorite “reach” schools of seniors and their parents, no one signed up. The representative was left to meet with my colleague and me instead. It was this experience, along with the daily stress of meeting the needs of our students and our visitors, that provided the inspiration for the College Counseling Ambassadors.
So what does a new student leadership program have to do with fishmongers? Well, with my unwritten but foremost job responsibility being relationship building, I live my own version of the fishmonger’s story every day. The FISH philosophy, the leadership theory that Christensen developed as a result of his Pike’s Place observations, is now used by companies, organizations, and individuals the world over. It seemed a natural match for Rowland Hall. Choosing your attitude, being present, finding small ways to make someone else’s day, and always looking for opportunities to infuse a little fun into your work served as the perfect platform for a student leadership program.
Our Ambassador team began with a group of second semester sophomores, who completed formal written application and interviews, and participated in two months of training. Each of them learned the value of personal reflection by developing a campus tour highlighting their unique experience and interests as a student. Through mock tours with each other, they developed and honed their interpersonal communication skills and learned how to provide constructive and valuable feedback that would support their peers in leading successful visits. Starting in the fall, they turned that training into concrete leadership as they adapted to last minute schedule changes, guided peers on what to expect while facilitating conversations with college reps, and synthesized and relayed important institutional highlights in weekly emails to entice seniors to attend college meetings. As the semester progressed, their confidence grew, and I witnessed – while they experienced – the FISH philosophy in action:
Choose Your Attitude
We all have those days when things just don’t seem to be going right. For our Ambassadors, this could mean that they might have a big test, woke up late, or have something going on outside of school that is adding stress to their already hectic lives. But when it comes time to don that name tag and welcome our College Reps to campus, our ambassadors choose to have a positive attitude. They ensure our guests know more about who we are and leave knowing their time at Rowland Hall was valued and appreciated. This is a major goal of the program and key component in developing their ability to be positive leaders.
Our students exist in a culture that is constantly propelling them forward, providing little if any reward for being present and getting out from behind a screen and living in the moment. For our Ambassadors, being there doesn’t just mean showing up on time. It means staying engaged throughout the Admissions Officers visit, asking questions during their presentation, and cultivating a genuine curiosity about the opportunities their institution provides, even if they don’t think it might be a great fit for them personally. This also manifests in their ability to think on their feet and adapt to changes in schedules. Focusing on the present cultivates opportunities for our ambassadors to feel confident in their ability to adapt to situations that might not always be ideal or the ones they planned for.
Make Their Day
Emotional intelligence is such an important component of leadership development. For our ambassadors, this takes shape when finding small ways to make each rep feel special. Ambassadors ensure that reps have the opportunity to set their bags down, get a bottle of water, or use the restroom before their tour. They also write a handwritten thank you card to each rep they meet. Helping our ambassadors develop the emotional intelligence to read and respond empowers them to approach each interaction they have as an opportunity to make someone else feel valued.
I am under no illusion that every ambassador will be enthusiastic about every to college to which they are assigned. Nor do I think that they will always be jazzed about drafting yet another email highlighting what they learned about a college or university from their rep, but we can still have fun. Celebrating successes by having an end-of-semester breakfast, complete with the world’s best hot chocolate (from Dunkin Donuts), or sharing all of the wonderful compliments paid to them through our post-visit surveys models an important leadership practice that our Lead Ambassadors (a new component of the program launching this year) are now adopting. Having fun and finding ways to take a step back and find joy in the work you do is an important facet of leadership that often goes unnoticed.
So as I kick off my 27th school year (as a student and counselor) with a new crop of Ambassadors and our first crew of Lead Ambassadors, I am energized by the enthusiasm of my students diving in headfirst. Our Lead Ambassadors are learning how to mentor and teach our new folks, and in each interaction, I see them actively choosing positivity, finding ways to make each other’s day, and exploring new opportunities to infuse play into every aspect of the program.
Coral Azarian is the Associate Director of College Counseling and Student Council Advisor at Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, UT. A Cape Cod native she started her career in College Admissions on the east coast before moving west to pursue a M.Ed. at the University of Utah in Educational Leadership & Policy where she also worked in Student Affairs at Westminster College while completing her graduate degree. In her free time she enjoys traveling, cooking and spending as much time with friends and family as possible.