By Coral Azarian, associate director of College Counseling, Student Council advisor, and a 2017 graduate of the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute (gcLI) Leadership Lab
Republished from gcLi with permission; this version lightly edited.
In the late ’90s, John Christensen visited the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. He watched fishmongers toss massive fresh catches to one another while effortlessly interacting with throngs of tourists, and realized that despite the smiles, jokes, and radiating positivity, throwing heavy fish for an audience all day was tedious work.
Yet the experience for everyone was always happy, because regardless of variables—from bad weather to long work shifts—the fishmongers were always happy. They were always positive; they were always present; they actively sought ways to make their audience’s experience memorable; and they always had fun.
Leadership is complex, but at its core, it should be something we enjoy. Successful leaders are consistent and have fun, and we should instill that in our students. People who embrace that philosophy are more impactful and sustainable leaders than those motivated by expectation alone.
For the last four years, I’ve worked as Rowland Hall’s associate director of College Counseling. In the fall, our office is dedicated to supporting the needs and nurturing the anxieties of over 70 seniors, and we often find ourselves at a loss as to how to serve everyone to the fullest degree.
The last straw was when one admissions representative visited our school without meeting a single one of our students. He represented a college that my colleague and I knew would be a great fit for a number of our seniors, but because it wasn’t in the 25 perennial favorite “reach” schools of students and their parents, no one signed up. The representative was instead left to meet with my colleague and me. This experience, along with the daily stress of meeting the needs of students and visitors, inspired our College Counseling Ambassadors program.
The tenets—choosing your attitude, being present, finding small ways to make someone else’s day, and infusing fun into your work—serve as the perfect platform for a student-leadership program.
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 Place observations, is now used by organizations the world over. It’s a natural match for Rowland Hall. The tenets—choosing your attitude, being present, finding small ways to make someone else’s day, and infusing fun into your work—serve as the perfect platform for a student-leadership program.
Our ambassador team began with a group of second-semester sophomores who completed applications and interviews and participated in two months of training. Each ambassador developed a campus tour highlighting their unique Rowland Hall experience, then conducted mock tours with their peers and provided constructive feedback to ensure everyone would lead 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 talking with college reps, and synthesized and relayed 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 days when things don’t seem to be going right. For our ambassadors, this might mean they overslept or have anxiety over a test. But when it’s time to don that nametag and welcome college reps to campus, ambassadors choose to have a positive attitude. They ensure guests leave knowing more about Rowland Hall, and that their time here was valued. This is a major goal of the program and a key component in developing students’ abilities to be positive leaders.
For our ambassadors, being there doesn’t just mean showing up on time. It means staying engaged throughout a rep’s visit, asking questions during their presentation, and cultivating curiosity about the opportunities an institution provides.
Our students exist in a culture that is constantly propelling them forward, providing little reward for being present and getting out from behind a screen. For our ambassadors, being there doesn’t just mean showing up on time. It means staying engaged throughout a rep’s visit, asking questions during their presentation, and cultivating curiosity about the opportunities an institution provides, even if they don’t think it would be a great fit for them personally. Being there also manifests in an ambassador’s ability to think on their feet and adjust to schedule changes. Focusing on the present helps them adapt to unplanned or less-than-ideal situations.
Make Their Day
Emotional intelligence is an important component of leadership development. For our ambassadors, this takes shape when they find small ways to make reps special. Ambassadors ensure that reps have the opportunity to set their bags down or get a drink of water before their tour. They also send reps handwritten thank-you cards. Helping our ambassadors develop the emotional intelligence to read and respond to situations empowers them to make others feel valued.
Ambassadors may not be be enthusiastic about every college they’re assigned, and they may not always be jazzed about drafting yet another email on what they learned about a university. But we can still have fun. Celebrating successes—whether by hosting our end-of-semester breakfast or by sharing compliments paid to ambassadors via post-visit surveys—is an important practice that our lead ambassadors (a new component of the program this year) are now adopting. Taking a step back to find joy in your work is an important facet of leadership.
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’m energized by the enthusiasm of my students diving in headfirst. Our lead ambassadors are learning how to mentor 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 graduated from the gcLi Leadership Lab in 2017. The lab, by presenting a foundation in developmental psychology and brain science, helps educators develop the ability to identify, utilize, and create teachable moments to transform individuals, classrooms, sports teams, and whole schools.