In the Fall of 2009, I became the first male in my family to venture off to college. I was lucky enough to attend Indiana University (IU) Bloomington where I started working as a lifeguard and swim instructor for the department now named the Indiana University Campus Recreational Sports.
Going into the interview, I would have never expected it would lead me down the path to a fulfilling career in collegiate recreation and wellness. The soft skills the department focuses on have shaped my career and that of so many others.
Kathy Bayless, the executive director, met with me virtually. We discussed how her team developed what they refer to as their 4 P’s — presence, proactive engagement, policy education and problem solving. These are the backbone of their student development training across all positions.
In fact, these are the pillars I have focused on during my professional tenure.
Bayless shared how back in the 70’s and 80’s, the Big 10 surveyed student leaders. It ranked IU in the bottom tier of all categories regarding recreation and facilities, despite having about one million users per year.
One item that was constant was the people who worked at and came to the facilities made the difference. Staff were relational, excited and invested in the program.
Now that the facilities and diverse programming are present, the relational service continues to be an asset that elevates the department. “People can copy your facilities, programs and even branding but they cannot replicate your people,” Bayless highlighted.
With a department mission to “connect, inform and inspire people to lead active, healthy lifestyles” Bayless began focusing on finding the people who have these attributes.
After sending a group of professional staff to the Disney Institute in the early 2000s, IU Campus Recreational Sports shifted from “bad show” — or focusing on what it looks like when you get bad service — to good show. Part of this transition was focusing on intentional language and the power that can bring to training. Bayless gave an example: they do not refer to it as customer service but rather relational service, a move from corporate language to relationship building.
After finalizing the direction, Bayless ensured there was student representation from every area to meet and learn about the experience the student staff have interacting with participants. After all of this, Bayless, saw a common theme that led to the creation of the 4 P’s of relational service, something that has now been disseminated down to all levels of the department and training.
I still remember the training I received at IU Campus Recreational Sports and use this alliteration in my trainings to this day. Language is a powerful tool and hopefully you too can learn from IU’s model.
Every area of the rec defines presence differently, but they all represent the department.
When training staff on presence, this goes beyond just body language and uniform. Training staff to place themselves in areas where they are not only visible but able to engage with participants is vital:
This can go beyond student staff as professional staff should be modeling the behavior we want to see from the students. I always ensure I take time from my day to leave my desk and do a lap of the facility. Meeting new students or participants from outside my area of oversight has been instrumental in shaping the work culture I want to work in. Additionally, it is easy to move from meeting-to-meeting and be buried in a phone, so I try not to have my phone out while I am walking through the recreation center. This shows students I follow the protocols we place for them and helps me be aware of what is happening on shift.
Now that we are present in our areas, it is vital to start interacting with our user base. Ensuring staff are trained to greet every user is important to relationship building. Users should have at least three points of personal contact when at the facility:
This means we cannot just depend on access control or membership to build the relationships. Employing a 20:10 rule has been an easy and measurable way to ensure the staff I oversee are interacting with our users. This policy states that a user who is within 20 feet of an employee should receive some form of a physical acknowledgment of their presence. Once they are within 10 feet they should get a verbal greeting. Having overseen building supervisors and aquatics staff, safety is always at the forefront of our training. The 20:10 rule is another tool to help ensure staff are engaged and aware of their surroundings.
Professional staff should be employing these guidelines, too. My goal is to always meet a new student employee I do not oversee at a week. Learning their names and more about them helps me feel more connected to the work I do every day. As we grow in our positions, it can be easy to forget the love we had for collegiate recreation as students, and reconnecting with our roots helps us remain engaged.
Bayless focused on how language with this concept has helped elevate trainings overtime. Moving from policy enforcement to policy education changed the ideology that when approaching an individual, we should assume they have no idea what policy they are breaking and the reason behind this policy.
Focusing on educating participants allows the student staff to enter a situation on a more positive note rather than immediately telling a user not to do something. By educating a participant, the student staff is now forced into an interaction where they are moving toward bettering the experience of the user and allowing them to become part of the culture. Training staff to no longer “come across as a hammer” but rather to invite and engage the user into conversation through coaching elevates the experiences for both parties.
As a professional, I use education for both participants and when I address concerns with my student staff. Rather than immediately creating a divide between me and a student staff who may be lacking in performance, I treat the situation as an educational opportunity. I use it to show the importance of their roles and to help shape their experience to meet the expectations.
Additionally, focusing on ensuring students are prepared on the proper steps to move from education to enforcement to needing help is vital to ensuring a safe work environment.
I cannot count the amount of phone calls I have received from a student staff member who has a problem in the workplace but has not thought through appropriate solutions. Problem solving may sound easy, but ensuring students have the tools to be successful is required to run a smooth ship.
Students usually value their training, but there is only so much we can prepare them for. How many shadow shifts have an emergency, a no-show or something else go wrong? Supervisors need to ensure students understand the scope of their role and how each position can formulate solutions to better support the department. Preparing students to assess a problem, come up with solutions and then act on the best solution comes with experience and time. I always tell my staff I will support their decision so long as it is within their training and they made it with the safety of everyone involved in mind.
Professionally, problem solving is a large part of the day-to-day, regardless of your position. Modeling sound decision-making and including student leaders will help create synergy throughout your area or department. Including my student coordinators or aquatic supervisors in meetings or policy help me understand the student thought process.
Additionally, when I find a problem I will usually invite the staff working to look at it with me. Recently, we had a leak in the pump room. I brought the aquatics staff working into the pump room to talk through the steps in case this were to happen when I was not in office. This helped me engage more with my staff but also prepared them for an uncommon situation as it was happening.
Bayless wrapped up our conversation by discussing the end goal of relational service training within IU Campus Recreational Sports – a common culture and wanting people to experience good service every time they come.
There is enough negative out there, so how can we create the oasis getaway where they can feel our relational service? That is what we are after.
Image by Joni Hanebutt via Shutterstock