by Jonathan Spalten
The primary activities in RoboJackets are those associated with building robots, educating our members and promoting robotics to the public, but none of these activities would be possible without dedicated members and leaders, many of whom change on a year-to-year basis. Taking up the mantle of leading even a small part of RoboJackets can be a daunting task, and one of the activities designed to help build the leadership team up every year is the leadership retreat. Typically, the leadership retreat is a weekend trip that takes a swath of RoboJackets leaders out to the mountains in Georgia to get to know each other and discuss their plans for the year. This trip is usually very early in the school year, usually within the first two weeks of the fall semester.
This year, after the creation of the Alumni Association, a small group of alumni (Ryan Strat, Matthew Barulic, and Will Stuckey, all former presidents) saw an opportunity to support RoboJackets with the leadership retreat. These three alumni all planned and ran leadership retreats during their time in RoboJackets, and all three had experience in these types of events. Unfortunately, few Presidents after them had this type of experience, and as a result, it created undue strain on the President and overall decreased the effectiveness of the leadership retreat. To rectify this, the alumni association developed a proposal in their service catalog to have alumni run portions of the leadership retreat. The goal was to take the responsibility of running the leadership development sessions off the President, which means the leadership retreat experience no longer relies on the President having experience with leadership development, and allows the President to be an active participant instead of a facilitator. The intention is for this to be a continuing effort and will repeat indefinitely, as long as both parties think it’s still beneficial.
This year’s leadership retreat was the first leadership retreat to be run in this manner. Four alumni (The three already mentioned and Sarah Storer) went out to the Blue Ridge mountains with the students and stayed separately in a nearby cabin. They planned and ran a bevy of activities designed to promote discussion among the leaders present and help them prepare to take on the new year of RoboJackets. Many of the activities were guided discussions reflecting on various aspects of RoboJackets, including why they became leaders in RoboJackets, what parts of the RoboJackets mission statement had the most impact on them, and what memories they had in RoboJackets that had big impacts on them. The current President, Shishir, still led one reflection, which was the discussion on leadership goals for the coming year and focused on finding strengths and weaknesses within every leader and building a team.
There was one activity that had a portion that wasn’t a discussion. Specifically, it was an egg drop challenge (IE, build a system that can protect an egg when dropped) with a twist: the participants had to pick some of their building materials before they knew it was an egg drop challenge. The goal of this activity was to help students handle failure (IE, picking bad materials to help with an egg drop challenge) under dynamic constraints.
We wanted to ask both sides of the trip, alumni and students for their thoughts on how the trip went. We started by asking Keertik Bacon, mechanical training lead, for his thoughts on a few topics. First, we wanted to ask how well the retreat met the objectives that the alumni set out to achieve. The overarching goal of the retreat is to set the leadership team up for success in the coming year. Here’s what Keertik had to say about that:
I definitely think that the leadership retreat helped me get into a better headspace [for the year to come]. I’m a shy person, so I tend to hesitate to reach out to others, especially those who I don’t know very well. In that regard, the retreat was really great, in that it helped me get to know a lot of people on a more personal level than we usually get to do in our day-to-day work in RoboJackets. It made me more comfortable talking to them and asking them for things, which is essential in a team environment.
Next, we wanted to ask what impact the alumni involvement had. He struck on exactly what the goal of involving alumni in the retreat was in the first place:
It’s my understanding that in previous years, the president was the one who ran all the activities, but with the alumni taking that over, Shishir was able to join as a participant rather than a facilitator. It’s a small distinction, but I think it helps a lot in bringing us leaders closer together, with the knowledge that we’re all in the same boat.
All in all, he said that the alumni involvement was “a great thing.”
We also asked Keertik which activities he thought were most helpful. The one he thought was most helpful was the discussion that Shishir led around personal strengths and weaknesses: “it allowed me to be frank about my weaknesses as a leader and seek advice from other leaders on how to go about improving in those fields.” His favorite activity, though, was the egg drop:
My team didn’t do particularly well, but it was just a fun experience to try and work with what we had—Play Doh, pipe cleaners, and a paper towel roll—to make something, anything that would protect the egg. It was also especially funny to see the other teams’ solutions, which included gutting a teddy bear to use its stuffing as padding, as well as putting the egg in a bag of marshmallows to cushion it.
We also asked Will Stuckey, one of the alumni facilitators for his thoughts. He echoed a lot of the positive impacts that Keertik highlighted.
Overall I was really pleased with the retreat. I felt we finally struck a balance for alumni involvement that worked for all parties, and that was a huge relief after a few years of trying to pin that down. The team put a lot of work into guiding and shaping rather than explicitly leading discussion. It was really rewarding to help empower this generation of leaders to take more direct agency over the organization.
We also asked what activity he thought was the most meaningful. The one he pointed to was a guided reflection on which RoboJackets members had an impact on each participant, saying “I think it can really ground people into believing they have the capacity to help and serve others, and I personally think that sets a good tone for the year.” He also acknowledges the interpersonal part of the retreat as a major contribution: “You could even argue the students’ down time to just get to know each other is equally valuable [compared to the guided discussions].”
The alumni sponsors have gathered feedback on the retreat from the President and from an anonymous feedback form. The alumni involvement with the leadership retreat is intended to be an ongoing relationship between alumni and students to better serve student leaders long into the future. Some feedback they received indicated that some students would be interested in facilitating the leadership retreat in the future when they become alumni, suggesting that the model has the potential to continue beyond this first generation of alumni.
We’ll leave you with the current President, Shishir Pandit-Rao’s thoughts on the retreat:
Leadership retreat was an extremely successful event due to a multitude of reasons. The development of thoughtful discussion, especially related to the goals of the leadership team with regards to the organization, set the stage for the coming year in terms of goals and objectives. In addition, having discussions revolving around what the leaders wanted to see from their respective teams, as well as the organization as a whole, set the stage for a culture of accountability and progress.