Tenants of a Successful CliftonStrengths Development Program on Campus

Tenants of a Successful CliftonStrengths Development Program on Campus

According to the Gallup Organization, the CliftonStrengths assessment is in use at over 600 college and universities with approximately 2 million codes used each year which values at a cost of over 20 million dollars annually. Higher Education is also one of the fastest growing area for strengths and that number of codes purchased continues to increase each year.

Given the above information, it is important for us to explore what might be the most important components of a Strengths Development program at a college campus. Based on my personal experience using the CliftonStrengths assessment over the past four years at UC Merced, I would recommend two major tenants of a quality program at your campus.

First, knowing the cost of the assessment per student, it would be unwise for a campus to invest in the CliftonStrengths assessment without building a long-term strengths development program for students. This program could be integrated into orientation, first-year seminars, and career planning throughout students’ entire time at the university. While self-understanding is important for students, the opportunity to use themes repeatedly can have a greater influence on their experience using the overall concepts of Strengths. Additionally, lack of support could potentially lead to self-doubt and the muting of themes, which would be the opposite of what the program sets out to accomplish. Investing in trained facilitators and coaches across campus could also increase the potential yield of the development program.

Second, Strengths Based Development programs should be both widespread and locally focused. By widespread I refer to the fact that the more people with Strengths language on campus, the more likely students will receive the support and guidance needed to continuously use their themes and reflect on those experiences. Strengths Based Development should not be limited merely to students. Staff and Faculty and possibly parents could engage in this program. This would allow for students to discuss their themes with anyone at any time, which would result in continual improvement.

By locally focused I assert that natural teams with a better understanding of their peer’s talent themes could influence greater agency, self-confidence, and thinking about multiple pathways to goals. In my office, I use CliftonStrengths as the major focus of team development. My staff have shared that their experience working on a strengths-focused work team was of great influence in their self-awareness and use of strengths, and did not lead to increased self-doubt. Replicating this type of environment in multiple areas of campus could influence students’ strengths development and their overall collegiate experience. This could be done in offices, student clubs, lab environments, and athletic teams.

If campuses wish to maximize their investment in the Strengths programming, it is important to go all in or it may not be worth it at all. If a Strengths program is implemented on campuses, a robust and long-term commitment would be needed to see sustained impact on the collegiate experience of students. Do this and you can see how the assessment and related development activities can make a lasting impact in the lives of members of your campus community.

For more information on ways to develop a CliftonStrengths program on your campus, contact me and we can chat!

Check out my Gallup Coaching Website: https://www.gallupstrengthscenter.com/Coach/en-US/Profile/5457444

Find the UC Merced Margo F. Souza Center at our Website



Musings of a Recovering Higher Education Wanderer

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“If you want to move up, you have to move on”. This quote is one many higher education administrators have heard countless times during their career. While I am sure it is not a quote unique to the field, I often find myself wondering if this idea of location mobility is as pervasive in other industries. It is so strong in this field that we instill the idea in our aspiring graduate students before they even apply to graduate school. How many of us find that the first two pieces of advice we give to interested undergraduates are, “Don’t do your Masters at your undergraduate institution” and “You should look to leave this region so you can get perspective”? I have said those sentences many times even though I have no idea why I believe them to be accurate and true. Have you?

Now, putting aside for this discussion the massive amount of privilege we assume when making those statements, I encourage you to reflect on the environment we create for wellness when a significant amount of practitioners persistently have one foot out the door. I am one of those people, or at least I was. As of a few months ago I have started to view myself as a recovering higher education wanderer.

For eight years we have lived in California but, until this April, California was not our home. It had always been a way station to the next and better thing. When we first moved the thought was that it would be great to have a story for our kids about the time we lived in California. For four years at UC Riverside, we saved money for that house we would buy at our next stop. For four years now at UC Merced we rented a home and did not become engaged in the community because it was only a matter of time before we would leave and move back to New Jersey.

In early January, new job opportunities arose for my spouse that could result in our continued residency in Merced, CA. Though we were excited, we both simultaneously said “Well then, three more years for the bump in retirement, and then we’re out”. In no time we had moved on from the present moment and were, once again, planning our departure. We both felt the anxiety this caused but chose not to mention the feeling.

It took a long bike ride on a sunny Saturday afternoon for things to change. While on this ride, I reflected on how great it was that I could ride for hours without hitting a stoplight. This led to a mental list of all the good things now and in the future Merced had to offer. Soon, a paradigm shift occurred. I came soaring back into the house and said the line my spouse has grown to dread “So, I was thinking…”

Who would we be, how would we behave, what would we do, if we treated Merced as a possible permanent stop? What does it mean to our children who, born in Merced, constantly hear their parents say that this is not their home? What would it look like for our lives and our children’s lives if we stopped thinking that the grass would be greener at our next location and started watering the grass here, now?

As soon as those questions were uttered, you could sense the great weight of anxiety and stress lift from our shoulders and for the first time in eight years, finally, a sense of calm.

I share this story because I know there are many of us out there looking to the next job, the next home, the next something, and I think we have it wrong. We have created a career environment, in my field specifically, that is not conducive to wellness through community engagement and this is terribly damaging to us as human beings. I see so many professionals who work incredibly hard to get the next job that they are summarily forgotten once they leave. I am one of those people, and that needs to change, for all of us.

Beyond health, fitness, seven hours of sleep, balance, and finding a hobby, I am beginning to understand that wellness is really about connection. Connection to your community, connection to the people who surround you, commitment to improving the area in which you live. If you are truly connected, deep roots connected, I believe that the other aspects we discuss when talking about wellness will soon follow. We should, every time we arrive at a new home, lay down roots so deep that it causes significant pain to tear them free. It should not be easy to up and leave a community every three to five years for a new job. It should be hard. It must be hard.

Now, I am by no means saying that professionals should spend their career in one company or at one university. I am not that naïve. I am also not saying that our current home is going to be our final home. That is probably unrealistic. What I am saying is that finally, Merced, for the first time, is our home. For now and for the foreseeable future, we are Mercedians, and that is kind of nice.

Who would you be, how would you behave, what would you do if you treated every stop on your journey as a potential permanent home instead of a resting point before you continue on? What would it mean to you if you dug roots so deep it would hurt terribly to pull them free? How would you be a better professional if you weren’t just an employee of (Insert Name Here) University and became an invested member of the community around you?

For me, those questions triggered a paradigm shift in perspective; I hope they can do the same for you.

8 Steps to Reach Students on Twitter

8 Steps to Reach Students on Twitter

Josie Ahlquist

twitter_logoFor the last four months I have conducted interviews and made observations of social activity of 16 Senior Level Student Affairs Leaders.  These participants include positions such as Dean of Student up to Vice President & Senior Vice Chancellor in both student affairs and enrollment management.

While I am still in the midst of data analysis, a few patterns are coming across loud and clear that I wanted to share.  In particular, how I see many of these leaders using Twitter to engage with students.  I have found their use of Twitter as a tool with their campus communities to be extremely inspiring and the type of leadership behavior that all higher education professionals will need to become accustom to and competent with in the future.

Social media provides these Deans and Vice Presidents access and immediate reach to their campus communities.  The impact is all documented through conversations on Twitter itself.


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Feminist Dads: Setting Our Daughters Up for Success by Steve Lerer

A post about being a good dad!


At 4:29pm on Friday, May 3rd, my life as a person, husband, and student affairs professional changed dramatically. At that moment (a month earlier than expected), Samantha Beth Lerer entered the world ready to hit the ground running. Sammy, or Sam depending on the day, arrived at an interesting time for our country and much of the world.  In our country, we are simultaneously seeing new rights extended to some and taken away from others. Many of these changes can and will impact the world in which Sam will live. As a student affairs professional, I advocate for my students every day, but have I found myself wondering over these past few months:

“How can I be an advocate for my own daughter’s success in life?”

As a male, with one brother, I have never really witnessed first hand what it is like to grow up as a…

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Leadership and Fraternity: The Impact of Phi Kappa Tau


This past May, two days before my daughter was born, I was asked to give my first keynote. The event was the Greek Gala and was celebrating the leadership in the Fraternity and Sorority community. The topic was what leadership means to the Fraternity and Sorority system but was really about why I joined and my experience as a brother in Phi Kappa Tau. This is a story I had only shared with one person but I decided that it was time to be vulnerable. Those who are going through the same struggles as I did need to know that there are Student Affairs practitioners who understand and can help. It just so happens that my Dean of Students, also my supervisor, was in the room for my talk and did not fire me so I feel confident enough to share more broadly today.

So here goes nothing:

Good Evening, my name is Steve Lerer and I am the Assistant Director in the Office of Student Life working with Student Government and Leadership Programs. I am also a proud brother of the Epsilon Kappa Chapter of the Phi Kappa Tau Fraternity. I want to congratulate all of you for the work you’ve done this year to advance Greek Life on this campus. The award finalists and recipients truly represent the best of Fraternity and Sorority life. Please join me in recognizing them once again.

My experience is in leadership development and leadership theory so I was invited tonight to talk with you about that pillar, and what I believe leadership in Greek life is all about. I teach various classes in the hopes to develop the skills of leadership with the students on this campus but, in the end, for the great leaders, I believe it centers around two things.

First, a great leader is someone who can paint a vision of the future for his followers that inspires them to work harder, better, and faster to make that vision a reality. A great leader can always surround himself with people who have the skills to execute the vision but the very best leaders are the one who can stir up the emotions of their followers and create the desire to be more than they are.

Second, a great leader is someone whose quality of character is so strong that her followers not only trust her implicitly, but they want to be like her. This leader follows a code, a ritual, that demands of her only the best and her followers know it. These leaders are unshakable and move with integrity and that is why those that they lead want to emulate them and learn from them every day.

I believe that the first can be developed by anyone with a bit of charisma but it comes down to the second where fraternity and sorority life make the biggest impact. It is also there where my fraternity, in fact, saved my life. My example to you tonight the story of my own path to brotherhood, one that I have only shared once before due to the stigma that comes along with it but I know there are others out there with similar tales. I owe it to them to share the impact Fraternity or Sorority involvement can have on a person.

I arrived on campus at Rutgers University in New Jersey in Fall of 2001 as an unambitious 18 year old without much of a plan. I happen to be a legacy in my fraternity; my older brother is actually a Phi Tau and had graduated from Rutgers just that past spring. He put a word in for me with the brothers and two of them decided to come help me move into my residence hall room. Their names were Tom Howell and Jim Minardo, remember them because they have significance later.

Tom and Jim moved me in and invited me over to the fraternity for a BBQ later that night. Since I had nothing better to do I went but, kept my distance because “Frat Life” wasn’t for me. I thought, “They had nothing I wanted, and even if they did, I, could give them nothing in return”.

You might ask why, as a legacy, I thought that. Well, it comes down to my two big tenants of great leaders. I had the first in spades. I was a martial arts instructor and a two-time varsity wrestling captain. I could paint a vision that could rile up even the most complacent teammate. It really comes down to the second, character. That is where I came up short. That is why I believed I had nothing to offer.

The reason for this is because for the two years leading up to college I had developed a significant drug problem, one that would only get worse once I was alone at college. No one in my family knew, though now I believe my brother had an idea.

So, I had my “friends”, my drug using friends. I didn’t need Fraternity, and I stopped coming around. Instead I started spending my weekends with my “friends”, weekends that are often unaccounted for and were physically, emotionally, and financially damaging. Soon those weekends extended to Fridays, and then Mondays, and then Thursdays. Eventually sober days were a smaller number and easier to track and things were, unbeknownst to me, spiraling out of control.

But, through it all, Jim and Tom would connect with me every few weeks to see if I needed anything from the fraternity. I was a legacy and all, they owed me that much.

Everything came to a head for me after fall finals. I found myself 12 hours from campus, in a different country, at a 3-day event, with those who I thought were my friends. Sadly, when I overdid it, and was on the verge of what felt to be an overdose, my supposed friends left me. I was alone for hours and I truly believed that I was dying. Like anyone in that situation, helpless and alone, I began to reflect on my pathetic life and started to bargain. I swore that, if I made it through the night, I would make a change. I would find a way out of the path I was forging and be better.

Well, surprise, I didn’t die that night and I decided to make good on that progress but had no idea where to begin. Lucky for me, in mid January, I received a call from both Jim and Tom inviting me to Phi Tau’s rush week and I decided to attend. I spent every day that week with the 50 brothers watching the way they carried themselves, spoke to each other, and genuinely cared about their brothers, past, current, and future.

The week of movie nights, BBQs, and trips to get cheesesteaks in Philly struck a chord with me and I knew I wanted what they had.  I remember vividly, calling my brother on the phone on Thursday night, in tears, begging him to get me an invite to their Friday dinner. “You don’t understand how much I need this”, I said to him, and all he said was “Don’t worry, I’ll handle it”.

It was that Friday, in their basement, where I spoke for the first time in front of the fraternity and their guests. I told the room what membership in their fraternity meant to me. What true brotherhood and friendship could do for me and how I had the desire to attach myself to something greater because I so desperately needed the help. I couldn’t do it alone, and Phi Kappa Tau could be my answer.

Two days later, I stood in that basement again with 9 other men from the invite dinner, pinned as an associate member in Phi Kappa Tau. In fact, I was elected to be the associate member president, responsible for the lives and the success of my fellow associates.

What should be no surprise to you by now, is that my brother who is now also my Brother knew what he was doing. There was a reason why those two men moved me into my room on day one. Tom Howell became my new member educator, and Jim Minardo my big brother.

Those next eight weeks for me were not only my time to learn what it meant to be a Phi Tau, “A man of character” they were also my time to detox. Not just from the drugs but from the friends and life I was living up until that time. Those eight weeks and the next four years, instilled me with the knowledge on how to live a life of integrity. A life worth remembering. I was given a handbook, which is called the ritual but, is in fact, a guidebook on living a better life. You all have them too! I was taught what it really meant to lead.

It is because of that knowledge and the ritual of Phi Kappa Tau that three years later, I was not only president of my chapter but one of three undergraduate national councilors for the national organization and the executive director of the largest student run philanthropy in the state of New Jersey. A philanthropy that raised over 235K for kids with cancer.

It is because of that knowledge and the ritual of Phi Kappa Tau that I chose this profession. To give back to students and build bridges to help them succeed where they might fail. To teach them through individual relationships and leadership classes, what Phi Kappa Tau taught me.

It is because of that knowledge and the ritual of Phi Kappa Tau that last year, after three years of work, I helped to start the first Collegiate Recovery Community for students in recovery from addiction in the state of California. A group that, this year, won one of two UC Regents’s awards from the UC system.

It is also because of Phi Kappa Tau that my wife, a Delta Gamma, agreed to marry me.

Your rituals provide for you the same, a code to be better and to lead better. Not just to paint a beautiful picture of the future but to also have the strength of character to create a future that betters the lives of everyone and not just yourselves.

My charge to you, and the point of this story, is to build on the success of this year. Celebrate your excellence and plan to do even better. There are hundreds of students at UC Merced with stories similar to mine who need your leadership. They need your guidance, and your ritual. It will make them better just like it made me and all of you better. You, like me, can build bridges for them and make their lives easier. Then, they can turn around, strengthen the organization, and lead others.

That, to me, is the true value of leadership in Greek Life, something you all have the opportunity to do, to build bridges for and to lead those who come after you. So go out there and lead.

Thank you.

Reflections on NASPA Orlando

This past week I travelled to the annual National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference in Orlando, Florida. Seven years ago I attended my first national conference also in Florida. At that conference I was a first year graduate student  in a sea of over ten thousand attendees. That experience was incredibly overwhelming, I knew no one, was involved in nothing, and had no idea what sessions to attend. I spent most of that conference in my room, and only came out to get food and attend a session that I found particularly interesting. It was definitely not a good conference experience and made me question if involvement was right for me.

Six conferences have past since that day and I have not missed one. My second conference experience was much better because I took a volunteer position on a committee and presented. I was also actively job searching so I started to get to know other participants in the conference. Additionally, it helped that the conference was in Boston, a city I could walk around. Unlike Orlando I felt much less trapped and able to explore on my own. Since that time I have been to Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Arizona, each conference better than the last. In Arizona I was an award winner and that was an experience all to itself. You can see that post here.

Though last year was a great experience, this year was one where I really felt like a full fledged part of the organization. The reason behind this feeling is active involvement. There is a big difference to me between going to a conference and participating in one. I am a networker through doing, not one through meeting. This means that I will get to know people and develop relationships through the work that I accomplish. At this conference I had all sorts of things to do. I was a member of the regional advisory board, a leader in the knowledge communities, and a member of the 2014 regional conference committee.

All of these activities shifted my experience and brought me to meetings, gatherings, and fun receptions. The difference between this year and last was that I have now served on the board for a full year. I am no longer building new relationships, rather growing ones that already exist. Walking through the conference I was never too far away from someone I knew which makes you feel much more engaged in the conference activities. I also was able to attend over a half dozen receptions, some that had full meals and great conversation. I have never been so busy at a conference and yet so content and energized. As my friend Renee said on Monday night, “If you’re whole body hurts, you know you did NASPA right”.

There is also something to be said about being at my second campus and my second job. With a significant portion of new professionals leaving the field after 3-5 years it feels good to be at the entry point to mid-level, people definitely treat you differently. It seems like an unspoken statement of “Ok, you’re here to stay so lets chat”. This may be something to think about moving forward because a lack of acknowledgment and connections could be one reason why people leave. From now on I will make it my business to help new professionals and first time attendees feel connected to the association. I think I also felt much more confident sitting on boards with people at much higher positions now that I am at my second step. Lastly, being at a new campus means that reconnecting with past colleagues is a new adventure. Spending Tuesday night with friends from UCR was great fun, just like spending other meals with friends from graduate school. It is amazing to see where we are all going and what is in store for us in the future.

The last fun thing at the Orlando conference was running into and reconnecting with past employees and others you have helped over the years. I was able to sit down with an old Resident Advisor who worked for me for two years, went to graduate school, and was job searching. It was amazing to see her growth over the past few years and it truly demonstrates the value of the work we do. It was my first “Full circle” experience, and definitely not the last. Additionally, I ran into someone who sat in one of my presentations at a difference conference in my second professional year. He told me that my work with student training molded the programs they did at his campus over the next few years. He said that they pulled out my documents each year to make sure they followed the guidelines to success. It is amazing to see your creations impact campuses in other states in such dramatic ways. Another reason why I know this work is for me.

At the end of the day, the conference is just the pinnacle of each year’s work in NASPA. The more you volunteer and the more good work you do, the better your annual conference experience will be. Over the next year I will continue to serve on the board and see where that involvement takes me. If anything it will help me meet even more people and develop more relationships so that the Baltimore conference will surpass Orlando. Eventually babies may join the party but I’m ready for that change to come and add a new nuance to the conference adventure. Until next year!

NASPA 2012: Oh What a Little Ribbon Can Do!

This past March I visited Phoenix for the annual conference of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA). While I was there I was able to check out four places on my restaurant list which will show up in later posts. I was also able to catch up with friends and colleagues I had met over the past few years. While I have been to NASPA many times before, this time I was able to experience it through three new lenses which made the experience all the more fun.

Lens #1: As a Sole Presenter

I was one of the lucky submitters to be accepted to present a program at this conference. This meant that I had to be prepared and ready to talk for 40 minutes about training student employees in the most effective and innovative way. My presentation was on the last day of the conference which gave me some time to make sure I was prepared but it also made the anticipation reign until my time slot arrived. Presenting was a lot of fun and the attendees were really open to my ideas and shared a bunch of their own. Some even asked for me to send my training documents to them after the conference. Now, some of the work I did is being used to improve training programs at campuses all across the country including Purdue, Northwestern, and Indiana. Pretty cool for a first time presenting all my own information. It is nice to be receive affirmation from colleagues outside of your home institution because then you know you are doing something right.

Lens #2: As a Board Member

Me and outgoing NASPA Executive Director, Gwen Dungy.

Prior to my arrival in Phoenix, I was appointed to a leadership role on the Region VI (CA, HI, AZ) advisory board. This one act altered my conference experience entirely. In the past I would go to between six and ten conference sessions and spend my time learning about various topics. Not this time! In my position on the advisory board I  was presented with the opportunity to begin seeing NASPA from the background. Most of my days were spent in meetings of the regional board and the regional conference committee, trainings of my committee members, and attendance at various meetings of the committees with which I worked. Needless to say I was booked solid from 8am-11pm almost everyday, even the day before the conference began.

The great thing about this lens was that I was able to meet so many different people over a few days. Many of these people being well know and influential “Rock Stars” of the profession. Also, those of you who know me are aware that I am at my best with new people when I have something specific to talk about. This position gave me that pathway to use when meeting people for the first time. At meetings and the knowledge community fair, I went around and met people from dozens of different groups and committees because I could talk about my area of responsibility on the board. For once at a NASPA conference, I was even able to interact with people at the regional reception instead of hanging out by the food and leaving relatively early. Next year, in Orlando, I will have so much more to talk about and it will be that much better!

Lens #3: As an Award Winner

Just two rows back from John Legend!

Ok, so now I am going to be a little vain. In November I was recognized as the outstanding new professional for my region and received an award at the regional conference. I thought that it was over then but wow was I wrong. A few weeks before the conference I received word that my registration was covered by a corporate donation and that I would be recognized at the award luncheon during the conference. In addition, I was invited to a reception for all award recipients with NASPA leadership, had my name in the conference book, and received front row seats at the opening speaker, John Legend.

The last thing I received, which was by far the coolest, was a little “Award Winner” ribbon to put on my name tag. This little ribbon changed everything about the conference. Everyone that met me saw that I was one of those cool people and treated me just a little differently. Striking up conversations was all the more easier because everyone wanted to know what I won. For an introvert who struggles in mundane conversation, this made life really easy for me. It felt like I was a minor celebrity if only for a few days. Part of me wanted to save the ribbon and use it every year but alas that probably wouldn’t work. Oh what a little ribbon can do.


This was by far my best NASPA conference. Seeing it for the first time through these three lenses gave me a great new perspective on an awesome professional association. It only made me want to get more involved in the future. Too bad I can’t win awards every year! Oh, and did I mention that my last perk was that I got to meet and take a picture with John Legend! Not too shabby, not too shabby at all.