ACM was a significant part of my college experience, as I went from being a member to being Hack Chair, then eventually became the leader of a fifty-officer organization. I learned a number of lessons while running ACM, especially during this past year as President. Being a student leader was challenging but rewarding knowing that I was part of the movement to improve the overall community.
As President, I often pictured ACM as a series B startup given the the number of active officers and our rapid growth of audience. In fact, ACM was only founded three years ago and was uncertain about its direction and structure. I witnessed the transition of our organization from trying to survive to running efficiently and autonomously with more emphasis on the quality of products (in our case the products are events and projects). It was the collective effort of all officers who were passionate about the same mission for making UCLA a more inclusive and friendly tech community. Today, ACM has grown into a predominated vehicle of shaping the tech culture on campus.
Before I took on the role as President, I had many ideas on how to make ACM better. Some of them worked out well, and others failed unpleasantly. This past year of experiences had really expanded my perspective on how to run an organization effectively. The lessons I learned may not universally apply to every organization, but they at least helped me become a more open-minded person.
Below are the most valuable lessons I gained that shaped my views on leadership.
8 Major Lessons I Learned
- People are the most valuable asset of an organization. If I can only take one lesson with me, this would be it. I used to think that ideas and products are more important for an organization. However, without the right people, the ideas cannot be fulfilled and the products cannot be polished. As for ACM, our officers were very ambitious and talented individuals who sacrificed their time for something greater than mere personal accomplishments. The result was an exponential growth compared to that of earlier years.
- The growth of an organization is strongly correlated to the degree of freedom in its employees. Giving more ownership to an individual will enable the person to accomplish more. Instead of limiting what an individual or a group can do, an organization should give the flexibility and credits to their work. Many ACM officers went beyond their responsibilities to bring in new events and projects when our organization set the rules open-ended.
- Diversity facilitates innovation and mediates flaws in an organization. As we recruited more people with different backgrounds, we realized our internal flaws and made immediate actions to address these issues. For example, two new officers strongly encouraged ACM to take actions on fixing the existing biases in the UCLA CS department and the Los Angeles K-12 system. As a result, we put in more resources on organizing CS outreach events at local high schools and started to host diversity workshops internally for awareness.
- Communication is key to a robust and sustainable organization. It is important for leadership to convey direction clearly and ensure certain communication channels are transparent. Meetings, wiki, and reports are all good ways of making sure everyone is on the same page. The less the miscommunication and confusion, the faster the whole organization will move.
- 80% of the organization’s culture is defined by its core leaders. The number 80 is rather arbitrary, but it emphasizes that the leaders are the strongest influence on an organization’s culture given their authority and credibility. If a leader encourages hackathons and tech talks, an organization will more likely to own a culture of idea sharing and creativity (aka. Facebook). As President, I encouraged officers to take risks and join a young company, resulting in an increasing number of officers going to startups. A leader should not overlook his or her power on setting the culture and strive to build an environment that welcomes the best talents.
- The potential of an organization relies on the vision of its leadership. Leadership should be capable of foreseeing potential and not being afraid to make decisions that seem illogical at the moment. Everyone has different opinions and oftentimes it will cause strong disagreement internally. Although voting can solve some of these problems, it might potentially lead the organization to a wrong direction. Therefore, it is necessary for the leadership to be stubborn in their vision in certain occasions and make a move that is best in a long run. But the leader should still stay open-minded and keep the ideas in the back of their minds.
- Develop a systematic approach to tackle unsolved problems more efficiently. The reason why I added the term “systematic” is because humans work more effectively if there are goals and bite-sized instructions. This involves setting goals and strategies, forming a specialized committee, and other concrete logistical details on tackling the problem.
- Be optimistic. Last but not least, an organization should stay optimistic and believe that they can achieve their goals. It sounds rather cliche, but sometimes people can lose hope easily when things go wrong. If necessary, the leadership should take action to boost the overall confidence.
In general, it is not easy to be a leader. If things are going well you get some credits. But if things go wrong, you can be potentially responsible for all the blames. That is exactly why leadership is a difficult task. It is a life-long learning process for every individual who aims to make a difference in society.
Edit (5/18): We received good news the day after I uploaded this post. UCLA ACM won the 2016-2017 ACM Student Chapter Excellence Award for Outstanding Chapter Activities (the best ACM chapter in the world)!