Hey there, I’m on a team that’s now going into it’s 3rd year, and this year I’m running for team captain. Our rookie year, our mentors picked a captain, a grade 12 student, and our second year, they let us nominate candidates ourselves, have the nominees do a speech/presentation, and then we all voted on them. This year, at our first meeting, I asked how elections would be done and was told that the mentors would nominate students based on if they passed a “strict criteria”, which will include past contributions to the team, etc. After the nominating process, “if” there were more than two nominees, we’d get to vote. My concern is that this way, the election isn’t fully focused on who the students want as captain. I’m also worried that they’ll use this as a cover to pick the captain themselves, by only nominating one student. From what they’ve said it sounds quite possible that there might only be one nominee. What do you guys think? Is this an ok way to choose a captain or not?
Every team may have different needs
What can be a problem for strictly student nomination and votes is that it can either 1) be a popularity contest or 2) students pick who they think is the “best” or “smartest” at robotics in an earnest attempt to select a captain. However, being the best robot builder, best designer, or even the most dedicated student does not make for the best team leader. Leadership qualities are sometimes hard to understand/describe and what leadership qualities are most needed may change from year to year and of course team to team.
The process we do is students and mentors can nominate potential co-captains. Then we take a vote where students can vote for as many people as they want, but students don’t know any details of the vote. Mentors take that as input, basically so mentors know if a potential co-captain is respected by their peers. Mentors have final say however - if we feel someone does not show adequate leadership skills we will select someone who does
Your points about elections turning into a popularity contest/picking the best student definitely make sense, so I guess it’s not too big of an issue that it’s not an open nomination process, I’m just still worried that our mentors might not really nominate anybody besides one or two people, and that since the students won’t be able to nominate anybody themselves, we’ll be left with very few choices for who to vote for
There are probably hundreds of different processes out there, no single one is better than the others. It’s a question of finding what works best for your team and your culture. I recommend working with the mentors and other student leaders to create a team handbook that would help define this process (among other things), so it’s a more stable process and changes to it are only made after spelling out the reasons for the changes. Our handbook only has minor changes each year, and those only happen after significant discussion around why something needs to change and how best to address whatever the issue was. They key to this is that the current captains are involved in any such discussion and change, and are responsible for disseminating the change to the rest of the team from there - we never have a “gap” where mentors can sneak in changes no one knows about - that seems to be the root of this problem, as you’ve had a different process each year, and that lack of consistency can lead to a lack of faith in the process.
Ultimately, this seems to boil down to a question of your team culture, something that each team needs to define for itself. Saying “or someone who they can just order around” seems to point to a lack of trust and faith in your mentors, which shouldn’t be present for a team with a strong, established culture. Approaching it from a Team Handbook perspective, getting stuff written down so everyone is clear on the expectations of how the team will be run, is really the first step towards establishing a culture that’ll last well beyond when you graduate.
For what it’s worth, here’s our student lead selection process, from our handbook:
- Early April: Captains/Mentors send out the application forms and dates for the process
- Late April: Applications are due
- Early May: Captain (for the upcoming year) interviews happen
- Early May: Mentors meet to choose captains
- Mid May: Mentors meet with each captain applicant individually to inform them of their decision and to discuss where they think the applicant can have the biggest impact on the team, especially if they are not selected as a captain
- Mid May: Mentors meet with the new captains to get their input on student leads, and select those leads
- Mid May: Mentors meet with each lead applicant individually to inform them of their decision and to discuss where they think the applicant can have the biggest impact on the team, especially if they are not selected as a lead (If timing does not permit a meeting, this will be accomplished via email.)
- Late May: All student lead positions are announced at the team banquet
Between options 2 and 4 we usually send out a survey to the entire team to get their input on the captains (we usually have 2 co-captains) - but that input is non-binding. Think of it like a mentor veto - if the survey returns something we think wouldn’t be good for the health of the team, we can go in a different direction. That’s because of what @ahartnet talked about - popularity contest, or picking someone that is completely unsuited. The application and interview process gives us a chance to determine which students are interested, what their other commitments are, what they think their duties would be, and what they want to change/keep the same within the team. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we’ve had students present awesome ideas during the application/interview process… and if we end up going with someone else for the position, those students are usually given other leadership responsibilities that put them in a position to implement their ideas anyways, with our full support.
Our team culture and structure definitely needs some improving, yeah. We’ve had talk of creating a student handbook, but never a mentor handbook, or a even a general team handbook. We usually just do whatever the mentors decide to do, and we’re not part of those discussions. We were actually supposed to do this election at the end of last year, but the mentors never decided how to do it and we never got any input, so now they’re happening now. Part of my reason for running for captain is so that I could at least bring new ideas (like the handbook) to the table, otherwise I don’t think I’d be given the opportunity to do that. The few times I’ve brought up concerns that I’ve had about various things with the mentors went nowhere.
Honestly on my team I pick the captains. Generally this an organic process where leaders work hard and emerge as obvious choices.
We are not a large team so this isn’t really a difficult process. On rare occasions where the choice isn’t obvious I’ll informally gather more opinions from other students and mentors.
I don’t think this would really work for a large team so YMMV.
Another important question, is it bad for mentors to pick? Through the discussion, you seem to frame it in a negative light. Why is that? There is plenty of team’s from other subject that coaches choose their team captain. It’s not necessary bad. (It could be, but less than you’d think)
Ultimately, figure out why you don’t like how it works. Is it due to team culture? Not enough student choice? Other concerns? Bring those up with you mentors. Ask them their thoughts as well. Get to know their thinking, and why it reverted. For some reasons, they can’t always tell you, but opening a dialogue is definitely a good place to start.
As others have said, whether your team captain selection process is ok or not depends on your team culture. From your responses, it sounds like your team is more mentor lead, and students are not typically involved in the decision making process. I am not going to comment on if that’s good or not, but if you, and other students feel that you would like things to be more transparent and would like more student input in the decision making process, then the only way that’s going to happen is if the students unite and push for that.
On my team, every student is eligible to apply for captain positions (We have Co-Captains, Robot and Business). Each candidate submits an application with a resume, and then does an interview. The mentors then choose the captains by voting. Each candidate is given a follow-up meeting where the mentors give them feedback on their strengths, and areas that they can improve. From there, the sub-team lead applications use the same process, except now the previously chosen captains are now included in the interview and voting process. This has worked really well for us the past few years. In the past we have done full team votes, but that can result in popularity contests as others have noted above.
You are on a third year team. 2177 is over 10 years old and they are STILL changing their handbook.
Year one: Mentors picked captain
Year two: Students nominated leaders
Year three: Mentors pick nominees, students vote if more than two
Sounds to me like your mentors are going through an iterative process to pick team leaders and you are hurt because you expected that the process wouldn’t change.
I also detect a bit of suspicion on your part where you don’t trust the mentors and/or the process.
Look at how 2177 does it.
Students work with mentors. Why do you feel it’s an us vs. them situation?
Work with other student leaders. A team captain should be able to work well with the mentors AND the other student leaders.
Define the process. It sucks that your team process isn’t stable so be the leader you think you are and do what you can to MAKE IT STABLE.
To be fair, we’ve had a lot of evolution over the years
When we first started, it was very much a “mentors make the decisions” sort of team - we didn’t know any better, and since we didn’t know what we were doing in the first place, we didn’t even know enough to guide the students towards decisions themselves.
Lots of student turnover our first few years - we graduated half the team our rookie year, and all but 4 students our second year. So our third year was almost like a second rookie season, except now the mentors knew what we were doing.
We finally got ourselves on a sustainable recruitment path, and had students growing up with the program. That meant that our culture was starting to change, the students were taking on more leadership and the mentors were stepping back. It wasn’t always smooth or easy, but it was a good thing. Everything seemed like small changes until 2011, when the student leadership approached us and proposed a “no mentor line” at competition. That was a big change - they didn’t want mentors in the team pit, unless specifically asked to help with something. Incidentally, that was why I started volunteering as an inspector
After that, more small incremental changes, with another big one occurring in 2014, largely due to the force of personality of our captains. The drove the team in a way that really surprised us, and it seemed natural for mentors to take another big step back.
Our last big change was in the 17/18 school year, when the incoming captains took on the daunting task of rewriting our entire team handbook and restructuring the team. All positives, it’s worked out really well for us. It also led us from having a single team handbook to having a whole “team bible” with handbooks for the team, leads, and mentors, as well as action plans for every leadership position and long-term (7-year) vision documents for the major aspects of the team. What started as a “We need to rewrite the handbook, it’s not very good” turned into a complete re-imagining of everything that backs the team, and really helped to set in stone the culture we had already built.
I’m not saying we went about getting to where we are in the best way, or that where we are is even the best we can be - we’re still tweaking and learning and growing as an organization. But, at least for us, the biggest changes have always come from the students and their drive to make the team better. Mentors have to be willing to listen, have to be willing to make changes. Sometimes the changes won’t be everything you want, sometimes it’ll seem like things are moving slowly. It’s not about reaching the end goal immediately, it’s about working together to make those incremental changes over time that eventually get you there.
For the past few years, our team has been changing our process for captain/leadership selection, but we’ve settled on a process for the past two years that seems to work for us. Basically, we have a process with mentors and/or the previous year’s team captains where everyone who is interested in holding a leadership role is interviewed. Based on this interview (which mainly just tells us what it is the candidate’s goals are for being on leadership, what they would do differently, etc) and what we have seen from them in their time on the team, we pick the candidates who we feel are best for the job (we includes mentors and the previous year’s captains). After this, we have a vote amongst the students to allow them to veto the decision. We found that this gives a good balance between picking candidates who will uphold team values and have the right vision for the team, and also not picking captains who will not effectively be able to lead the team.
In the past, we have had a process where leadership was just determined by a student vote. Let me preface my thoughts on this with my thoughts on my team’s students: we have some truly incredible students on our team, and given the right knowledge and background, I would trust them to make the right decisions for leadership (or any robot decisions or whatever) any day. However, what I’ve seen from having the student body vote on these types of positions is that it leads to picking candidates for the wrong reasons.
The following situation is a hypothetical based loosely on our team. Let’s say there’s a significant group of students who are, for example, frustrated that they didn’t get a chance to work on the robot in pits at competition. The next year, when there are elections, some candidate comes up and talks about what they want to do differently, and says that they will ensure that every student who wants to be in the pits will be able to do so. This candidate does not have bad intentions (and for that matter, neither do these frustrated students) — they want to do what the students want, and they don’t see why more students can’t be in pits. The issue, of course, is that the candidate did not have to make the decision of who would be allowed in pits, and did not have to consider the consequences of that decision on other aspects of the team.
Now, let’s say that candidate wins the election because of this. When competition season rolls around, this well intentioned new captain now comes to realize exactly why it was that pit crew did not include everyone on the team. The captain can now either break their promise from when they were elected, or make a decision that they no longer agree with.
The above situation is just a hypothetical, and is not meant to be a value judgement on which pit approach is actually the better approach for a team (not to mention the many ways this particular situation could have been resolved while still having student elections). However, the larger point is that from what I have seen, at least for my team, we were better served by having team leadership determined by people who have had to make these decisions in the past. We still do, of course, get feedback from the students on the team on what they would like to see changed (via a full team season review meeting, surveys, etc).
Thanks for all the great advice everyone! At this point you guys have made me realize that it’s not a bad thing to have more mentor involvement in our captain elections. It’s definitely not a me vs. them scenario, but I’ll admit I was definitely overly suspicious of them for really no reason. As for our team culture and structure I’m definitely gonna push for some kind of handbook this year. Thanks again!
Depending on how many team members there are, there may be only one or two committed team members with the right qualities. I have been on teams where in a particular year, there were no good candidates.
Don’t be surprised that mentors want a say in issues such as this one. They are investing their time and money (they often have to pay for their own travel expenses) in your team.
While there are lots of valid ways to select team captains, I will say that in my own opinion, what you’ve described doesn’t sound great. Student elections can be effective (although I’m personally not a big fan), and mentors selecting team captains can be effective, but the one thing that tends to breed discontent is mentors saying it’ll be an election but actually overriding the student vote or making sure only the candidate they would choose gets on the ballot.
For what it’s worth, on both teams I’ve worked with, team captains were chosen by the mentors, with input from the previous year’s student captains. The general reasoning is that the team is run like a business, and businesses are not democracies. Like in a business, open leadership positions are announced and students apply, then a panel of people higher-up in the management structure discuss and make a decision. We want to avoid the situation where someone gets elected captain because they’re funny and personable, instead of because they’ve worked hard, been dependable, and shown strong leadership. The previous year’s captains give us the “student perspective”, to let us know who they’ve been training and who may have red flags (or green flags) that the mentors may not have observed.
But student elections work well for some other teams, too. The most important thing is to be honest - if the mentors want to make the decision themselves, they should be upfront, and not have fake elections where they’re actually controlling the outcome (not that this is necessarily what’s happening in your case, but it sounds like that’s what you’re concerned about).
Just to toss another datapoint into “how do teams choose leaders,” I’ll toss 2102’s process in here.
We have five elected student leadership positions:
Any interested students can apply. Elections are a three day process. To start, each candidate writes up a one pager on their qualifications and goals which are open for anyone to see. On the first day of elections, candidates give a 3-5 minute speech on why they’re running and why they’d be good for the job. On day two, there’s an open discussion and Q&A session where students and mentors can ask candidates about themselves and their plans & goals for the team. Day three is voting. Mentors can participate in discussions, but don’t get a vote in the election.
I’ll admit, it’s not always the best process. We sometimes get students running engineering because they’re the best engineer rather than the best leader. Team President sometimes turns into a popularity contest (and sometimes that’s okay! People listen to people they like). Sometimes there are students who don’t see themselves as leaders, even though the mentors think they’d be great for the job. On the whole though, we end up with capable students at the helm. Mentor involvement waxes and wanes to fill any gaps that pop up, and we’re fine with that.
Also concur on the “it depends” statements. Our team has gone from elections to the teacher who oversees the program unilaterally making decisions and everything in between. We also don’t have a defined structure each year either.
In 2017, we had a team president and a few “leads”. It turned out a first year senior came in and was one of those once in every decade students who ended up actually running the team by the end of the season because of his technical competence, work ethic, and likability (students, parents and mentors loved this kid).
Last season, we had a lot of great kids but they needed a bit more support from the mentors to be successful. We basically made two co-captains and more sub-team breakout with much more mentor support than we’d normally do.
This season, we have 2 kids are on the opposite of that scale where we may tell them that they’re co-captains and let them define their structure and sub-team setup however they want and that they’re responsible for the leadership structure.
The one thing I’ve said on here a bunch is that if you’re not a formal leader don’t let it knock you down. My example in 2017 happens more than you’d think where your attitude and work ethic go a long way (every year we have kids who aren’t “leaders” required to attend our mentor/leader meetings because of those qualities).
Here’s what our team does:
It’s called: “Don’t have a captain.”
Works pretty good.
You guys are such Rebels.
Spectrum has operated without elected or appointed leadership positions for the past 9 years, (except for positions at events which we have a nomination process for drive, pit team etc). Team members take on responsibilities with the work that they put in and it’s every team members responsibility to make sure that the team is successful.
The Valve Handbook for new employees describes a “Flatland” and goes into more depth about how it empowers people to get more done.
Who represents the team during alliance selection?