Selecting Student Leadership, and "The best person gets the role"

Several days ago, on the “implicit bias” thread, I stated this:
To address “the best person gets the role”-
Nearly all of the skills needed for a student role in FRC are learned during that role, not before. Choose the position based on who will gain the most from that position, and it will inspire other, new students to put themselves out there without being afraid or thinking “I’m not good enough”

How do your teams choose student leadership, and how much do you formally train/let them learn on their own/ expect them to know beforehand? I am very much against choosing based purely on past experience, and wish to know how other teams approach their decision making and education of student leaders.

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We have an application process. Captains fill out an application (maybe a dozen thought-provoking questions over a couple of pages), then go through an interview, and finally are selected. All other leadership roles have an application (a google form, where the only questions are what role and why they should be chosen).

Taking on a leadership role in an FRC team is a challenge for anyone. They are going to learn something in that role. But some people aren’t up for the challenge just yet. The challenge for us, as mentors on my team, is to identify how a student that isn’t prepared for a leadership role can be coached so they are prepared for it the following year. We don’t just turn someone away from a role - we talk with them about what we want to see from them, and how they can begin to take on some leadership even without the title.

For the most part, leadership roles other than captain are self-selected. We only have 1-2 students apply for them, so it’s pretty easy. Where we do have multiple people applying for a role, after talking with them we can often shift one of them into a different leadership role (one that no one applied for) so they can both grow. It’s like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle, where you need to get all the right pieces in the right places. This is really made possible by having 11 identified leadership positions on the team - everyone has a chance to become a lead of something if they want to work towards it.

Captains can be a whole different challenge to select. Generally speaking, those that apply to be a captain have already been successful in another leadership role, and there’s often not a clear “obvious best choice”, regardless of the criteria you pick. We always aim for two co-captains, and our focus often becomes figuring out who will best work together and compliment each other. These discussions, at times, have taken hours.

The problem I have with picking who will “gain the most” over who might be “be suited” or “more experienced” for it is that these leadership positions can play a significant role in student’s college applications. If someone worked hard to show they were prepared for a role, that hard work should be rewarded and recognized.

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We don’t use a leadership structure with officially titled executive or technical roles during the build season.* I believe the reasoning was along the lines of “you can’t have conflict over a hierarchy without the hierarchy.” The closest we come to leadership roles during the build season is having a team consensus as to who will organize each robot subsystem. One of the subsystem organizers will usually step up as the subsystem integration manager. They are probably the person that an outsider would assume to be the CAD/Mechanical lead.

Competition and offseason roles are decided with an interest survey and interview with coaches and experienced mentors, with occasional student input as necessary. Still no executive (president, captain, etc.) roles, but scouting, pit, drive, strategy, and outreach teams each have a designated member responsible for handling everything associated with their area for the duration of the competition.

Sometimes the build season isn’t as disorganized as it sounds. Sometimes.

*Graduated in 2020, but nothing has changed as far as I know

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The key is defining “best”. Sometimes it’s the natural leader who gets the job, sometimes it’s the kid who has the latent qualities but needs a chance to develop them. In any case, it’s an application process with a short essay, and decided by mentors with input from the previous leadership.

But beware: I know of a team where a completely unacceptable choice applied for the job…and it was the only application. Don’t paint yourself into a corner by process.

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Elections.

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We have committee of mentors vote on the 2 captains. Then that committee plus the 2 captains choose the rest of the leadership team. Anyone that submits a brief application + resume can apply to any position, and everyone gets a 15 - 20 minute interview.

We ask some basic questions such as:

  • Why do you think you are qualified for this position?
  • Do you have any ideas for how to improve the way this Subteam is run?
  • How would you deal with a student that doesn’t follow directions/stay on task?

Students generally only apply for 1 or max 2 positions by their own choice. Occasionally we’ve had to fill a position that nobody applied for, and we fill that with a candidate who applied for a different position but didn’t ultimately get it.

We look for a number of criteria in our leads:

  • years on the team
  • Attendance/motivation
  • Past leadership experience
  • Maturity

We recognize that many kids haven’t had previous leadership experience, so it can sometimes be a learning on the job thing, which we are fine with as long as they genuinely try.

Both 225 and 2481 both have flexible subteam structures and no set student leadership structures except when it comes to setting competition roles – essentially, the students who step up during the season get competition roles, and the students who step up in the shop are ultimately the ones who end up leading their peers when it comes to task completion. Leadership & peer respect are earned via actions vs. slotted in, applied for, or voted on.

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I agree with your last statement, the wording of my original post could use some tweaking. We have a lengthy application process for team captain, including a speech to be made to the team before an election. We do not completely disregard previous experience, but also recognize that a student just may not have had the chance to show their skill.

How effective have your elections been, and are there any touch ups on the votes?
In my experience, elections/votes tend to skew towards popularity than actual abilities and/or knowledge.

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They definitely do, and that’s a shortcoming that we’ve had to deal with. It’s not been perfect in the past. We’ve been fortunate, though - I’ve seen a couple subteam leaders in my time on the team who I thought were not ideally-suited for the position, but never anything that majorly threatened the stability or functionality of the team as a whole.

Despite their drawbacks, I think elections show the most respect towards the student body re: their competence and self-determination. Not every team is in a position where they’re feasible, of course, but I do think it’s a system that has served 449 well.

It helps to make sure that team culture and student satisfaction are ongoing discussions that the whole team is involved in. Team culture requires work - being able to elect suitable leaders is an important piece of cultural capital, and you’ll lose it if you don’t maintain it.

We use purely mentor selection.

Wherever we’ve done elections in the past, the team has fractured into factions and it was a huge pain for all involved. Plus, at the age of most team members, elections are simply popularity contests.

Now, as leadership positions become vacant, we’ll decide on a student we want to fill that role, discuss it with them and if they accept it, it’ll be announced to the team. This works for us because we’re a small enough team that every mentor know every student pretty well. We use two key considerations when deciding who to select:

  • how competent he would be if he were to be appointed without further training/learning
  • how receptive he would likely be to the training/development opportunities he can be expected to receive over the time he is in the role

Obviously, the second consideration is significantly harder to gauge but most years there’s always been a pretty obvious candidate for each role which other students generally accept as well. However, with mentor discretion we are able to recognise talent and give people a chance to develop their skills by giving them smaller leadership roles before they are appointed to the very top.

Finally, though I agree with OP on most things, I differ in seeing most skills in FRC leadership roles as being learnt on the job. I think instead that it’s fairer to say that most skills in student leadership roles require development of existing skills.

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We sort of do a combination of an “election” along with mentor appointment. We have a lot of student leadership positions - but our team size is also very large (probably would have been more than 75 this year if it were a “normal” year).

I think an important part of students having a good experience in a leadership position is understanding roles and responsibilities. The caveat to that is that that simultaneously doesn’t mean some things aren’t their responsibility (ie “that’s not my job”). I usually emphasize that a student leader is responsible for making sure that it gets done via a number of different methods, whether it’s them working on it or them making sure that someone else has it on their plate. To that end, I typically try to refine this a little bit each year with input from the previous years leaders: https://drive.google.com/file/d/12NLfsz75MEaosmS6q6MxZT9u0ffs6hyG/view?usp=sharing. Note I think we probably have too many leadership positions, but not all of these are really leadership so much as defining a role/term/something that needs to be done.

We hold “elections” but mentors have the ability to override any vote. There are certain times that I really want a particular student to be in a particular role because of the quality of work that I’ve seen from them, but it’s clear from the voting that they haven’t earned the trust of their peers yet. It’s not too often that I have the “popularity contest” issue where I need to overrule a vote because someone received the most votes but wouldn’t be a good fit. There have only been a small handful of instances that the votes and who ends up in the leadership roles don’t align.

All that said though, there can be other systems than having student leaders. In a small team where everyone is kind of responsible for everything you do (because you have to keep the scope of work small due to team size/resources) and/or you have the right team culture, you might not even need defined student leaders. I think it might be useful to have ~1 leadership roles per every 10 kids or so, but I have no reasoning/data to back it up. Related - @AllenGregoryIV has gone from a system without student leaders to one with “stewards” which is slightly different than a student leader but it’d be better to get clarification from him on that.

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Elect for the 4 “Club” Roles. president/ vp/ secretary/ treasurer
Select for the team captain, sub-group leads (and seconds if needed).

At competitions, the president and team captain are considered to be equal (think roman consuls ) so we can split the team (awards, robot) and still have student leadership.

So How do we make sure the “best person gets the role”?
Uhh, we don’t. Sometimes the “best person” is a “better” fit for another role. Sometimes we want a “not best person” to grow some leadership skills or grow out of a shell. We do try to prioritize the person who can inspire and guide their peers rather than just the Individual contributor who “crushes it” at a facet of that group.

Oh and sometimes we mess up.
Sometimes we have a bad election where things don’t go as expected (or go exactly as an enterprising yet not “best” student expected)
Sometimes a key student moves in the summer.
Sometimes we place our trust in a student that misuses that trust.

We aren’t going to be perfect. But each year we try to be more perfect than the year before.
We have a yearly student reflection ( that can be anonymous if the student’s choose). to see how the students think things are going.
We have an extensive mentor debrief talking about. …everything, and decide on what can/should be focused/improved for the next year.

To sum up. It’s a process we are perfecting just like everything else. I don’t think it’s perfect yet, but it’s getting there.
We try and prevent problems before they come up, and if we can’t then we rely on a team and community that can openly and honestly deal with the problems as they happen.
I encourage teams to explore and find what works for their students, mentors, and communities.
And remember, there is always next year.

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We’re also in the “flex” and “if you step up, you’ll get leadership of something” boats.

One of the things that isn’t great about it is it puts our students at some level of disadvantage relative to their peers when filling out applications and resumes. I have no formal title for even the best performers to be able to claim.

For the students I trust and who ask about it, my advice has been somewhere on the spectrum from “Here’s a suggestion of what to call yourself” to “eeeh make up whatever you want, I’ll back you up”.

There has been an ask in the past for more formal roles and opportunities, which we started to try to roll out last year. We’ll try more this year too.

Still, my core philosophy - good leadership is service. Real “power” on a team comes from putting in the time and effort to get the work done, not a title. Leadership roles help facilitate easily dividing up work - they aren’t for power or prestige.

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We usually have 9 formal positions: President, VP, Mechanical Design, Machining, Electrical, Programming, Outreach, Media, and Business. Interested students send us a completely open-ended application - we tell them to send us anything that makes the case for why they would be suited for the role, and suggest a resume or cover letter as possibilities.

Then we hold interviews with all the captains, where they are interviewed by the 2-3 mentors who work most closely with that subteam. We ask questions about things like what they think the subteam’s current strengths and weaknesses are, what their priorities would be for things the team needs to improve, what their leadership style would be, what other time commitments they will have next year, and anything else that comes to mind.

Once all the interviews are complete, we have a mentor meeting where all the mentors discuss all the candidates, and we come up with the final list of who the captains will be. It’s a little tricky because generally we’re somewhat short on candidates and lots of people apply for more than one role, so we have to balance out what will be the strongest overall leadership team - filling every position and trying to avoid double-appointments is almost as much a factor as who is the “best candidate” for each specific role. “Best candidate” is a mix of past technical experience, past dedication/reliability, showing leadership in the past, enthusiasm, and what their general approach will be to leading the subteam (based on what we’ve seen from them before as well as what they said in the interview). We know no one will be perfect right off the bat, and discuss how much/what kind of mentor support each of our final choices will need in order to be successful. Most years we end up with several captains who we know will struggle a bit, but who we believe will be able to grow into the role with the right coaching. It almost always works out well, and is a great growth experience for those captains.

We also emphasize that we will make sure anyone who applies but doesn’t get a formal captainship will get other opportunities to develop as a leader, and keep an eye out for specific projects or responsibilities they can be given.

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We use an application process and sometimes encourage specific people to apply. Team Captain and sub team leads are almost always Grade 11. The next year in Grade 12 they become advisors. The school workload in Grade 12 tends to be heavier as they’re working to get into their choice of university and have less time for FIRST. It also allows us to use more students in a leadership role. The advisors have always been great. The process has worked well over the 6 years since we started the team.

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We really only have one role to fill, as we are a small team. Team captain is voted on by the team, with the caveat that coaches have veto power. we stress that the role needs to be filled by the person suited best, not popularity, and haven’t had to veto anyone that I’m aware of. ( I’ve only been involved for 8 years.) Our sub group leads are mostly determined by the coaches/mentors, based on availability, and ability. Due to the size of the team, we may have a group or two with only one team member. One factor that plays into our team size is that we demand that team members keep grades up. Grades of D or F means that the member can’t do anything until the grade is a C or better. We allow them to attend meetings with a D, but they have to work on their homework. With an F, they aren’t allowed to be in attendance.