Alumni Column – Stepping Up to the Plate

Bob Smoler '79

Upon graduating Colgate, a great many of us hope that our education will catapult us into leadership positions in our chosen profession. Yet many of the characteristics of great leaders aren’t necessarily taught in our classrooms. Great leaders know what it means to take personal responsibility for their organizations and the people that work in them. They see the big picture and understand what calculated risks need to be taken to move their organizations forward. They aren’t afraid to experiment and they aren’t afraid to fail. Great leaders are also very well organized and are capable of bringing all kinds of people together to accomplish a common goal. Unfortunately, there is no course at Colgate called Risk Taking 101 or Advanced Motivating People 320. This begs the question, where does a student gain experience in leadership during their time at Colgate? The answer is by getting actively involved in the numerous extra-curricular and community service opportunities that exist on campus.

While it can take years to reach the top of a large organization, Colgate’s size makes leadership opportunities in various clubs, athletic teams, Greek and theme houses, student government, community service organizations, etc. accessible to virtually every student on campus. All the student has to do is demonstrate the will and initiative to get involved. Such was my situation 30 years ago. As a sophomore on campus not really knowing what I was interested in, I attended a meeting for a new entity called the Big Brother, Big Sister Organization (now called Side Kicks). The student who founded BB/BS was looking for people to help him out and even though I had no clue as to what I was getting involved in, I volunteered. A few months later I was nominated to head the organization with a charge to build it into an established entity on campus. Over the next two years I had an opportunity to work with local school officials, young children and their parents, vendors, Colgate student volunteers, my faculty advisor and other Colgate administrators. I developed marketing, sales, organizational, budgeting, customer service and team building skills. By the time I was a senior, the Big Brother Big Sister Organization had over 250 Colgate students and over 250 elementary school students participating in the program. Our annual Thanksgiving Dinner, which brought together Colgate students, little brothers and sisters and their families and a host of other people, also gave me a chance to contribute toward creating a positive relationship between the Colgate community and the Town of Hamilton.

In addition to my experiences with BB/BS, my involvement in the Greek System also helped to build skill sets I would use later on. In particular, I happened to attend a meeting of the Inter-Fraternity Council as a representative of my house, Phi Delta Theta, some time in the fall of 1978. I forget what the issue was at the time, but the meeting broke up after a conflict occurred among several of the houses. Unwilling to accept the fracture, several of my brothers and I got on the phone and got all of the houses to agree to come to a meeting where we worked the issue out. As part of the resolution, I was elected to the newly created position of V.P. of the Inter-Fraternity Council for Intra-Fraternity Affairs. The position was a recognition by the houses that we needed to spend as much energy ensuring we enjoyed good relations with each other as we spent making sure we had good relations with non-Greek entities. Programs such as a brotherhood dinner exchange and joint community service and social events helped provide more cohesiveness on fraternity row.

Eight years after graduating Colgate, I joined a young start up Health Maintenance Organization in NYC as its Vice President of Sales. I found that the exact same skills and abilities that I had used to build the Big Brother Big Sister organization and strengthen relationships among the fraternities were the skills that were necessary to build my new company. With time and perseverance, my colleagues and I were able to grow the organization into a substantial enterprise.

My point here is that there are outstanding opportunities at Colgate to prepare yourself for the role(s) in life that each of you hopes to ascend to after graduation. It is true that these learning opportunities aren’t as scheduled out or supervised as are classroom activities. Nonetheless, by taking initiative, getting involved and seeking out leadership opportunities, you can lay the groundwork for the leadership role(s) you hopefully will hold after graduation.