Career Learning from My Participation in Bama Rush

Training your organization’s managers to learn about employees’ unique stories and experiences can help in their career development and work performance.

Bama Rush, sorority rush at the University of Alabama, is a hot topic these days, thanks to a movie made last year about it.

It’s funny to see this regional tradition, which I have known about for the last 30 years, suddenly elevated to national attention. It’s most likely different from what I experienced—but probably not by much. The fundamental experience is likely the same.

The lessons I learned from the experience have followed me through my career.

Know How to Pitch Yourself—Fast

In August 1993, sorority rush at UA began with “17 Party,” or “Ice Water Teas.” Those participating in rush were organized into large groups, of at least 50 girls, who visited each of the then-17 sorority houses on campus, for no more than 5 to 10 minutes per house. We were given a small glass of ice water in each house.

After being hailed with a cheer, a “door song,” from young women who looked like they were stacked in a pyramid in the doorway, we entered. Each of us was greeted by a sorority member, who led us through the foyer and into the house with a hand on our back. We then had about five minutes to converse winningly.

In the corporate world, how often do you get your five-minute “ice water tea” opportunity? It could be in a bathroom standing at the mirror washing your hands when you bump into an executive you always wanted to interact with. It could be waiting for the elevator, or when you find yourself enclosed within the elevator with exactly the person you wanted to speak to.

In spring 2008, I was standing in front of the mirror of the ladies room at my former company when I bumped into the editor of a magazine that sent writers all over the world to report on incentive travel. I expressed how lucky I thought she was, and that I would love to do the same—and she gave me my chance less than a week later. I have been traveling throughout the world since then as a writer.

Learn How to Navigate Narrow Cultures

For many of us, an ideal corporate culture would be a progressive one, but we know that is often not the culture of an organization. Many companies are culturally conservative, so in order to be successful, you must navigate within narrow parameters.

I’m a creative and imaginative person by nature, but I quickly learned to parrot how I heard the other young women conversing. My instinct is to veer away from clichéd small talk. I would rather ask, “So what’s your favorite color?” Or “What’s the best vacation you ever took?” I like to slip past the small talk immediately, moving right away into what you might call the icebreaker questions.

That approach doesn’t work in many different settings, including in Southern sorority rush 30 years ago. “How are you doing today?” I had to drone, “Do you live in the house? Do you have a position in the sorority?” I had to ask what I now think of as “marketing” questions.

When on either side of the hiring experience for a conversative organization, you must do something similar. You can’t necessarily ask telling, genuinely interesting questions. You must force yourself as a creative or imaginative person to narrow yourself to get in the door of the organization. Once there, you can work toward change, but initially at least, you must play along.

Managing Rejection

A key part of the Bama Rush experience for me was managing significant rejection. I was a regional outsider, from Connecticut, who was not a legacy in any but one sorority (by first cousin—not sister, mother, or grandmother). I also didn’t have a great GPA from high school. I was an A student by the time I graduated, but the first part of my high school years was bad. I was competing with many women who had strong overall academic records in high school, plus had at least a few generations of women who had been members of some of the sororities.

Every morning during the process, there was what was then called “convocation.” We met in the student union, Ferguson Hall, where we were given a sheet listing the sororities inviting us to return that day. My list was never long.

I had to learn to understand that much of the rejection was outside of my control, based on actions from the past, or elements that I was born into, such as where I came from (outside the region), and did not include legacies.

In the corporate world, when you go through the hiring process, on either end, much of the rejection is outside your control. Maybe your organization is not in the precise industry a candidate wants to be in. Maybe as qualified as you are, you don’t have quite as many qualifications as another candidate. Or, you may never have had a chance at the job because many jobs are filled via a hiring manager’s personal network of contacts.

When training employees in leadership development, both as hiring managers and as employees working toward becoming managers, lessons on managing rejection are critical.

When you receive a rejection, what is your process for thinking through why it happened? Is it instructive at all to think about it, or do you just move forward to the next opportunity? The choices you have in what you do with the information presented by rejection should be explored in leadership development programs.

Cull Lessons from Your Employees’ Unusual Life Experiences

Train managers to take the time to get to know their employees. Many have unique experiences like mine with Bama Rush. Knowing those stories can give you a framework for tackling professional challenges with employees.

If they are struggling with an assignment, the manager can say, “Remember when you were going through Bama Rush, running your last marathon, trying to get your art exhibited in that competitive show…” You may find all the development fodder you need in each of those stories—and you may learn something yourself in the process.

Are your organization’s managers trained to make use of each employee’s unique experiences in their learning and development?