I had been dreaming about it my entire life – the day when someone would give me the opportunity to coach at the highest level of the game. Yet when it happened so much sooner than I had ever imagined, all I wanted to do was give it right back.
Many of us imagine such a moment – taking a giant leap in our careers, the added responsibility, that big pay raise. Yet rarely are we prepared when the role is thrust upon us; our predecessor moves on for some reason or another, our boss hands us the keys, and our team looks to us expecting an eloquent speech full of all the right answers.
Yet what actually happens is far from what we imagined. The reality is that in such transitions, we ourselves are full of questions, lost deep within our own insecurities, searching desperately for the answers. We carry an overwhelming burden because we suddenly realize that from this moment on, whatever happens is our responsibility. We are the boss.
Where is our organization headed? Who should sit where? And why in the world did we get picked to figure this all out? Hundreds of questions, thousands of expectations, and zero time to make sense of any of them. An instant so full of hope, and yet also filled with so much anxiety and uncertainty.
I was 26 years old when I became the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Nebraska – Omaha, the youngest collegiate basketball coach in the country by far. It was the first day of practice and our Athletics Director, Trev Albert, called me and said, “We’re making a change, and we need someone to lead our program. I believe that someone is you.” I still vividly remember going into the locker room and telling the players that the coach that had recruited them would not be returning, and that I was their new leader. It was difficult for me to process what was happening, much less for the student-athletes to comprehend. The new leader and her befuddled followers, equally dazed and confused.
Not surprisingly, the next few weeks and months of my interim head coaching tenure was an absolute whirlwind. My back was against the wall, future unknown. Yet amongst all the pressure and uncertainty, I was able to focus acutely on the most important task at hand – proving to my athletics director, staff and team that I was more than just a short-term solution.
In reflecting on that period, I’ve come to identify several critical questions I asked myself, and whose answers helped steer me on a path towards success. It’s my firm belief that finding the answer to these questions is necessary for any interim leader in collegiate athletics – whether coach or administrator – who seeks to make a positive impact during their time at the helm.
Having a fundamental understanding of why you were picked to lead in the situation at hand when there were so many other options is of the utmost importance. Perhaps the simplest answer is that you were more experienced than any of the other available candidates. If that’s the case then it should at the very least provide you with some level of confidence in your abilities – you may not feel better prepared, but under the circumstances you have a leg up on those around you in terms technical proficiency.
It’s also important to recognize that very few of your subordinates (if any) are going to be excited to be reporting to you. While you might have been selected because you happen to be the ‘most qualified’, you have almost no credibility built up from a managerial standpoint. The fact that you suddenly have decision making power over people you were equals with only days before is not going to be taken very well by most. Indeed, upon taking the job at Omaha, I immediately lost one of my assistants, who left in fear that she might not have a job at the end of the season. But I didn’t dwell on it, pivoting immediately to building credibility with the rest of my staff and players.
What are you trying to accomplish?
In line with the why, is the what – what is it that your superior(s) expect you to do? Are you there to: Be a temporary bridge in an already well-performing organization? Biding time until a new plan is figured out? Get the team into shape for when a new full-time leader is appointed? Rebuild the reputation of an organization that has been tarnished?
The reality is that most situations in college athletics that involve interim leadership usually come about as a result of your predecessor being fired or resigning. As such, you are likely in a disadvantageous position from a resource and personnel standpoint – after all there’s a reason why the other person got canned. That being said, this also likely means that expectations are quite low. Your student-athletes, fan base and the university community at large probably don’t view you as a panacea, which means even the slightest improvement to your team or department can give you a major leg up in proving you’re worthy of a permanent position.
What does success look like to your Athletics Director and/or President?
This question is inherently different than the previous – here you are trying to identify what the best-case scenario is for your superior in this situation under the circumstances. Clearly your boss wants you to have some sort of success in the interim role – but how much? Are you being assessed strictly on wins and losses or some other quantitative metric tied to your role? In addition, there could be any number of dynamics at play below the surface in assessing your performance that you may not be aware. It’s on you to try and gain a deeper understanding of what those making the decisions are hoping to accomplish.
Remember also that as an interim coach or athletics director, your immediate superior is likely responsible for what happened to your predecessor, and is most certainly on the hook for your own performance. Thus, they have a vested interest in ensuring the best possible outcome for your own success. They are looking for any opportunity to hire you permanently, but you may have to help them discover what it is that you must accomplish to give them enough credibility to do just that.
Where can you find help?
Your success is your boss’ success, which means you shouldn’t hesitate to ask them for help. What formal training opportunities are available to you? You may not be able to turn into a great leader overnight, but it can help make the technical learning curve that much easier if do have access to professional development resources and mentoring.
This exactly what I did when I took the reins at Omaha, and my AD immediately referred me to his former football coach – the legendary Tom Osborne of Nebraska. I was admittedly very intimidated when I went to meet with him, expecting to be overwhelmed with information pertaining to the micromanagement of running a program. To my surprise, our interaction was literally quite the opposite; Coach Osborne barely said a word to me during our discussion, choosing to mostly listen. The character, humility and extreme calmness he exuded was evidence of a man that seen leadership from every different position possible. Indeed, the guidance and advice he gave me can be summed up in three succinct points:
1) Always be yourself, people will follow authenticity
2) Always put culture first and do the right thing for the long term
3) Always find a way to unify a group around a specific, tangible vision
In literally an hour, my entire perception of what it meant to be a leader was transformed. Every bit of trepidation and self-doubt that I had had during those first few days and weeks began to dissipate. Coach Osborne demonstrated that being a great coach had nothing to do with being calloused or overbearing. Indeed, some of the greatest leaders in the world are also often the quietest people in the room, instead choosing to focus intensely on listening and learning.
What are the risks to the organization?
Perhaps the most important of all questions is determining what stands in the way of your success, both from an organizational standpoint and from your own personal perspective. To the former, you should work to immediately detect what crises may be brewing with your organization. You should work diligently to identify the most pressing issues to be confronted, along with the ones that may arise in the near future because of this sudden transition. Moreover, are you and your team equipped with the tools, experience and authority necessary to address these issues? If not, you should have a frank conversation with your boss about gaining access to those resources, or risk the program sinking deeper into quicksand.
In addressing these risks, you should also use it as an opportunity to engage your team and build credibility. Above all, don’t tell people what to do – they will resent you for it and create further divide. Instead, focus on asking for ideas and input and appeal to their wisdom and experience. Remember, there is a tremendous distinction between “having your say” and actually being heard, which is why a genuine willingness to listen to the opinions of your team is a compelling sign of your commitment to changing the culture of the program. By including everyone in your organization – from the interns to the executives – in critical discussions, you will come up with any number of different approaches to dealing with problems, while also generating buy-in from those individuals.
Even in answering these questions, you must be prepared for a difficult journey to building credibility. While my athletics director promoted me to full-time head coach after we went 7-5 in my first two months at the helm, the change in title did little to immediately ease the challenges I faced as a young leader. Although I felt immense support from those around me, I was also aware that pretty much no one thought I should be in the position I was as the youngest head coach in the country. Not only did I have to fight to gain respect for myself, but I had to do it while also doing the same for a program with no history.
There were countless instances where I faced older coaches, administrators, and parents making comments about my youth, inexperience, and many times insulting my intelligence by interjecting their ideas under the assumption that I was incapable of knowing what to do in a given situation. There wasn’t a road trip that went by where people didn’t go up to one of my male assistants and ask them their thoughts, always assuming they were in charge and asking me what year in school I was. Being a leader in college athletics is hard enough, being a young female leader can sometimes present an entirely new level of challenges.
Yet amongst all the noise, I never let it distract me or my team from what we had set out to accomplish. While we stumbled many times in those early days, and it often felt as though we were climbing a mountain whose peak we couldn’t see, I also understood the importance of maintaining a stable and grounded presence for my program through such difficult times. Rather than let my student-athletes and staff become phased by the changes occurring around them – from having a new head coach to transitioning to Division I – we instead took pride in keeping our heads down and focusing on how we could create our own cultural identity and find ways of getting better together. The adversity was in many ways empowering – we all understood that we were going to have to work twice as hard, embrace the underdog mentality and earn the respect of our opponents and peers.
Truth be told, the opportunities and burdens presented by sudden leadership are not all that different than those faced by individuals who have been in such roles for many years. As Coach Osborne once said, “The odds are always against you no matter what your previous history is.” The difference between those who are successful in leading others and those that are not has nothing to do with age, gender or even experience. What makes the difference is the willingness to leave your ego at the door, to be humble in the face of opportunity, and to always remember that in the game of life you won’t be judged on how many games you’ve won or lost, but rather on how many lives you impacted along the way.