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College Athletics Leadership And The Rigor To Succeed

8 min read

As college athletics has turned into a multi-billion dollar business seemingly overnight, never before has there been a need for stronger leadership at the institutional level to manage huge staffs and budgets in the tens if not hundreds of millions. Yet while many have attempted to analogize the position of a collegiate athletics director to that of a chief executive of a major corporation, the reality is that such comparisons are often unresolvable and may ultimately be useless.  Anyone who understands the fundamentals of management and business operations will tell you that in terms of difficulty, it’s not even close… being an AD is much harder than a CEO.


Every major corporation in the world shares fundamentally the same organizational structure when it comes to producing revenue. The majority of the employees within the company are hired to either directly produce or manage revenue generating processes, and a small number of employees are hired to help support them with non-revenue producing but essential tasks (i.e. human resources). In corporations that have several divisions, and one or two are making a significantly larger contribution to the bottom line than others, rarely does a company choose to maintain those low performing divisions for very long.


The organizational model in college athletics is entirely different. While a particular department may employee several hundred highly skilled workers, have over two dozen individualized “divisions of labor”, and as whole may produce in excess of a hundred million dollars in yearly revenue, exactly two of those, football and men’s basketball, are responsible for generating 99% of that revenue. Moreover, unlike any other major corporation in the world, almost the entirety of the revenue is inexorably linked to exactly two individuals, the head coach of the football and basketball teams.


While generating revenue is not the primary goal of an athletics department, the fact that so much of the organizations ability to operate depends on the output of so few people causes a paradigm shift when it comes to accountability. From an institutional standpoint, there is tremendous pressure on athletic directors to make a correct hiring decision when it comes to filling these two roles. Likewise, because there is so much riding on their shoulders, football and basketball are forced to operate at an extremely high level and consistently so. That is why coaches are terminated with such frequency if positive results are not immediate.


There is also an entirely different set of accountability issues when it comes to other members of the organization as a whole. Based on natural focus on basketball and football, a dichotomy is created where other employees within the athletics department operate in an environment in which they are inherently held to a different standard than their counterparts. While a field hockey or tennis coach may be expected to win by nature of their job description, from a purely economic standpoint, whether they are successful or not makes no difference to the overall athletics bottom line. While an athletics director may never openly admit this to themselves or anyone else, it still causes them to have a different set of accountability bias towards such individuals. If the pressure is not their win, and it makes no difference to the bottom line, the margin for leniency suddenly becomes substantially larger.


Understanding this fundamental difference allows us to not only appreciate the significant challenges that college athletics leaders face, but also provides a framework for determining the characteristics a modern athletic director needs to be successful. Athletics Director Jim Phillips of Northwestern University understands that beyond leading from the front, managing the accountability dynamic from the get go is essential to running a successful athletics department.


“When I first got to Northwestern, within the first 3 months I had individual meetings with every single of the more than 170 staff members in the department at the time, even our janitors and groundskeepers.  I asked each of them to create a SWOT analysis of our athletics department from their prospective, as well as a one page sheet telling me anything and everything they wanted me to know about them. I definitely received some funny looks, but it also made them realize that I cared about what they thought from day one.” says Phillips. “Each year, I’ll meet with them again and they are now required to come to me with 5 individual goals and 5 unit goals, for which they will be judged on,” he adds.


Phillips’ immediate actions showed everyone within the department that not only did their opinion count, but also attempted to convey that each of them was valued equally, regardless of their inherent impact to the bottom line. More importantly, it put them on guard that they would be held to the same standard as their counterparts who create a higher value proposition to the department. It is important to remember though that accountability is not a one way street between a manager and their subordinate; true leaders insure that the entire organization holds each other responsible for their actions as both individuals and as a group.


“We have town halls for our entire department where we give our staff the opportunity to interact with others within the organization that they might not otherwise work with. We’ll bring in a student-athlete to give us raw feedback on what’s happening within the athletics department. Anyone can be called up to speak – it’s an opportunity for real issues to be brought out of hiding and into to the open. There hasn’t been one decision that I’ve made at Northwestern that I haven’t confided in my staff with first and it’s because no one within our organization is any more qualified or deserving to make important decisions by themselves,” Phillips explains.


While the ability to hold people accountable is one of the most important skills  an athletic director can have, it by itself is not enough if it does not perfectly align with their overall leadership behaviors and messaging. In researching leadership, management consultant Jim Collins determined that a common characteristic the heads of successful organizations shared was their fanatically disciplined approach to their leadership regime. According to Collins, discipline, in essence, “is consistency of action – consistency with values, consistency with long-term goals, consistency with performance standards, consistency of method, consistency over time.” In the context of Phillips, while meeting with his employees from the onset is admirable, it is not by any means novel. What makes it unique though is that in retrospect, we now see that it was part of the foundation for the systematic and consistent culture of accountability that he has now become an indigenous part of Northwestern athletics.


We must not forget that arguably the most significant element of a leader’s attempts to maintain a culture of accountability within their organization is to insure that they themselves are held responsible for what occurs as a result of their actions. Particularly in college athletics, in which a department operates in a isolated environment that is removed  from the principal operating focus (higher education) of the organization itself, there is a tendency for athletic directors to operate with an impunity. Much like the inherent bias created by football and basketball being of greater economic importance causes at athletics directors to be more lenient with other coaches, their eventual realization that they too operate in an environment different than other leaders of the institution shapes their behavior when it comes to self-accountability.


According to Ed McLaughlin, Athletics Director at Virginia Commonwealth University, “The dynamic has shifted in our business.  A decade ago, coaches had five years to turn around a program, now it’s closer to three. What most don’t realize is that in many ways this is because athletics director are often themselves looking for the next job opportunity and so they demand immediate and unattainable results from their coaches. Instead of looking into the future and asking, ‘what will happen 6 or 7 years from now based on my decision now?’, they look for a quick fix. That compromises leadership.”


Although it is unreasonable to believe that the majority of athletic directors are so caught up in their own futures that they fail to adequately manage their current responsibilities, for all intents and purposes, the same problem occurs if no one is willing to hold them accountable for their decisions. For this reason, athletic directors must consciously turn the accountability mirror around and be willing ask themselves the hard questions that no one else will. While complete humility is not a reasonable expectation to have of any one in a position of power, athletics directors must realize that success comes from ambition for pushing their entire organization forward and the only way to do that is to be apart of the organization, not above it.


“I’m not afraid to lead and to do what’s right during the hard times, even if it means knowing I might have to swallow my pride in the process. While the expectation is that the President will hold me accountable, as a leader I have to hold myself answerable because by the time something goes wrong, it’s too late,” says McLaughlin.  “You have to plan for not just what’s directly in front of you, but what’s potentially waiting around the corner that you may not even be around to see. Things move so fast in college athletics and there are so many curve balls, most athletic directors set themselves up for failure because they refuse to hold themselves accountable for what may happen far into the future.”


As the business of intercollegiate athletics continues to grow, so too will the demand for leaders who are able to manage an organizational dynamic that possess immense challenges both in and outside that of the traditional business world. The athletics directors who will emerge to lead will share the same understanding of accountability as Jim Phillips and Ed McLaughlin do. Success in intercollegiate athletics depends on a leaders ability to create a culture that not only promotes those within in to be driven to succeed, but also insures that they will be answerable to the results of their work, regardless of whether they make a substantial impact on the bottom line. More importantly, those leaders will practice what they preach, and that is what makes all the difference.