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Cultivating A Culture That Affirms Your Values: Washington’s Jen Cohen

By Jen Cohen, University of Washington

When I assumed the athletic director post in 2016, the University of Washington had been my home for nearly two decades, with much of that time spent in athletics development. I realized quickly that, despite being a familiar presence on campus, my colleagues and members of the local community expected some degree of change when I transitioned into the athletic director role. At a minimum, they were looking for me to set the tone for my tenure in the athletic director chair.


Rather than spend my first few months on the job frantically thinking about what the department should be doing, I chose to step back and examine what the department was actually doing. Working alongside members of my senior leadership team, we committed to analyzing the outputs, both tangible and intangible, and determined that we needed to focus our efforts only on those things that truly added value. This process soon morphed into the identification of the greatest qualities held by the department’s top performers. We thought critically about what it means to be a Husky and discovered that the department’s shining stars shared an appreciation and penchant for humility, an orientation toward learning, discovery and growth, a passion for serving others, and a sometimes understated but ever-present grittiness.


Align culture with strategy


Further examination of the aforementioned qualities highlighted the extent to which humility, learning, discovery and growth, service, and grit were embedded into fabric of the university and the city of Seattle. Today, these values, authentic and organic in nature, are central to our culture and guide us in setting, adjusting, and implementing the department’s strategic goals. We talk openly and regularly about the importance of organizational humility, an other-centered approach to leadership exemplified by a willingness to listen, collaborate, and admit and learn from mistakes. Our emphasis is placed not on being mild or meek, but on being open to new ideas, much like Seattle itself, a city that places a premium on experimentation and innovation. Further, we strive to remind ourselves daily that we are in the people development business, a business in which the health and well-being of our student-athletes is of paramount importance. Lastly, we aim to be persistent in the face of obstacles, recognizing the inevitably of challenges but also the importance of hard work, passion, and perseverance in times of difficulty.


Regular reinforcement of the above values, through our words and actions, shapes how student-athletes, coaches, and staff members interact throughout the day. It also influences the athletically-related perceptions held by those beyond the department. We are thus relentless in our commitment to building relationships across campus and within the surrounding community, always trying to identify and seize opportunities to tell our story.


Each year, we host a dinner series for friends of the program in order to connect with those who are emotionally and/or financially invested in our athletics program. The occasions serve as valuable opportunities to talk about the department’s values, lessons learned, and expectations moving forward. Ensuring that our messaging resonates not just internally but also externally helps bind our key constituents, generates engagement, and inevitably elevates our program.


Assisting us in communicating and living our values are six questions pulled from Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. Lencioni’s must-read book, a mainstay in our department, calls on leaders to rally around answers to the following six questions: Why do we exist? How do we behave? What do we do? How will we succeed? What is most important right now? Who must do what? We return to these questions time and time again to ensure that we are cultivating a culture that is true to who we are, thereby enabling the development of a competitive advantage that can be sustained over time.


Encourage a growth mindset


Culture is, to some extent, learned behavior. It is not a by-product of operations. We create our organizational culture by the actions we take, not the other way around. As such, our senior leadership team needs to make sure it is setting the kind of behavioral example it wants everyone else to follow. Of particular importance to us is the promotion of a growth mindset, or the belief that one’s intelligence, skills, and abilities are not fixed, but rather can be developed and strengthened over time.


To foster a growth mindset amongst members of the department, we try, first and foremost, to show some vulnerability and communicate that regardless of our position, we all can get better every day. The idea of “getting better every day” is central to our day-to-day existence at the University of Washington. It’s a commitment that is shared from the top but is also, more importantly, talked about on a peer-to-peer level.


Getting better every day requires an understanding of what it means to be “better.” Most of the time “better” is mutually understood with little need for explanation. However, occasionally, “better” is an unclear target. Thus, it is imperative that we work to define and communicate expected and desired behaviors clearly so that everyone understands what they look like in practice. Defining and widely communicating expectations contributes to the creation of a shared vocabulary that can be extremely useful in mobilizing organizational change.


Approach decision-making with a combination of intuition and rational analysis


We often underplay, mistakenly so, the role of instinct in professional settings, choosing instead to directly or indirectly support the notion that there is no room for feelings in decision-making processes. While we need to be wary of emotionally-charged decisions, it would be a mistake to suggest that we ignore gut feelings. After all, gut feelings are not baseless. They are backed by previous experiences, developed over time, and largely shaped by our past experiences, knowledge and professional encounters. Intuition is not about going out on a limb, rather it is a matter of combining your inner wisdom with the knowledge acquired through rational analysis of available information to make a decision.


In my current role, it is not unusual for me to trust my gut when it comes time to make a decision. Not long after my appointment, I was charged with hiring a new head men’s basketball coach and felt strongly that Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins was the best candidate for the job. Some members of the community questioned the decision to bring Hopkins on board. The head coach designate, selected to take over the program following Boeheim’s retirement, had spent 22 seasons with the Orange and appeared deeply entrenched in the upstate New York community.


Consequently, there were those who wondered why Hopkins would entertain a move to Seattle and how he would adjust to the Husky way. Yet, my gut told me that Hopkins was well-suited to lead the program. Raised in California, Hopkins’ appreciation for and understanding of the West Coast way of life was clear. Further, his belief in hard work and humility, values held in high regard in both Syracuse and Seattle, led me to think Hopkins’ transition to Washington would be smooth. Hired prior to the start of the 2017-18 season, in his first year on the job, Hopkins was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, leading the Huskies to their first 20-win season since 2011-12. I can’t take credit for the success Hopkins has experienced on the court, but I am grateful that both rational analysis and intuition led us to extend Hopkins an offer.


Embrace dissent and mutual accountability


As a huge proponent of inclusion, having a large senior leadership team is a seductive notion, yet, given my work style, the department is better served by having a small number of people serve in an executive capacity. Members of our senior leadership team and I communicate with such a high degree of frequency, making collective judgments by means of open dialogue, conflict resolution, and collective real work, that any considerable expansion of the team would delay action and, I fear, lessen our vitally honest exchange of opinions.


Admittedly, given the often time-pressured nature of our exchanges, there can be a propensity for me or others to jump to a conclusion too quickly in order to reach a decision. As the department’s senior leader, I need to be astute enough to step back, encourage dissent, and objectively consider opposing points of view before a decision is rendered. To this end, I’m intentional about creating conflict amongst members of my senior leadership team, occasionally assigning a devil’s advocate so that the designated individual will feel empowered to challenge me. Creating debate increases the likelihood that we consider all facets of a situation before making a decision.


Making judgments calls, some about people, some about strategy, and, occasionally, some in times of crisis, requires that we lean heavily on our values and beliefs to steer us in a direction that is congruent with our organizational culture, and we hold each other accountable for the continued development of the departmental capabilities needed to achieve our strategic goals. By triaging our time, energy, and focus on the consequential, we remain focused on “getting better every day.”