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Experts’ Roundtable: Chiefs of Staff

By Tai M. Brown



A Chief of Staff provides a buffer between a Chief Executive and a myriad of constituencies. The Chief of Staff generally works behind the scenes to solve problems, mediate disputes, and deal with issues before they bubble up to the Chief Executive. In this Experts’ Roundtable, ADU reached out to a few who serve in the unique position across higher education and college athletics to explore the intricacies of holding such a title. This includes insight from the athletics department view, perspective from a president’s office, and thoughts from someone who serves in the role for a ‘Power 5’ football program.


The ‘Chief of Staff’ title seems to involve different responsibilities from one Athletic Director to the next for those who are utilizing the role. What are your specific duties as Chief of Staff? What is the most important metric of evaluation for your role?


Nina King (Deputy AD/Administration, Legal Affairs & Chief of Staff , Duke University) – Often, I describe my Chief of Staff role as an “air traffic controller” – it is my responsibility to make sure that information flows to and from the Vice President/Athletic Director, Kevin White, efficiently and effectively.  Most importantly, my job is to ensure that Kevin is well prepared with all the tools (information) he needs to successfully lead the department. On a daily basis, I advise him on the status of current departmental activities, as well as campus wide initiatives that may affect Athletics, and work to formulate appropriate recommendations for matters requiring his input.


Also, I attend most meetings with Kevin to ensure that any action items are completed post meeting, appropriate communications occur between departments, and sufficient follow-up occurs as a result of meeting discussions. Occasionally, I serve as a representative for Kevin when he cannot attend various meetings and/or events.


However, much of my work is done “behind the scenes” – on behalf of Kevin and with his input, I frequently prepare correspondence and write memos/reports for various internal and external constituents, develop talking points/speeches for his use, etc.


In this role, I also serve as a resource for departmental staff and coaches, acting as a liaison to Kevin. Often, staff/coaches have questions, ideas, etc. and want input before bringing it to the highest levels. In these situations, I often endeavor to provide insight on “next steps” or guidance on how to proceed.


As far as the most important metric of evaluation for the role, the biggest question is – Does Kevin have all the information he needs to effectively lead the department? Kevin and I don’t have formal check-in meetings, rather we talk several times a day when issues arise or information needs to be shared. Given the workload that comes across Kevin’s desk on a daily basis, in general, my job as Chief of Staff is to make sure that he has everything he needs to make decisions and that the department is running as smoothly as possible.


Callie Schrank (Associate AD/Athletics Chief of Staff, Baylor University) – This is a new position to Baylor Athletics and a new role for me, so my duties are ever-evolving. Essentially, as a member of the senior administration, I assist the Athletic Director and his executive team in the strategic planning and decision making for the department. I work closely with the AD on Board of Regent and University Executive Council communication and preparation as well as department-wide communication. In coordination with the Deputy AD and Associate VP, I serve as point for all department personnel matters to include hiring, evaluation, contracting and the like. If I am doing my job well, our executive team is supported, informed, equipped and operating in tandem to carry out our mission of Preparing Champions for Life.


Jemal Griffin (Chief of Staff, Penn State University Football Office) – My specific duties as Chief of Staff are to oversee the day to day management of the football program and supervise the administrative directors; Director of Football Administration, Director of Football Operations, Director of Player Personnel and Director of Player Development. In addition, I oversee the football budget, handle all contracts for football and serve as the liaison to the Athletic Department and University Administrations.


Overall, my goal is to make sure our organization runs as smoothly as possible so that our student athletes are in the best position to succeed on and off the field. That means that I must be proactive in recognizing problems before they arise and solve issues before they reach the level of distraction. This is the most important metric of evaluation for my role.


Max Allen (Vice President & Chief of Staff, Clemson University President’s Office) – My role, Vice President and Chief of Staff at Clemson University, serves as the top advisor and key member of the President’s executive leadership team. I provide support and advice to the president in the overall coordination of his strategic initiatives and work closely with all senior executive leaders in accurate completion of these initiatives. I serve as the President’s liaison on committees, boards, commissions and communicates on behalf of the president to a variety of internal and external constituent groups. I am also responsible for overall management of the President’s office staff and various administrative matters for the President.


The most important metric of evaluation in this role is the overall success of the president. My primary responsibility is creating the seamless support and guidance the president needs across a multitude of issues and challenges impacting the university.


On many campuses, the President or Chancellor has a Chief of Staff, but since there are only a limited number of those with the title around college athletics, how did you prepare to serve effectively in the position?


King (Duke) – In the beginning, I quickly learned that to most effectively serve as Chief of Staff, it was critical to: understand the politics that surround the department and University, develop meaningful relationships with internal and external constituents, constantly communicate, and be a team player. Within Duke Athletics, the leadership team is just that – a team – so it is vital to understand all of the pieces in play in order to strive towards the common goal together.


Additionally, in this position I’ve learned that it is incredibly important to be task oriented, flexible, empathetic, and passionate about what we are doing, in order to lead successfully. In any given athletic department there are countless moving pieces, a vast array of tasks to be completed and a wide variety of people working to get them done, so those four traits are essential in this unique role.


Schrank (Baylor)  – My history and previous experience have served as the best preparation. I began my career in college athletics as the Assistant to the Director of Athletics, which allowed me to work with every area within the department and build relationships with those on our athletics staff and across campus. Over time, I also absorbed many personnel functions, which assist me in my current role. I didn’t set out with a goal of moving into a chief of staff position, instead, I followed advice from someone who encouraged me to get my foot in the door, put my nose to the grind, treat co-workers with respect and make myself invaluable to the organization. That advice, along with building strong relationships have really been key. I don’t have the answers for everything, but by learning people and their roles, you can become a helpful resource for connecting people and helping to solve problems.


Griffin (Penn State) – Prior to starting this position, I reached out to individuals in and out of intercollegiate athletics who may not have had the title of Chief of Staff, but served in a similar capacity as the primary administrator and liaison between two major departments within their organization. The goal was to explore their initial set up and creation of their position and gather some insight on first steps. Based on that feedback, I concluded that my first steps would be to meet with each department and individual I work closely with to establish clear expectations and communication channels for the position.


How do you believe the responsibilities associated with your Chief of Staff role are preparing you for career advancement?


King (Duke) – Unquestionably, I am very fortunate that this role has provided me with the opportunity to be involved in so many different facets of the overall athletics operation – within the department, on campus, at the ACC and NCAA levels, as well as in the sports business world. There are constant learning opportunities which have translated into significant professional growth.


When I started at Duke nine years ago, my main responsibility was the Chief of Staff role. Over the years, I have added responsibilities while still serving as Chief of Staff which now include oversight of Human Resources, serving as the legal affairs point person within the department and the liaison to the university’s Office of Counsel, oversight of Recreation/Physical Education, sport administrator for women’s basketball and cross country/track & field, and chair the “Senior Staff and Sport Administrators” group. Flexibility is key, for every day is different (but fun and exciting!).


Schrank (Baylor) – Truthfully, my current focus is in defining, understanding and being effective in this role. I haven’t set my sights on what the next career move could or should be. But for someone who is interested in moving into an executive leadership position, a Chief of Staff role exposes you to high-level decision-making and problem-solving on a daily basis. It allows you to make connections with leaders in the industry, and it requires a deep understanding of the complexities of college athletics and the functions of every department. These experiences would serve anyone well as they look to advance their career in athletics.


Griffin (Penn State) – Because my position interacts and deals with a number of departments within the athletic department and university, including but not limited to, Human Resources, Budget/ Finance, Development, Facilities, and Marketing, it is excellent preparation for a number of administrative positions in the athletic department, university or outside of higher education.


Allen (Clemson) – I am one of the senior leaders in higher education in the Chief of Staff field. This is my third university, and all have been very different. I have worked at a small public liberal arts university, a regional comprehensive university, and now a power five university with major Division I Athletic programs. All have challenged me to provide the kind of support, guidance and attention to detail required to be successful as a top advisor for a university president.


For those looking to get into a similar position, what are the biggest challenges you face on a day to day basis?


King (Duke) – As with everything in athletics, each day there are new challenges and opportunities. In my opinion one of the biggest challenges is learning to prioritize what needs attention. Unfortunately, since there are only 24 hours in a day, it is often difficult to get everything done that needs to get done! Again, communication is critical in order to strategically organize everything that comes down the pipe. Another challenge is making sure all the various stakeholders for each project are on the same page. Communication and teamwork are key!


Schrank (Baylor)  – The biggest challenge most athletics executives face on a daily basis is ensuring your people, systems and programs are equipped to carry out your mission in this fast-paced, ever-changing industry. How can I play my part in ensuring our executive team and Athletic Director have the support they need to focus on the essentials? Distractions often need to be addressed, but how can I support them while minimizing issues added to their plates? What can I do to ensure our staff feel informed, engaged and equipped to carry out their part in our mission of Preparing Champions for Life in a caring, Christian environment?


Griffin (Penn State) – In order to create the type of environment necessary to manage any large department, you must meet with your staff as a whole and individually on a regular basis. In addition to your staff, you must have regularly scheduled meetings with the athletic department and university administration in order to create and maintain relationships. Time management and creating the type of balance between management, task and meetings are the biggest challenge.


Allen (Clemson) – Dealing with the complexities of a large, complex organization can be daunting. You need to learn every aspect of higher education. Also, understanding people dynamics and have the ability to motivate others, while being patient and humble.


How did you earn trust early on as the Chief of Staff role?


King (Duke) – Bottom line: to earn trust, you have to do your job! I am a firm believer that if you do your job, and you do it well, you will be appreciated and embraced. Trust will build over time as you continue to perform at high levels.


Schrank (Baylor) – For me, I believe the trust was earned prior to becoming the Chief of Staff. I worked closely with the Athletic Director, his executive team and all department staff in a personnel-related role prior to the title change.  Listening to and providing a voice for staff is huge. Discerning what is important is critical. Follow-through and organization are key. If people believe you care and trust you will do what you say you will do, mutual respect will follow.


Griffin (Penn State) – Trust is something that takes time to build in any position or relationship. The ability to have honest, direct, timely conversation is what builds trust in my opinion. It was important to me that everyone had clear expectations and had open lines of communication with me. In addition, the ability to consistently demonstrate that your primary goal is to do what is best for the organization and the student athletes first and foremost allowed me to earn the trust of our staff and colleagues.


Allen (Clemson) – Being a trusted soul and a great communicator are essential. Take the time to develop personal relationships, both internally and externally, while being confident in your abilities to get things done.  Presidents and chancellors are looking for trustworthy people who have their full support and have the skills to accomplish projects and initiatives. I would say the same is true for Vice Presidents and Athletic Directors.


Have you had to make any difficult decisions on behalf of your supervisor? If so, how was the decision received by your colleagues?


Griffin (Penn State) – As Chief of Staff, decision making is a large part of your responsibilities. My supervisor relies on my ability to solve problems before they reach him. The response from my colleagues ties into the previous question. As long as they believe that the decision is based on what’s in the best interest of the program and our student athletes, they usually understand the perspective regardless of whether they agree or disagree.


Schrank (Baylor) – We are fortunate that we operate in a system of collaborative leadership. Thankfully, I don’t have to make highly-impactful decisions in a vacuum. Although our executive team is fairly new in its composition, difficult decisions are discussed and addressed collaboratively to help us make well-informed decisions.


Allen (Clemson) – Yes, all the time. Difficult decisions are never easy, but when you are a Chief of Staff, sometimes you must communicate difficult messages to colleagues and at times, even to the president.


Early in your tenure as Chief of Staff, was there a significant project that you owned from beginning to end? If so, how important was this to establish your credibility with the executive and the other staff members?


King (Duke) – There wasn’t a specific project, rather right at the beginning of my tenure, I had to work to integrate myself into the department and build trust and credibility among my colleagues. My role was new to Duke, I was new to Duke, Kevin was new to Duke. People had no idea what to make of me and this “Chief of Staff” position, so it was really important to get to know people, develop strong relationships with the other members of the executive staff, and work to become part of the overall Duke team. Simply put, it takes time to establish credibility and build a solid team like the one we have now!


Schrank (Baylor) – I am early in my tenure as Chief of Staff. With many of the recent leadership and staff changes within our department, my longevity with the department has been valuable in maintaining healthy relationships with our staff and campus partners in addition to providing institutional knowledge of processes and systems. Hopefully, I’ve established credibility with our Athletic Director and his executive team by providing a unique perspective, engaging in healthy authentic dialogue, following-through on projects, maintaining collaborative relationships with colleagues and campus constituents and by truly caring for the ethos of our department.


Griffin (Penn State) – The most significant project that I owned early in my tenure as Chief of Staff was creating our current administrative structure. The people were in place when we started, but the duties and responsibilities had to be adjusted a number of times to obtain the proper work balance and put people in position to maximize their strengths. Because our structure was unique, it is extremely important that we have been a cohesive unit for a number of years and our department has been able to thrive as a group and individuals have been able to develop professionally.


Allen (Clemson) – I cannot think of one specific project. However, I would say any significant project should be carefully planned and executed. You need to involve the “right people on the bus” to ensure successful completion. As Chief of Staff, I work closely with senior leaders to identify people who are motivated, talented, and committed to achieve success.