What happens when you take a group of rival institutions, each with their own staffs of hundreds of employees and operating on budgets in excess of $100 million, and convince them to work together as one cohesive unit? You create what is arguably the single most successful collegiate sports organization of all time – the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
During more than a century of organized collegiate athletics competition, no conference has had a more dominating run against its competitors than the SEC during the last decade. Winners of 7 straight Bowl Championship Series (BCS) national titles in football and accumulating a total of 86 NCAA national championships in 21 different sports from 2003-2013, the SEC has been astonishingly successful in almost every sport it sponsors. The conference has also attracted a record number of fans, with almost 7.5 million attending member football games during the most recent season.
It is no coincidence that the SEC’s renaissance can be linked back to 2002, when its current commissioner, Mike Slive, was hired. A veteran college administrator and attorney, Slive brought what is referred to as “tipping point leadership” to the SEC; he strategically unified a conference that lacked the level of cooperation necessary to achieve its full potential. That is not to say that the SEC was dysfunctional by any means, but rather that because of the intense competitive dynamic that exists amongst its members, the league needed a leader who was capable of transforming it to function symbiotically in order for it to go from merely good to truly great.
According the management scientists W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, the concept of tipping points, “hinges on the insight that in any organization, once the beliefs and energies of a critical mass of people are engaged, conversion to a new idea will spread like an epidemic, bringing about fundamental change very quickly.” Such movements are brought about by catalyzing leaders like Slive, who are able to make undisputable calls for change by focusing the organization’s resources, mobilizing commitment amongst its key players and quashing cynics who attempt to stall progress.
“By definition, a conference has two seemingly incompatible components that have to operate simultaneously,” explains Slive, “(1) passionate competitive rivalries, and (2) a group of institutions that needs to come together as a single organization to strengthen each and every unit and the conference as a whole. We’ve had to try and balance that for almost 80 years, but only now is there an expectation that even in the pursuit of our individual goals, the conference needs to get stronger by moving forward together.”
How did Slive unify the leagues member institutions to move towards a common goal? The answer begins with the creation of a culture based on accountability, trust and commitment that motivates organizational linchpins (in this case conference presidents, athletic directors and coaches) to implement the agreed upon strategy. Of course, actually accomplishing this is much easier said than done.
“A few weeks after my very first meeting as commissioner, I was sitting with then Tennessee athletic director Doug Dickey at a football game and mentioned that I was worried about one of the votes (7 to 5) since there was seemingly so much indecision,” says Slive, continuing, “Doug just smiled at me and said, ‘Commissioner, in this league 7-5 is really 12-0’.” While Slive still jokes that, “the 1stamendment is alive and well in the SEC,” he was also fortunate to realize early on that if the conference was going to move past mediocrity, it needed to unify itself around a core set of operating principals that would allow it to make much more effective decisions.
In their influential work on business management, “Blue Ocean Strategy”, Kim and Mauborgne put forth the theory that in order for an organization to successfully implement strategic initiatives, it must do so by following the three E principles of fair process – engagement, explanation, and clarity of expectation. It is these three principals that are the underlying basis for how Slive has been able to unite the rival institutions that make up the SEC to ensure the organization as a whole is actualizing its greatest self.
Engagement necessitates the involvement of each institution’s leadership in all aspects of strategic decisions by not just asking for input, but allowing them to contest the merits of each other’s ideas and expectations. It means fostering cooperation rather than conflict and collaboration over self-preservation.
“In each of our sports, our coaches meet at least once a year. If they have recommendations, they share them with us and their athletic directors, but it always goes back to the presidents,” explains Slive. “We embrace the collaboration that occurs between the coaches, administrators, and presidents. People may think that with so many larger than life personalities there would be more conflict, but they would be surprised to sit in a meeting with our coaches and see how orderly and civilized the proceedings are conducted when everyone knows they will have a say,” he adds.
Explanation means insuring that conversations and debate are not fueled by unsubstantiated conjecture that is a result of the self-seeking behavior of the individual institutions, but rather by rational evidence as to why it benefits (or hurts) the conference as a whole. More significantly, it means that everyone who is affected by the end result of a decision, whether it be an administrator, coach or student-athlete, understand why and how it was made.
“We were never in expansionist mode, but when schools like Texas A&M and Missouri initiated conversations with us, we decided to only then evaluate whether they would be good for us,” recounts Slive. “The conference office then began to systematically delve into research to be able to inform the athletic directors and presidents thoroughly so they could make the best decision possible,” he elaborates.
Expectation Clarity requires that once a strategy or rule is implemented, all those that must abide by it are fully aware of the standards for which they will be judged on and the consequences of their failures. It ensures that those that will be held accountable for their actions are fully aware of expectations from the onset.
“When we meet with first year coaches, I immediately tell them, ‘You’re all going to make a mistake, it’s almost guaranteed. If you make a mistake, just report it. We’ll deal with it. But if you intentionally break a rule, I hope you get fired. You’re a celebrity in your universe, and everything you do reflects not only on you, but your family, institution and us. And for that privilege you have to give us something back. You have to be held accountable.” Slive narrates.
With the three E principles at the core of the SEC’s decision making processes, Slive was able to build a cultural foundation based upon voluntary cooperation, in which each level of conference leadership was willing to override their personal self-interests for the betterment of the organization as a whole. Yet if when Slive took over, he told SEC presidents that his goal was win 86 national championships over the next decade, he would have been run out of the room. While each president certainly took a great deal of pride in their institution, why would they believe that they could suddenly raise the competitive quality of the entire conference to the highest level after decades of failing to do so?
Tipping point leaders know that in order to make a monumental challenge attainable, it is a matter of framing. The most pivotal role of such leaders is to insure that those involved in the change process do not become overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the task at hand. In the case of the SEC, Slive created a collaborative culture in which school presidents become comfortable enough with the state of the league to shift their focus towards enabling their athletic directors to create similarly conducive work environments within their own departments. For the athletic directors it was to insure that their coaches were given the time and support necessary to make their individual teams great. For the coaches, it was to give their student-athletes the instruction and motivation to achieve their goals. For the student-athletes, it was to work hard and execute their respective roles with precision. At no point did the responsibility of a national championship rest solely in the hands of any one individual, but rather each had their own perfectly manageable expectations and clear set of goals.
The incredible success that the SEC has had in recent years is testament to the importance of a leaders’ ability to insure that each individual within their organization understands their role and how it fits within the larger framework of success. For Mike Slive, his single greatest role as commissioner is aligning the hearts and minds of SEC leaders so that they can rise together as one.
“There is no today. Today doesn’t exist for me. Everything is about tomorrow. My staff takes care of today; my concern is tomorrow. How can I position the SEC to be as good as it is today 5, 10, 20 years from now? My job as commissioner is to help our leaders understand that whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that in order to fit the pieces together correctly, some sacrifice is needed for the betterment of tomorrow.”