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Leading Through Intersections: Optimizing Leadership Ability, Growth And Productivity Via Inclusion

By Jennifer Hunter, Brown University

We rarely discuss 18th century philosophies, but Immanuel Kant’s theory on humanity, should operate as a foundational principle of inclusion within sport. In context with the intersection of leadership and inclusion, when we consider inclusion in our individualized spaces, we cannot simply talk about diversity and make grandiose gestures towards “inclusivity” without intentionality behind our actions.


Leadership has to ensure that they are including and engaging employees in an experience that the leader is proud to provide, but also one in which if leadership was a member of a marginalized group, they too would value that experience. Those leadership skills should not only be planted, but those ideals around inclusivity must be paid forward. Simply put, let’s not just say we value diversity and inclusion within our departments, but let’s make it so intrinsic in building employees that they become walking embodiments of inclusion in all spaces.


In January 2017, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting with most of the FBS Athletic Directors of Color. I shared my vision with the group, asked questions, but mainly listened. I met some amazing men that day. Greg Byrne, the only non-minority AD present, attended to learn more on how to grow the minority pipeline.


Allen Greene, who was at Buffalo at the time sent me a card after that meeting. Mr. Greene’s small act of kindness, was the very first I’d received as an inclusion professional in athletics. I was moved that this leader, who had nothing to gain from me, understood the magnitude of my inclusion work, took the time to encourage me, build up my ideas, and affirm my value as a young professional in a department more than a thousand miles away.


Though on my career journey there are a litany of amazing Athletic Directors and professionals that I have had the great fortune to cross paths with, this initial interaction with someone building me up, besides my own AD, moved me so much that I keep that card pinned on my office wall to this day. I knew they were the type of leaders I aspired to be, the Byrne types who still had a thirst for knowledge, and the Greene’s who hold others up. Great leaders should consider the methods and reach of their leadership, and how a strong leader not only utilizes inclusion to lead effectively within, but outwardly.


To be clear, in sports we all have a bottom line. We operate in a business that’s constantly changing; we’re faced with persistent pressure to find money. We want to keep GSR high, excel in career placement for our student-athletes, and still push a solid and competitive brand in order to be a winning program.


Logically, we can deduce that Athletic Directors are doing their absolute best to achieve goals and visions, and inevitably attempt build a team of professionals who can attain success. It’s at the point of developing that team that requires deliberate decisions in order for inclusion to transpire. Leaders need to feel comfortable building teams that are equitably receiving guidance to excel.


The question thus becomes whether evaluating your leadership style and how you value inclusion is worth the temporary feelings of discomfort for the betterment of your organization?


Step 1: Cultivating your soil: Getting to know your employees, Using Cognitive Diversity and Valuing Age Differences


Know your people. It’s easy and it’s important.


As a leader Kevin White, who by industry standards has a phenomenal reputation of cultivating diverse leaders, mentioned that he meets with all of the new cohort of Duke interns, and has individual meetings every year with student-athletes. Leadership doesn’t stop at senior level, inclusion allows individuals to feel valued at every level, including student-athletes who may become future industry professionals. Their experience with feeling valued and included starts with leadership from the beginning of their matriculation.


Ray Anderson discussed how prior to his first day as ASU’s AD, he requested pictures of all of the staff in order to have the ability to know and address everyone by name. Whit Babcock did the same and met with every staff member upon his arrival to Virginia Tech. For any professional, particularly those in larger athletic programs, these gestures go an incredibly long way. It gives the impression that they matter as people, and are more than just a part of system. For a young professional, not much tops knowing you’re valued.


Next, examining your department’s chemistry and how you build communication is a vital component of inclusion. Most leaders inherit their team, which requires the leader to set forth standards and ideals from the start. How a leader incorporates their vision towards inclusion will set the department’s trajectory early on. One way to accomplish this is to create a culture of cognitive diversity, or diversity of thought.


Leadership should consistently look at ways of building mutual trust that takes into consideration your employees’ ideas and concerns, trusting that they are coming to you with good intentions, and building upon that. Leadership can easily roll down the path of tyranny, when no space is given for open and honest dissent, but there is safety in knowing that employees can openly engage in this manner.


Environments struggle when led by fear versus teamwork. Healthy discourse should be seen as a strength within any organization, and leaders can lead by ensuring that dissenting opinions must simultaneously come with viable solutions.


Diversity also comes into play when assessing whether certain employees feel less empowered than others to engage in that discourse, and as a leader you must ask whether you were unknowingly complicit in creating that environment? If your department consists of lifers, are outsider’s opinions given the same respect as those who’ve been a part of the university for the majority of their career?


Leaders need to consider whether women in the group are packaging their dissenting opinions in a passive aggressive manner as to not appear offensive. Is space given for women of color to be direct and not seen as emotional, too passionate or bossy? Are there women of color within senior level staff at all? The NCAA numbers for Division I senior leadership says no, as only 2% of women of color sit in these roles.


These are small, everyday occurrences that lead to isolation and ineffective productivity. It can also lead to feelings of hopelessness, particularly for staff members with genuine desires to contribute to the department’s success. Leaders don’t intentionally set out for this to happen, but it’s so commonplace that for sake of respecting the team dynamics, staff opt to fall in line while their professional needs suffer.


Another place where leadership and inclusion intersect is managing age differences. Boomers, Millennials and a few Gen Z’ers are trying to coexist in the same environment, and it is a difficult space for managers. Their needs from management are different.


Millennials believe in horizontal management and engagement, in a field that can be very top-down in its approach, and this has a profound impact on leadership and inclusion. The easiest way to isolate staff members is due to age and boxing younger employees into a “very last,” or “need to know” basis.


When employees find out departmental decisions through social media or other members at lunch, it can create a culture of isolation and feelings of unworthiness. Younger employees can often feel resentment towards older staff who they may perceive to have other advantages. Personality assessments and leaders who are willing to learn how to recognize and manage these differences is important.


Step 2: Planting the Seeds: Addressing microaggressions in hiring, creating pipelines and intentional recruiting to build your team


So, you’ve cultivated your soil. Your employees understand the climate, and that’s pervasive within the organization, but openings will arise, and when they do, leaders have the choice of how they want the makeup of their teams to look. Defined and clearly expressed strategies of recruiting diverse staff becomes critical.


Using Development as an example, there aren’t many institutions that offer degrees in Development. For this reason, the opportunities for development professionals should be equitable, yet in collegiate sports under 13 percent of DI professionals are minorities, so why aren’t people of color, and particularly women of color afforded the opportunities to work in this space?


This is where intentionality becomes critical, but also self-reflection of what micro-aggressions or biases hiring managers possess that keeps people of color from a field that should be equal, especially when there is no educational barrier present. Something is prohibiting minorities from entering the field as interns and coordinators.


When we think of development we know that these professionals are driving our fundraising initiatives and will operate within the spaces of many of our most powerful donors. What exactly are the traits that have allowed that hiring divide to exist in such a dichotomous way? Leaders can be inclusive and combat this inequity by creating pipelines internally and identifying student-athletes, entry level women and professionals of color within the department who may have a knack for stewardship and fundraising.


Racial makeup for women of color within athletics is quite narrowed and there is no long explanation of what should be done. Use your networks to find these women, and give them opportunities because they are qualified and they are out there. If you are unsure where to start, MOAA is a great place.


Younger professionals have also started their own grassroots organization called the Multicultural Excellence Within Collegiate Athletics, which is an excellent resource of over 500 members, and you most likely have a member of that group within your department.


In order for inclusion to work in an environment, Leaders have to be willing to accept some temporary discomfort during the assessment process of how the organization is handling its hiring. If leaders are sitting in spaces that still look homogenous is 2019, that is problematic and they have a duty to their organization to diversify the space.


Step 3: Growing the Roots: Consistent Career and Personal Development Matters


Another intersection is narrowing the socioeconomic gap through the use of professional development. From an inclusion standpoint, this is providing staff with the tools to advance themselves, since upward mobility isn’t tangible without continued learning, nor by having years of service with no increased responsibility.


Professional development is NOT a reward, it’s a necessity. Who receives professional development is important, and if interns and coordinators are not developed their leadership potential is stifled. We know that many minority staff members are in areas with limited overlap potential such as academics, student-athlete development/Life Skills, so what development are they getting to attain skills beyond this role?


For departments with low minority representation, these individuals also need the ability to engage and develop with professionals that look like them. Though it may sound cliché, representation matters as it becomes a lot harder to aspire to something you don’t see. Leaders may have to find ways for these staff members to attend Women Leaders, MOAA or the NCAA Inclusion Forum.


Leadership can’t only begin with director roles and higher, as everyone has the ability to lead. In fairness, some departments lack the resources to send everyone away for professional development, but they do have the ability to be creative in how they use campus resources, or their own leadership training to carve out time and spaces for employees to receive development internally.


Professional development is not a once a year occurrence. Lunch talks, peer led professional development seminars, allowing time for staff to engage in campus offerings, setting aside conference rooms for webinars, are all ways to consistently develop staff. There are many ways finding equity by providing development opportunities for all.


Step 4: Letting it Grow: Career Mapping and Affirmations


This article could’ve easily focused on efforts such as recognizing things like Black History Month, Pride Month, National Women’s Month, or any other identity related campaign. Departments that acknowledge identities goes far for staff, students and coaches of marginalized groups.


Employees who feel included and valued, tend to be happier in the work environment, thrive in their growth, and those feelings of being valued aids in staff retention. Internal awards such as Wisconsin’s and Barry Alvarez’s monthly Give Em’ One award, or recognizing staff awards in the annual report made people feel valued and recognized.


Strategic career mapping is another inclusion effort that increases socioeconomic mobility and should be highly encouraged. Strategic ways in which leaders can help their staff is working to carve out career maps. This means the leader has to make sure they are providing the employee with guidance and opportunities to reach the mapped-out goals.


Earlier we discussed millennials work style, but it is also true that there are the millennials who believe they are ready to sit in the chair, one internship and three years removed from college, but a leader can really tap into that ambition by creating measurable opportunities for development and growth. They can help that millennial maximize their potential now, which in turn helps the athletic department.


However, many issues around this perceived lack of respect by millennials, can be attributed to a lack of transparency of that leader’s ascension to their position. It is very easy to get so caught up in the grind, that we forget to mentor, or feel as though it’s an added burden, but it’s necessary.


Step 5: Build a Forest: Pay it Forward


Diversity and Inclusion is at the forefront of every conversation around leadership and for the most part everyone is seemingly on board. It is proven that inclusion enhances the culture and overall productivity of organizations. The hard reality is, leaders have to stop publicly engaging in conversations relating to inclusion, unless they are actively being diligent in their own efforts of including their staff. Beware of the unconscious acts that cause inequity and feelings of isolation, and even though it may be unintentional, without intentionality, leaders can allow employees to fall through the cracks.


Revisiting my earlier anecdote, what the Allen Greene and Greg Byrne moment did was force me to consider that leadership thinks about inclusion and it goes beyond leading internally. As you partake in developing future leaders, your legacy will be measured in how you developed people and whether you helped create leaders who are also paying it forward.


A strong leader’s reach is analogous to a tree, ever growing and with strong branches reaching far and wide. Inclusion should be viewed the same and allowed to grow freely. We don’t lose competitiveness by acknowledging the humanity within other professionals. Our industry ultimately benefits by everyone who can learn how to lead through the intersection of inclusivity.


Jenn Hunter serves as the Associate Athletic Director for Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives at Brown University. You can contact her at: jennifer_hunter@brown.edu