Do you remember when we were seven and wrote that essay about wanting to be an athletics director? That letter was written out of love and admiration for Dad and his career as a high school AD. Turns out we did follow in his footsteps – at the college level – and we’ve been at it now for more than a decade!
When we get that first AD job, we have almost no experience and have never supervised anyone! While we don’t know too much at the start, we will learn a lot along the way. Now I (2020 Joe) am writing to you (Joe of someday past) in hopes of making things a little smoother for you – mostly encouraging you not to worry too much about things you cannot control and to always remember why you wanted to do this in the first place. The job is supposed to be difficult, and you will be better by persevering through those challenges, but I want you to enjoy it along the way as well.
My first piece of advice is to let your authority as a leader come to you naturally. You’ll try, unsuccessfully, to establish it rather than earn it, and it will harm some of the relationships you hope to build. As a first-time and rather young AD, you’ll try too hard to show people how much you know. You’ll leave key teammates out of conversations, make decisions without consulting your colleagues, and lose your cool when people bring you bad news. This job cannot be done alone. Your authority should come through the trust you build with those around you as much as it will through tough decisions you make. Be yourself, ask for help, and don’t be afraid to tell people that you don’t know something but will work hard to figure it out.
You will be challenged by situations you can’t fully prepare for – a natural disaster, the death of a student-athlete, a newspaper columnist calling you names … I’m not going to tell you too much about these because I don’t want to burden you, but each time you face a personal or professional crisis, you will find an opportunity to get better and people around you who are willing to help. Don’t lose that growth mindset – there will be times when you think you’ve seen it all, but you should always be ready for something new and then tackle those challenges as opportunities to grow new skills and relationships.
You also need to welcome the politics and conflict that are part of your work and understand that those things will permeate every part of your job – personnel, finance, fundraising, culture, etc. You are going to make decisions, like letting someone go, that will cause you to lose sleep. You are going to be overruled even if you think you are right. You cannot always avoid these situations, but you can learn from them. If you can be authentic, build trust, and strive for alignment, you can navigate politics more successfully and handle conflict more easily. If you recognize these things as unavoidable parts of your job and can learn to embrace them, you’ll get to enjoy what makes the job fun more often.
Speaking of which, always take time to recenter yourself. Get out and see the students on their terms, whether on campus, at practice, or in the locker room. It will serve as an excellent reminder of why (in addition to Dad) you chose this profession in the first place – your own, awesome experience as a student-athlete. Replicating that experience for as many young men and women as possible will help you feel professionally fulfilled, and you’ll know you are doing your job by spending time with them as they live through it.
I write this letter to you today wondering what I will say to my current self 10 or 20 years from now. So I’d probably add one more thing – and this is a great reminder for me today as well. Your accomplishments and failures will pale in comparison to the people you will meet and the relationships you will build. In the end, it’s what we will remember and find most rewarding about the job. As I reflect upon my career in college athletics, I remember most fondly those with whom I worked, the silly moments together, and the shared joy and pain, both personal and professional. Treat those relationships as the pure gold that they are, and enjoy every moment you have with your amazing and unique colleagues. It will go fast.
Good luck. You’ll be great.