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Identifying And Recruiting Talent: Washington’s Cohen & Milwaukee’s Braun

Guest Jennifer Cohen, Washington; Amanda Braun, Milwaukee
23:31 min watch


Washington AD Jennifer Cohen and Milwaukee AD Amanda Braun discuss how they identify and hire coaches and staff, culture and fit, expectations for other leaders making hires, and more.

  • - How do you try to find people that fit within a certain system that you've built at your respective athletic programs?
  • - What is the process for determining is a candidate is both qualified and genuine in the interview process?
  • - Do you have somebody that plays devil's advocate during hiring process? (Cohen)
  • - Is there a difference between hiring a star basketball or football coach as compared to hiring an Assistant AD?
  • - How do you know if a potential head coach has what it takes to succeed at your institution?
  • - How are you ensuring that the other leaders in your organization are meeting your expectations for new hires?
  • - How far ahead are you thinking when it comes to hiring?



Full Transcript


Jason Belzer: I’m Jason Belzer for Athletic Director U and today we are at the Women Leaders in College Sports conference. And I am joined by University of Washington Athletics Director Jen Cohen and University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Athletics Director, Amanda Braun. Thank you ladies for joining me today and we are going to discuss hiring of coaches and staff. So an interesting topic that comes into public discourse quite often throughout or at the end of the football and basketball seasons and throughout the year in general. My first question would be people talk about fit, and the importance of hiring somebody that fits your culture. I would argue that the people are your culture and that you hire people and that culture may change over time. You as an individual, as the leader of the organization are obviously championing that culture, but how is it that you try to find people that fit within a certain system that you’ve built at your respective athletic programs?


Jennifer Cohen: You want to go first? You want me to go? Okay, so I’m with you. First of all, I think our people are absolutely our culture. At Washington, we’ve gone through some really interesting exercises around this. Just in general, I think people use this buzzword culture all the time and not always sure if everybody even understands what it is or how important it needs to be as far as being really organic. You know, and for us, it’s all about our values. And we had this incredible process when we all first started at U Dub where we identified people already within the culture that embodied everything it meant to be Husky. We needed to find what that meant. But it was like, who are those people that absolutely embody what it means to be a dog like the people you want a bunch of in your organization? And we went through this exercise and we named all these people from the past and the present. And then we started to find the similarities of all those people in values. So we have four, that all of those people had: one is humility, the other is a commitment to service, the third is a growth mindset, and the fourth is grit. And there’s a reason at Washington that those values matter and it’s the reason why people that have them succeed. So we actually use those core values as a way to hire not just coaches, but all people within our organization. We also use it to evaluate, potentially fire, based on, the lack of behaviors that are associated with those types of values, and really inspire that in every decision that we make and how we recognize people in hopes that over time, more and more people really embody those core values.


Amanda Braun: Yeah, I think similar to Jen, we have our six core values and, and we’re very intentional about utilizing those when we recruit student-athletes, when we recruit our staff and we ask the questions in interviews with staff. We usually have them in the room with the search group, and ask what those mean to them. So education, excellence, leadership, respect, integrity and pride. So very similar, you know, things that we very, very intentionally went through to determine what it means to be a Panther at Milwaukee and we’ve been really consistent with that, you know, and for us the other piece of it, a word that I use a lot and you probably do, as well as teammate, right. Are you a teammate in the office? Are you a teammate to your colleagues? Are you willing to go the extra mile as a teammate within our department, so that’s those are the things that we think about, talk about.


JB: Sure. So you bring up this concept of core values and having people that align with those things. I just finished the book, Malcolm Gladwell just published a new book and it’s called Talking With Strangers and the whole premise of the book is that in general, people are really bad at being able to assess whether or not somebody is being truthful to them. And so what I find interesting is that we say, well, we want to hire somebody that aligns with our core value and then we ask them certain questions in an interview. And the expectation is, of course, that they’re going to give us the answers that we would want. And then when we hire them, they turn out to be a completely different person and I think that happens often. So how is it that you go through the assessment process of really making a determination as to whether or not, not only is this person technically qualified to work for us, but they are being genuine in the interview process? It’s not like when we are dating and you know, we can spend months and years courting somebody and truly making the decision, okay, now we’re going to get married. I mean, you may interview somebody once or twice, and then you have to make a decision as to whether or not you’re going to give them a multi-million dollar contract and have them leave your program. So you’re speed dating, to say the least. How do you really get down deep into whether or not this is the type of person that is going to do the things that they’re saying they’re gonna do? 


JC: Well, there’s no doubt that when you’re hiring, especially a visible coaching hire, that the pace of that hiring process can put a lot of pressure on you right to maybe not do all the homework that you need to do. But the reality is in our jobs, a lot of us are trying to do that homework all the time. And so I think the better prepared you are for any change that you might have, in a senior level position that you might have within the athletic department or with a head coach, the more homework you can do on the front end and that homework isn’t necessarily just about the engagement that you have with that person, it’s about the engagement that you have with other people that are around that person from a variety of different perspectives. So I think that’s really critical. I also think just spending the time to meet talent. I do a ton of informational interviews at every level and I do that because I think over a course of time, I’m going to find some people in those interview processes and in those initial meetings, where it isn’t like a speed date because I may follow the careers for five or 10 years, and now I kind of do know what, they’re all doubt, because over time you start to really figure out what people are all about. So I think front end work is really important as much homework you can do on somebody in the short amount of time that you might have in some of those high profile cases. I still believe Yeah, you can be fooled and we’ve all probably missed. I know I have. But I also think that there’s a lot you can find out about people in our industry. I mean, come on, it’s a pretty small industry and people, everybody in our industry knows each other. So I just think you need to take the time to talk to other people, not just go on your own instincts.


AB: Yeah, I think that’s true in the compressed timeframe. The time that you do get to spend with the people that you’re considering is critical. You know, how they respond to you, you can usually pick up on nonverbals of how genuine they are. And, you know, I think when you interview people, you’re not interviewing people to hire the best interviewee, if you want. I’m actually okay if somebody is really nervous or you know, you see an authenticity there about them and then the people in the business and the continuity of how you’re out there talking with folks. And I tell people all the time, you know, to connect with people and network is about finding people that share your values. And then through those people, you’re going to meet other people that have similar values. So you know, around each of the people you’re considering, or those that share their values, and talking with and finding out who those people are, is really helps frame who the person is.


JC: Yeah, I was just thinking of, you know, confidentiality is so important in some of these hires. But I just think, especially in that case, like just having a diverse set of eyes and ears and like personalities within your executive team. We do a lot of internal, I don’t really like to have external stakeholders involved in any hiring, I just think it’s too biased. But you have to have enough people within your organization that don’t see things the same way you do. And I think if you can really maximize that a lot of times you’re going to catch something that maybe you don’t personally see as a leader.


JB: I know in the past, you’ve spoken about the fact that you have a devil’s advocate in terms of making strategic decisions. Do you have somebody that does that during the process of hiring somebody, where you have somebody stand up and give reasons why you should or maybe make that hire?


JC: I think it depends on the search, right? I mean, I think that a head coaching hire is a very different pace in any of the head coaching hires that we’ve done, versus maybe any other position that we have in our department. But in all those cases, there’s been enough engagement that people feel really comfortable saying, you know, I didn’t feel that or I felt this or, “Hey, I get that, but just be careful about this.” So yeah, I think that’s part of the culture is like make people have to be invested in loving the place, right, and like being truly committed to something bigger than themselves. And if you can do that within your organization, then you have a better shot, I think, of people being more honest, because they’re invested. They’re in it. They want this thing to work, whether it’s somebody in their unit, whether it’s a coach, they oversee or not, everybody needs to be successful. When you build that kind of environment, I think you get more honesty from your employees.


JB: Is there a difference between hiring a star basketball or football coach as compared to hiring an assistant AD? I mean, obviously, you’re not putting the name of the time and the resources into hiring somebody on the lower levels of a program than at the upper levels. But is that the wrong thing to do? Should you be assessing every single person under the same rubric and looking at them and putting in the time necessary to make those types of decisions?


AB: Well, I think theoretically, sure, you know, and then anything from theory to practice can fall apart right? In the realities of trying to get this done, you know, having student-athletes when it’s head coach, whether they’re high profile or not, you know, you’re trying to get those student-athletes to not jump ship right? So there is a piece of head coaching hiring, that that really pushes it and I haven’t even mentioned the public piece of that, you know, in the media and some of the things that Jen I’m sure, scrutiny for you, you have to deal with. I mean, it’s unfortunately, that’s where we are so you do the very best that you can. At our institution, any senior level or head coach, we need to involve members of our athletic board, which is faculty. And so I do, it’s built in, I have people that are going to be there who I trust and believe in, that are going to have that different perspective, so it’s required of us.


JC: Yeah, I mean, the biggest difference in this thing is pace and visibility, right. And you can argue the economic impact that it may have on your department if it’s a football, basketball coach, but at the end of the day, like every person you bring on board matters. I mean, we’ve missed on positions that are entry level positions that have had a ripple effect in our athletic department on the lives of our students and our ability to be successful. So, you know, we’re trying really hard to get better at this. Also just like managing performance better and like having hard conversations like it doesn’t matter what the position is. Every person has to come into your culture prepared to commit to serving our students. That’s how I feel. And so if we miss on one, regardless of what level it is, then we missed and we have to get better at it.


JB: One of the questions that I always find interesting is that when you’re making a hire, we see this more often in coaching, but it could be obviously on the administrative side, you’re trying to make an assessment as to whether or not somebody’s past performance can translate into future success. And in particular, when you’re making a hire and in your case, both of you actually hired head coaches for your basketball programs that didn’t have head coaching experience previously, which is first of all very unusual at a Power Five level. I think it’s maybe only happened half a dozen times in the last maybe 20 years.


JC: Glad I didn’t know that stat when I pulled the trigger on that.


JB: One of the rare…


JC: That’s why I don’t pay attention to all these stats and stuff right.


JB: But part of that is because most people, Athletic Directors in general, will default to what’s the least risky option, right. And I think just in general in hiring you take the person, if this person was successful here, they’re going to be successful there. But it’s not so easy to figure that out. And what’s ironic is that a lot of times we look at somebody say they were successful, and they were successful because of the fact that we’re in a particular situation and despite the fact that they did certain things, and the fact that that institution was able to maybe make up for some of their shortcomings. So how do you really, when you were hiring Mike [Hopkins], or you were hiring Patrick [Baldwin], how did you really make that determination that they have what it takes? And at the end of the day, you don’t know if they have to take you’re still kind of throwing the dart, but what made you really feel like?


JC: Yeah, I mean, I think you’re absolutely right, we roll the dice every time we hire. Like, there’s no guarantees when you hire, the way we’ve looked at it is like, I want to put my head down on the pillow at night, knowing that I hired people that fit the profile that we determined was the best profile for the University of Washington at the time that we’re hiring. And so being consistent with that versus getting so caught up and all the pressures and the noise and resumes and past success in other places because it’s true, I mean, why does one guy go one place and kick ass and then go someplace and not? He didn’t become a bad coach or she didn’t become a bad coach. She just wasn’t or he wasn’t in a position to be having the support or the challenges were different or whatever. And so, I think that’s why you have to hire people that fit your profile. For men’s basketball, we had a certain thing that we wanted, we had certain qualities and characteristics, in addition to our values. We knew we needed a builder. We knew we needed somebody that was hungry. We knew we wanted somebody that knew what championship basketball looked like. We wanted somebody that saw Washington as a destination, they just got it, like they got how kick ass this place is, so incredible opportunity for somebody. And so [Mike] Hop[kins], he just had all those things. I mean, here’s a guy chomping at the bit all these years to finally become a head coach. So I roll the dice on that, because it aligned with who we were, it aligned with where we are going as an athletic department and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t in this case, so far, it’s worked.


AB: Yeah, very similar, you know, core values and easier to sit down with a big group of people and go through a whole day interview when it’s not in this compressed timeframe. But in addition to the core values, there are certain things that you know you need at this point in time within your program. And for us, that tenacity, the understanding of being in a league like ours, appreciation for our resources, which are really good within our league and having a true appreciation for that, rather than coming in and kind of looking around thinking that we don’t have enough and then yeah, the grinder and that’s very much who we are at Milwaukee. We’re blue collar, someone that is a great teammate around the office and willing to be a part of that so right when you find that in somebody and there are a number of somebody who can fit that. That’s where you take a risk and then you just believe.


JC: The other thing I was going to add to this, I think there’s this kind of misunderstanding like you hire coaches, and then they just run their programs, which they do, but like, it’s a partnership. It’s like a marriage. That’s and I think if you go into any hire with that philosophy, right, you also have a better shot at being successful because when our teams aren’t successful, I’m not upset with the coach, I’m upset with myself. Like, what are we not doing well enough to support this coach and to support this program. And when you feel like you’ve exhausted all that, when you’ve committed all that, and a program still can’t be successful, then it’s time to make a coaching change. But you don’t get to just sit back as administrators and hope it all works out. I mean, you’re like rolling up your sleeves, you’re right there with them. And I think that’s when the magic really happens. I really do. I think it’s special. And when you have those types of partnerships. 


AB: I couldn’t agree more the idea that you have to ask, what do we need to do to clear your path in that and you need to consistently do that and ask for them to be open and honest about that because it’s the only way that we can help once they’re in that position. And then making sure that you’re just there for them.


JB: So we started this conversation discussing culture and bar none, the biggest influencer of culture in an organization is always going to be the leader. So the two of you are the primary influencers of culture in your athletic department. As you make your way down the ladder, that culture is going to kind of weaken out as you go from level to level to level. And that just happens, right and you have a big organization with 10,000 people in it, the culture at the top is always going to be stronger than bottom. But the problem is that you can’t make every hire in your department and maybe at the end of the day, you’re going to be able to meet with people before they come on board, but you have an expectation that your deputies and your associate ADs and whoever else are going to be able to hire people underneath them. How are you ensuring that whatever it is that you want in people is making their way to the bottom without just depending on the fact that well, if I hire this person, I assume that they’re going to hire somebody similar to who they are?


AB: Well, we never stopped talking about it. We never stop talking about the type of people that we want to work at Milwaukee. Our senior team is 11 people. My executive team is four, including myself. And I trust them implicitly, because we’re always having those conversations. And those people I know and trust, represent our culture and have the right filters and lenses. It doesn’t mean they’re not gonna make mistakes just like I could make mistakes in a hire but I really don’t worry about that too much. And part of that is it’s been six plus years and I know the folks that are working within our department and really trust them.


JC: That’s awesome. That takes time to build I mean, like we’re in year three or something. I don’t know how many years we’ve been doing this now but we always talk about exactly what we’re talking about, like it’s so much easier to build a cohesive leadership team and create clarity around purpose. It’s a lot harder to reinforce that and really over communicate that every single day within your organization. I think I look at it a little bit different from a different angle, and that I think it starts with actually creating value and purpose for everybody in your organization, and how you are communicating that every single day in your interactions with people within your department, when you’re having it even something as simple as an all staff meeting. We always have students featured at our all staff meetings, because we wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for students. That’s why we’re there. Those little things where after a couple years, people start to understand they all are contributing to something bigger than themselves. And that there’s behaviors that are expected and you’re going to get rewarded for those behaviors, or you’re not, if you don’t have those behaviors. I think over time, when you consistently have like the time that you’ve had, like that’s pretty powerful stuff, because then the folks that aren’t as seasoned as even your executive team start to see that and then they start to embody that more and the way that they look at, not only bringing people in, but how you’re managing the people that you already have. Because in some of the systems that we’re in, I mean, it’s not easy to get rid of people if they’re not performing, unless they’re on contract, so part of it is also just teaching your team. So we have an executive team and the senior leadership team below. I meet with our executive team every week, but our senior leadership team, I meet with once a month. We spend most of our time just talking about leadership, big picture challenges, a lot about our vulnerabilities and areas of weakness, starting with me, and the things I need to do and they need to do to get better as human beings. And then that starts to trickle into the other people that they manage. They’re trying to teach that with their people, and then you hope over time it starts to grow throughout the organization.


JB: So my last question is, how far ahead are you guys thinking about when it comes to hiring? I mean, do you already have a plan for when this coach leaves or this person leaves and and then when you hire, are you thinking about succession? Are you thinking about well, is this the type of person that is going to be good in this role, but I can also maybe promote if they get six months to a year of experience and then keep moving up that way, or I’m just putting them here and you know, if it works out, it works out, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.


AB: Yeah, I think the first part of your question, we’re always to an earlier question, always talking with people and coming out to conferences and meetings, and getting to know folks, you know, and then using a network to, as soon as it’s apparent that someone’s moving on or you need to move somebody on, you’re working those networks of people. You know, I don’t have a list, you’ve got some names that you know, you have people you’ve noticed, some successful programs, but it’s pretty fluid. In terms of the internal side of things, yeah, I watch our staff pretty closely. I see their interactions. I see how they respond to failure, to stress, to opportunity, the initiative and things like that. So you’re taking mental notes and sometimes you do have that moment of like, “Whoa. They’d be really good in this role if that ever becomes open or, you know, available to them.”


JC: There were so many questions in your question, I’m trying to figure out which one I’m supposed to be answering right now. I think one, this is a fast paced industry that we’re in now. I mean, I used to be a big believer in long-term strategies, but I’m gonna be honest, like, it’s a lot harder to do that now, even with our business strategies, I mean, our business can change. I mean look what’s going on in our business right now. I mean, our business can change within a year. So I try to not get too attached to really long term outcomes and make any decisions on something that may or may not even be real or factual at the time. That’s a skill that’s new for me in this role that I didn’t have before. I used to be much more of a, you know, 5, 10-year plan person. I think it’s just harder to do that. I do think you need to understand the circumstances that you’re in with the area that you’re hiring for, and have enough of a sense of how long you think you’re going to need people to be in those roles. And then sometimes you have control over that and sometimes you don’t. With our head coaches, we spend a lot of time on our head coaches, where would they leave for? We talked about that all the time. Where would they go? What could open where they could go and every one of our head coaching positions? What’s their mood? What are the other opportunities out there? How can we reward them not just with compensation, little things like throwing a couple coaches on a donor plane for a football game that are spring sport coaches? Just like little touches and different things that you hope can kind of keep people still motivated to be part of you, but I think you said it beautifully. You pay attention to your people. I try, we try so much to understand our people beyond the work. What’s their spouse all about? What’s their financial situation about? How the commute is impacting them? And, you know, just different things. Now they’ve had kids or they’re not going to have kids because they can’t have kids and do this. And all those things contribute to whether people decide to stay or decide to go and they also contribute to whether or not they can be part of your succession planning. I’ve seen highly talented people that could have taken off in the work but because of other personal reasons have chosen not to. I think you really need to look at people holistically.


JB: On that note, Jen, Amanda, thank you for joining us. That was a very insightful discussion. I appreciate it.