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Matching Organizational Culture With Brand: Oregon State’s Scott Barnes

Guest Scott Barnes, Oregon State University
14:46 min watch


Scott Barnes, VP and Director of Athletics at Oregon State, talks matching organizational culture with brand. Barnes provides thoughts on recruiting leaders to fit the culture of the institution. Barnes also discusses the importance of aligning employee and fan experiences and his process to determine if an opportunity fits with his career aspirations.


(Click the timestamp below to jump to a specific question/topic)

  • - Describe the culture on your campus and community since you’ve been in Corvallis
  • - How do you identify coaches and staff to fit into the culture you are building?
  • - What is the difference in the recruiting process between bringing in coaches versus administrators?
  • - Prior to accepting your current position, what was your process to determine if your career aspirations matched with the opportunity at Oregon State?
  • - How can you tell if your employee experiences and your constituent experiences are aligned?
  • - Are there any organizations that you admire with regard to how they operate?
  • - Are there similarities between your institution and your in-state rival?
  • - Thoughts on expectations for athletic success


(Full Transcript)


Matt Roberts: Hello. I’m Matt Roberts with AthleticDirectorU and D1.ticker. We’re here at the 2019 NCAA Convention in sunny Orlando joined by Scott Barnes, athletic director at Oregon State. Let’s dive right in. We’ve discussed the topic of matching company culture with brand, which sounds a little nebulous, I understand. But I think the context of where I want to start this, Scott, is given the timing of our conversation and the Pac-12’s positioning and some of the challenges that the league has had, at least externally, from a positioning standpoint, we know there are differences institutionally in the Pac-12 and there are another Power Five conferences, but as it specifically relates to Oregon State, how do you think about the unique culture that was already instilled in Corvallis when you arrived, maybe some additional elements that you’ve seen and want to impart in terms of the path of the culture for the institution and how that strategically aligns to conference marketplace, state marketplace, regional marketplace, and then ultimately, of course, national marketplace?


Scott Barnes: A lot to unpack there, great, great questions, you know, culture, it’s a little bit like fish in water. You know, you live in and around the place. And maybe you don’t really know how to define culture in some ways because you live it every day. That said, being on board for a couple of years in observing and talking and planning, you know, there are some things that absolutely stand out in Oregon State. And I think one of them is this sort of understated blue-collar mentality, a sincere, authentic sort of grinder mentality and that permeates through all the… all of our programs. And as we launched our strategic plan and some of the other things we’re doing, we’ve kept that in mind. We’ve ingrained that. And that’s what… that’s what our fans are about as well. And so, there is a match there.


I’m thinking of some of the leaders and head coach that you have within your department and their backgrounds, Jonathan Smith, of course, former student athlete, former football player; Wayne came from Montana. How do you think about… many people might go, ‘Okay, well, the offensive coordinator at USC would never fit Oregon State’; well, Dennis Erickson fit pretty well at Oregon State, and he has an interesting background, of course, right. How do you think about, though, from, whether it’s administrators or head coaches, truly drilling down on that understated blue-collar mentality that you describe about your fan base and the culture of your brand and identify that in leaders that you are going to bring to be a part of what you are building?


Well, you know, first, Matt, it’s so important, obvious statement, but when you’re recruiting, whether it’s administrator a coach, it’s not just about getting, it’s about retaining them. And so, that fits because it’s really important. And that could be vetted, an interview process, you know, we talk about who we are a lot and, you know, we’re the best college town in America. So we think and we take pride in that. We’re a small community. We are, you know, the Northwest, if you like, the outdoors. But it’s not a fit for everybody. So clearly, defining who we are and what we’re trying to get done, including expectations around what we’re doing. And we want to win championships, we really do. And we’re going do it probably a little differently than some.


And I think by vetting and having real conversations about that, not only do you find that right fit, but you tend to have folks like the Pat Caseys and Scott Ruecks and others who have endeared themselves to the community and aren’t going anywhere.


What’s different in that process between coaches and administrators?


Well, I think the… one of things is the marketplace as it relates to the aggressive pursuit of excellent coaches. And certainly, that occurs better at the administrative level but it could be it could be a fistfight. So, when you’re recruiting somebody, Jonathan Smith who played and was a local legend at Oregon State and has great memories of being a student on our campus, that’s an individual we know will succeed and we’ll continue to give him the right tools, but have an opportunity to create a lot of continuity over time by him staying where he’s at. But I think, you know, there’s always a next level and whether that be the NFL or anything else. And so just the marketplace and the aggressive pursuit of coaches is something that we all get involved with.


Yeah, I want to ask about your own personal connection to that brand before you became athletic director to Oregon State, and I’ve been curious to ask you this for a while. And your background, of course, was Pitt and Utah State and Eastern Washington. Washington, of course, senior administration, but Humbolt State, people probably don’t always remember that.


I barely do.


Well, what I’m curious about is I feel as though many times, administrators that’s… this is probably not a fair statement, but guys saying, ‘You know, I would fit or I wouldn’t fit there.’ And given your own path through this industry, how much reflection did you really have to do about, ‘Do I match Oregon State?’




And then how did you go through that process to identify if that match was there?


Well, again, being a Northwest native, born in Spokane and most of my career being in the Northwestern or West, you know, this sounds contrived, but I’ve had Oregon State on my list for over 20 years. As a small college town Pac-12 footprint, it’s always been a place. So relatives that have lived in and around the area, you know, it’s really hard, Matt, for us in this industry to match career aspirations with personal and family, and it’s hard and it doesn’t… that window doesn’t always open at the right time. And so, the window opened and we were ultimately going to be back somehow, some way in the Northwest. And so, it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t… it wasn’t difficult rather to make the decision to go at Oregon State and it felt like that culture of what we’ve talked about was a good fit for who I am as a person.


Yeah, that institutional brand fit with the athletic director core value brand fit, I think, is I could ask a million questions about that, and it’s a whole different series of conversations. I want to hit you with a quote, which I prepared you for a little bit. And this is from a branding consultant, a notable author, her name is Denise Leone. And she says on this topic of matching company culture with brand, ‘how you can tell if your culture and your brand aren’t interpreted… how can you tell if your culture and brand aren’t interdependent and mutually reinforcing? A disconnect between your employee experiences and your customer experiences is a telltale sign.’


So, for you, it’s how would you compare your employees’ experiences with those of your fan bases and are they aligned?


You know, I think the way to tell that is by asking. We do a lot of connecting, in fact, when we rolled out our strategic plan last year, we had a hundred people involved in it, including community folks. We have a Fan Experience Committee that tells us what thousands and thousands of our Beaver nation are looking for and want. Our employees are involved in that same process. So, take the ownership as a fan and as an employee helps bring that out, helps that alignment because you’re working towards the same goal. And we have… we have a lot of volunteer structure from representative models that we’re building in our Beaver Nation fund drive to the top where I’ve got 16 CEO presidents on a board of advisers and everything in between, including the Fan Experience Committee. Those volunteers working with our staff bring instant alignment, because you can’t get stuff done if you’re not aligned. And so, what I’m excited about in that regard is that we built the plan together and were executing together, the fans and the employees.


There are some programs that we’ve discussed here having extremely high-level success, women’s basketball, clearly baseball. We talked about men’s basketball before we started recording here and their opportunity to take… a lot of teams do in Pac-12 take hold of the conference race right now.




Do you anticipate when football reaches a level of success that you are satisfied with and the fan base that is satisfied with? Experientially, how do you expect the fan base to talk about that and how does that match with the brand?


That’s interesting, you know, I think you think about expectations and are those aligned and are they ever aligned between administration and the fans. And you want more and more, feed the beast, right? But I think what… I know what we’re looking for and that’s sustained excellence. And for us in football, that’s described by regular bowl appearances and spikes that get us to conference championships and beyond. And I think there is an alignment with the fan base on that. We talk about it a lot, about that being our goal because we can’t get there without their investment. And then, an investment and a plan, and we talk about the plan a lot.


I’m always interested in asking athletics directors if there are other organizations, whether it be peer-athletic departments, Fortune 500 companies, specific individual support programs that you would point to and say, ‘I take a lot of credence in how that organization was built culturally. And there are values that I want to learn from that organization that may be applicable to what we’re doing and may not be.’




But are there any that are top of mind for you in that regard?


Yeah. You know, I think a lot when we run our organization the way that we do things. I think a lot about the Pittsburgh Steelers, believe it or not, and having been for a couple years and having had just a wonderful partnership with the Rooney Family and sharing the same playing venue, the practice venue, and being around them and watching what they do and how they do it. Here’s a program on organization that has been one of the most successful in the world in over a period time, sustained excellence for a long, long time. And yet, some of those attributes we talked about or culture we talked about earlier, the understated, you know, if you think about the Rooney Family, they’re understated. They’re unassuming. They’re incredible competitors. But they’re humble and they’re built on this blue-collar work ethic mentality. And we talked about that as it relates to Oregon State. So, that would be one organization that you look at and you say, “Hey, they’ve had sustained excellence for a long time.” And they’re doing it in similar fashion to how we’ve done it and how we want to continue to do.


Are there, I think, strategically, I would look at Oregon, Oregon State and immediately see differences on how I would position the brands. But what are the similarities between the two? What one of the balancers between the two that… maybe it’s the state bond of a common thread, but are there some similarities between the two brands?


You know, you got a land grant mission 45 minutes apart. The Northwest, you know, we all like the same line of beer. I think we are different. We’re a different brand and neither one of them are better or worse than the other. They’re just different in terms of how they approach things. And that’s… that’s…


It what makes rivalries.


That’s what makes rivalries. It’s what creates this enormously popular enterprise with collegiate athletics and the fans that are engaged in it. So it’s… rivalries are slowly dying. And as we look at conference alignment and those issues, those rivalries become more and more important. And you want to keep those alive. And that one, the Civil War is alive and well.


Here’s one thing I have wanted to ask you, and I think about it in the context (of) Kentucky football. There are some brands, I think Oregon State and Kentucky would kind of be in the same boat where this regular bowl appearances and spikes, like that’s all the fan base wants. I’ve always thought about Mitch, like you have an algorithm internally that says, if we win six games, here’s the return on investment that I can… if we win eight games and like you used that to structure Mark’s deal, “Oh, that’s,” I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no. I bet there’s an…” So I’m saying it in my head, ‘I’m sure there’s data cats that are smart enough to figure that out.’ But those two brands are somewhat similar.


That’s interesting. Yeah. That’s interesting. And, you know, the [inaudible 0:13:42] and our best opportunity for revenue growth is football and we don’t, you know, what amazes me about Oregon State is, you know, you’re 1 and 11 and they come, they come, you’re, you know, you, like, in women’s basketball, there’s nobody that has a better attendance. We’re one of the best in the country in attendance for sure in the West. And we’re winning, but it’s sustained winning, I think, in support and it’s not a fleeting… it’s sustaining excellence at a certain level and then, yeah, peaking beyond that. That’s where we’re going to see real growth in terms of revenue is, you know, year three of the third bowl game. I do… I liken it a little bit to Utah State, land-grant…Similar, you know, and it took there, I mean, it wasn’t until our third year, we went from 4,000 to [6,000 to 12,000] but it wasn’t after our first year of winning. It was small growth until about the third year of winning.