By Ken Winstead
In conversations with many Division-I athletic directors and senior level staff, it was disappointing to hear how many of these highly respected industry professionals described themselves as being consumed with what they described as “political challenges.” I understand when working in a profession fueled by emotional attachment, these “political challenges” will always exist, but it literally dominated my conversations.
It was personally disturbing because I greatly respect all of you in this profession, and see first hand the societal contributions you make each day through the positive impacts you have on the lives of student-athletes. In fact, there are many of you who have also shaped who I am; you are indeed very special individuals.
While I am far from being an expert on most things, one thing I feel has been a strength throughout my career is my ability to create trusting relationships and build consensus among different constituencies; at least this is what I hear from the athletic directors I served.
My goal in this inaugural article is to share insight into what has helped me create honest and productive relationships with external constituencies; and hence, eased some of the political challenges we faced. Hopefully, some of what I share helps lighten some of your “political challenges.” The group I will focus on, and who I feel can help all of you, are the highly respected and influential business leaders in your surrounding communities and among alumni nationwide.
All of you are constantly positioning your programs to be attractive to “elite” prospective student-athletes, the same is true among top business leaders in recruiting and retention of elite professionals within their industries. In stating the obvious, the coach and CEO of the year always have top talent.
Like the private sector, most of you rely on private funding when new investments are required in maintaining your competitive advantage. Knowing these similarities, I have found it invaluable to connect with and share our department’s vision with the business “icons” in the area. We then ask if they were the CEO of our department, what steps would they take in achieving this vision.
This is when the magic happens; instead of these executives being spoken to, they realize how much their input in needed and valued. The next step is inviting them along with a small number of their peers to become part of the athletic director’s inner circle, as they know our goals probably will not be reached without their involvement. The key now is to create a sense of “team” among the group, with them becoming vested in the overall success of a “project” and the department overall. In most cases, I have seen athletic staff and the CEO’s become close knit to the point where none of the group wants to let the others down; like a championship team.
I know this sounds so basic and many of you prescribe to this approach already, but I also know many programs rely on “staff driven” efforts. There are obvious benefits to this approach and some not so obvious.
The obvious ones are that your department stands a greater chance of meeting ambitious goals with them than without them. When community members see such highly respected business leaders involved and vested in your department, in many cases the project and your program gain instant credibility. Another benefit is the project becomes more successful simply because of the business expertise they lend to the project; many of them have built successful businesses from scratch.
A not so obvious benefit is the easing of “political challenges.”
With so many communication vehicles available for your fan base to voice their opinions and criticisms of athletic directors and their departments (emotional attachments), we found it helpful when the “engaged” business leaders responded on the department’s behalf. The more engaged they were, the more the athletic director and their department benefited. It was especially helpful as they interacted with those particularly critical of the program and the individuals involved.
In fact, I will go one step further; I have seen it save jobs.
I empathize with the mounting political challenges confronting you and your departments and have seen first hand the personal toll it takes. I strongly encourage you to think of ways to be more inclusive with the “right” people; individuals who can make you better and become your best friends and “advocates.”
Ken Winstead is a 30-year veteran of collegiate athletics, most recently serving the Seattle University athletics department as Associate Athletic Director/Senior Fundraiser. During previous stints at UL-Lafayette, Colorado State, Washington, Houston, Oregon, Georgia Southern, and even USA Wrestling, Ken developed a reputation as a successful fundraiser who inspires action by bringing people together and building consensus around a bold vision.
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