In August 2015, Curt Apsey returned to Boise State to assume the athletic director post after having spent the better part of a year in the same capacity at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. After serving as Boise State’s senior associate athletic director for 16 years – and for a time as interim AD – prior to accepting the Carroll position, the move was viewed as a homecoming. Leading with transparency, Apsey visits AthleticDirectorU as the latest Athletic Director in Residence.
Why is it important for a leader to establish clear expectations?
When expectations are clear, individuals can focus their time and energy on working toward goals rather than spending their time trying to identify them. We make a concerted effort to remove the unknown, clarify expectations in relation to our values and set specific, measurable and actionable goals that are linked to department objectives. By ensuring that expectations and goals are directly connected to the department’s overall mission, people are better able to grasp both the importance and impact of their work. Additionally, conversations around the setting of expectations and goals need to be collaborative, as this facilitates understanding, improves engagement and, in turn, elevates performance.
Given that situations can change, we work to review expectations before, after and occasionally during each academic year with all areas of the department. Our industry is constantly changing, so it is important that our expectations serve as a grounding force but never reach a point of standing still. They must, to some degree, reflect the changing of circumstances. Such circumstances must also be taken into consideration during formal performance reviews, which, if handled properly, have the potential to serve as opportunities for growth.
Performance reviews should not be moments where staff members feel nervous or uncertain. While there are certainly occasions that may call for a change in tone and tenor, honest feedback, more often than not, can be delivered in a manner that hopefully motivates and uplifts.
Many leaders operate with an open door policy. What is the true function of this concept in terms of its literal and figurative use in leadership?
Central to Boise State’s culture of transparency, in addition to the establishment of expectations, is the regular exchange of ideas and input. Much has been written about the merits of an open door policy in the workplace and, to take the “open door” concept a step further, at Boise State, we make certain that our doors have a figurative “welcome mat” that encourages the open flow of communication. In particular, we need to not only appear accessible, but to truly be accessible.
Keeping our doors open and inviting colleagues to stop by communicates an important message to staff members, namely that we are here to help. We value their opinions, want to hear their concerns, and are truly interested in learning more about their experience, both professionally and personally.
Our willingness to welcome staff members into our offices, not only when they have an issue or situation to discuss but also when they want to connect informally, tends to give me/us a far better understanding of what is happening in the department. The welcome mat approach should ask us all the question, “Do people enjoy meeting with us, and do we appear to be helpful?”
This open dialogue does indeed extend to staff meetings in each area, in which every effort is made to ensure that members of the department are heard and supported. In positions of power, it can be tempting to overlook staff input, but leaders who are inclusive, humble and encouraging of staff members’ right to speak up are far more likely to see performance outcomes improve.
Personally, I’m always encouraged when staff members share an idea, offer another perspective or put forth an opposing viewpoint because it means they care. Conversely, I hope that my honesty sends a message to staff members that I respect them enough to trust them with the truth, expect that they will hold me accountable and value their equally-honest input. This last piece is particularly important given my background.
Prior to becoming AD at Boise State and before my time at Carroll, I served as the senior associate athletic director for External Affairs. In that capacity, it was not uncommon for me to spend a significant amount of time wrapped up in the details. The nature of my current position means that I cannot afford to be consumed with the micro aspects of our internal and external operations. Instead, I must rely heavily on input and updates provided by staff members to determine where best to direct my energy.
Over the years I’ve also come to realize that emotional vulnerability in the workplace can be hugely advantageous. While traditionally viewed as a weakness, vulnerability can help build trust and respect. People are far more inclined to forge an authentic connection with a leader who is relatable, and authentic connections are what create feelings of security, understanding, appreciation and reliability. By speaking honestly about day-to-day challenges, priorities and successes, we can create an atmosphere in which people feel more comfortable being themselves at work.
Given the around-the-clock nature of college athletics, it is worthwhile to put egos aside, admit that we don’t have all the answers and create space for open and honest conversations. Certainly, at Boise State, we have seen that caring about individuals as people first and athletic stakeholders second is a much more rewarding approach to building a unified culture.
One of the top reasons why many people change jobs – or industries altogether – is the lack of personal and professional growth. What do you do to ensure that working for you is more than just another paycheck?
Creating a work environment that people enjoy being a part of is very important. One of the ways in which we strive to create this type of environment is by ensuring that others’ contributions, big and small, are acknowledged in a very real and direct way. Put another way, I believe in saying thank you as regularly as situations allow. I also believe that, while we are not always in a position to financially reward coaches and staff members, we can publicly and privately celebrate their achievements in such a way that they feel happy and proud to be a part of the Boise State experience.
In addition to expressing gratitude and delivering praise, I try to provide individuals who are working tirelessly to advance Boise State with the flexibility to better manage work-life demands. In this industry, it is important for coaches and staff members to feel as though they have some control over their schedules. I am of the opinion that if a colleague has completed his or her responsibilities for the day and is no longer needed on campus, he or she should feel comfortable leaving the office. As the department’s senior leader, I am clear about this in my interactions with others. In my view, the notion of having to clock in and out seems ill-fitted to college athletics and deprives individuals of a benefit that, if used wisely, can be enormously appreciated.
How do you balance success with the scarcity of resources?
Open and honest conversations about available resources, which are seldom in abundance and always in high demand, are particularly important. With limited funds, we’re careful not to engage in unnecessary spending and routinely ask ourselves how and why we pursue activities. Is this a priority for the program or department? How will we measure the success of this expenditure?
Instead of blindly pursuing new activities, programs or events because they once worked somewhere else, we make tough decisions about where to apply our efforts. Even in times of plenty, coaches and administrators are challenged to defend expenditures and explain requests for additional funding. While we try not to withhold funds from programs that require additional support, we have come to embrace a scarcity mindset that supports innovation, helps identify that which is truly necessary and ensures that we use our financial resources in a most efficient way.
Are there similarities when communicating value to potential donors and potential recruits?
To increase financial support, we try and promote the Boise State student-athlete experience. During the 2017-18 academic year, Boise State experienced five team conference championships, 20 individual conference titles, five conference athletes of the year awards, four coach of the year awards and an individual national championship by a women’s track and field student-athlete.
Academically, Boise State’s 19 sports programs combined for an overall grade-point average of 3.31, tying the department record. Six programs received NCAA Public Recognition Awards for having multi-year Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores in the top 10 of their respective sports and 14 programs recorded perfect single-year APR scores.
When we speak with current and potential donors, we’re quick to not only highlight these and other achievements but also to explain what we believe is possible with the help of additional resources. By clearly communicating our financial needs, the importance of those needs and what we believe will happen if those needs are addressed, friends of the program are more likely to make a financial contribution.
Boise State’s culture of transparency extends to and directly influences not only our revenue generation efforts, but also our recruitment of prospective student-athletes. With the same candor used to speak with current and potential donors, we provide prospective student-athletes with a clear understanding of what it means to be a Bronco. We are open about what we can deliver academically and athletically, and we talk enthusiastically about our aspirations.
I regularly meet with visiting recruits and their families and, in those meetings I tell them that if they choose to attend Boise State, they will be leaving one family and joining another, working toward and graduating with a degree and competing for conference championships. I share those promises because I believe them to be true, and it is this belief in Bronco Athletics that holds us accountable and helps drive us forward.
In the months and years ahead, I’m confident that Boise State will continue to attract and retain passionate, performance-focused individuals who understand that our pursuit of excellence is directly associated with and aided by our commitment to being honest about who we are, what we believe in, where we aspire to be and how we plan to get there.