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Michael Alford: Competitive Culture You Can Measure

By Michael Alford, Central Michigan

Competition is standard in the industry of collegiate athletics. On a daily basis, the best student-athletes in the country leave it all on the court, the field and the track for their teammates, coaches and university. Student-athletes are measured by individual performance, win-loss records, academic success and the championships they earn. Coaches are assessed in the same manner, combined with their ability to incorporate the educational mission of the university. Each athletic team competes with specific measurable goals set for individuals and their program. Success or lack thereof is relatively clear.


Ironically, when it comes assessing success within the organizations those individuals are apart of – the very departments we lead as administrators – many times we fall short of creating ways to measure and benchmark the success of the individuals who operate in those environments.


Part of the issue is that each area of specialty is isolated, which means progress is more difficult to gauge. Rather than allowing this separation to continue, perhaps then a cultural shift toward teamwork can be adopted to mitigate some of the issues that stem from this isolation. Having a group that is competitive in nature means each area adopts a process to identify and forecast shortcomings and is prepared to make adjustments. The score will be determined by the ability to accurately make adjustments.


One of the many wonderful things about working for great leaders is that it allows one’s professional philosophy to evolve. Having the privilege of working with many incredible administrators, coaches, professors, executives and professional sports owners has taught me much about communicating clear expectations. People will rise to expectations if they are consistent and manageable. Expectations must be transparent, and this is created by daily, weekly and monthly communication. Communication allows everyone to be on the same page and ensures accountability within the department.


Many departments are not used to communicating consistently and may be resistant to change. Our coaches experience this as they integrate new skills and systems into their programs. Just like student-athletes, our people must be encouraged to embrace change. By first creating a shared set of goals, people will start to see the big picture. Once area goals are established, individual goals are added. Next comes the creation of a detailed systematic process plan. This plan must have daily, weekly and monthly targets in order to ensure measurable results. As time goes on, these shorter-term objectives will determine whether the strategy will be tweaked to achieve or surpass the plan.


If the pace is too slow, what adjustments will be made? If the speed is lightning fast, what adjustments can be made to surpass the original goal? This strategic flow is analogous to a coach adjusting a game plan during the heat of battle. A coach does not wait until the end of the game to make adjustments, and our athletic departments should be no different. Each area (marketing, digital media, business office, etc.) creates its own set of measurable goals. The focus on goal setting should be consistent throughout, so that a team atmosphere may be established.


In many ways, the suggestions outline above are very much in line with the utilization of the balanced scorecard within a collegiate athletics environment. Properly implementing the Balanced Scorecard approach requires the usage of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which are defined as: “performance measures that indicate progress toward a desirable outcome. Strategic KPIs monitor the implementation and effectiveness of an organization’s strategies, determine the gap between actual and targeted performance and determine organization effectiveness and operational efficiency.” KPIs are an incredibly useful tool that allow for both qualitative and quantitative measurement of performance among your key staff and business units. AthleticDirectorU has previously published a primer of sorts for those interested in learning more about the usage of the balanced scorecard and KPIs within your athletics department.


It’s important to note that while it is one thing to hold people to measurable goals, it is another to do it without the proper training in place to put them on a path to success. We must identify and hire talented members. It is our responsibility to maximize their potential and place them in situations where they can be most successful. Structured, continuous training of each individual in their specific area is an integral part in helping each employee reach and maintain the highest levels of performance. By investing in our strongest resources – people – we are able to continually grow the potential of the team as a whole.


Let us use the area of athletic development as an example. Creating a competitive environment by establishing team and individual goals is the first step, but it does not stop there. Individual and team goals can be shared aloud. Measurable activity can be in the form of phone calls, in-person meetings set, revenue goals, proposals presented, and an infinite number of others. Growth is encouraged. Whether done with a daily snapshot on a computer program or printed on a chalkboard in the hallway, progress is available for all to see.


Posting progress celebrates success, tracks activity and creates a fun and competitive environment. It is important that each individual can see how he or she compares to fellow staff members. Again, this mirrors an athletic team. It is important everyone knows they are accountable for themselves and the team. Personal progress means team progress. This attitude of competitiveness can be sustained in departmental areas that are not traditionally seen as such.


While competitiveness is useful, it also requires a delicate balance. In order to maintain each team member’s morale at the highest level, plans to encourage risk taking and teamwork should be set into action. Giving attention to extra effort is definitely worth the time. Creating contests and incentives keeps individual motivation fresh and innovative. High achievers take the lead and are encouraged to contribute original ideas. This ultimately creates an overall atmosphere that delivers the highest levels of productivity. Happy team members are most productive.


The competitive environment that naturally exists among our varsity teams can teach us a great deal. Belonging to something greater than oneself is empowering and encouraging. Belief in team motivates others to contribute more and creates a feeling of unity. This is not created overnight. By establishing tangible goals and expectations, the competitive environment will exist on a larger scale. A staff that assumes responsibility ultimately leads to success. Through consistent communication and action, the athletic department will enjoy greater success and, more importantly, achieve greater teamwork.