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Set the Course, Empower Staff to Steer the Ship: UTRGV’s Chris King

By Chris King, UTRGV

Humbling is the first word that comes to mind when reflecting on the fact that, as of just three years ago, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley had yet to even commence full operation. As a fledgling institution in a state dominated by Hook ‘Em, Gig ‘Em, Guns Up and other supremely resonant brands that imbue a sense of pride and devotion to entrenched institutions, our task was to find a way to set ourselves apart. Situated closer to the border of Mexico than the city centers of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex are to each other, and with eighty-nine percent of our student population being of Hispanic descent, we already had a market niche. But niche was never the goal. The word ‘audacious’ kept finding its way into our daily lexicon.


Getting to that point, however, is a process that involves more than sitting in a room and throwing a bunch of wild ideas against the wall to see what will stick. The foundation and culture of the department must be set in order to provide an environment in which audacious thinking, and its subsequent execution, can occur. Core values will ultimately serve as the foundation for an organization’s success. For us, this began with the formulation and articulation of a strategic plan that leaves no room for ambiguity in the expectations we hold for our staff and coaches.


Here in The Valley, our core themes are to AchieVe, BelieVe, DriVe, EleVate, InVest and ThriVe. Our strategic mantra is: Plan. Execute. Create Results. That being said, a premier strategic plan cannot simply be goal-driven; our plan must be action-driven. In painstaking detail, the plan will layout the steps to be taken to achieve the coveted goals. Spreadsheets. Bullet points. Roman-numeraled lists. Assessment charts. These will become an obsession for leaders desirous of presenting a crystal clear roadmap for where their department is to go and how to get there.


This forethought must also work hand-in-hand with the university’s strategic planning process. As such, the journey isn’t always as smooth as one might hope. At times, the process can move faster and in more directions than time, resources and manpower are able to keep pace with. Ripping up portions of your plan can become a weekly, or even daily, occurrence. Being regimented about the planning process does not preclude one from the necessity of being nimble, creative and having the ability to adjust to factors outside of one’s control.


We are buoyed during these inevitable turbulent times by keeping our focus on the Four P’s: our purpose, our people, our process and our product. What do we want to accomplish? Why do we want to do it? How are we going to accomplish it? Who is going to help us accomplish it and are we putting them in the best possible position to succeed?


One of our guiding principles is to win the workplace in order to win the marketplace. You win by cultivating the right culture, leadership, expectations, beliefs, mindset, relationships and habits before you ever show up to work. Culture comes to life from the top down, but can only be achieved by empowering, challenging and developing one’s staff. As Jack Welch once said, “Before you become a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you assume a leadership role, success is all about growing others.” There is perhaps no single aspect of my job in which I take greater pride.


Empower your staff. Your time is limited. As a leader, your job is to set the course, then let your people steer the ship. At UTRGV, our highly qualified executive staff is given ownership over their areas. By hiring the right people, a leader will learn as much from them as they do from him or her, and that leader’s time will remain free for macro-level responsibilities. By defining our staff’s roles and responsibilities, deliverables and performance measurements, we have created a peer accountability process from the top down that provides me the ability to focus on the vision, values, beliefs, culture, leadership development and our talent within the department.


Challenge your staff. My philosophy is to motivate exceptional talent to do the impossible. The Director of Athletics lays out a vision, a plan of action, a plan for core priorities and transparency on areas of improvement and areas to fix annually. Why shouldn’t all executive staff and head coaches be expected to do the same? This will inevitably involve pulling some individuals outside of their comfort zone. Teach them not to fear change, but to embrace it.


Develop your staff. This is a year-round process that is easy to let slip to the backburner in favor of more immediate, quantifiable tasks. However, by identifying an individual’s goals, interests and potential training opportunities at the start of the year, conducting routine employee performance assessments throughout the year, and then reviewing and revising plans prior to the next year, this vitally important aspect of an organization’s culture can be properly cultivated.


Analogous to the old coaching saying that “players don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” going deeper than periodically meeting with coaches and staff for cursory check-ins on their area is imperative. At UTRGV, we develop a month-by-month plan that is explicit in laying out how we intend to advance the leadership capabilities of our staff and what our expectations are for them in terms of taking ownership over their own development. On-the-job training and job shadowing, performance evaluations, mentoring and personal coaching, and learning critically important “soft skills,” such as networking, giving and receiving feedback, and negotiating, are all part of our process.


From peer accountability to group discussions on building culture, developing meaningful relationships, motivating student-athletes and recruiting best practices, to annually providing a different book on leadership for staff to consume, to identifying external opportunities for engagement and learning, your staff will respond to their leaders taking an active interest in their advancement.


A leader’s responsibility is to ensure that staff understand the overall department plan, as well as how to execute their respective “ownership” of annual core priorities and create results within the culture of the organization. Our executive team constantly impresses upon our staff the importance of strategic execution; our goal is to produce SMART results that are specific, measurable, attainable, real and timely. In doing so, however, we must never compromise the core values of the department: accountability, pursuit of excellence, integrity and service.


Once a solid foundation is established, there will be no shortage of people who want to jump aboard. Shortly after UTRGV began full operation, a committee tasked with conducting a football feasibility study was formed. Chaired by legendary Texas coach Mack Brown and including former NCAA executive vice president Oliver Luck, the committee also featured members of campus and heavyweights with major influence from the local community. Yesterday’s announcement that sponsoring football could become an important piece toward building the UTRGV brand exemplifies what can happen in a culture, even one as young as ours, where buy-in to the mission is achieved across the community spectrum.


Why must we do all this? In part, because there is no other choice. We would be naive to think that, as the school with the second lowest budget in our conference, we should do things exactly as everyone else. In fact, we must work harder, plan and execute better, and think more audaciously than our peers. Long-term success is for leaders who communicate, collaborate and connect intentionally; not leaders for whom people have to work, but leaders for whom people want to work. We will continue to hire and retain the right talent for our culture, in large part because of our unwavering commitment to being intentional about the development of our staff.