September 18, 2011 was without question the worst day of Chris Del Conte’s professional career.
October 6, 2011 was his absolute best.
The circumstances that led to such polarization, as well as the events that precipitated as a result, contain within them one of the most powerful lessons of successful organizational leadership in recent memory. Leveraging a skillful mastery of the art of persuasion, a single individual was able to sway the fortunes of an entire university and launch it down a path of unprecedented success.
When Chris Del Conte accepted the role of athletic director at Texas Christian University (TCU) in the Fall of 2009, his hiring came with a stipulation – not only did he have to maintain a successful athletics program at one of the country’s most prestigious private universities, but he was also tasked with insuring that the Horned Frogs were positioned to become a dominant force in college athletics for the foreseeable future.
This, of course, was no simple proposition. The university was a then member of the Mountain West Conference, which is not considered among the “power” conferences. While they had managed to be incredibly competitive against institutions with far greater resources, their ability to maintain a high level of achievement in the future would become further and further outside their control so long as they were seated at the proverbial kids table. For all intents and purposes, the Horned Frogs were an outlier. Without access to the exposure and financial resources of a major conference, it was only a matter of time before TCU lost its ability to compete effectively at the highest level of college athletics.
As fortune would have it, soon after Del Conte took over in Fort Worth, he received an unsolicited phone call from Jamie Dixon, head men’s basketball coach at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Texas Christian alumnus. Dixon asked whether the Horned Frogs had ever thought of the possibility becoming a member of the Big East Conference. Del Conte knew that while the schools geographic location might be an odd fit, if they had a powerful internal advocate like Dixon on their side, they would have a legitimate chance of convincing the league’s membership that they could make it work. In a matter of weeks, the two devised a pitch that would quickly lead to a formal invitation for TCU to become the newest member of the Big East.
For Del Conte, it all seemed too easy. While he and the university’s administration had worked hard to position the Horned Frogs for an opportunity to move into a better conference, he was also keenly aware that the shifting landscape of college athletics meant that the tide could rapidly shift against them.
Not surprisingly, anyone that knows Del Conte would agree that he exhibits telltale characteristics of what management scientist Jim Collin’s refers to as Productive Paranoia. In his seminal work on organizational management, “Great By Choice”, Collin’s contends that truly great leaders whom exhibit the aforementioned quality are not necessarily fearful of their employees, nor paralyzed when it comes to making decisions, but rather they constantly ask themselves “What If?” They are relentlessly vigilant of the ever shifting conditions that affect their industry, always determining how to best position their organizations to deal with what may lay ahead. Productively Paranoid leaders successfully deploy a Zoom Out, Zoom In strategy, in which they zoom out to assess potential changes to their work environment and the relative risk they pose to the organization, and then zoom in to focus on how to best execute their immediate plans and objectives to insure long-term survival.
In the case at hand, while TCU had seemingly secured its future by committing to the Big East, Del Conte knew that until the Horned Frogs had officially began league competition, which was to happen two years hence, the athletic department’s stability was dependent on what amounted to a handshake agreement. Even then, there was simply no real guarantee that the Big East, nor any other conference, would maintain its place in the college athletics pecking order (Zoom Out). For these reasons, following their acceptance of the Big East invitation, Del Conte continued to work quietly behind the scenes to continue and raise the Horned Frogs athletic profile, as well as systematically set out to build alliances with powerbrokers throughout college athletics in case the day ever came that he had to call in a favor (Zoom In).
That day came much sooner than he anticipated when on September 18, 2011, both Pittsburgh and Syracuse, two founding members of the Big East, announced that they were leaving the league to join the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). While the loss of the two schools was not necessarily a deathblow to the conference, it left the league in a precarious position. To make matters worse, West Virginia, home to the Big East’s most successful football program, was being rumored as a potential replacement for the vacancy left open in the Big 12 by Texas A&M, who had just announced that it was leaving for the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Even then, rumors swirled that Texas and Oklahoma might bolt as well, putting the Big 12’s own future in doubt.
“I was beside myself,” Del Conte painfully recalls. “Everything that we had spent building over the last two years was crumbling around us, and if I didn’t figure out a solution fast the only person that was going to be left to blame was me. [TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini] and I got on a plane to New York to meet with leaders from the league’s other institutions. We were people of integrity and ready to solidify our commitment to the conference. Problem was, by the end of the meeting we looked at each other and realized it was every school for themselves.”
Things were not going according to plan, to say the least. But Del Conte had also been preparing for a worst case scenario like this for months. He was able to immediately recognize that while no one could predict whether the Big East or Big 12 would live through the defections, the best chance for the Horned Frogs own survival was to have as many options on the table as possible. If the Big 12 did end up making a move to expand, then he had to insure that Texas Christian was the only real option they ever considered. To do so would require him to use every tool he had in his arsenal and spearhead an advocacy campaign for the university on a scale never before seen in college athletics.
“Chris’ incredible work ethic is rivaled only by his charm,” opines Boschini. “He was relentless during those critical few weeks we were in conference limbo. He created a battle plan for us, ‘you call these six people and I’ll call these six’, ‘you’re going to be in Los Angeles, make sure you happen to run into this person’. In the span of those 4 or 5 weeks, we literally spoke to hundreds of donors, politicians and friends we had that could put pressure on the [Big 12] presidents to let us into the league. It was emotionally exhausting work, but Chris kept pushing and pushing. His charisma is simply contagious – once you catch a glimpse of the vision he’s trying to project, you’re hooked.”
According to renowned management professor Jay Conger, individuals who attempt to use logic, persistence and personality to persuade others to buy into an idea usually position themselves for failure. Persuasion is not simply a matter of presenting a great argument, which while important, is never in-of-itself enough to successfully convince someone to do what you’re asking. Rather, effective persuasion should be framed much the same as a negotiation, in which there is a constant process of discovery and dialogue, and most significantly compromise. Effective persuaders meticulously analyze their position and those of whom they are trying to influence from every possible angle, navigating around obstacles and guiding the process towards a desired outcome.
Conger further contends that effective persuasion is a process composed of four separate and equally critical phases. The first requires establishing credibility with those who you are trying to influence. The second is presenting one’s goals in a way that is relates mutually to the other parties interests. The third is then to strengthen ones position using compelling evidence. Lastly, the persuader must create an emotional connection with those they intend to persuade. In many ways, successful influencers enter the process as open-books, constantly seeking ways of creating a mutually beneficial outcome through creativity and compromise.
Fortunately for TCU, one can argue that no one understands the art of persuasion better than Chris Del Conte. His skills in the area were developed as a child, having grown up on 147 acre ranch for foster children that his parents ran in New Mexico. While Del Conte has two younger biological siblings, he also grew up with hundreds of foster children that he equally considers his brothers and sisters. Each one of those kids came from different backgrounds, cultures and religions and so in many ways, the Del Conte household was its own version of the United Nations. Whether it was mediating arguments among siblings or helping a new member of the family acclimate to life on the ranch, Del Conte had innumerable opportunities to sharpen his communication and persuasion skills. Most importantly, he learned how to view the world from other people’s shoes.
“You have to become the ultimate middle of the hour glass,” explains Del Conte. “When things are going well it’s not difficult to bond with people and bring them to your side, but it’s rarely so easy when things aren’t going the way you planned. That’s why it’s critical to learn how to connect with people and determine what’s driving them. If you know what keeps them up at night, then you can work to bring them to a point in which they know that the decision they’re making is helping them address their fears in a constructive way. The only way to accomplish this is by becoming a good listener. It shouldn’t be ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, but rather How to Win Friends by Listening to People,” he expands.
While the university’s administration and constituents were doing everything they could to convince Big 12 officials on the Horned Frogs candidacy, Del Conte knew that none of it would matter if they couldn’t persuade The University of Texas (aka the 800 pound gorilla of the conference) that it was in their best interest to vote for TCU’s inclusion. So he did the only reasonable thing that someone in his shoes would do in the situation – he got in his car and drove down to Austin to meet with his counterpart at Texas, athletic director DeLoss Dodds.
Except, there were just two small problems…
He didn’t have an appointment, nor did he actually know DeLoss Dodds.
“After waiting for several hours, I was finally allowed to see him,” recollects Del Conte. “I walked into his office and said ‘Hi, I’m Chris Del Conte from Texas Christian University’ and DeLoss looked up from his desk and replied, ‘Nice to meet you Del!’ I figured if I was successful in persuading him to vote for us, he’d eventually figure out what my name actually was.”
In reality, while DeLoss might have seemed coy, as a fellow businessman he was thoroughly impressed by Del Conte’s boldness in coming to see him unexpectedly (Establish Credibility). The two men spent the next several hours having drinks and dinner at a private club in downtown Austin, discussing the state of college athletics and the issues their institutions were facing (Identify Common Ground). When the time was right, Del Conte presented Dodds with binders full of information overlaying TCU’s academic reputation, athletic success and the program’s potential if given the opportunity to compete in a league like the Big 12 (Compelling Evidence). But most importantly, the two spent the majority of their time together talking about themselves, how they grew up and the type of life they were trying to provide for their families and those they cared about (Connect Emotionally).
As Del Conte remembers, “When I left the meeting, I had absolutely no idea where we stood. I knew DeLoss and I had clicked, but the funny thing is I never made a hard sell, it was just… a natural, free flowing conversation. Two days later [October 6th] I was in my bedroom getting ready for work when I got a call from then interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas, and when I picked up, he simply said ‘Welcome home Chris.’ I remember having this wave of emotion sweep over me and collapsing on my bed in tears. I don’t know how we did it.”
While Del Conte’s humble recollection of the events that transpired during the fall of 2011 would lead some to believe that he was simply the conductor of a train riding down a predetermined path, the role his persuasiveness played in securing Texas Christian’s invitation to the Big 12 cannot be emphasized enough. Indeed, if such events were not sufficient evidence, one needs to look no further than a single statistic for all the necessary proof of Del Conte’s amazing ability to influence.
Over the last five years, no one in college athletics has raised more money than Chris Del Conte.
Indeed, during that period, over $250 million has poured into the Horned Frogs’ coffers, helping finance the total reconstruction of 50,000 seat on-campus football stadium, the renovation of the university’s 7,000 seat basketball arena, as well as countless other projects.
Some might contend that when compared to development projects in other non-profit industries, fundraising in the world of academia is a far simpler endeavor. After all, the vast majority of money universities raise for both academics and athletics come from alumni who have an existing emotional connection with the school. However, it is also important to remember that major universities like Texas Christian operate on budgets that often enter the billions of dollars. Even if the process of raising money comes easier, it is offset by the sheer amount necessary to keep such universities running and competitive against peer institutions.
For athletic administrators like Del Conte, whose credibility is already high among alumni, the biggest obstacle they face in persuading them to give millions of dollars is framing the benefits of such gifts in a way that appeals to the donor. Particularly in situations in which an organization’s past performance or current uncertain state of affairs can cause a benefactor to question whether their contributions will actually be put to good use, the persuader must work hard to identify shared benefits. Likewise, if through the process of listening they determine that there are no apparent mutual advantages, they must adjust the frame accordingly to appeal to the donor in another way or re-approach when the time is right.
“I’m not a big fan of what some fundraisers call cultivation,” reveals Del Conte. “To me, if someone has the ability to give you $15 million, they’re by default an incredibly successful individual. Which is why when I approach them, I don’t ask for money, I ask them for their advice – ‘What would you do if you were running our program?’, ‘Where would you allocate resources to maximize the chances we reach our goals?’ It’s not just about getting them to like me, but rather the goal is to get on the same wavelength and create a long term, mutually beneficial relationship. It’s like selling lemonade – if people think your stand is pretty but when they taste the product it’s sour, you’ll never get them to come back and buy again.”
Del Conte isn’t declaring that when it comes to fundraising, the tail wags the dog. Quite contrarily, he has his own vision and answers to the very questions he is asking, but he also realizes that none of them are achievable without the help of those donors. So rather than saying, “I need X dollars so I can do Y”, instead he focuses on projecting the values the organization stands for and finding a common ground to perpetuate those standards.
Of course, by asking questions and seeking input, he also appeals to the benefactor’s ego and captures their attention. As Del Conte says, “when you ask people for help, they feel needed, and everyone wants to feel needed.” Moreover, focusing conversations inward and away from ones ultimate desire can be a brilliant psychological tactic. If someone believes you want something from them, but you never mention it and make its absence speak volumes, they are bound to bring it up eventually by themselves. After all, you don’t raise $250 million just by asking for it.
Ultimately, it is obvious that Del Conte has been able to elevate the TCU Horned Frogs athletic program to incredible heights because every decision he makes is predicated on the understanding that those you are trying to lead will only follow if they believe in what you stand for. From building relationships, to raising money, Del Conte has been able to get those around him to buy into the Horned Frogs values because he himself is a living embodiment of those values.
As Victor Boschini puts it, “Leaders like Chris don’t want power, they want influence. You get power by being someone’s boss; you get influence by being someone’s friend and colleague. We’re a small school with very big expectations and he’s working incredibly hard every day to meet them.”