It is not uncommon for executive leaders in academia, government and the business world to go on a 100-day listening tour, or some other similar venture, at the beginning of their tenure in a new position or with a new organization. The intent is to learn about the state of affairs over which one is about to preside directly from those who impact, and are impacted by, the functioning of the group. During my tenures as a Director of Athletics, one of the most productive ways I have found to collect such insight is by distribution of a survey to staff and student-athletes that provides them an opportunity to weigh in on what has and hasn’t worked, their impressions of the department, as well as how it is perceived, and their vision for where departmental leadership should focus its efforts.
The sense of cooperative buy-in to be generated from this effort cannot be overstated. Staff and student-athletes want, and need, to know decisions that involve their experience and well-being aren’t simply being brought down from on high and thrust upon them without having their voices heard. And it can’t just be a one-off. Providing your staff and student-athletes a voice, and following up on the results, allows a leader to begin cultivating a culture of open, honest communication, and, ultimately, a sense of trust. To this end, I hold a one-on-one, follow-up meeting with every staff member in order to drill down more from their responses. My sense from staff is that this follow-up creates a safe space in which they feel as if we can have an open dialogue about their viewpoints.
Execution of the survey is typically the easiest step, as software such as ARMS can make preparation, distribution, and data collection seamless. The more time-consuming piece is reading and analyzing the responses. When I accepted my first AD position at Central Connecticut State University, the timing of my transition (the end of the academic year) allowed me to undertake the dissemination and partial analysis of the survey during the month in between the end of my tenure at Stony Brook University and my start date at CCSU. My transition to Fairfield University was much quicker and occurred with the fall season in full swing.
Regardless of the timing, efficient completion of these steps was important for a number of reasons. I wanted to be able to incorporate what I learned, or was still learning, into my initial team meetings, as well as be able to individually discuss responses with staff prior to our first all-staff meeting, at which I presented the initial results. Doing so indicates to your staff that the survey wasn’t just for show, but that their input is, in fact, valued.
There are always more questions to ask than a leader can reasonably expect someone to answer in one sitting. The survey I disseminated at Fairfield was significantly more succinct than the one I employed at CCSU, as I learned what questions elicited the most valuable feedback. Including a traditional SWOT analysis is always helpful, while direct questions that are not leading allow responses to be formulated organically.
One useful question asks respondents to list the five to ten things they would tackle first if they were the athletic director. This allows individuals to address issues of culture, process, communication, and support that can provide the backbone for short-, mid- and long-term strategic planning. This can be particularly useful when looking to formulate a “WIN list” (What’s Important Now) of issues that can be readily and expediently tackled, in order to show that you are addressing a subset of concerns right away. This also promotes cooperative buy-in and encourages people to continue sharing their views, while providing an instant morale boost among those positively impacted.
Another particularly valuable query asks the respondent to list the five individuals most important to the success of their program or the athletic department as a whole. The responses gleaned here can provide a window into who the “go-to” and most productive members of your department are, coaches who have the respect of their student-athletes, and the individuals across campus who value the role that athletics plays in campus life.
Coaches, by nature of the profession, can be single-minded in their focus on their program(s), but their responses and perspective can be very cognizant of the bigger picture. Student-athletes certainly view things through a different, often more intrinsic, lens, but their responses have extraordinary value as well. In fact, with a one-hundred percent response rate from student-athletes at Fairfield, I knew I had a captive audience who took the exercise seriously. They wanted to be seen and heard, develop a relationship with the administration, and were extremely introspective and substantive in articulating what the Stag experience and brand meant to them.
My use of the survey tool has been as a newcomer to an athletic department looking to gain insight into how it functions. But the utility of the practice isn’t limited to an external candidate filling the athletic director role. Someone promoted from within, who already possesses institutional knowledge, can still use a survey as an opportunity for a reboot and a clean slate with staff and student-athletes by adding specific, transition-related inquiries.
This exercise doesn’t just allow a new leader to learn about the state of the athletic department, but it also allows for honing of one’s own leadership style. The responses received will force you to adapt to the situation in which you now find yourself. Even if an issue wasn’t readily apparent to you, or you wouldn’t necessarily, in a vacuum, choose to prioritize it, if three-quarters of your staff and student-athletes want it addressed, you are obligated to pay attention to it and potentially act on it.
One of the biggest missteps a new manager can make is instituting wholesale, or even seemingly minor, changes in an effort to make one’s mark. Stewardship is a marathon, not a sprint. Perhaps the most important questions I have asked are, ‘What three to five words best define this department?’ and, in the current case, supporting queries that get to the core of ‘What does it mean to be a Stag?’ It can be dangerous to be presumptuous about a school’s brand or culture without having an appropriate understanding of the landscape. Those who have lived the culture and who are the public face of the brand are your greatest resource. Tapping into that resource will not only ease one’s transition, but also provide a framework for setting the strategic direction of the department.