Powered by

Why Getting Ahead In College Athletics Means Embracing Corporate Politics

By Jason Belzer
8 min read

“Absolutely not,” she said. “I refuse to engage in such brown-nosing, especially with people that I wouldn’t ever be seen with outside work. I don’t care if I’m expected to be ‘one of the guys’ in this industry, I just don’t operate that way.”


These words came from a senior associate AD at a power five conference. But they are the same words I hear from young administrators and coaches across college athletics, both male and female. Who wants to participate in office politics – that depraved, ego-driven game where we do whatever is necessary to get our colleagues and superiors to like us? We are moral people after all; we aren’t interested in lying, cheating and manipulating our way up the corporate ladder. Instead, we want to do it the “right way”. We’re going to come out ahead not because we shook everyone’s hand at that fundraiser, or played golf with all the key donors, but because we worked really, really hard and proved to everyone how valuable we really are.


If you’re one of the many people that think they can get ahead based on sheer willpower and work ethic alone, well you might want to take a moment to remove your rose-colored glasses. The unfortunate truth is that it’s all but impossible to get anywhere in business, especially a business like college athletics, without engaging in political games.


“Let’s get real – politics exist in every organization,” exclaims Amy Huchthausen, Commissioner of the America East Conference. “Many administrators come to me and say they are too focused on their work to be involved the pettiness of corporate politics, and then wonder why they get passed over for opportunities. The fact is that in nearly every job in ever industry, there is going to be some level of political posturing involved. If you’re not willing to put yourself out there and build productive relationships – especially with people you don’t like – good luck getting anywhere in this business,” she adds.


Huchthausen knows a thing or two about corporate politics after she spent a number of years at the NCAA, which by its sheer size lends itself to bureaucracy and red tape – a breeding ground for corporate politics. Yet she still managed to become one of the youngest commissioners ever (as a female no less) when she took over the America East in 2011. Huchthausen’s rapid rise through the industry, like many others, is proof positive that playing politics doesn’t have to be inherently dirty.


It is important to understand that politics are simply unavoidable from an organizational standpoint. The very essence of an organization is a group of people working together to accomplish a set of goals. And when people have to interact with others, there are always going to be disagreements, compromises and varying forms of engagement. Combine that with the fact that we are emotional creatures who care about what others think of us, and it’s only natural that people will posture when dealing with their colleagues.


Of course, when I say “posture”, what I really mean is “gain influence”. If you are going to get anything done in an organizational setting, you’re going to have to influence people around you to do it, and that requires power.  Power is the only real currency that exists in an organization, and it is gained (and lost) by our ability to build relationships with the people we work with on a day to day basis. The more you can do for other people, the more power you have. If everyone comes to you to solve their problems, then you likely have attained the most power and influence in the organization, regardless of your title or salary.


Along the same lines, while you may think you are largely responsible for what happens to you in your career, you’re wrong. Strong performance and driving ambition are nice, but they are rarely going to be enough to get you very far in a hierarchical industry like college athletics. Your movement up and down the corporate ladder is a direct result of the people above you, the ones with the power to promote (or block) your rise up the organizational chart. Therefore, your primary focus should be ensuring that the people with influence have a desire to make you successful. It is performance, combined with your political skills that will help you rise through the ranks.


“We’re not talking about manipulating people here,” explains Huchthausen. “Building influence with someone means cultivating a relationship built on value. If you are genuinely interested in helping other people (and then actually deliver) they are likely to reciprocate. That being said, too many people approach networking trying to figure out what the person can do for them rather than the other way around, and the relationship goes nowhere because they come off as disingenuous.  Swallow your pride, figure out how to create value for others, and just maybe they’ll be willing to help you,” she continues.


Unfortunately, not everyone takes the same ethical approach when they engage in politics. Particularly if we are managing others, we must be aware that a person’s attempts to gain power can often have a detrimental effect on our own careers if we are not proactive in countering their political behavior. For instance, instead of following the proper reporting channels, a coach within our department may circumvent their sport administrator and go directly to the athletic director with a specific ask for their program. Assuming the coach has a strong relationship with their AD, then it is likely they will get what they want. Whatever the outcome, the administrator will at best come off incapable of controlling their supervisee, and at worst be perceived as totally incompetent.


If this scenario touches a nerve, you may want to rethink how you deal with the political environment that exists within your our own department. And while you may desperately want to avoid playing politics all together, just like any other obstacles we face in life, the best way to overcome them is to face them head on. Finesse will get you nowhere when dealing with politics – you must systematically reach out and engage others (especially people you dislike) and cultivate long lasting relationships. Otherwise you will yield no political power and your ability to lead with be attacked from every angle by people who are willing to actively engage. Remember the last boss you worked for that didn’t have any credibility or clout? That’s who we want to avoid becoming.


Does this mean that office politics are inevitable, and that if we can’t beat politics, we should actually be promoting them?


In all honesty, there is no right or wrong answer to the question. While we have already discussed the fact that politics are a natural part of any organization, it does not lessen the fact that they can have a damaging effect on our departments. Worse yet, we often fail to realize this because of the positive feedback loop such conduct creates – those that play politics often get promoted, and when put in positions of power they will promote those who exhibit similar political shrewdness, forever perpetuating the behavior among those aspiring to move up the ranks. While having a department full of Machiavellians and narcissists isn’t necessarily inevitable, the propensity for politically savvy individuals to get ahead doesn’t exactly make for a productive work environment either.


How then, do we play politics without undermining our own organizations in the process?


The first way is to stop worrying about your performance in any particular moment, and instead understand how it will impact your career two or three moves from where you are now. Yes, it’s important excel at your work, but being at the top of your game in whatever you are tasked to do is just the baseline to survive in any competitive industry. Everything you do should in some way or another help you achieve your future goals, and that takes calculation. This also means that you must be proactive in seeking growth opportunities – you should be asking for assignments, responsibilities and promotions, not hoping that your boss will think highly enough of you to assign the next project that may arise.



Furthermore, you must systematically forge alliances with individuals both within and outside your organization who can keep you informed, and more importantly help you when career advancement opportunities arise. You have to recruit people into your inner circle that are willing to pick up the phone and expend political capital on your behalf. Having a coalition of allies and supporters willing to go to bat when you need them is the most valuable tool in your arsenal. That being said, you should still build ongoing, productive relationships with everyone you need to do your work, as well as those who need you, not just those you like.


Lastly, don’t be afraid to assert yourself and take credit. Be aware of, and deliberate in, the impression that you leave on people. The way you present yourself to others, especially early on, will often times have a greater impact on their perception of you than anything else that you can do in the relationship building process. Moreover, don’t be afraid to sell yourself and take credit for your efforts. There will be plenty of people that will attempt to pass off your hard work as their own in order to move their careers ahead – don’t let them. Of course, in doing so, you should conduct yourself according to a set of standards that are important to you – honesty, integrity, forthrightness – regardless of how others behave.


In the end, you can’t simply opt out of office politics. If you want to have an impact, if you want to be heard, and if you want to get ahead in your career, playing the political game is just another part of the job. But in doing so, it doesn’t mean that you can’t lead with authenticity and inspiration. Learn to broaden your friends at work and throughout the industry. Figure out what you need to do to gain influence in your department, and learn to work with others for mutual advantage, not just your own.


Learn how to play politics, the right way, and get exactly what you want and deserve from your career.