Valerie Cleary: Hi, I’m Valerie Cleary, Athletic Director at Portland State University and I’m here today for Athletic Director U. And I have the pleasure of speaking with Marie Tuite from San Jose State University, and Lynn Hickey from Eastern Washington University. And we’re going to be talking about organizational leadership today. So thank you both for being here.
So as a new leader, I would say, in college sports, I have the privilege of working with Lynn every day, almost, depending upon what our schedule is like in our conference, and I am so honored to be here to talk to two veterans from the field about organizational leadership. So I have a list of questions for you all. Are you ready?
Marie Tuite: Yes.
Lynn Hickey: Yes.
VC: Okay. All right. So we’re going to just start off easy. In your opinion, what are the key components of organizational culture?
MT: Well, can I just say what an honor it is to be sitting next to this person here. I mean, I’ve known Lynn for a very long time. And she was like so totally cool before it was cool to be cool in athletics, to be a female in athletics, but all the way back to her days at Texas A&M, so I’m a little nervous because I’m sitting next to her.
LH: She’s just saying that because she doesn’t want to answer the question.
VC: Nice try Marie, go back to the question.
MT: You know, organizational structure, I think we all kind of have a unique situation because we all became athletic directors at institutions where we had served as the interim or we had a little bit of time at those institutions. And I think that’s a little bit of a different situation for athletics directors as opposed to someone who’s new and comes right in. You know, I was at San Jose State for seven and a half years before I became the athletic director. So I think the staff had a pretty, pretty good pulse on what my expectations were. But once you become the athletics director, you got to talk about it a lot. You got to talk about your expectations. You got to talk about your core values. And what’s important to you. You know, the word culture gets used a lot these days. It’s a little bit like the word innovation. People use it a lot. But I really think if you’re the athletic director, you have to set the tone and set the expectations for the kind of culture and the kind of environment that you want.
VC: That’s great.
LH: Yeah. I think, you know, I had an opportunity to be the interim at Eastern for about three months. And then I put my name in the hat for the full-time position. So had a chance to get to know everybody a little bit. But then even after I got the full-time position, I thought the most important thing was to do, was to continue to have conversations and to try to understand it was a huge cultural change for me, coming from San Antonio to the Pacific Northwest. And so I had a lot to learn and I needed to listen. And then there was a, there was a good foundation there of success. And you want to be really careful about not just coming in and trying to, you know, turn the Apple Card over, but at the same time had to start addressing some policies and procedures and putting your own stamp on what you wanted the behavior to be, the expectations, and to try to drive a new energy into the program.
VC: I think, I mean, I love what both of you said, I mean, definitely, even in my own personal situation, you know, I was an associate at Portland State prior to coming back to Portland State. So, I mean, there’s always that culture setting that you have to do with people who either were your peers, or that you’ve had these pre-existing relationships with.
And so, one of the questions, too, is about the level of consistency in your employees and the views of the culture you have implemented. So, I mean, whether it’s been that you’ve come in or your, your new, a new role, so in an existing relationship that you’ve had with your employees there, and now maybe you’re shifting the culture a little bit. So how do you evaluate how your employees are kind of catching on to that new culture setting that you’re, you’re trying to implement there?
LH: Well, we… we got to the first year of that pretty good. We had, we had some really good national success, especially with football. And then… but there was still a question mark even after the end of that first spring of what do you really want. What is your vision? What do you… and I think I was really surprised because I thought that even in the short time I’ve been there that I was explaining that. So we have, really had to step down, step back and kind of start from scratch again, and really develop what our values are, our value words are and what we truly believe that we can be. So we’re getting ready to go through a whole strategic planning process and want it to be very, very inclusive, so that everybody feels that they’re a part of things.
I came from out of state, an FBS situation walking into an FCS situation. And so, there were at times I think everybody really stood back to watch and say, “Who is she?” And, you know, “Are her expectations too high for us from where she comes from?” So it’s, it’s we’ve had some real good, heart-to-heart decisions about who we want to be. And we just kind of put it on the line and we’re backing… we’re doing backtracking now to really work together to put everything on paper.
VC: That’s great. I mean, the same question, I mean, for you being there for seven and a half years…
VC: …you know, how has that response been to your culture shift?
MT: Right, right. The other thing, too, that you said, you’ve talked about consistency, and I think that’s really, really important because people want to know what to expect every single day, especially when it comes to culture, what kind of behaviors are going to be accepted and which kind or not. And, you know, athletics is a very emotional profession. The emotional rollercoaster that coaches go through every day is incredible. I was asked, “Do you have to have been a student athlete or coach to be a great administrator?” And I know some great administrators that never coached and were never athletes. But I do think having that experience, you have a little bit better pulse on what coaches are sort of going through. And so, you set that behavior. You set the culture. You talk about it. And sometimes you have to have hard conversations, too. And I try not to avoid those. I think in the past, perhaps, I’ve seen administrators that really didn’t want to have the hard conversations. But if you have individuals that maybe aren’t on the same page, if you don’t have the same vision, if you don’t have the same priorities, then you’ve got to have some hard conversations with them and say, “Look, this is how we’re going to do it. This is the Spartan way. This is how we’re going to do at San Jose State.”
LH: Yeah, and I think change is really hard. Change is hard. And if you’re not careful, you bring in this new excitement, and we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that, and even though they a new staff thinks that’s cool, it’s still is a little scary. And sometimes they react like, “Are you are you therefore insinuating what we had or what we had done was not good enough?” because we, we have a lot of people in our staff that have been there for a long, long time. And so, so, I caught myself at times thinking, whoa, you know, be careful because you do respect what they’ve done even though you see some things that could be made better. Communicate, communicate, communicate, communicate, I think, and then learning the characters in play on, on developing trust and making sure that they understand that there are certain ways that we need to channel our communication so that we’re taking care of each other and it doesn’t become a gossip center and create chaos when there’s no need for it.
VC: Mm-hmm. Right. Well, both of you have touched so much too on just the complexity of our internal operation in athletics. I mean, just even with your coaches, your staff, your student athletes, how does that play out on your campus as a whole? So now you have two… a new leader in a very public entity of the campus, and you’re starting to do some culture shift. So how do you take those, those principles that you’re trying to instill with your staff and student athletes and coaches and apply that to the broader campus? And, and I have the privilege of following you on social media and your staff and what they do. And, I mean, you’ve done some great things there as a campus to really put San Jose State on the map. So tell us a little bit more about that. What were some of your specific things that you’ve done?
MT: And it’s interesting because I think prior to being an athletics director, I hadn’t really thought about that as much how crucial the conduit from athletics is to campus. And in particular, the individuals that serve on the president’s cabinet. When a president hires you, they trust you, they believe you’re going to do things the right way. They believe that you’re the person that can lead the athletics program. So I feel a great deal of confidence from my president. But I will tell you that members of the president’s cabinet and getting them engaged in athletics is a really, really crucial part now. And I talk about this. You know, if you look at faculty, you know, faculty want a few things. Number one, they want you to follow the rules. And they want you to graduate, you know, your student athletes. They want you to generate revenue to help with your athletics program. They want you to win, too, but those other factors are really important. So our message to campus is often about the things that we’re doing right and doing them the right way. A robust and sustainable and vibrant athletic program can elevate the whole university.
The other mantra that we use all the time is that if we want people to support us, then we have to support them. And we ask a lot in athletics. We ask a lot from a lot of people. And so, my message to campus is always, “What can we do for you? When can we show up to things that are important to you? Whether it’s move-in day in the dorm, or whether it’s a big event, you know, a ribbon cutting at a facility, I mean, we’re there. We’re there to be represented. So I think there’s that two-way relationship that I hadn’t thought about much before I became an athletics director, but it’s… I think it’s really important as you move your athletics program forward.
VC: Right. And then, and Lynn, you walked into, like you said, I mean, a department that has a lot of longstanding staff and coaches, very successful football program, so how is that translated, not only on campus, but where you are into the greater Cheney community?
LH: Right. And it’s a very, very small community. So everybody knows everything. And there is a street called Washington Street that divides the athletic facilities and office from the whole entire campus. And so, we have been really working to try to bridge that. It’s, it’s all about engagement. And it’s about being vulnerable and really presenting, like we’ve done a lot of work presenting our budgets so that everybody understands, because, you know, we’re, we’re a low, lower resource campus. There’s a lot of changes going on our campus right now. To be a regional university in this country right now is really, really tough. And there are a lot of changes going on. But we know that our responsibility is to develop pride and traditions for the university, to give a really good level of entertainment for the community and our alums, and then, if we do a good job, if we really talk to our current students our alums about how we can increase the equity of their degree. Because if… when we go the national championship, whether you graduated last year or 20 years ago, all of a sudden the value of your degree goes up. But the kids have to do well in the classroom and socially, and in a small community like that, we really have to hold our own and be, be really good role models for the whole campus.
VC: Right. So we now know it’s complex, not only internally and externally, to have leadership in a complex organization like athletics. Marie and I were talking about this out front and just the critical nature of hiring. And so, when you’re hiring and looking for coaches, your administrators, how do you work through that hiring process to make sure that they’re in alignment with the culture you are starting to create or have established at your institution.
LH: First of all, anytime you hire a position, it’s really hard work. And I… so you want the very best person that fits into, you know, the whole setting there. But you also want to be very, very inclusive, and to have diversity and to, to work hard to find those pools that you can bring into your staff and continue to grow that. But it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of phone calls. And, you know, we’re… with our HR process on campus, it’s very important that we use a committee process and that we have the right people that are on the committee, that are really going to do the research and help us to move forward, but lots of phone calls. It’s kind of like when you’re recruiting, you just don’t talk to the head coach about the high school kids, you talk to the janitor in the hallway and the secretary in the office. If… you’ve, you’ve really got to do your homework, but, but trying to fit all that together and sometimes it’s just like recruiting, you think you’ve made the fit, it’s not until you actually have them in that working relationship that you find out. But if you… if you do your homework and work hard, chances are you’re going to make a, you’re going to make a good hire.
MT: And I think by far, I think hiring is the hardest thing we do. You either solve problems or you can create them. Yeah.
VC: That’s a good point.
MT: And, and it’s interesting because as Lynn was saying, it is hard work. It is all hands-on-deck. And what you and I were talking about was how sometimes you think you hit a home run and it wasn’t a home run. And sometimes you might hold your breath a little bit and they turn out to be, you know, hit a grand slam kind of hire. You know, I hope that when I do a hire, I like when I am able to say that’s my guy or that’s my gal, that’s my person. Like, that, everything that I’m looking for and you never get everything that you’re looking for, but the things that are really important to me, I think this person can come.
And there’s a great sense of responsibility in hiring too because they have… they are going to be, you know, overseeing the student athletes that we serve. And they’re going to be, in some ways impacting those student athletes. So you want to make sure you’ve got someone with a good moral compass and that they believe in the values of San Jose State and understand the privilege it is to be in athletics. And with that privilege comes responsibility. So I probably spent a lot more time figuring out the person, as opposed to what are their X’s and O’s that they know. Because it’s an important hire, any hire within your department is important as it creates your culture and the things that you’re looking to do to move your program forward.
LH: You know, I’ve had the opportunity… I’ve been doing this for a long time. So I’ve had the opportunity to hire a lot of people. And when I look back on it, the mistakes that I made were when I relied too much on a real high-profile proponent of this candidate, and I would get caught up in who sometimes was calling for them because I had a relationship with them too, versus maybe going by my gut instinct when I watch the actual candidate on campus with, with our people. So I think, you know, you’ve, you’ve got to use your, your intelligence on, on hiring people. And then once again, making sure that you’ve seen them interact and you know that they’re going to be a fit.
MT: I think too that, especially when it comes to coaches, I’ve kind of always wanted to hire a coach that was an athlete themselves, because I think that they understand the competitiveness, but not all great athletes make, make great coaches. And I would agree with Lynn that maybe sometimes I’ve depended on the sense of the committee a little bit when I’ve been a little bit torn. But, you know, for every hire you make that maybe didn’t go the way that we thought, you know, you make a hire and just go, “Wow, boy, I hit that thing. I mean, I got that one right.” So it’s just kind of the nature of the business a little bit.
VC: Well, I think even just what you all were saying just now about just the importance of hiring, it truly, each person you bring into your organization can have an impact, good, bad or indifferent on the culture that you’re trying to set.
VC: And we know that we are very much a culture of wins and losses, and not necessarily just on the field, but in what we’re doing fundraising wise or student athletes success. So how do you think you have created a culture where your employees, coaches or staff know that they’re hitting the mark with being in alignment with the culture expectations that you have?
LH: I think in our situation right now, if I need to be totally honest, I think we’re still trying to determine what culture we want. And, and then the whole evaluation process of starting off the year of really once you determine what your values and your expectations of the department are then to really spend a lot of time in one-to-one meetings about where do you think your program is and comparing them with their peers. And so, what are the goals that you’ve set? And to then continue to have those conversations all year long, to not ever have that type of interaction or to do it one time and then at the end the year you do an evaluation and it’s over and you didn’t do it, it doesn’t work. So it’s constant interaction and communication. We’ve worked very hard about assigning more senior administrators as sport supervisors, so that there’s more day-to-day interaction with our head coaches and a sport supervisor, and they’re getting constant feedback. So… and once again, if, if a difficult situation comes up, don’t let it go on for a long, long time. And then you penalize that person at the end. That needs to be confronted head on when it happens, so that you give them a chance to improve. The worst thing you want to have is one of your coaches to not be successful. You are, you are, as a leader, the people you put around you. If you don’t help them, if you don’t help them grow. If you don’t help them develop, then, then that’s on you. And so, that’s a very important piece that we’re trying to get instituted right now.
MT: I think, too, I meet with every person that gets hired our department, every entry-level, every assistant coach, and I tell them three things. First thing I tell them is I really want them to have fun at San Jose State. I want them to come to work and be excited.
LH: But you’re such a boring person. I don’t know how that would happen.
MT: Yeah. Number two, I tell them, we’re going to follow the rules. And we’re going to do it the right way. Because just like I said, we can elevate a university, if you don’t do it the right way, the exact opposite can happen too. And then the third thing I tell them is, you know, you got to have a little zip, this, you got to be all in. I mean, San Jose State, it’s a wonderful place, and it’s a hard place and we’ve got to roll our sleeves up and get after it. And that my expectation is that they’re going to be all in. And I think that really helps, at least, because if you have your hiring, you know, we’re a pretty large athletic program and we get 500 student athletes and 22 programs. And I think as you start working with that cycle, then people kind of understand a little bit about what it is that you want. But I think Lynn is right, if, if there’s one thing that maybe I haven’t done as well is when I see a problem nip it right away, you know, I kind of give people the benefit the doubt. And sometimes I can be a bit too trusting, I think, and those times can a little bit maybe come back and create a difficult situation for you that you have to then kind of manage out. Whereas if you’d addressed it earlier, perhaps you would have been able to get it on the lane that you want it in.
LH: And, occasionally, you have an opportunity to kind of set an example with a situation that happens with another coach. But I think the other really important thing is to lead by example. I tried to be at every event, and I’m going to be the first one at the dressing room door or on the court or whatever to tell the coach, you know, good job. Or, if it’s a bad night, “Hey, we’re okay. We just got to take care of the kids.” They need to see you there because I think it’s really hard for them to follow you and be excited about expectations and whatever if you’re not involved and engaged with them. It’s, it’s a lot of hours, but that’s, that’s what we’re there for. They touch kids more than we can and that’s so important that we have to touch that group of coaches.
VC: Right, just that trust and rapport building you know, that we preach all the time. So we’re at the Women Leaders Convention. And there’s a lot of young professionals, rising professionals that are stepping into leadership roles. So what would be your one piece of advice for leadership in these complex organizations, for those that are stepping, taking that next step?
MT: Well, I have, I have a couple. I was on a panel a little bit ago, and I’ve been coming to these for a long time. And I remember Joan Cronan a long time ago said, “You know, if you stop learning, you stop leading.” And I have used that line my whole career and I compliment all the people that are here at the convention because I’ve never walked away from a convention where I didn’t learn things that actually helped me to be, to be a better administrator. But for young women, and maybe this is my own situation that I never imagined that I could be an athletics director, I didn’t see a real path of opportunity often, is that I would tell them to believe in themselves. That, that if they want to be an athletics director, they can. Now, you can’t just believe, you know, you also have to take action. I tell the story that my son believed he could pass chemistry, but he didn’t take action. No. So you can’t just believe. But for them to walk with their shoulders back in their head up. You want to be the Athletics Director at San Jose State, you can. It’s a lot of work. And I think what Lynn was saying, and, you know, this, this is, you know, this, this is a lot of work. We love our jobs, and they’re really hard, and you got to roll your sleeves up and again and be all in. So I would tell them to believe that they could be the Athletics Director at San Jose State.
VC: Belief. That’s a good one. That’s great.
LH: I think the other thing is for them to understand what leadership really is. I think often, the young ones think, “Well, I want that title and then everybody is going to wait on me and, you know, pull my car up or, you know, bring me my tickets.” And, you know, that’s not how it works. When you’re the leader, for me, the important thing is to be an effective service leader, that you’re there to take care of all those people. And so, the amount of time and energy that you do, and sometimes it’s doing the little things that they wouldn’t even expect you to be there for, is extremely important. And that, you know, it’s hard work. It’s a commitment. You’ve got to have your family together on this because if, if, if you have a partner and if you and especially if children are involved, it’s a tremendous commitment for the whole family because it’s a lifestyle. It is seven days a week. It’s all year long. But, but the opportunities that you have for your family to be involved with the student athletes and coaches is a great way for young kids to grow up. I’ve watched my daughter and I worried and worried that I’ve messed her up and I’ve watched how she’s grown in, in all the experience she’s had as a little kid with everywhere we’ve been, she’s grown into quite a leader herself. So it’s a great lifestyle, but it is hard work.
VC: It really is. Well, thank you both so much.
MT: Well, can I just say one quick thing?
VC: Oh, yeah, of course.
MT: I want to talk about you a little bit.
VC: Oh, good, yeah.
MT: Because, yes, we’ve watched you from afar and you’re just doing a great job at Portland State. It’s been fun to follow you. So congratulations…
VC: Thank you.
MT: …and all the things that you do. And by the way, I think it was kind of national news that Lynn grabbed a $5 million donation for her football facility.
VC: She did.
MT: It’s a great story.
LH: But I’m trying to chase after her. She has a brand-new basketball arena and we don’t have that. So we’re…
VC: We’re all trying to keep up with each other.
VC: And I think, you know, one thing that, Lynn and I are so very fortunate with, especially in regards to leadership is, you know, we’re in the Big Sky Conference that right now has the most female athletic directors in Division I.
MT: Awesome. Yeah.
VC: So each and every day, I’m thankful that I get to meet folks like Lynn and Debbie Corum and just have so many role models and just people you could call up and, and just, one, vent with, and also say, here’s the challenges because the roles that we play on our campuses are very unique. And I think we make them even more unique, the fact that there, we’re women in that role.
LH: And I think the other thing that’s really cool is our student athletes. You know, they see someone that looks like them in front of them. I think that that’s going to open up a door for a lot of our kids. But kudos to, kudos to our presidents in our league that have had the forethought to, to open the door and be inclusive and give us an opportunity.
VC: Okay, well, thank you both for being here. And we thank AthleticDirectorU for giving us this platform to talk about women leadership and organizational culture. But thank you both and enjoy the rest of convention.
MT: Thank you.
LH: Thank you.