Calling an Audible: Leading in Uncertain Times Best Practices

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Leading in Uncertain Times
Building Culture When you Don’t Have All the Answers

The sudden conclusion to the winter and spring sports seasons, and to life on campus in general, hit collegiate athletic departments abruptly. Student-athletes went from a normal semester of class, competition, training, and fun with friends, to the complete closing of campus. Department staff were sent home and were required to very quickly adapt to not only a new work environment, but to a new set of challenges facing their departments and the student-athletes that they serve. 

We gathered three athletic directors; Rick George from the University of Colorado, Allen Greene from Auburn University, and Heather Lyke from the University of Pittsburgh, to learn more about their approach to leading in uncertain times. 

Five key themes emerged for how they are continuing to build their department culture:

 

1. Create a Sense of Normalcy

While academics and athletics norms have been disrupted, it is important to maintain some semblance of normalcy for student-athletes. Even without competition and traditional practice, adapting to a remote learning and engagement environment can create that normalcy for student-athletes. 

All three ADs emphasized the importance of keeping existing meetings in place for staff, and for student-athletes, continuing to remotely provide the same services. Tutor sessions, study tables, counseling sessions, and virtual workouts were some of the regular programming that has now moved online through video conferencing. 

It was also important to these leaders to maintain special programming that their student-athletes look forward to, such as annual awards shows, academic recognition ceremonies, and even graduation. Innovative staff members at all three institutions found ways to continue these annual traditions, even with student-athletes now spread across the country. 

 

2. Get Creative

Engaging athletes and staff in a virtual setting looks different, so it is natural to unleash creative ideas to accommodate the change. At Colorado, department nutritionists are hosting cooking demonstrations and sharing recipes. The Buffaloes have also created a monthly “Rockin’ with Rick” session, where student-athletes can ask the AD anything. 

Creativity in engaging staff is also crucial, as the monotony of working from home has set in. At Auburn, Zoom calls with staff are livened up with themes like “celebrity look alike day”, where staff set their Zoom background to an image of their celebrity doppelganger. 

 

3. Recognize Differences

With a sudden disruption to everyday life for both student-athletes and athletic department staff, it became readily apparent that not everyone reacts in the same way. For student-athletes, that could mean their ability to move through the stages of grief towards acceptance. For staff, it included variation in experience and aptitude managing in a crisis. 

At Auburn, Allen advised that we can help address these differences by thinking about “the overarching principles that are going to govern our decision making and our responses.”

 

4. Plan for the Unknown

The novel coronavirus has impacted leaders across every single industry as they are faced with the challenge of preparing their organizations for the unknown. Athletics is no different, and there are many scenarios for what the upcoming academic year may look like. 

At Colorado, Rick has formed a small group to evaluate and focus on each scenario. Taking advantage of the time that the staff has now is a key to readiness. At Auburn, while Allen’s team is also focused on potential scenarios, he has also been sure to direct their attention to what they can be doing that is more immediate and impactful. And at Pittsburgh, Heather’s team is analyzing the low impact, middle ground, and high impact financial scenarios and how they’d respond as a department to each. In a time where it is difficult to predict the future, leaders understand the importance of not just identification, but also making plans that can quickly be turned into action as the situation evolves. 

 

5. Embrace Change

As athletic departments around the country settle into this “new normal”, leaders are recognizing that there are some existing systems and principles that will become obsolete. 

The number of paper tickets in distribution has been steadily declining, but COVID-19 may end their existence entirely. Cleaning stadiums and arenas happens after every event, but deep sanitizing does not. Thermal temperature scanners are already being deployed in airports, and it would not come as a surprise to see them at a stadium entrance similar to a magnetometer. 

Rick and many other leaders are operating with the same mantra to embrace the inevitable changes. “We’re coming back. Here’s what we’re going to do.”