By Steven Moser, High Performance Consultant, SRi Executive
It is no secret that college sport in the United States is a business, a big business. You must now clarify in conversations whether you are saying “billions” with a “B” versus “millions” with an “M” when discussing revenues and contracts. Within this business, like in any other industry, you have organizations who have more resources than others to take advantage of in building facilities or hiring talent.
While these differences can make one university seem like a polar opposite from the other, they all have one thing in common – they must have an athletic director leading the way.
No different than how a massive financial institution like Bank of America or JPMorgan Chase needs a CEO just as much as that local credit union on the corner of your street, the local NCAA Division II University needs an Athletic Director just as badly as the University of Alabama.
SRi recently spoke with several university presidents ranging from Division II up to the DI level, and a common theme emerged from all of those conversations – the challenge in identifying the appropriate candidates.
When speaking to President Gary Olsen of Daemen College in Amherst, NY, a school that just recently made the jump from NAIA up to NCAA Division II. Olsen’s response to what key attribute he needed most in his athletic director was simply, ‘entrepreneurial’.
When compared to conversations with presidents from universities that have been at the Division I level for quite some time, there was quite the contrast. The larger university presidents all had very pointed lists of key attributes that went far beyond the most basic drive for revenue. In no way does this change the value of the role between each institution, but rather highlights the cultural differences.
Although the job title might be the same, the responsibilities and therefore the talent required to succeed in the position of Athletic Director at a DII school would be vastly different to a Big Ten university.
Similarly, Google’s search for a new CEO would be vastly different to a start-up tech company with less than 50 employees.
The modern day Athletic Director
The success of the search for an Athletic Director comes down to one thing – listening to the needs of the organization and figuring out what makes their culture unique.
“The AD today is the CEO of athletic operations at a college,” said Dr. John Lahey, current President at Quinnipiac University.
“30-40 years ago, you were more likely to see former coaches and athletes promoted into those roles as a way of rewarding success or longevity, but now you need a business person who is able to lead people, generate revenue, and understand how the marketing and brand of athletics can impact the entire university.”
While it’s easy to draw the comparison between Athletic Directors and CEOs from a skill set perspective, SRi spoke to university presidents who pointed out that Athletic Directors cannot act as if they are “University CEO”. According to these presidents, the Athletic Director must have the humility to work amongst their peers on the VP level of the academic side. This ability to handle themselves in a boardroom with people from a wide variety of backgrounds cannot be overlooked if they are going to effectively ensure the vision and mission of the university is aligned with the athletic department.
“You need to make sure the AD is a senior member of the entire university staff. We moved the AD to the equivalent level of a Vice President, so he sat in all of the meetings and in the decision making process with the rest of the Vice Presidents of the university,” offered Dr. Bill Lennox, President at St. Leo University in Florida.
Lennox was previously Superintendent at West Point where he appointed Kevin Anderson as Athletic Director. Anderson has since moved on to that same role at the University of Maryland.
As NCAA sport continues to evolve, the Athletic Director role is changing too, forcing ADs to develop more well-rounded skill sets.
While fundraising will likely always remain an area that universities’ focus on when looking at Athletic Director candidates, Dr. Lahey points out the entire student-athlete experience needs to be a very high priority.
“Athletic Directors now need to ensure the student-athletes is looked after holistically; providing nutritious food and making sure their health is being taken care of, ADs need to make sure the resources are in place to monitor things like concussions and overall wellbeing.”
The modern day Athletic Director position oversees finances, marketing, human resources, student-athlete wellness, media contracts, and of course overall performance – all while salaries head well into seven figures and beyond.
You would be forgiven for thinking the modern day Athletic Director sounds a lot like a CEO on paper.
Completing a thorough search to make sure you’re appointing the right Athletic Director should not be taken lightly.
Just as any Fortune 500 company would perform an in-depth executive search that maps the entire global marketplace to find the right talent, a university should undertake the same process to ensure success and continuity in their athletic department.
This includes taking deliberate steps to ensure a truly representative group of candidates are included at longlisting or shortlisting stage. Candidates with differing backgrounds in terms of both demographics and experience can bring a more well-rounded set of skills to the role, including emotional intelligence which is pivotal when addressing duty of care issues. It’s perhaps no surprise that female Athletic Directors are in very high demand.
Yet with the tenure of Athletic Directors at smaller conferences in the NCAA averaging three years of late, it’s clear that opportunities for the implementation of real strategic vision and long term planning are failing to be realized.
Fortune 500 companies are on that esteemed list for a reason, and the leadership qualities shown by their CEOs is certainly a major factor.
The average tenure of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies stands at seven years, and that’s largely because when hiring CEOs these companies look at all factors of their candidates and how their skill sets will apply to all of the areas they will be overseeing – and not just on the short term bottom line.
By conducting a proper executive search for an Athletic Director, and treating it like a Fortune 500 company might treat their own CEO search, there is no reason that an athletic department – at any NCAA level – can’t be run like some of the best companies in the world.
Steven Moser is a US-based high performance consultant for SRi, a leading international executive search company specializing in sports, media, digital, and sporting goods and fashion. To view our track record, click here.