How do you get coaches to remain engaged in their work on a daily basis? Often, it's the small gestures that make the biggest difference.
By Dan Cardone
Dan Cardone is Athletic Director at North Hills High School in Pittsburgh, Pa., and a frequent contributor to Athletic Management. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently read an article that stated only 21 percent of workers worldwide are "engaged." Being engaged, the author explained, means caring about the organization and your role in it, and is the foundation of expending extra effort in one's job. It also leads to positive department morale and employee retention.
I have found, from both being supervised and supervising others, that employee engagement is directly related to the level of care and concern demonstrated by management. There does not seem to be any middle ground in this area. The boss either "cares about me" or "does not care at all."
As athletic directors, how do we show our coaches and other staff members that we care about them and their work? How do we ensure they are engaged on a daily basis?
Over the years, I have learned that the small things a leader does, or fails to do, prove significant in this area. A meaningful interaction can put a bounce in an employee's step for quite some time. Likewise, missing an opportunity to offer words of acknowledgement or encouragement can turn into a huge negative.
The following are five things that I firmly believe can round out an athletic director's ability to lead. These ideas all work together to engage staff members and push them toward giving their best efforts.
Follow Through: How many times have you heard a coach comment to a golfer, pitcher, or basketball player that they need to follow through? For athletes, follow-through on a shot or pitch can be the difference between success and failure. We need to follow through in our roles, too. When someone requests information or asks a question, it is critical we respond as soon as possible.
Getting an answer to an employee promptly often generates a favorable response. I love to hear someone say, "I appreciate you getting back to me so quickly." This person is recognizing that I am doing all I can to help them succeed.
Think of the opposite situation--putting off the reply for a period of time, or not responding at all. That leads to more phone messages, more e-mails, and more texts. Most importantly, it can cause heightened frustration. That coach may carry a torch to other staff members that promotes the sentiment, "We can never get an answer from him."
How can an athletic director remember to follow through on the myriad of requests that come up each day? It's important to devise a system for yourself so nothing falls through the cracks. Keeping track of things on your cell phone or even through a small paper notebook can work. One thing I do when I get a request is immediately call my office and leave myself a voicemail reminder.
Initiate Interaction: "How is your family? How is that project coming along at home?" Asking these questions are similar to putting your hand out to introduce yourself. Being proactive in your conversations with those you supervise speaks volumes about how much you care about them.
This behavior also becomes contagious. Do not be surprised if those around you start to engage others in the same manner. For a week, make a point to ask everyone you come into contact with something about their family or their interests. Soon they will do the same to you. Through some simple gestures, you create a culture that is about people.
When staff members care about each other, it can lead to great things. They become empowered and you will find they lead themselves. Herb Kelleher, the quirky founder of Southwest Airlines, speaks of this type of shared determination as the "fuel that inspired the intense work ethic and esprit de corps that drive Southwest," in the book Nuts! Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success.
Position Staff Members as Partners: When someone comes into my office, I get up and walk around the desk and sit next to them. This puts us on the same side of the table. It indicates that we are equals.
I was at a conference in Philadelphia and ate at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Zavino. The pizza was authentic and it rivaled the best I have had in Italy. But this is not what impressed me most about the restaurant. When I asked how the establishment became so successful, the manager, Jason, and the waitress, Danny, spoke to me at length. They not only had knowledge, but a passion about the food they served. I thought to myself that there was something special going on here--the workers are the owners. (They do not know this, but I am sending a copy of this article to the owner of the restaurant.)
In an athletic department, an effective leader makes coaches see themselves as partners with the administration, not as subservient. I try to encourage and implement suggestions from staff and take any complaints very seriously. Together, everyone is creating the best athletic department possible.
Provide Answers: When a coach makes a request of you, there are three possible responses: yes, no, and maybe. I always try to say yes, especially if it is something the coach is enthusiastic about. I sometimes need to say no. I try to avoid saying maybe.
I feel that providing a yes or no answer up front means you are a straight shooter. If you tell the person maybe, they usually leave the conversation frustrated. People like to get immediate feedback so they can move forward.
If I need some time to mull over the request, I will put a time frame on when I will give a response. I may say, "I will get back to you tomorrow." I will solicit advice from those I trust (and that is often the administrative assistants in our office), then call the individual promptly with an answer.
Employees will respect you for being decisive. They may question your leadership if you falter when they are looking to you for direction.
Be a Tall Ship: I visited Barbados a few years ago and went on a sailing excursion from the port of Bridgetown. The company called Tall Ships provided what was one of the best experiences I have had, from start to finish. From those who sold tickets, to those who helped us get on board, to the crew, these folks made you excited to be there from the time you opened your car door.
Tall Ships was not the only company in the town that took tourists sailing. I am guessing they figured out that while the sailboats were pretty much all the same, the difference maker was the staff. As you entered the yard, this sign was posted:
Beyond these doors
Are the most dedicated employees
In their profession
In this country.
I decided right then that I was going to make the same sign and post it outside the athletic department. For me, the sign sends two messages--one message is to those who work in the department, and the second is to those who enter. The simple wording sets a standard that we have to measure up to on a consistent basis, and it sends a signal that we all should be proud of our work.
In his book Developing the Leader Within You, John Maxwell points out that leaders are self starters. "Every person is either an initiator or a reactor when it comes to planning," he writes. In other words, if you don't provide the spark to get staff members engaged, no one will.
We need to invest time with staff and recognize that our actions have a direct affect on people on a daily basis. Above all, I want athletic department staff members to know I am committed to them as people, and fully appreciate their efforts as professionals.