Becoming a successful athletic director doesn't happen without getting meaningful feedback from others. And those "others" should include parents and coaches.
By Kevin Bryant
Kevin Bryant, CMAA, is Vice President for Advancement and External Relations at Warner Pacific College and the former Associate Principal for Athletics and Activities at Tigard (Ore.) High School, as well as Athletic Director at Aloha High School in Beaverton, Ore. A past President of the Oregon Athletic Directors Association, he was named the group's 2005 Athletic Director of the Year, and he has received an NIAAA Distinguished Service Award and NFHS Citation. He can be reached at: KMBryant@warnerpacific.edu.
Look! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's an athletic director buzzing around at warp speed trying to get 300 things done in an afternoon. While no one calls us Superman, some days we do need to perform like action heroes.
Our super powers often include identity changes, too, since many of us transform from a teacher or assistant principal into an athletic director when the school bell rings. We need to be good at working with kids, mentoring coaches, handling administrative tasks, communicating, and relating with parents--all at the same time.
So how should a multi-talented, hard-working person with an impossible job be evaluated? Super heroes don't usually get performance reviews. And with each school being a little different from the next, there is no one-size-fits-all evaluation tool for every athletic director in America.
However, if we strive to be great at what we do and want our athletic program to be the best it can be, we need to embrace a meaningful evaluation each and every year--whether our school requires one or not. We need to initiate and develop the process in a way that elevates our effectiveness. Harry Truman said it best: "Men [and women] make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better."
WHY DO IT?
One result of the intense schedule, daily demands, and personal energy required of today's athletic administrators is that we can be resistant to evaluation. The reasons may vary but usually center on the following factors:
- This is a unique (and lonely) position. No one really understands what I do.
- The person evaluating me most likely has never done this job.
- I am expected to do an administrative job and work administrative hours while being paid as a teacher.
- There are so many expectations from different constituencies (parents, teachers, students, community, etc.) it is hard to determine the objectives of the position and know who to listen to.
- I am unable to perform this full-time job in the half-time or less given to me to do it. Why should I be evaluated like I am a full-time administrator?
All of the above excuses for resisting an evaluation make sense. But they are still excuses. The "courageous, skillful" leadership Truman talked about begins with our willingness to be evaluated yearly in a meaningful way. Here are other reasons why it's so important:
- We evaluate our coaching staff every year. How do we continue this process with integrity if we are not evaluated ourselves?
- We demand that coaches give meaningful feedback to their student-athletes in practices and games. We need to respect and embrace this process by being open to our own evaluation.
- Our unwillingness to be evaluated shouts to our community that we are above it all. As those who lead others, we ought to be the first to be evaluated as an example to all.
- How do we get better if we are not getting constructive feedback from others? Shouldn't we hunger to continually improve in this amazing profession?
TAKING THE INITIATIVE
Following my first year as Athletic Director at Aloha High School in Beaverton, Ore., I constructed an evaluation based on my job description and what I felt was important to being a great athletic director. I handed it out to my head coaches and other people connected to our athletic program whose input I valued. I gave them the freedom to sign their names or not and to give it back to me directly or through the principal.
After compiling the responses, I sat down with my principal to review the results. I used the meeting as a way to begin a constructive conversation about how effective I was (or was not) in the position over the past year and what I could do better.
I took the initiative to be evaluated for several reasons. First, I truly wanted to be the best athletic director possible for my coaching staff and our student-athletes. I felt that I could not accomplish this without receiving feedback from those I was serving on a daily basis.
Second, I wanted meaningful feedback from my direct supervisor. Since this person had never coached or served as an athletic administrator, I felt it would get us on the same page if I relayed to her what I saw as important to my progress, success, and overall responsibilities.
Lastly, at that time it was critical to build a sense of community in our athletic program. We had just weathered the opening of two new high schools in our area that took away more than 50 percent of the top students in our school and had a significant impact on our school's socio-economic balance.
If I was ever going to be a part of unifying the community around Aloha High School and our athletic program I needed to be open to hearing from all corners of our community. By asking coaches and community members for their feedback, there is a feeling that we're all in this together. I had learned from past experience that people support what they help to create. There is a buy-in that motivates people to work harder toward their overall goals.
I challenged myself with this question: "Am I a big enough person that I am willing to hear from many people about the job I am doing?" I was convinced that I needed to be evaluated to build trust with all constituents of our program and to be my very best.
The first year went well. My staff was surprised and also appreciated that I asked for their feedback, and I found their responses helpful. Also important, the survey allowed my supervisor to see my position in a broader sense. Her initial evaluation of me centered on rules and regulations, and the survey tool I had constructed showed her the bigger perspective of the position.
I continued to hand out the evaluation in subsequent years, always closely examining the feedback and sharing it with my principal. I used the responses to figure out how to improve in areas from scheduling to working with boosters.
Along with providing me a meaningful evaluation, one of the best things about this process was that it showed my head coaches their feedback was important to me, which opened up lines of communication. It gave them permission to speak honestly about what they saw, and that resulted in many great conversations. It also helped to create trust and synergy in our department. I was being evaluated, they were being evaluated, and everyone understood it as a positive process. To bring this idea home, during their evaluations each year I would ask, "Is there anything you want to share with me that could help me do a better job serving you?"
AREAS TO EVALUATE
I continued to refine the review process through my years as an athletic director. The most important thing I Iearned is that you have to start by knowing your goals. What are the most important aspects of the job that I should get feedback on? The following are the five areas I deemed most critical:
1. What is the quality of the experience our student-athletes are receiving? Does it match our mission, vision, and value statements? If, in fact, athletics is about teaching life skills to student-athletes, are we accomplishing this at our school? Evaluating this can happen through a survey at the end of each season, senior exit interviews, informal conversations, or a combination of all these tools.
2. How are our coaches performing? Most school districts spend more than 80 percent of their budgets on personnel. Who we hire and how they impact our student-athletes is the single most important factor related to student-athlete success. As athletic director, am I hiring the best people possible and am I mentoring them well, providing them with yearly, meaningful evaluations?
3. Is the department running efficiently and effectively? Are all forms and paperwork filled out accurately and on time? Am I making the most of scheduling opportunities, especially with non-league opponents? How am I doing with managing officials, pregame operations personnel, and team transportation?
4. How are our facilities? Am I diligent in making sure they are safe and of comparable quality to our league opponents?
5. How are our department finances? Are the department expenses coming in on or under budget? Am I raising enough funds and working well with the booster club(s)?
From those five goal areas, I came up with a list of 35 job responsibilities I wanted to receive feedback on. I listed them on a two-page form, where respondents could rate me in each area on a scale of 1-5 (which corresponded with great, good, average, below average, or needs improvement) and also add comments. Underneath the list, there were four open-ended questions that required people to write responses. (A closer look at the evaluation instrument is below.)
Some of the feedback entailed small things, like needing better details on the bus schedule, which I then worked to implement. For the questions that focused on my supervision and style, I tried to look at all of the responses together and come up with personal goals for being a better leader.
Along with the formal evaluation process described above, feedback also happens each day in informal ways. As a coach or parent, I might describe these as teachable moments. As an athletic administrator, I might describe them as criticism.
Most athletic administrators hear almost constant feedback from all corners. Suggestions are lobbed our way at the grocery store, gas station, movie theater, or any event we oversee. It is easy to take offense to this and blow it off. Because most folks don't understand the wide range of skills needed, the amount of time required, and the passion and energy expended to do this job well, it's hard to imagine they can help us.
But when we ignore this informal feedback, we miss out on some of the most honest, clear, and concise ideas we will ever receive. Unsolicited advice can be seen as unwarranted criticism or as a valuable resource we can use to improve.
One day I was working in my office and most likely grousing to myself about working administrative hours but receiving teacher pay or being unable to make big picture changes in our program because I spent 50 percent of my time doing paperwork. A head coach came by the office without an appointment and wanted to talk. I was busy. I kept working on the five things I was doing while trying to hold a "conversation" with this head coach. When I finally made eye contact, she glared at me and said, "You are a terrible listener."
She then had my undivided attention. I sat up--fired up and angry--listening to her share her needs. I already had my argument ready: "You don't know how hard I work. You don't know the long hours I put in." Fortunately, I did not make the situation worse by saying that and instead actually listened to her.
As she left and I processed what happened, I admitted to myself that I just received some feedback, informal as it was, that I did not like. Now what was I going to do with it?
I realized that I did not take her seriously, and I had not focused on her needs. After that experience, when a coach, student-athlete, teacher, or parent came by, I stopped what I was doing and gave them my full attention. To make time for focusing on people and their needs, I ended up asking a couple of parents to come help me with simple paperwork.
This change made me a better person, father, husband, and athletic administrator. The coach who spoke her mind helped me improve because I was willing to hear her criticism.
These teachable moments come daily. They come from people we have worked with for years and from people we don't know at all. If we are open to growing and to doing our best we must not see these comments as enemies but welcome them as friends. We must be able to grow thicker skin, see feedback as positive not negative, and want to improve each day.
One of the most powerful lessons on leadership and informal evaluation in my life came from an assistant boys' basketball coach during a preseason coaches' meeting at Aloha. We were just finishing our laundry list of 28 things we go over prior to each season and we came to the part that said "Questions." I was anticipating clarifying questions, or time and date questions, but not what this coach said. He raised his hand and when called upon asked, "Why do we do this anyway?"
I tried to clarify the question. "Do you mean, 'Why do we have this meeting?'" He replied, "No. Why do we have sports?" The question stunned me. I did not have an answer. I walked away from the meeting with a gnawing feeling in my stomach.
I chewed on the question for a couple of weeks and talked to my veteran coaches. Then, I formed a community-wide committee to determine an answer. I am so glad this question was asked and that I had the courage to try to answer it. It set Aloha athletics on a great course for lasting success.
My hope is that each of you will have the self motivation to get better at your current position. Your hunger to improve and be your very best will be the most significant factor in the overall success of your program.
Coaches, parents, and student-athletes get better when they observe caring and dedicated work coming from those who lead them. I can't think of a better profession to impact a community than that of the high school athletic administrator. And someone, someday, might just recognize us as super heroes.
The following are the tasks that I asked coaches and parents to judge me on as an athletic director.
- Student-athlete eligibility issues
- Facility leadership/vision
- State association issues/information
- Academic issues involving athletics
- Facility maintenance
- Recruitment of coaches
- Set up/game management
- Meet management/workers
- Crowd control at games/events
- Relationship with game officials and their commissioners
- Relationship with custodians
- Rescheduling postponed games
- Managing playoff information
- Representing the school to the league
- Assisting with out-of-school groups using the facilities
- Managing facility usage among school groups
- Relationship with P.E. department
- Liaison to community recreation department
- Liaison to booster club
- Liaison to community
- Dealing with the media
- Master schedules for school use
- Training rules/consequences
- Monitoring academic achievement of athletes
- Award winners
- Coaches meetings/workshops
- Communication with coaches, parents, and students
- Relationship with the athletic trainer/team doctor
- Budget management
- Athletic supplies/repair of equipment
- Relationship with administration
- Supervision of home and away games
- Management of coaches' fundraising efforts
The survey also included four open-ended questions, with space for answers:
1. The above list contains pieces of the job description for the Athletic Director position. Beyond the areas listed above, did you get what you needed from the Athletic Director this year?
2. In your experience, what was the greatest strength of your Athletic Director this year?
3. What would be an area or two that you would like to see the Athletic Director grow in to become more effective for you, your colleagues, and your school community?
4. Do you have "unfinished business" or issues or problems that you want to discuss as the year ends and a new year begins?