Guest Blogger: Alanna Shanahan, Director of Athletics and Recreation at Johns Hopkins University
That’s how I would describe the past 14 months of living in the great city of Baltimore and leading athletics and recreation at Johns Hopkins University.
It shocked more than a few people to hear that I was headed south of the Mason-Dixon line after spending nearly a quarter of a century at the University of Pennsylvania and living my entire life within a 10-mile radius. My first three weeks in on-campus housing at Johns Hopkins provided a perfect opportunity to learn about and embrace my new university. I did enough walking across campus to create multiple paths in the grass as I shifted between individual meetings with all members of our athletics and recreation staff, conversations with our student-athlete leaders, and sessions with university administrators and colleagues. Those early days were critical to my understanding of how our division functioned and to learning about the culture and climate of the university. For those unfamiliar with athletics and recreation at Johns Hopkins, we are a multi-divisional athletic program offering 22 Division III sports and two Division I sports (yet another nuance to learn for someone with only Division I experience). The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins was my bible. It is an unbelievably useful tool for anyone enduring job transitions, large or small.
It wasn’t long before I determined that what I witnessed during my interview—the passion, pride, and professional strength of the staff—was completely as advertised. In their search for new leadership, the Johns Hopkins team had given me the gift of their authentic selves. They were also incredibly transparent about what they perceived as the strengths and weaknesses of the division. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how the search process can provide a head start for your listening, learning, and on-boarding process. The phrase, “It’s like drinking water from a fire hose,” is completely true. The amount of new information you must absorb and how quickly it comes at you can be unnerving. The “fire hose” and having all eyes on me were new experiences. At Penn, I was well-known and had a strong sense of the strengths and weakness of our division coupled with a deep understanding of institutional culture. At Johns Hopkins, so much was a blank slate just waiting for me to fill it in.
After a month or two, I had a list of areas I wanted to address as well as a “yet to explore” list. The most immediate areas of focus included accountability in our work, an exploration of our admissions and financial aid processes, a commitment to competitive success and creating a first-class student-athlete experience, and a need for providing staff with more professional development opportunities. And, oh yeah, the budget—a very deep dive into the budget. You must understand the numbers—and understand them early—but don’t overlook non-financial resources that are critical to your success. You will find along the way that they can be as important as the financial ones in helping you achieve your goals.
Keep in mind that the “drinking from a fire hose” metaphor doesn’t only apply to the office. Transitioning your partner or family to a new life can be just as overwhelming. Hopkins did an outstanding job of providing me with resources to help ease my personal transition. They connected me with other colleagues with similar personal circumstances and on-boarding challenges so that we could be a network of support for one another. They also put me in touch with the wise veterans of JHU and Baltimore who could recommend doctors, children’s programs, and even where to find the best local pizza. Do not underestimate the drain such transitions can cause for those involved. Ask for help. My transition hasn’t been perfect (after 14 months I’m still living in a rental). My husband claims I’m just too picky when it comes to homes. He might be right.
There are a few “challenges” that I intentionally deferred to year two. In my first year, I wasn’t ready to tackle a new vision and mission for our department. Though the ideas were percolating, I knew I needed more time before embarking on such a significant task. I also realized that contentious topics that require thoughtful and comprehensive analysis couldn’t be rushed. It is possible to identify areas in need of change early on, but I encourage you to resist the urge to rush forward, especially in areas that require supervisors or university leaders to make challenging decisions without the benefit of thorough study.
As for staff, I encountered more change in year one than I expected. All told we transitioned three head coaches and several assistant coaches, replaced two administrators, and on-boarded two new ones (one funded through an NCAA diversity grant). A word to the wise: have your short lists ready for every position, but more importantly don’t hesitate to think creatively about how to structure your staff moving forward. Filling existing open positions isn’t always the best option. Be sure to align your human resources with your future, not your past.
Something that made my first year a success (in my mind) was that I felt well-prepared. My various experiences at Penn had adequately prepared me for the next stage of my career. If I were playing the odds, the chances of me landing an AD job having worked at only one school were slim to none. For those who might be in a similar boat, I offer this advice: don’t hesitate. Strong leadership comes in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. Find a way to sell yours.