I am now past the halfway point of my first year as the Director of Athletics, Fitness and Recreation at Kenyon College. The opportunity presented by Kenyon has been a significant transition from my last position, despite its coming with the same job title. Whereas my previous position was a hands-on, in-the-trenches, lead-by-doing job, my current work entails more organizational and supervisory leadership.
Truth be told, I have always been comfortable in the day-to-day operations; this is my comfort zone. And I have also found that it can be my default mindset, as our weekly administrative team meetings take on more of the tone of a war room for daily operations, instead of a time for tracking growth and progress on a more strategic level.
This change in scope is a new challenge—and opportunity—for me as a leader. Having nearly 20 years of coaching experience when I started in Athletics Administration, my leadership comfort zone was in managing like a coach. In other words, I became a coach of coaches. Whether providing perspective on the student-athlete experience, or providing education on NCAA compliance, I felt that my role was to equip and guide coaches and staff to achieve their goals and—when needed—to remind them of our shared purpose within the department and the institution.
As I think about my current position, I have an opportunity to influence and develop the coaches and staff I serve in a new way. Recently, I read Trever Cartwright’s article, “Five universal truths of leadership,” and I was struck by his fourth truth: “Leadership is a belief in others.” I have always held onto the idea that a leader is someone who has followers—a fairly transactional relationship. So turning this notion on its head, to suggest that leadership is more about “belief in others,” is to tap into something more transformational. The best I can do for those I lead is not to deliver wisdom or provide a better plan, but instead to believe in them and their capacities to succeed.
This is the insight I want to guide my leadership. I truly believe that the best resource in our department is our people. And I don’t mean this to say that we should hire good people and just get out of their way. Instead, I believe we need to hire good people and then create an environment where knowledge and experience are shared within the frame of a common purpose.
My thinking these days about how we create this kind of people-rich environment is influenced by two elements. First is Daniel Coyle’s admonition in his book, The Culture Code, to “create safe, collision-rich spaces,” (p. 81) where your people have opportunities to run into one another and where the sharing of ideas can happen spontaneously. At some of my previous institutions we had “collision-rich” cubicle areas for graduate assistants and assistant coaches, with coach and staff offices often in close proximity. Having doorway conversations, and colleagues discussing recruiting plans within hearing distance, allowed for organic interactions and opportunistic development in the profession.
What happens, though, when the physical space does not readily lend itself to these types of professional development collisions? This is the second element we are thinking through these days—how to solve the challenge of our beautiful, yet spread out, work space. The expansive layout around a community recreational space actually minimizes interactions, and as soon as a student or community member starts bouncing a basketball, the office doors around the perimeter quickly close. If people are our best resource, but we do not have a physical space that encourages collegial interactions, how do we leverage this important resource?
This is the question now percolating in our department. So far, we have collaborated on an office space plan that locates staff according to who should be closer together, as well as how to create a physical resource center. We have also set up an electronic resource hub dedicated to sharing articles, videos, and other materials. Coaches and staff can readily access and contribute their expertise to these resources. A mentoring program and recruiting curriculum led by veteran coaches are also in the works, and we have launched a book group designed to foster discussion for professional growth. In these ways, we are attempting to create a “collision-rich” environment which we hope will transcend our physical space challenges and transform our department.
My leadership opportunity at Kenyon is first and foremost about believing in people. Although I still have days when I need to shut my door to get some work done, I am finding a much deeper satisfaction in seeing what can happen when our coaches and staff discover ways to work together and learn from one another. I am fortunate to have talented and generous people who have joined me in this endeavor of strategic problem-solving.
Cartwright, Trever. (2019, March 7). “Five universal truths of leadership.” Forbes. Retrieved
Coyle, Daniel. (2018). The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. NY: Bantam Books.