Behind the Screens

Athletic Management, 16.2, February/March 2004,

New technology offers many new and exciting ways to communicate. But you must know when to use what form--and when to come out from behind the screen.

By Dr. Vincent Mumford
Vincent Mumford, EdD, is Director of the Sports Leadership Program at the University of Central Florida. He is the former Athletic Director at the College of Southern Maryland and Baltimore City Community College.

Not too long ago, athletic directors had three basic modes of communication available to them: face-to-face meetings, the telephone, and regular mail. Today, in the course of a day, you may use your office phone, fax machine, e-mail, cell phone, pager, home phone, voice mail, conference call, instant messaging, and regular postal mail to communicate with coaches and staff.

Newer technology certainly provides us with more ways to communicate than ever. But does more mean better? Do you find yourself forgetting to answer a voice mail because it's not on your computer, like an e-mail? Or do you sometimes neglect to answer a letter you've received through the regular mail because it seems less urgent?

The diversity of communication tools we now have at our disposal can make us better communicators, but only if we have a strategy for using all these tools effectively. The following are some tips on when and how to tap into today's technology to improve your communications skills.

Connecting Personally

With all the tech-gadgets out there, it's tempting to stay inside your office and communicate electronically over and over again. However, no form of technology can improve on actually being face-to-face with your staff. Even though it may be more time consuming, it's important to intersperse e-mail conversations with a walk to a staff member's office to chat.

The only way you can build a stronger relationship with someone is by seeing them and hearing their voice. Nuances of conversation--pauses, facial expressions, and body movements--just don't come through on an e-mail, and it's those nuances that allow you to know how to motivate your staff. They also allow you to see red flags and intervene before a problem arises.

You must create opportunities to have crucial face-to-face time with your staff, especially since some employees may have very little contact with you otherwise. Ultimately, sincere, personal interaction gives more weight to the e-mail or print communications that occur between meetings.

But when should you choose a face-to-face conversation over e-mail? Here are some guidelines:

Use e-mail to:

o Communicate simple concepts like setting appointments or giving phone numbers.

o Share agendas or meeting minutes.

o Communicate one-way when little or no discussion is required.

o Keep in touch with people.

o Verify information.

o Convey public announcements.

Use face-to-face communication when:

o Communicating complicated concepts.

o There is a good chance for miscommunication.

o You want as much feedback as possible.

o The topic involves strong opinions or emotions.

o The topic involves reaching a group consensus.

o Communicating criticism or bad news.

o You are conveying private information.

Making Things Clear

Great administrators learn how to take the complex and make it simple. At the beginning of any project or task, they describe the nature of the work or situation, the overall goals, the timetable, and possible obstacles or delays. They provide the big picture and show each team member the role they play in that big picture. If used correctly, technology can help this process. If overused, it can muddy the waters.

Here's what not to do: Don't describe a project over the course of many e-mails that are directed to a large group. "John -- Here's one more detail to remember about the project and I'm cc'ing Jane because maybe she has some insight here." Another don't: Don't provide different details in different forms of communication. Compile all notes and instructions in one package--as one PDF file, in one PowerPoint presentation, or in one folder.

However, technology can help make a project simpler now that word processing programs allow us to easily make charts and graphs and PowerPoint can make details come to life. For example, if you're communicating with staff on budget cuts, don't just tell them each to cut back by five percent. Instead, paint a bigger picture for them. Use computer generated charts or graphs to show your overall department goals, and use different colors to illustrate each staff member's area of concentration.

Organize It

In some cases, the technology we use for communicating has outdistanced our ability to keep up with the communications. Many athletic administrators and coaches complain about the number of calls, voice mails, faxes, and e-mails they get on a daily basis, often citing communication overload. The solution is to streamline the communication process. Some ideas:

o Try to use only one of each type of communication (one voicemail box, one phone, one e-mail address, one regular mailing address, etc).

o Set aside a time to handle communications each day. For example, as an athletic director, I scheduled an hour each day to handle phone communications: 11:30 a.m. to noon and 4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Why these times? Because most people want to go to lunch at noon and home at five so they were less likely to engage in prolonged conversations on the phone.

o Use voicemail to screen calls during meetings, work sessions, or staff conferences. Return phone calls at your designated "communication times."

o Have an assistant screen your calls to discourage solicitors, filter incoming calls, and avoid phone tag with business and personal contacts.

o Prioritize your communications. Delete all junk e-mail or spam immediately. Prioritize your e-mail messages into categories like reply, forward, delete, read later, and file.

o Sort snail mail into categories like toss, refer, act, and file, then act accordingly.

Involve Everyone

It's important to allow all staff members to contribute to setting goals, to communicate their ideas for a project, and to have a chance to be heard on any area of operations. A great way to streamline this process is through an intranet site. An intranet site is like a Web site that only your department personnel can access. These sites typically allow staff members to share calendars, set appointments, and share documents, but can also provide a forum for discussion and commentary.

For example, your site can have a suggestion system where employees and leaders can exchange concerns and ideas. You can even give rewards to employees who submit adoptable, tangible ideas. This is a great way to involve those staff members who are shy about speaking up at meetings.

Another method for hearing more voices is setting up a listserv. A listserv allows a select group (administrators, student-athletes, or even parents) the ability to "subscribe" to a discussion. Contributions to the listserv are distributed to the entire subscriber base via email so everyone on the list has the ability to provide input and be heard.

Set The Tone

The last, but possibly most important, tip is to set the right example for communication in your department. As technology changes and new gadgets enter our workplace, how you, as the leader, utilize those tools will set the tone for others. If you answer your cell phone while meeting with someone else, so will your staff. If you use e-mail to reprimand an employee, don't be surprised if your staff yells their complaints back to you through e-mail. If you handle disagreements without face-to-face interaction, don't expect all staff members to truly understand one another.

Good communication is the hallmark of an excellent organization. In this information age, leaders often look to technology as the solution to their communication woes. However, the answer is not so simple. Communication is a learned skill. Developing better communication habits--like many other endeavors in sports and life--takes time, practice, and patience. With careful thought, you can fit technology into the equation in a way that leads to simplicity, efficiency, and better understanding among all staff members.