New AD on the Block

If you are one of the many administrators who will be starting a new job in the fall, be forewarned: There will be a school full of surprises (both good and bad) waiting for you. Here’s how to prepare.

By Dr. David Hoch

David Hoch, EdD, become the Athletic Director at Loch Raven High School, in Baltimore County, Md., last fall. He is the former Athletic Director at Eastern Technical High, also in Baltimore, and was named the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association’s Athletic Director of the Year in 2000.

Athletic Management, 16.4, June/July 2004,

Moving into a new position is not unusual during the course of one’s career. Perhaps you need a new challenge, or you want to escape a negative situation. Or maybe you’re a coach moving into athletic administration. Over the past 10 years in Baltimore County, 16 to 25 percent of our athletic directors’ positions have changed hands in any given year.

Last year, I was part of that percentage when I became the new athletic director at Loch Raven High School. Nine years previously I had become the new athletic director at Eastern Technical High School. While moving to a new school is an opportunity to start fresh and try out new ideas, it also is a transition of some magnitude.

From the big issues (Will the coaches be receptive to my ideas?) to the small (I was handed three key rings with 40 keys on them and no instructions!), I’ve learned a lot about my new school this past year. I’ve also learned a lot about how to make the move from one school to another as smooth as possible.

Whether you are moving to an excellent school with well-established programs or to one where practically everything needs to be overhauled, there will be challenges based on the simple fact that you are the new kid on the block. Your challenge will be to learn 1,000 new details and to become acquainted with all of the new people—coaches, teachers, administrators, athletes, and parents—in your new setting. Obviously, everyone will also have to get to know you and what you stand for.

Adjusting to a new school takes time and effort, but it will help if you have a well thought-out game plan. Your transitional plan should be based upon several factors:

• Your leadership style and your management strengths.

• The history and culture of the school.

• Any areas in need of improvement, although this could very well change with more information and insight.

To start, you should have a very general plan. You probably know your leadership style but you may know only a little bit about the culture of the school and what needs changing. Jot down your thoughts, then revisit your plan every month of your first year.

Here was the basic plan I used this past year, which worked well:

• Try to learn about the school, its culture, and all of the individuals involved.

• Let everyone get to know me. Continually assess how my style meshes or clashes with all that goes on at the school.

• Determine what changes or improvements need to be made. Make only minor changes in the first year. Begin to implement bigger changes at the start of the second year.

In each of my last two athletic director positions, I knew quite a bit about each setting before my interview. For both, I knew coaches and fellow athletic directors who thoroughly understood the situation and were able to offer their perspectives. However, even if you are armed with background information, it’s always a good idea to start your transition by setting up a meeting with your new principal. This is true even if he or she was actively involved in the hiring process. This meeting could be scheduled instead with your superintendent, if this is the hierarchical structure in your district.

The first goal of this meeting is to determine what the principal’s major expectations are of you in this position. Even though you successfully navigated the interview process and this issue may have surfaced during the questions, it is extremely important for you to know exactly what is expected. You can’t succeed unless you know the answer to this vital question.

For example, in my position at Eastern Tech, I knew from my first meeting with our principal what my mandate was. I was hired to improve every aspect of the existing athletic program, to fund-raise, and to elevate the program to a very competitive level—and to do it as quickly as possible. This explanation provided me with the necessary roadmap in order to begin my new journey. I knew I needed to start full speed ahead, making changes from day one.

However, at Loch Raven, I entered a well-established program with coaches, teachers, and administrators who had been associated with the school for a long time. The principal’s expectations of me here are very different than at Eastern Tech. He asked that I maintain the good communication and working relationship with the staff and keep the teams as competitive as they can be. This necessitated a slower, more cautious and deliberate approach.

The second purpose for meeting with the principal is to share your transitional plan. Obviously, your strategy may have to be revised based upon what expectations the principal articulates.

Another important initial meeting should be with your predecessor. This is a key person, so try to think of as many questions as possible for him or her. Topics to cover include:

• Where things are stored: athletic equipment, office supplies, records, forms, and so forth.

• Who is responsible for what: maintenance, supervision, and all of the normal functions in the school and athletic program. How do you best contact these individuals?

• Is there a phone and e-mail list of everyone the former athletic director communicated with?

• The 1,000 day-to-day procedures that are involved in a school setting. For example, even though both Eastern Tech and Loch Raven are in the same school district, sending a fax is handled very differently in each school.

• What is the current structure for all meetings and one-on-one communication?

• What projects and processes are currently in motion and should be picked up midstream?

• What are the problem areas to be aware of?

Sometimes, however, it is not possible to meet with your predecessor. I experienced this when I arrived at Eastern Tech. Not only was the former athletic director unavailable, but all of the file cabinets were completely empty. There was literally nothing—no records, reports, or evaluations—left from previous years that I could use as reference.

If you can’t meet with your predecessor, you’ll need to ask coaches, teachers, and administrators more of these questions. Try to find that one coach or administrator who is great on details and willing to give you a chunk of time. But also realize that everything you do will take a little more time. In those first weeks at Eastern Tech, when a coach asked me for a form or checklist, I had to create it from scratch.

Also on the top of your list is meeting the head custodian, the crew chief of the grounds crew, and the main office secretaries. As you already know, these people make the school work and can provide you with valuable insight and help during your transition. Find out how they like to communicate. For example, at Eastern Tech, I contacted our grounds crew via e-mail for changes in the field lining schedule. However, at Loch Raven, they don’t use e-mail and I need to use interoffice mail or leave a message on an answering machine.

Booster club officers are next. These individuals can provide you with a perspective concerning the history and traditions of the athletic program. Obviously, they will also be able to brief you on the club and its activities. For example, when I met with the Loch Raven Booster Club, I quickly discovered that there was a completely new slate of officers, all of whom had no or very limited experience. This told me that giving them direction would need to be on the top of my to-do list.

Of course, you also want to chat with your coaching staff, teachers, and other administrators at the school and learn from them. It is important, however, that when asking questions you are not judgmental or critical of the past or of your predecessor. Even if he was fired, many coaches may have liked him. It never helps to openly be critical of anyone. The maxim "praise in public, criticize in private" should serve you well.

In all these meetings, listen to everyone. Throughout my career, I’m often reminded that we learn more by listening than by talking. This is good advice when entering into a new position. Don’t walk in and try to impress everyone with what you’ve accomplished at previous positions. Let others tell you about your new setting, what has been done and what, in their opinion, needs to be done.

Getting different perspectives on the same question can be very useful in totally understanding your new setting. You really don’t know what the correct answer is to any questions at this point, so listen and then make notes for reference.

Finally, observe everything around you. Observing can be as simple as taking notice of where everyone sits at faculty meetings. Group dynamics and relationships, as well as reactions, moods, and many other interactions can be easily observed. All of this will be valuable as you try to understand your new setting.

In addition to meeting with key personnel at your new school, you will want these people to have a chance to get to know you. Obviously, you want to make a good first impression, since this is easier than having to correct false perceptions.

There are usually several opportunities to interact already in place. All you have to do is to plan ahead and take advantage of them. On the yearly calendar at many schools, you will find most of the following. If they aren’t already there, start by scheduling them.

• Preseason coaches’ meeting. The first staff meeting with your coaches is very important. You will be judged by your new staff immediately, so be sure to set the proper tone. Be prepared and organized, and begin to present your philosophies and procedures. A detailed agenda with all of the necessary handouts is an excellent way to accomplish this goal. Also, you will want to be prepared to answer questions at the conclusion of your presentation.

• Preseason parents’ meetings. These meetings have always been a good way to explain everything about your athletic program. During this first meeting, you simply have one more item to introduce—yourself.

• First booster club meeting. As the school’s liaison to the booster club, you should attend this meeting anyway. At the first one, you will probably have an opportunity on the agenda to introduce yourself. You might want to check with the president ahead of time to be prepared for some of the questions that may arise.

• First faculty meeting. Certainly, at the first faculty meeting of the year, you will be introduced. While you may not have a chance to address this group, it will give everyone a chance to see your face and start to get to know you.

Regardless of the different settings, think ahead, organize, and prepare your comments. You are walking a fine line between being green and being a leader. The best advice, however, is to be yourself! After all, this approach worked for you in your previous positions. It is your combination of traits, abilities, knowledge, and background that enabled you to get this new position. Don’t change now.

For example, if you don’t like to make quick decisions but rather to think through a problem and its solutions, don’t be pressured by people who want answers to their questions "right now." Remind yourself that you do better when not pressured and tell them when you’ll have your answers.

No matter how much you talk to people and prepare for the transition, you should expect surprises to come your way. In my first few months, I found myself saying to almost anyone who would listen, "Every day is an adventure. Today, I found out…" Fortunately, my principal was very understanding and supportive throughout this time of discovery and we often shared a laugh about "what I learned at school today."

During your initial attempts to fit into your new environment, meet the expectations, and learn the procedures and traditions, don’t be surprised if you feel compromised at times. I sure was! Since everything is new, you don’t do anything naturally and easily. After nine years at Eastern Tech, I knew where everything was stored, all of the idiosyncrasies of various people, who to see to get things done, and how to navigate around school politics. However, in a new setting, every process has a question mark. Having to discover answers and function at the same time can be extremely challenging.

As a result, I was often uncomfortable, frustrated, and not as effective as I had been in the past. Since this wasn’t truly my setting yet, I wasn’t able to use my strengths and experience. It wasn’t the real me.

At those times, it helped to take a step back and analyze my new setting. I reminded myself that it also took the former athletic director time to establish all of the procedures, policies, and programs at the school.

Most important is to remain positive and enthusiastic even if you are facing major transition trauma. In the face of problems, you need to be optimistic that solutions will be found. You need to be the role model for the athletic department, even on those tough days.

During my basketball coaching career, I followed the maxim: You play the first half in order to get to the second half—it’s in the second half that the game is determined. In like fashion, as an athletic director, you may want to get through your first year in a new setting before putting your stamp on the program.

During your first year at a new school, take a good honest look at the following:

• The procedures associated with the athletic program.
• The coaches.
• The facilities.
• The competitive aspect of each sport.
• The funding.
• The support system (parents, booster clubs).

Determine what is broken and in need of improvement, and what is fine and not in need of any change. Beware the urge to change everything to the way it was at your former school. Remember, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

Even if you encounter a situation that needs major changes, only try to tackle two or three in your initial year. Don’t try to improve everything at once. Trying to overhaul everything will be next to impossible, and stumbling in the beginning is not a good way to get started. Instead, make a few positive changes to set the stage, win confidence, and ensure success in the future.

In my case, I’ve been making slow, small, subtle changes. For example, I’m changing the accounting system for ticket sales, implementing a parents handbook, and transitioning coaches from written memos to e-mail. A few larger projects, such as altering the process for evaluating coaches, will come next year, after I have had time to prep the coaches and thoroughly explain the new approach.

Even though there is much to learn in a new setting, as much as possible, enjoy meeting everyone involved. It can be a great experience for both sides. For those involved with your athletic program, a new athletic director means a clean slate. This alone can be a very positive benefit of moving into a new position.

A new position can also provide you with the chance to once again be creative and implement some new initiatives. After all, the process of maintaining a program over several years gets a little stagnant. The opportunity to grow, develop, and create is always exciting.

Even in the best of situations and with extensive experience as an athletic director, making the transition to a new position may initially be overwhelming, frustrating, and difficult. By understanding the dynamics, preparing a good transitional plan, and persevering, with time, things will get better.

What should you do your very first day on the job? Be realistic that you probably won’t get much of any substance done. Many people will want to stop in to greet you, there will be a stack of accumulated mail, and, of course, there will be phone calls and e-mail messages.

Arrange a meeting with the secretarial staff and ask them to instruct you on all the procedures that are a part of your job. If you are fortunate enough to have some free time during your first day, deal with the priority items you’ve uncovered. This includes everything that is needed to kick off the fall season, such as scheduling buses and security for games and making sure all of the last-minute coaching vacancies are filled. Refer to the information you gleaned talking to your predecessor and principal.

Oh, you might also want to change the message on your answering machine. It took me a couple of weeks to discover this oversight and it sure confused the heck out of a lot of people!

Even if you are the most personable administrator in your school district, not every coach will want to shake your hand as soon as you enter your new school. For many people, change is scary—and a coach can feel threatened by a new athletic director.

Veteran coaches may be upset at any hint of change and the complaints can arrive early and often. My advice here is to try to respect the coaches’ feelings, but don’t compromise your goals just to get them to like you.

I did field my share of complaints from coaches in my first months on the job, and while it certainly bothered me, I tried to keep in mind the following principles:

• I am going to continue to do what I think and know from experience is best for the program and school.
• I have the complete support of my principal.
• When feasible, I provided explanations as to why I took a particular route that may have been different from what the last athletic director did.

When dealing with people, as opposed to preparing a budget request or ordering buses, there is no black or white, no right or wrong formula. Therefore, I tried to deal with each complaint and each coach as a new challenge. It is still a work in progress.