Pulling Together

Whether you’ve thought about it or not, your athletic department has its own unique culture. Here’s how to make sure that culture gets everyone pulling in the right direction.

By Steven Austin Stovall

Steven Austin Stovall is Professor of Management at Wilmington College in Ohio and is also a trainer and management consultant. He can be reached at: steven_stovall@wilmington.edu.

Athletic Management, 17.5, August/September 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1705/gppulltogether.htm

If someone you were trying to hire asked your current staff members to describe the culture of your department, what would they say? Would they call it fast-paced? Laid-back? Demanding? Fun? What words would they use?

Organizational culture is a buzzword among today’s business professionals. It is defined as the working climate of an organization, and encompasses the rituals, common language, and stories people tell about the department. The rituals include the ways new people are welcomed into the fold, how you prepare for events, and all the things that make your department unique. The common language refers to the in-words you and your staff use around the workplace. Stories keep your past accomplishments and challenges on the minds of your staff.

Why is it important to talk about your organizational culture? First, it helps you know whether everyone is rowing in the same direction. Second, it can reveal why problems exist in certain areas or with specific employees. Third, it helps improve morale. Fourth, it can be the difference between hiring your first or second-choice employee.

The following will help you define your culture. It will also help you figure out how to change it, if your current environment is not facilitating the growth and productivity you expect from your employees.

Defining It
To begin the process of understanding your culture, try this exercise. Ask each person to write five words that describe the culture of your department. Insist that they be candid with their responses and that they not consult one another beforehand. Tell them there is no right or wrong answer to each question—you’re simply trying to understand how they view their working environment.

After they do that, have them write answers to the following questions:

• What kind of work is rewarded around here? Is it long hours or performance? Taking initiative or following instructions?

• What kind of people get recognized in our department? Are they the ones who are most sociable or the people who quietly get things done on their own?

• What is most important in our department? Winning or developing students?

Of course, it is also important for you to answer each of these questions. List five words you would use to describe the culture in your department, and answer the questions above. How does your assessment compare with that of your staff? Getting on the same page as those you supervise is vital in not only determining what kind of culture you have, but in enhancing it.

Vision & Culture
Now that you have an unclouded picture of your department, it’s time to think about how your big-picture goals fit with that culture. If you have a vision of camaraderie in a department that employees see as aggressive and competitive, you’re not likely to meet your objectives. If you have a relaxed, laid-back culture but you’re hoping to increase productivity, you can expect to face some tough hurdles.

If the current environment will not help you achieve your goals, you need to create a new culture. Working on your own, write down your vision, making special note of where it conflicts with the current culture. Next, list the challenges you’ll face as you begin to change the culture. Be certain you understand all the ramifications of “doing things differently around here.” By taking these steps, you’ll be ready to handle resistance and hard questions—and there will be plenty!

The Process
Changing the culture of your department will not take place overnight. It is a slow process that requires you to maintain your vision, even when those around you are clearly not ready for change. First, everyone needs to be clear about the direction of the department. If you don’t have a mission statement, create one. If your mission statement is outdated, revise it.

The next step, though more subtle, is the key to enacting change. It entails using language and stories to change the culture. You already have a language that is unique to your department. It consists of acronyms, phrases, and expressions that only your staff knows. It defines how tasks get done and permeates meetings, informal gatherings, and even service to the rest of the school. Changing this language is one way to change the culture.

For example, altering the name you use for weekly meetings can send a powerful signal to staff that change is on the way. Maybe you call your weekly meetings with coaches, “Athletic Director’s Meeting.” If you’re trying to facilitate a more collaborative approach, with more input from coaches, consider changing the name to “Coaches’ Feedback Meeting.” Explain why you are changing the name and how you want the meeting to shift its emphasis.

Stories also help with changing the culture. They provide a way to describe not only your vision, but your institution’s values as well. For example, let’s assume you have a culture where your staff does not take initiative. At an upcoming meeting, you might say, “I want to tell you guys a story about Mike. Mike used to work here, taking on every project imaginable. He came up with ideas that we are still using today. Mike once said that if he wasn’t juggling at least eight major projects, he was bored. Those of you who remember Mike recall that he hated to leave here, but he found a job at another school. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we’ve gotten away from the drive and initiative we all once had. How can we return to those days?

This can lead into a wonderful discussion of where you are today and where you would like to go. And it all begins by telling a story.

Nature of Change
As with any successful change, it’s essential to have staff buy-in. Be sure to explain that the changes will enhance performance, and be patient. As the changes occur, your staff may find themselves feeling uncomfortable, but that’s okay. Departments going through culture change often experience a rough patch before they improve.

The key is to clearly communicate your vision, think about stories and common language, foster buy-in, and maintain your direction. If you do, you’ll create the culture you need to reach your goals.