Lessons In Culture Change from an Athletic Director

Those of you who follow college football may be familiar with with the University of Illinois’s recent hire of Lovie Smith to take over their football program.  Those of you who don’t follow college football hang with me as I think you will see the parallels of this story in dealing with organizational culture.

I have been an Illini fan since I was a kid and later I earned my MBA from Illinois.  So over the years I have witnessed the turmoil the athletic program has gone through.  But the most fascinating piece to me was its cultural descent.  It was clear, even from an outside perspective, the department didn’t have a clear vision forward or a culture to drive pride and success.  As losing seasons piled on along with coaching scandals of player mistreatment, the fanbase disengaged.  Ticket sales dropped, national media shifted away from central Illinois and athletics became the punching bag of other Big Ten (B1G) fan bases.  Few people wanted to be associated with the revenue generating programs (football and basketball).  It was clear that a culture change was sorely needed, but how would this happen if the same leaders that created this culture didn’t recognize it?  

After a major scandal in the football program both the Head Football Coach and later the Athletic Director (AD) who hired him were fired.  The University administration was already in turmoil with a Chancellor (the AD’s boss) in Interim status and now an athletic program with an Interim AD in charge of an Interim Head Football Coach.  The University needed an inspired hire for AD soon.  They found their hire on a slightly unproven former Illini football player who had been an AD at 2 previous Division III schools.

So what does this have to do with business and leadership?  It’s what this new AD did next.  His first day on the job he fired someone.

Now, firing someone isn’t really the key, it’s the fact that the new AD recognized that the organizational culture had grown stale, and in some cases toxic.  A bold clear vision and decisiveness were what was needed to turn things around.  The existing head coach had just been handed an unheard of 2 year contract (unheard of because it’s tough to recruit players for 4 years if their coach may be gone after 2) by the interim leadership. The new AD could take the safe route and stick with status quo and extend the contract of the coaching staff; or he could make a bold decision by cutting ties with some elements that helped create the current culture. Then bring in a hire that would inspire the stakeholders.  One that fit his clear vision for the future.

That hire came in the form of a former NFL Super Bowl coach, arguably the biggest sports hire in the University’s history.  A decisive, yet vision aligned, decision that immediately rejuvenated a stakeholder group that had been listless for the better part of a decade, all in less than 48 hours.

What Were the Short Term Outcomes?

  • National and social media lit up with talk of the hire, raising the University brand
  • Revenue immediately impacted with an additional $400,000 in season ticket sales in one day
  • Fans running out to buy University merchandise (myself included) adding to revenue and stakeholder engagement
  • Athletic administration employees taking to social media communicating their excitement and enthusiasm for their organization
  • Rival fan bases lauding the move

All before the new coach steps on the field the existing culture has shifted from a decade of listlessness to an engaged organization generating immediate results.

Again, why is this significant?  Because it shows that sometimes to address a flagging culture leaders need to be bold and decisive.  They can’t follow the status quo and hope that minor tweaks will turn things around.  It takes…

  • …vision to know where things need to be
  • …the ability to articulate that vision in a simple yet inspiring way to encompass all audiences
  • …the guts to make and own the tough decisions rather than playing it safe
  • …the understanding that the bold decision needs to be in alignment with the vision for it have a chance at success
  • …a passion for your organization and its mission

I have worked for and with organizations where this sort of bold, visionary, courageous decision making was avoided out of fear.  Fear of the unknown or fear of failure, even in the face of a culture that wasn’t getting the results needed.  Its that very fear that forced leaders to embrace the status quo and yet wonder why the culture seemed the same.

If you are facing a culture that is dragging your organization down, understand where you need to be and don’t be afraid to be bold and decisive.

I – L – L!!!

About the author: Heath

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