Commonsense Tips for Successful Leadership

Over the past 35 years, I have had the privilege of serving in leadership positions ranging from managing a stadium and hall of fame to serving as president of a major arena, running my own sports marketing and consulting company, and helping to create and manage both a sports commission and the National Association of Sports Commissions.

I think each of these turned out pretty successfully. My secret? Just a lot of common sense.

Common sense was the premise of the wonderful book by Robert Fulghum, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Fulghum lists 16 things he learned in kindergarten, and why each is important later in life. If you aren't familiar, I encourage you to read it and put the principles into action in your own life.

One maxim in particular that stood out to me has always been, "When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together."

Think for a moment about this quote. Watching for traffic and holding hands are synonymous with teamwork. We face problems and opportunities together; leaders do not put themselves above direct reports.

Based on my own experience, here are a few simple tips for being a successful leader.

Becoming a leader takes preparation. A leader is often thrust into a situation that needs drastic and immediate attention. In sports especially, this can seem like the rule, not an exception. So what do you do? If you've mastered your responsibilities leading up to this point, you'll be in a position to know what needs to be done and take the steps to get it done. Excel at each assignment you are given and demonstrate the willingness to go beyond your job description to help when needed.

I was working as director of sponsorships and promotions for Taft Broadcasting's Theme Parks when I got a call asking me to take responsibility for the operations of a sports hall of fame and adjacent 10,000-seat stadium just 72 hours before its grand opening and two debut football games. I was instructed to pack up and move my office with the hope that I could organize things and keep everyone safe.

What did I know about halls of fame and stadiums? Nothing beyond the few visits I had made over the years. All I could do was rely on common sense: find out who knew what, and locate others who knew the rest. I assigned the staff to what I perceived to be the essential areas of responsibility and empowered each employee to do the job without worrying what I might say.

Did I make some mistakes? Sure, but I made it clear from the outset that we would learn how to do everything better together. What we needed was to survive opening day.

You only get to meet someone for the first time once. When you meet members of your new team, every first impression will define your relationship. Make those first moments count for each and every person on your team. Remember, each initial meeting with a new team member is crucial, and what you do and say will determine the character of your future relationship.

Hire strong people, then train and empower them. About 20 years ago, I enrolled in a personal productivity workshop. As a somewhat new leader I wanted to learn what I was not doing and what should be done differently. One of the key takeaways was to cultivate a balanced life. This comes, in part, by empowering the people below you — department heads and team supervisors. Let them do their jobs. Remain available but do not meddle.

Balance is also achieved through identifying your high-payoff activities, and this has probably helped me the most. Of all the things we do, which will provide the most benefit in the shortest time? Never lose sight of lower priorities, but let your day be driven by tasks that will produce the best payoff.

Make clear your expectations. Discuss each job description with team members. Make sure each person learns what you expect of them. Things such as budget considerations should be addressed immediately. As the leader, you will be responsible for providing adequate resources.

What if someone has a problem? You make clear your expectation that they will come to you as soon as possible so you can arrive at a solution together. Do not let them leave the problem with you. Send them off with two or three possible solutions, but leave the actual problem-solving to them.

Make lists and then add and subtract every day. One of the things I believe in is writing things down — on paper, not a PC or a smart phone. There is something about making lists and notes on paper that helps imprint the information in one's mind.

Tracking information helped us get through those first two football games. It helped that crowds were smaller than predicted, but we also used the time during the games to compare notes on what was happening. It was like theme park marketing: you only have a few days each year to sell something, so get better at it fast.

Remember to have a written strategic plan. I have never functioned without a strategic plan. It is essential to be clear on the vision and mission of the enterprise, and set annual goals that reflect both. And, every goal must have an action plan and success measures. We must know what to do to accomplish each goal and, if we get off course, make corrections immediately. I encourage my direct reports to have their own tactical plan in place for their departmental goals. If departments are on track, chances are good the strategic plan is working.

The NASC recently completed an online course titled "Strategic Planning for Sports Tourism" and another on "Effective Selling in Sports Tourism." Leadership's role in each is made very clear, and the crucial role of planning starts and stops with management.

Have patience. Your staff needs room to make their own way. It is obviously important to know if they are taking too long or not making progress, so put checks in place. Short-term goals, discussed in regular staff meetings, provide the chance to make changes before it is too late.

Doing the right thing, emphasizing careful planning, empowering your direct reports and making yourself constantly available to staff will help ensure your career as a leader. Above all else, you will need the ability to listen fully to all of what someone has to say. Only then can you provide an appropriate response.

Don Schumacher is the recently retired executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions and held various roles overseeing sports venue management and operations.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Commonsense tips for successful leadership." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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