August 22, 2012 • Athletic Administration

Seven keys to succeed as a first-time athletic director

Kevin Flegner, former athletic director at Arrowhead (Wisconsin) High School, says he has evolved in his role over the years, citing increased patience, more research and deeper analysis prior to making decisions. He also began a practice of over-communicating to make sure all his bases are covered.

When asked what advice he could give to the next generation of aspiring athletic directors, he came up with this these seven tips:

1. Organization counts. “You must be highly organized because you’re constantly multitasking,” he says, “and there’s little room for error in our position.”

2. Hone your ‘people skills.’ “You must be good with people, but you’ve got to be firm and fair. People need to see that you’re in it for the right reasons. If you’re not truly student-athlete centered, it’s not the right position for you.”

3. Observe & listen. Flegner says he spent a great deal of time in his first year simply watching, listening and taking notes. “You can find out a lot about the school, the genetic makeup of the staff, the coaches, the athletes and the parents by seeing how things ran previously. You want to keep in place what has worked and made the place great or special. You don’t want to transition things too quickly, because not everything needs to change. Be careful not to criticize before you really know what’s going on or how programs have run in the past.”

4. Improve the weak points. After that period of gaining and understanding, “take a hard look at the weaknesses or stagnant pieces that are causing individual programs or the athletic department as a whole to be spinning in the mud,” says Flegner. “That’s where you start tweaking and putting on your personal touches. By following a process and concentrating where things most need improvement, people will see that you’re not trying to reconstruct everything.”

5. Surround yourself with talent. “It’s not what you know or how good you are that makes you successful. It’s the people you surround yourself with.” Admitting he doesn’t have all the answers, Flegner says it’s important to bounce ideas off of staff and coaches, and get them to see their jobs as problem-solvers—not just problem-voicers. “If you as the athletic director fix situations that others are empowered to fix themselves, nobody learns, and it’s very difficult to sustain a successful program.”

6. Lean on your peer community. Flegner says some of his closest friends are athletic directors, and a day rarely goes by in which he doesn’t reach out to a peer (many who’ve been in the game much longer than he) who may have faced similar situations. “A fresh set of eyes and ears is always good in making a final decision,” he says, “and to validate that I’m looking at the situation correctly.”

7. Stay positive. “This job is very draining, and things can seem very negative at times. But you’ve got to persevere and stay positive. If you’re in it for the children, you’ll find no greater joy than going to an event and seeing the excitement on their faces knowing that, win or lose, they gave it their best. That’s the ultimate joy in high school athletics.”

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