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Tips for Transitioning to a New Athletic Director’s Position

By Dr. David Hoch, CMAA on February 02, 2021 hst Print

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Chantil Ianu, athletic director, Skyline High School, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Lefteris Banos, CAA, athletic director, Haddonfield (New Jersey) Public Schools regarding transitioning to a new position at a different school.

Question: Whether you are stepping into your first job as an athletic administrator or moving on to a position at another school, how do you go about learning the culture, traditions and personalities of the new school? How long will or should this discovery period take? Were there any specific individuals you went to with questions?

Ianu: Our school has been around for a very long time and has many traditions as well as an involved community with respect to athletics, activities and academics. Coming into this culture was a little intimidating! But I was ready for the challenge. This is what I wanted to do, and I had confidence I would do it well. But I just had zero experience.

I knew I could count on the people I work with. I asked questions upon questions – and then more questions! While transitioning into the role as the athletic director, I never realized how many people it took to make things run smoothly (or to navigate the bumps when they come along). I started to try to build relationships with the principals, the custodians and the secretaries – all of whom are critical to do my job. And do not forget to build relationships with other staff members!

Throughout the process you come to know the school’s “personality.” Even though it seems weird to say schools have different personalities, they do! This is dependent upon the coaches you hire, the expectations you set and how involved you are as an athletic director. This is still a continuing process for me, and I work on it every day. I do not think that there is a timeline that after a certain number of years you will have it down. There is always a new challenge or something new to learn in this job and I would not have it any other way.

Most athletic directors have gone through similar experiences and challenges, and this is why the Utah Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association are also so important. I have attended both the UIAAA conference and National Athletic Directors Conference where athletic administrators go to network, learn and teach one another.

Banos: I have had the opportunity to serve in two wonderful school districts as an athletic director, first with the Bordentown Regional School District for three years and currently with the Haddonfield Public Schools. Learning the culture of a school is one of the most important tasks that needs to constantly be in one’s mind, which may extend beyond the first year.

The most important person to guide you through this discovery period may be your predecessor. I have been fortunate enough to succeed individuals with great knowledge of their school’s culture and who were selfless. They offered me their time whenever I needed to run something by them, even though they had moved on to different roles or schools.

If the individual does not have access to his or her predecessor, the focus should be on creating a great working relationship with the most senior coaches, teachers and administrators in the building. This can be done at lunch, in the faculty lounge and by simply listening, observing and asking questions to get a feel of the pulse of a school.

This discovery period is critical during the first few years in a new school or position, but it is a never-ending endeavor. Another great source for learning the culture of a school would be the “old-timers” who attend athletic events and do not have children currently playing.

Question: Did you do anything that was planned and specific to ‘introduce’ yourself to all of the constituents of your program coaches, athletes, parents, faculty, administrators and community members? Or did you simply meet individuals as you normally encountered them in your daily routine?

Ianu: I was already teaching at the school when I became the athletic director. But once I was given the title, people look toward you in a different light. There is a greater expectation for you to know more!

I always wanted to make sure that coaches, parents and athletes knew that I cared about their specific sport. Going to parent meetings is huge in this respect, because not only do you get to see the parents, but usually the athletes and all coaches are also in attendance.

I also want to make sure that my coaches know I have an opendoor policy. It is important to communicate with them face to face when they need guidance and not to rely entirely on email. In addition, I want to learn from them just as much as they learn from me. And this is a little more difficult for a sport such as golf when they don’t practice at the school as opposed to football or basketball. You want to make sure that all programs are appreciated and supported.

Banos: It is very important to introduce yourself in a formal and structured way to the different constituents in your program.

A pre-season coaches meeting is critical prior to starting any season, especially your first. During this session include all of your expectations and answer questions, which provides the opportunity for your coaches to learn about you.

Regarding the Haddonfield student-athletes, my predecessor purchased enough t-shirts which I distributed like Santa Claus to each team during the pre-season. I spent a couple minutes focusing on the significance of the “Haddonfield Athletics” logo on the t-shirt and the fact that their behavior and actions should bring honor to the school and community. With one small gift and two words of wisdom, you have a quick, effective introduction that makes a lasting impression and memory.

With respect to the parents of athletes, a mandatory pre-season parent meeting for all sports is a great opportunity to introduce yourself, go over expectations and explain how parents can reach out to you as well when it is appropriate based on the chain of command in the administrative hierarchy. Also, a less formal approach would be to ask your coaches to invite you to the first gathering for their team parents. This is a more time-consuming method, but better suited to my personality.

Prior to the first faculty meeting, ask your principal for a brief time on the agenda to introduce yourself to the teachers. Plan a short presentation and focus on major concepts and the value and importance of education-based athletics. Provide the teachers with ways to contact you or the coaches with questions about their students. Most importantly, make sure the faculty hears your message that high school athletics is an extension of the curriculum and that you and the coaches are there to provide assistance in any way possible.

Question: In spite of doing your homework prior to your interview, what surprises did you discover once you were on the job in your new position?

Ianu: Seeing the big picture, you must be very detail-oriented in this position and that was little bit of a surprise! Also, relationships are huge, and you need to know your coaches, the school staff and to be open to the community.

I was surprised at how involved the parents, the booster club and the community were, and they really value what our school offers. Overall, this is a BIG job with countless responsibilities.

Banos: Most surprising was the amount of time needed to accomplish all the additional tasks assigned to my position besides the administration of the athletic program. It is not uncommon in small to medium-sized schools for administrators to have to pick up duties outside the typical roles. For example, I have served as a part-time teacher and hallway monitor, conducted teacher observations, chaperoned dances, handled school events and class field trips, facilitated town-wide facility and field use, and I currently serve as the school district’s transportation supervisor and high school safety drills coordinator.

My advice is to embrace any and all assigned duties. It is an opportunity for personal growth and will connect you to your school closer than you can imagine. Question: How long did it take you to feel comfortable in your new position? Did it take the same amount of time for the coaches and parents to accept, trust and respect your efforts particularly if you were new to the building or district?

Ianu: Again, I am still learning. And I do not think that an individual ever gets totally comfortable in the position, because you are always getting curveballs thrown at you! It could be an official who didn’t show up, athletes playing without completed paper work or coaches who need something – and they need it now! The more problems that I encounter, the more confident I am when it may come up again. I know just what to do!

When considering coaches and parents respecting my efforts, it gradually develops because they can see I truly care and try. When I first started as an athletic director, I was getting calls at 9 p.m. from a coach when I am trying to unwind from the day. My dilemma was, do I answer it? I felt like I was at their beck and call 24/7. I felt overworked and underpaid. But I eventually got into a rhythm and I have amazing administrators guiding and helping me.

Banos: I am not sure I ever realized how long it took me to feel comfortable in my new role, probably because I fear that feeling comfortable leads to complacency. I always want to stay sharp.

Being accepted on the other hand is more of a fluid situation. We feel accepted when we are not completely alienated and on an island by ourselves each time we have to make a tough decision that causes either coaches, student-athletes or parents to become unhappy.

Question: What advice would you offer any athletic administrator who may be considering the possibility of moving into a new position?

Ianu: I knew I wanted to become an athletic director after I graduated college, but I didn’t expect the opportunity to come so quickly. After teaching for a few years, perhaps 10, I thought eventually I might be able to step into the role. But after one year of teaching and coaching, the opportunity presented itself and I would not change a thing. Therefore, be ready to accept the challenge when it appears.

Banos: Make the move for the right reason and make sure it is a great fit. The following are a few questions that should provide a good start in formulating the pros and cons:

  • Do your research. What negative issues are pressing in the school right now?
  • Why is the current athletic administrator leaving?
  • What is the turnover rate among the coaching staff and/or administrators?
  • How is your quality of life going to be impacted?