Career Decision: Full Circle with the Milwaukee Wave

Milwaukee Wave

After serving three years as President and CEO of WPS’ Chicago Red Stars, one of the country’s newest pro soccer franchises, today I accepted the same position with the oldest professional soccer team in the United States, the National Indoor Soccer League’s Milwaukee Wave.

I’d like to share my thought process that went into the decision to take the new position and offer a look at the behind the scenes issues and dynamics that led to this decision, one made in the context of considering where to go next in American soccer.

Pretty much all the jobs I’ve held in my life are listed on my LinkedIn site, with the notable exceptions of the three years I spent as a sports writer for the wire service United Press International’s Milwaukee bureau while in college, and two single day jobs where I was a bit “actor”:  one as an extra in the Brian DePalma thriller “Fury” and another as Santa Claus at Milwaukee’s downtown Woolworth’s store!

This job change decision is really two decisions — one to leave my day-to-day role with the Chicago Red Stars and the other to take on a similar role with the team that gave me my start in the soccer business 22 years ago, the Milwaukee Wave.

DECISION #1 – DEPART THE RED STARS DAY-TO-DAY OPERATIONS: The decision to leave the Red Stars (though I will remain as an investor and continue to serve on the boards of the team, league and team charitable foundation) actually began to be made when I accepted the position in the first place three and a half years ago. I always try to think in broad terms about future career opportunities prior to beginning a new position.  Similarly, I’m thinking now about where I may go next once certain goals with the Wave are fulfilled.  In the Red Stars case, the plan from the beginning was to spend a year or two leading the team through the launch phase and then overseeing the first operational year or two, while developing and guiding a general manager to take my place.  My contract was structured to accommodate the flexibility for a future move once we all felt comfortable that everything was in place operationally for the new team.

The decision to make the move at this point came down to three areas:

  1. Successor: As a manager, I always have a mental succession file for the key people on my staff.  I call it my “hit by a bus” file: meaning a list of candidates to replace key people on the staff if they were to suddenly depart the organization for any reason. . .including getting hit by a bus.  I succeeded in identifying the right person to serve as the Red Stars General Manager and my backup two years ago when Joe Cummings recommended Marcia McDermott to me.  Prior to meeting Marcia, the original plan was to have myself serve as general manager and a second person start as assistant general manager until he or she was ready for the GM position.  The first time I spoke to Marcia, I realized she was ready for the GM position and the process of grooming my successor would eventually be fast tracked.  Marcia has learned plenty over the last two years and is more than ready to lead the Red Stars.
  2. My role and compensation: My main role with the team was to assemble an ownership group, build a front office staff, create the team’s brand and guide the organization through its first season.  That role has generally been completed.  As this year has gone on, my day to day responsibilities have diminished along with the justification for much of my salary.  The Red Stars and WPS’ sustainability is based on a cost containment model that I helped develop and implement.  It would be disingenuous if I were to continue on in a diminished role and continue to take a relatively high salary when I can continue to provide the Red Stars much of my value as an investor and representative on the team, league and foundation
  3. My job satisfaction: With the major exception of the Fire position, most of my jobs have held my interest for three years.  The first year is always new, challenging and provides a great variety of daily challenges.  The second year usually involves corrective measures based on first year experience and improvements in all business areas.  I have often found the third year to be one where the major challenges have been addressed and the job tends to become a bit routine: it’s time for a new challenge.

DECISION #2 – ACCEPT THE MILWAUKEE WAVE OFFER: As the WPS season played out, I began to talk to a few people in soccer about potential employment. Several opportunities arose over the last few months, but the following factors loomed large in my decision to accept the Wave’s offer:

  1. A New Challenge: While the Red Stars position is far from routine at this point, I find the opportunity to relaunch the Milwaukee Wave under new, aggressive ownership, while moving into a new league, challenging. The fact that it’s the oldest professional soccer team in the United States, the team that gave me my start in soccer and is in the city I have lived for the past 31 years is also personally attractive.  The Wave has progressed in many ways since I left 19 years ago and I also get to work with two indoor soccer legends:  the Wave’s trainer and my old friend Larry Sayles.  Larry was hired as the Wave’s first employee hired in 1984.  He also served as the Harlem Globetrotters trainer during the Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon era.  And Keith Tozer, the winningest coach in indoor soccer history, Head Coach of the US National Futsal Team and master soccer camp director. There simply aren’t many chances in one’s career to…
  2. The Wave's logo when Wilt joined the team the first time in March, 1987.

    The Wave's logo when Wilt joined the team the first time in March, 1987.

    Return to the Former Team: Those who know me know than I can be sentimental to a fault and I have a soft spot for the Wave.  I had been working in a support function in sales, marketing and PR for almost four years with ice hockey’s minor league Milwaukee Admirals when the Wave gave me the opportunity to lead their efforts in the same areas. With a small yet dedicated staff, we grew the Wave’s attendance from about 2,300 fans a game in 1986-87 season to more than 8,000 fans a game when I left the team in the middle of the 1990-91 season to become GM of the rival Chicago Power. That departure, while beneficial careerwise, prevented me from…

  3. Working and Living in the Same Place: For most of the last 19 years, I have commuted. . .commuted a great distance.  Except for 2006, when I worked unsuccessfully to bring an MLS team to Milwaukee, I’ve been commuting from Milwaukee to Chicago (14 years), Los Angeles (one year) and Minneapolis-St. Paul (three years).  My wife has patiently allowed me to pursue my career around the country, while she held down the homefront and worked full time.  I expect that working in the city I actually live in will be of great benefit both personally and professionally.  It will help me sleep well as will the. . .
  4. Strong New Ownership: The Wave was on the brink of collapse earlier this summer when a “Save the Wave” campaign resulted in more than 1,000 season ticket pledges (triple last year’s number) and a new owner.  Jim Lindenberg is young, committed, strong in sales and marketing, well connected locally and provides the team with the capital needed to succeed.   The other potential job opportunities all had. . .
  5. Uncertainty and Imperfection: The Red Bulls said I was on their short list, but did not want to discuss the role with me until the end of the season.  There were a couple of other opportunities that fitted in the same category of uncertainty.  The Wave on the other hand offered security, a firm offer and all the other benefits listed above.  Though the Red Bulls and other opportunities may have been higher profile or more in the mainstream of American soccer, no position is without drawbacks, including New York’s.  The Wave and indoor soccer’s relevance is relatively low on the national stage, but in Wisconsin, it’s the highest level of soccer they’ve ever had (with an arguable exception to the A-League Rampage in the late 1990s).  After the Wave’s glory years in the 90′s and early ’00s, attendance has lagged in the 4,000 range since moving from the Bradley Center to the US Cellular Arena.  And of course, I see that as another positive as it shows the Wave has. . .
  6. Room to Grow: I’ve always avoided taking jobs that can only go down.  One of the things that interested me with the prospect of working with the New York Red Bulls was my confidence that I could lead them to significant improvement on and off the field.  I believe strongly that the Wave can grow its fan and corporate bases and become much more relevant in Milwaukee again and I like the idea of leading those efforts.  The move, importantly, will also allow me to. . .
  7. Have More Fun: As many of you know, I worship at the altar of baseball maverick Bill Veeck.  When I worked in minor league hockey and indoor soccer early in my career, we were able to brainstorm some creative and fun promotions that added positively to the entertainment and the sport.  I always believed that trying similar promotions with outdoor soccer, however, would have distracted from the game and taken away from the organic atmosphere created by a diverse crowd, passionate fans and attractive and dramatic soccer.  Now that I’m back indoors  though, maybe we’ll have a return of The Night of a Thousand Eddies!

As a followup to this space’s previous column on my soccer management philosophy and as a tie-in to this column on career decisions, I’d recommend this blog post by the perceptive Magda Walczak that promotes the importance of hiring for office culture fit over skills.

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