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A key for successful chief executives is to surround themselves with talented, hard working people with good character. Any success I’ve had is attributed to hiring experts at the department head level who can do their jobs better than I can. Early in my career, I performed just about every position in an organization, which helped me understand the challenges, opportunities and necessary resources for most positions in a sports team’s front office.
Due to a shallow pool of experienced soccer executives in the U.S. in the 20th century, it used to be difficult finding qualified front office candidates with a soccer background. To supplement talented soccer experienced executives, I would hire those with impressive sports sales background from second tier or minor league sports where creativity and proactive salesmanship were critical to success.
When the Chicago Fire was originally staffed, we hired from minor league baseball, indoor soccer, MLS, USL, soccer retail, CFA (a Latin soccer and music promotion company), the Auditorium Theater and the White Sox (no minor league jokes please!). We also emphasized knowledge of the local market to minimize the learning curve of the market. Almost all of the department heads were previously known to me or recommended to me by people I trust.
As soccer has grown in participation and support, the pool of talented executives with soccer backgrounds has grown. I now prefer hiring from this pool rather than non-soccer execs as those with a connection to soccer are more likely to stay in the sport and not use it as a stepping stone back into a sport in their comfort zone. When we assembled the Chicago Red Stars staff last year, we drew almost exclusively from a pool of soccer experienced executives while keeping true to our goal of hiring talented, hard working people with good character. That being said, I had no soccer background, short of supporting the early ’80s Chicago Sting, when I was hired by the indoor Milwaukee Wave from the minor league hockey Milwaukee Admirals in 1987 and I have stayed in soccer ever since.
I tend to hire people I have worked with personally or are recommended by people I know and respect. For those seeking positions in professional sports, this validates the axiom that “who you know” is important, but “what you know” and how you go about your job is also important or you won’t get the recommendation or the job.
Retaining a good staff is just as important as assembling the staff in the first place
Just like any job, there is a learning curve in sports administration and sales. The first three years of any job generally have increasing awareness, knowledge and relationship building, whether it’s an entry level position in ticket sales or the President of the team. The learning curve plateau’s a bit after the second year, but you never stop learning or building a network of contacts. That experience and the relationships become more valuable and more difficult to replace over time, adding to the importance of retaining talented staff.
There are several ways to ensure retention of good staff:
- Fair compensation. Few executives in sports make as much money as they would make performing comparable roles in the “real world” due to supply and demand for jobs in sports, so you are able to underpay relative to the real world, but good employees who are responsible for revenue can justify increased pay. Teams who reward those employees will earn their loyalty and keep them on board if the other parts are done right.
- Annual reviews with career goal consultation. Plan career growth with staff members by discussing honestly their opportunities for growth both inside and outside the organization. In my eight years with the Fire, I never fired an employee. There were several who left the organization with mutual agreement when we agreed after open communication that they had gone as far as they could in the organization and would be best off working elsewhere.
- Promotion from within (start with promotion of qualified interns and volunteers). You already know first hand their abilities, style and adaptability to the organizational culture. At the time I left the Fire in 2005, I had ten direct reports. The ten averaged more than six years apiece at the eight year old team. Five of the ten were original members of the Fire’s inaugural season staff in 1998. Six of the department heads had received at least one promotion within the organization and four of those six actually had two promotions. Not only does internal promotion help build a team culture in the front office, it also sends a good message to the rest of the organization that good work will be rewarded.
- Establish regular communication. Regular communication methods includes an open door policy in my office – not only to welcome staff in to talk things over, but also to prevent staff from feeling that there are secrets being discussed (I must admit that due to the close quarters in the Red Stars “world headquarters” doublewide trailer, I’m forced to close the door to the office I share with our GM during certain meetings out of courtesy to the rest of the staff, so they aren’t distracted by my meetings). I manage by “walking around” (if you’ve gotten this far in the column, I encourage you to click on the previous link and read it). As the Fire President and GM, when I had ten direct reports I relied greatly on email (100-200 incoming and outgoing/day) as well as phone communication (I believe in the efficiency of more calls of shorter length), weekly reports from department heads (not too detailed, include past and future week tasks and questions), weekly staff meetings (department reports and questions) and weekly department head meetings (issue discussions) to keep on top of all organizational issues. While often difficult to maintain that level of communication, it was imperative to fostering loyalty and effective operations.
- Respect all staff. For example, at staff meetings don’t just ask department heads for reports and ideas (ask account executives, interns and the receptionist for their feedback, too). At the Fire we encouraged Maria Gabino, our receptionist, who was one of half a dozen bi-lingual staff members and lives in the Hispanic community, to sell tickets to her friends, neighbors and businesses around her. She was successful and eventually built her clientele to a base of selling $100,000 in sales per year. This earned her additional commission that afforded her the ability to stay on as the “face” of the Fire for people walking through the door for the next decade. Stability in that position may not seem important, but in addition to the ticket sales she promotes, her network of relationships and positive demeanor reflects well on the Fire to this day.
- Create a culture of transparency, trust, empowerment and sense of ownership with honest and open communication. Let staff members know how their role fits into the bigger picture, praise them in public and when necessary, critique them in private. Give staff responsibility for their departments and provide the necessary resources to succeed. Allow department heads to create their own department budget and hold them accountable to it.
Have fun. On a daily basis we tried not to take ourselves too seriously. Professional sports requires many hours of work in what can become a high pressure environment, so it’s important to keep things loose. Chicago Fire staff meetings usually included staff trivia contests, stories about brushes with greatness and once even an Elvis karaoke performance to settle a wager. Once a month the Fire staff would have a fun activity. They included an annual sport fishing trip on Lake Michigan for half a dozen staff members, a mini-golf tournament in the empty office space across the hall from our offices in the One Mag Mile Building, a bus tour of Chicago’s gangland past, retreat to a suburban park district for a day of athletic events, outings to other Chicago sports teams, road trips to all of the Fire’s away championship games and many, many postwork happy hours. After all home games we tried to keep the staff together to unwind and share stories of the day either at the stadium or a nearby pub.
All of the above points are examples of creating a culture that promotes mutual respect and encourages support for common goals that lead to success. They certainly aren’t the only ways and my management style isn’t for everyone, but over the years it has worked well for me.
Next week, I’ll take a look at the unique challenge of assembling and retaining a good team on the field in MLS.
Peter Wilt writes weekly for Pitch Invasion