Jan 29, 2015Same Team
It’s an age-old problem: how to get along with your boss. In the world of athletics, the key is communication, along with offering respect and following their vision.
By Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected]
Before 1992, NCAA Division III Southwestern University didn’t have a full-time athletic trainer. That’s when the school hired Miguel Benavides, and since then, its program has grown to include a new athletic training facility, a certified education curriculum, and a staff of four athletic trainers providing coverage for 14 varsity teams.
“Looking back, I realize it was a huge job,” says Benavides, MEd, LAT, ATC, who is now Director of the Athletic Training Education Program. “I had to build a program from square one, providing services to athletes, meeting with coaches, educating administrators about the profession, and developing a rapport with everyone around me. To do that, I had to learn a lot about working with people.”
And most of all, he needed to learn how to work with his athletic director. “It takes time to build that relationship,” he says. “I learned that I needed to communicate more and understand where my administrator was coming from. Sometimes, I learned the hard way.”
In this article, Benavides and others offer their wisdom on how to get along with your boss. The keys, they say, are to understand your athletic director’s vision, build trust, and communicate well. From there, you can more effectively make requests for your program and get involved in university-wide initiatives.
KNOW THE VISION
The first step to building a relationship with any type of supervisor is to know their goals and big-picture ideas. What are the department’s highest priorities? What are its goals for the future? How does athletic training fit into that picture? The better you understand your athletic director’s vision, the better equipped you’ll be to work with him or her.
“If you’re new to the program, find a way to sit down with your immediate supervisor,” says Josephine Lee, MS, LAT, ATC, Assistant Director of Sports Medicine at Georgia Tech. “Ask him or her about the issues the department has faced in the past, and find out how he or she expects you to represent the program. By listening to administrators talk about their vision, you’ll gain a much clearer sense of your role in the department.”
“Regardless of how much experience you have, you need to keep an open mind and follow the lead of your administration,” agrees Lori Vazquez, MS, LAT, ATC, EMT-1, Head Athletic Trainer at North Carolina Central University. “Make sure you understand the vision for the department, because if you find yourself fighting what your athletic director is trying to do, you’re not going to build an effective, cohesive relationship.
“Once you get that clarity,” continues Vazquez, “you’ll know how to integrate your program into your administrator’s broader vision for the athletic department.”
Currently working with NCCU’s fourth athletic director in 12 years, Vazquez also suggests gauging your administrator’s understanding of athletic training: Do they have a clear picture of the profession? Do they have a vision for your program? How well do they understand your position? “Find out their perspectives on athletic training and how they see athletic training working within the realm of athletics,” she says.
If you get the sense that they lack a full understanding of what you do, take the time to educate them. “Administrators can easily see what you do at an event, but they may not be as clear about the rest of your responsibilities,” says Vazquez. “As much as you can, give your athletic director a fuller sense of what you do on a day-in, day-out basis. Anything that makes them more aware of your job responsibilities will help them understand that you’re an integral part of the athletic program. In turn, by establishing that open communication, you’ll understand more about what’s truly important to them.”
For example, consider inviting your boss to attend a meeting with your athletic training staff. “Once or twice a year, I invite my administrator to our staff meeting,” says Benavides. “It helps them see some of the details of running our program that they otherwise wouldn’t think about.
“The idea is to develop a rapport with your administrator by talking about the institution’s overall goals and thinking about how your program’s goals can fit into that and reinforce it,” he continues. “You need to keep fighting for the institution as a whole.”
Once you’ve begun to understand your athletic director’s goals, show that you deserve his or her trust. This can be accomplished by being a professional in everything you do.
“Building trust is like having a bank account,” says Jim Bazluki, MEd, LAT, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Cary (N.C.) High School. “You need to keep making deposits before you can start withdrawing anything. Every time you make a good decision, it adds to the trust that people have in you. And the more times you’re able to make the right decision, the more your credibility adds up. So later on, when you ask for help, your administrator is more likely to say, ‘You dealt with all these things appropriately, so I’ll do everything I can.'”
For Bazluki, building that trust means clearly communicating his coverage schedule to coaches and administrators ahead of time, maintaining his paperwork in good order, and always keeping his athletic director well informed. “I don’t hide anything from my administrators, because I want them to know what I’m doing,” he says. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much information.”
At Southwestern, Benavides builds trust by always keeping an eye on his program’s bottom line. “Keep tabs on your expenses,” he says. “That way, when your administrators have to defend their budget, they’ll be able to accurately represent your program. The more information you can give them, the easier it will be for them to fight on your behalf.”
For Benavides, acting professionally also means developing a rapport through responsiveness, respect, and diplomacy. “The more professional you are in your interactions with your administrator, the better off you’ll be in the long run,” he says. “As athletic trainers, we all know that the athletic training room can sometimes be a pressure cooker. You have to learn to be diplomatic, use tact, and keep your cool.”
If you do lose your temper, rebuild that sense of trust with an in-person apology. “When things go wrong between you and your administrator, you have to sit down for a face-to-face conversation,” says Benavides. “Acknowledge past differences and admit your mistakes. Apologize and talk about the ways you plan to improve. That’s the best way to get somebody to listen to you. But you have to reach the point where you can say that honestly, because if you can’t, you’re wasting everyone’s time.”
Another way to earn your athletic director’s trust is to be respectful of their time. For example, whenever you have a meeting with them, think about what you’d like to say in advance. “In order to be respectful, you have to be prepared when you meet,” says Benavides. “I use an executive summary, where I collect all my data and condense it into a one-page statement. I make my statements concise and brief, and if my administrator wants to see more information, I’m prepared to provide supporting documents.”
For example, before Benavides met with his academic provost to talk about an annual report, he created an executive summary with notes, talking points, and a set of issues that needed to be discussed. “I had a lot of things to go over, so I gave a quick introduction to the topics and presented my ideas,” says Benavides. “I only had an hour to meet with him, so I kept my presentation to the point.
“Your administrator may not have time to read a whole report, so it’s up to you to summarize it for them,” he continues. “That shows you’re being respectful of their time, and they’re going to appreciate that.”
A key aspect of maintaining mutual trust is to create effective lines of communication. This entails responding promptly to e-mails, telephone messages, and in-person requests.
“Make yourself available and easy to reach,” says Benavides. “Stay in touch with your administrators, even if they’re busy and getting in to see them is really difficult. There should be a continuous dialogue between you and your administrators about your program, its needs, and how you can better provide services to your students.”
It’s also a good idea to find out exactly how your supervisor likes to receive information. “Just flat-out ask them, ‘How would you like me to communicate with you? Would you like me to come in once a day? Once a week? Send you regular e-mails, or only let you know when there’s a problem brewing?'” says Benavides. “Establish a communication style that will work for your particular boss, then do everything you can to help them communicate with you.”
For Terry Noonan, MS, LAT, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer and Director of Sports Medicine at Oklahoma State University, being proactive is the key to communicating effectively with administrators. “You can’t wait for them to come to you,” he says. “You need to go on rounds every day, making sure you talk with the administrator who’s in charge of your area. Whenever you have a chance during the course of your day, stop in to see them and let them know what’s going on.
“Keep it casual,” continues Noonan. “Talk about how practices are going and how the athletes are doing. Whatever you do, make sure you’re not always talking to them about problems. In our profession, any time you go to talk a coach, they’re liable to think you’ve got bad news. If you create that reputation, it’s going to be much harder to build relationships.”
“Remember that many administrators were coaches at some point in their career,” adds Lee. “They may think of athletic trainers as the bearers of bad news. So it’s not enough for them to see you only when there’s a problem with an athlete or a coach. They need to see you working proactively.”
At the high school level, Bazluki follows the same strategy. “I make a point to talk to my athletic director at least once a day, just stopping by the office to ask, ‘How is everything going? Have there been any changes?'” he says. “That way, if an issue comes up, we have a brief moment to talk about it.”
To keep his informal contacts relaxed, Noonan sets time aside when his supervisor comes to exercise in the athletic training room. It’s not the place for lengthy conversations about policy, but three times each week it’s the perfect setting for building their relationship by working out together. And when staff members talk about aches and pains, Noonan invites them to the athletic training room, offering hot packs, exercises, or a little muscle stimulation. It’s an easy way for him to simultaneously demonstrate his program and deepen his relationships with colleagues.
“For people who don’t necessarily understand what you do, a little treatment can go a long way,” says Noonan. “It’s another form of communication. We have a secretary who’s had a stiff neck, so we brought her in, gave her a little treatment, and loosened her up. It was basic stuff, the kind of treatment we do with athletes every day, but now she thinks we’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. When you put your hands on people, you show them that you care, and that’s worth a million bucks.”
Communicating with your administrators also means helping them keep up on sports-medicine trends. “It’s important to teach your administrators about pertinent issues, especially when they’re not athletic trainers or healthcare providers,” says Benavides. “If they don’t have the right information, they can’t effectively represent your athletic training program to coaches, upper-level administration, or the public.”
Once you and your administrator have established clear, open communication, and you’ve created a track record of trustworthiness, you’ve built the foundation you need to effectively advocate for your program. However, that doesn’t mean you should take the process of making requests lightly. It should be handled with as much professionalism as possible.
Before purchasing equipment for his athletic training room, Bazluki puts together a formal written request and consults with his administrator. “In the proposal, I’ll emphasize how the upgrade will help us provide better service,” he says. “For example, when I proposed getting some new coolers, I explained that we didn’t have access to water on all of our fields, and that instead of carrying four 10-gallon coolers, it would be more efficient to pull one 40-gallon cooler behind the golf cart. That way, I wasn’t spending my practices filling up bottles of water, which gave me more time to work with injured athletes.
“Another time, we bought two defibrillators for athletics,” continues Bazluki. “We wanted to have them here as an investment—for our athletes, but also for the spectators in the stands and the referees who are running up and down the field. In our proposal, we clearly talked about how the expense was going to benefit everyone.”
An effective, convincing proposal also needs to look well-polished and carefully thought out. “Don’t just go to your administrator cold turkey,” says Noonan. “First, do research to see what’s happening in comparable areas within your conference. That way, you can say, ‘This is what we need to compete at this level.’ Have it bound to show that you put time into it, and make it as businesslike as you can, with a cover page, charts, and anything else to back up your argument.
“Keep thinking about the bigger picture,” continues Noonan. “If you’re going to ask for a big-ticket item, talk to your business manager first. They’ll often help you find a way to get it done. So when your athletic director says, ‘I don’t know if this will fit in,’ you can say, ‘Well, I’ve already talked to our business people, and this is the information they’ve given me.'”
In these tough economic times, some of your requests won’t be granted. But that’s no reason to give up, says Vazquez, whose additional research once turned an unsuccessful first bid into a successful second proposal for additional staff. “If you get a no, don’t get defensive,” she says. “You need to be gracious, humble, and open-minded. Before you try again, you may need to learn more about your role in the department, create a new strategy for persuading your administrator, and find the right time to make your approach. Sometimes it takes more than one try to show administrators exactly why your request should be granted.”
Above all, says Benavides, when presenting a proposal, the most effective arguments always place your students’ needs at the center. “When you tell administrators that you want to make your job easier, they won’t listen,” he says. “But when you tell them you want to provide better care to your student-athletes, then people’s ears perk up. When you put it in those terms, administrators listen.”
THE BIG PICTURE
The best part about working well with your supervisor is that it can help expand your horizons beyond your athletic training department. For Vazquez, working well with administrators has gotten her appointments on other committees on campus, which has made her work more fulfilling.
“As an athletic trainer, being part of a committee gives you greater insight into what other people are doing,” says Vazquez, who is also a member of the NATA’s Ethnic Diversity Advisory Committee. “At the same time, you provide a voice for your student-athletes, which is one of the most important responsibilities we have as athletic trainers.”
For Vazquez, sitting on committees and working toward larger goals is part of why she became an athletic trainer. “That’s the reason I got into this profession in the first place, because I wanted to help others,” she says. “That’s why I have an open door, return phone calls promptly, and always want people to see me as the happy, smiling face who’s there to help. People can depend on me to get the job done, and that’s how I build my relationships. Ultimately, that helps create a better work environment for everyone in this program.”
Sidebar: PAINT A PICTURE
After conducting a survey of NCAA Division I athletic directors about their attitudes toward athletic training, Josephine Lee believes that one of the keys to working well with administrators is to create a detailed, accurate picture of the profession. “Too often, administrators see our jobs as being more reactive than proactive,” says Lee, MS, LAT, ATC, Assistant Director of Sports Medicine at Georgia Tech. “They look at us as the clean-up crew when an athlete is injured. We need to change that perception of our profession, and one way to do that is by increasing our visibility with administrators.”
In talking with your supervisors, she says, focus on your role in injury prevention and risk management. For example, take the lead in developing policies on health issues. Educate coaches about emergency plans, and take responsibility for coordinating procedures. At year’s end, provide a summary of all you’ve done for the department. And in everything you do, learn how to talk about your successes.
“As athletic trainers, it’s very difficult for us to quantify our effectiveness,” says Lee. “But it’s not impossible. Use student-athlete exit interviews and coaches’ surveys. Show the ways you’ve improved the services you provide. Use budget reports to point out how you’ve saved money for the department. Talk about the work you do on committees. All those things are going to help.
“We can’t let athletic directors continue to see us as being in our own little world,” she continues. “We need to constantly communicate about what we’re really doing.”
Sidebar: TALKING MONEY
Most athletic trainers want more money in their budgets. Working well with administrators in development can often help.
Miguel Benavides, MEd, LAT, ATC, Director of the Athletic Training Education Program at Southwestern University, recommends initiating that relationship with a single grant. “Find one grant that you want to apply for, and ask for help from people in development,” says Benavides, who recommends seeking opportunities from the NATA, state organizations, and the federal government. “They’re the experts, so they should be able to help you. Then, once you establish that relationship, you can continue to build on it. Before long, they’ll be watching out for you, trying to find other grants that will help your program.”
Building on that first grant, Benavides has worked toward more ambitious goals, taking a proactive role in fundraising. Currently, Southwestern’s development folks are researching a grant from the federal government to improve diversity on college campuses. It’s a substantial grant, and if the university qualifies, it could provide scholarships and financial aid to bring more minority students into the athletic training program and the profession.
“One of my institution’s goals is to increase diversity,” says Benavides. “If I can accomplish that within my own program, then I’m furthering that mission, and my administrator is going to appreciate that. Anything I can do to meet the goals of the university is a big plus for all of us.”