November 29

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Lessons from Leaders – Bryan Blair

David Millay

November 29, 2021

culture, employee experience, fan engagement, leadership, NIL, sports biz, sports business, Washington State, Wazzou

This College Leaders segment features Bryan Blair, Deputy Athletic Director and Chief Operating Officer at Washington State University.  In the four years that Bryan and his team have been in Pullman, they’ve worked to build a culture that highlights and celebrates what is unique about Wazzou.  Bryan and David hit on hiring coaches and staff that are cultural fits, embracing your identity and taking risks to move college athletics forward.

Here are three major themes from this episode:

Communicate your vision as passionately and vividly as possible (15:25)

Strategic plans are often created, shared to the team via email, then wind up on a shelf somewhere. But when Bryan and the team at Washington State unveiled their strategic plan to the department, they treated it like a new coach announcement. There were cheerleaders throwing t-shirts into the crowd and the band playing the fight song. To galvanize your team and unite everyone around one vision, be bold. Go over the top. The more effort you put into communicating your vision, the more people will pay attention and buy-in.  

Lean into what makes you unique (18:35)

Mike Leach, Washington State’s football coach from 2012-19, is one of the quirkiest characters in college sports. Rather than hiding those quirks behind-the-scenes, Bryan and team highlighted Leach’s antics and personality in every way they could, through bobblehead nights to sell more tickets, filming him answering fan questions for more content, even having him teach a college course and flying media in to sit in on the class. As Bryan told us, “If you’ve got something unique, don’t shy away from it.  Amplify it, tell that story, and then you’ll attract the right people that are interested in your uniqueness.” With so many entertainment options today, it’s more impactful to connect deeply with a smaller group of fans than connect at the surface with the masses.  

Innovate or Die (29:23)

Bryan and his team have designed a culture where innovation is a high priority, partially out of necessity to compete with traditional industry leaders. Bryan’s belief is “If you just say ‘we’re going to do what we’ve always done,’ you’re not going to get what you’ve always got. You’re going to get less of it gradually.” Your fans’ expectations of you are only partially shaped by what you’ve offered in the past. Their expectations are mostly shaped by companies they engage with every day. Amazon has changed expectations for how fast merchandise should ship. Spotify and Netflix have changed expectations for personalized recommendations.  Disney has changed expectations for customer service. If you’re not getting better at exceeding customer needs every day, your customers will eventually leave. 

David Millay

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