There are really two keys to being a successful sports field manager. First, you have your field management system dialed in, a daily read-and-react update to your ultimate goal: a moving target of “the best field possible.” Sports field managers put the vast majority of their time and effort into this part, out on the field, making and executing 100 decisions a day. We spend too little time and effort on the second key to our success: advancing and advocating for our departmental mission within the organizational structure. We too often lack the skills needed to define, educate and sell our mission within our own organization or to field stakeholders, including athletes, equipment and training staff, parents, coaches, referees and leagues. You have to be good on your organizational field before you can be good on your playing field. What is your brand within the organization?
Marketing departments are not always popular with sports field managers. Their ideas sometimes conflict with field quality, but they gas the engine with revenue, and I like to watch them work. My takeaway is that persuading people and advancing a cause may be as simple as putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. That ability sets the great sales people apart, and is a key to our success as field managers. Try it, it works.
Make everyone you deal with in selling your field management program a client that you need to persuade to some extent. You’ll probably find that most issues can be mitigated simply when they know you understand their plight.
First, identify their goal. Then, repeat it to them: “So, you need to satisfy a contractual obligation to a sponsor with some sort of field event. Well, let’s see what we can do.”
Instead of just asking for a new piece of equipment like a kid during the holidays, first identify management’s goals. Then show how a second mower, financed correctly, would help in management’s goal of reducing the high labor costs. Don’t personalize anything, big mistake. It’s not “my field,” it’s the sports field manager’s responsibility. It’s our organizational liability. It’s our duty of care to the athletes.
Regardless of how your “client” is acting, you should only react with a calm, rational disposition. With contentious issues, don’t get emotional, even if your client goes there. Take the high road. Talented salespeople don’t just cave in to their client’s needs; they work on the problem from the client’s point of view.
You’ll know when you have them. Once they realize that you want to help them accomplish their goals, they suddenly see your issues clearly, and a short education about your mission, and the duty of care to the athletes your mission involves, meets with understanding. Now a fertile seedbed has been developed to establish a win-win solution, and you’ll begin to develop your organizational brand within management’s eyes as a problem solver rather than a problem identifier.
It’s often the “short education about your mission” part where we fail in the process, so I’ll drill down on that a bit more. All the turf skills and groundsmanship in the world won’t help you if you have no communication skills. Remember back in your school days? Teachers occasionally brought in guest lecturers from the industry to talk to the class about the “real world.” I remember how they would always include a discussion about the importance of communication skills, but in my youth I just blew off such talk. If I knew my turf, problems would take care of themselves. Young and newbie sports field managers especially fall victim to this trap. The ability to organize an argument and communicate it effectively is an absolutely key part of the sports field manager’s skills toolbox.
The more important issues are best communicated in writing. Written communications greatly aid those who struggle with verbal communication, or when you need some time to think over an issue. Written communication slows the process, reduces mistakes, and allows for the time needed to organize thoughts and choose efficient words. Sports field managers get burned a lot less when they communicate to user groups in writing.
Verbal skills establish your expertise. Have you ever noticed how anyone at the top of any organization seems to have a great command of language? They speak and write about complex issues with simple and clear phrases and anecdotes that can be quite effective, utilizing trending phrases like “low-hanging fruit” and “move forward,” or the ever-popular “Don’t tell me about the rough seas, just get the ship into harbor!” One of the cheesier ones is “drill down.” Doh!
So the idea here is to constantly build on our language skills. Words carry the power to persuade in an organizational environment. Look at pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz. He is often credited with a huge public opinion shift on “the estate tax.” It enjoyed strong support nationally. Only the very wealthy have estates, so it won’t really apply to me. Luntz successfully swung public opinion strongly against the tax simply by changing the word “estate” to the word “death.” Not really changing the law at all, Luntz has changed public opinion strongly against “the death tax” by simply choosing his words wisely. Why would we tax someone just for dying? Ever notice how coaches always call a stadium practice a “walk-through” even though they will inevitably be in cleats and going pretty much full speed?
Those who get things done understand the power of words. Is it synthetic turf or fake grass? Improving language skills is like any other endeavor, smart practice and experience. Any issue you struggle with can be well organized when you begin by writing about it. I find that reading really improves both verbal and writing skills. Readers speak and write well. They persuade with perspective and words.
Advancing your cause and advocating for your departmental mission starts with getting your goals in line with the overall organizational mission. If you put yourself in the clients’ (your bosses, stakeholders and the decision-makers) shoes, you’ll quickly realize that they are dealing with many other important issues besides yours. They have a ton on their plate and naturally favor managers that do their homework, and then boil the issue down to its essential elements for them, always ready to expand in detail when called upon. They are looking for objective discernment, not subjective judgments.
What kind of data or objective measurements can you bring to bear in favor of your departmental cause? Doing your homework means building upon the objective data in your case and eliminating the emotional arguments. The sports field manager often sounds like all he wants is an easier job instead of wanting to get their departmental goals in line with the organization. Start crafting your idea, cause or response by collecting as much solid information or data as you can on the subject. Even when you know where it will lead, you must collect the information before making any conclusions. Unsupported conclusions go nowhere with decision-makers. Only after you collect the data and have trimmed off all the emotional fat will you be ready to produce a report that you can advance up the organizational flagpole.
The form your report takes really depends on the situation. Often a simple written report will suffice to get the ball rolling. Don’t just walk in unprepared and chat with your boss about important issues. She will most likely send you out to do your homework, and she’ll think less of your proposal right from the start. Come in prepared, having anticipated all the questions in advance.
In sports field management, we work in a visual world. Problems and challenges can often be better shown than described. PowerPoint presentations with images and video can be of great value in bringing the field to the stakeholders. Keep this general framework in mind with any report: problem, solution and cost. I will generally start any report with a brief summary, and then go into the details further in the report. Busy stakeholders appreciate this.
You are essentially making a plan. That starts with a realistic assessment of where things are right now. Next, paint a picture of where things need to be in order to better advance the organizational cause. Finally, a plan is detailed to get from the current situation to the proposed situation. Include timelines and decision points (when key decisions need to be made by). Build benchmarks into the plan as a way to track progress. Detail the costs associated with the plan. Show your boss that you have shopped around to get the best prices.
The idea here is to arm the decision-makers with everything they need to objectively assess the proposal. A well-crafted report will let them know that if they do approve your proposal, they won’t have to manage the project, you already have those plans detailed. Decision-makers don’t want to create more work for themselves.
Only after the homework is done is it time to sell, to close the deal. Why do only salespeople seek out sales training? Sales skills are important in every job. My only exposure was when I started my job as a Lawn Doctor salesman back in college. Way oversimplified I’m sure, but here is what I remember. Any sales pro will tell you that you have to ask to get what you need. It’s called the close, and it often follows a simple flow. Ask, go silent, agree, and then ask again. “Mr. Johnson, I’ve shown you all the facts, so can I proceed with this plan?” Ask directly, then remain silent. No matter how long it takes, the next words come out of their mouth. If the answer is yes, your work is done. If the answer is no, it will almost always come with a reason. “I don’t know, Ross. This is a lot of money.” Immediately agree with them, whatever the reason given. “You’re right, that is a lot of money, but it will help us cut these costs and these costs, and over time will save us this amount of money.” Then, close again and remain silent waiting for a response. Close, go silent, agree and close again. Many sales training courses say you need to try to close seven times before you give up. That seems a bit much, but you get the picture. In selling and persuasion, no doesn’t always mean no.
Most sports field managers I know are better in the field than they are in their offices, I’m no different. No doubt it has to be this way. Like many managers these days, we are overtaxed. You can’t let the day-to-day of your field requirements slide, you’ve got to excel out there. But this doesn’t diminish the importance of building your professional brand with your organization as a manager or director that gets it, and conducts themself as part of a larger cause. That starts with building communication skills. Next comes the ability to craft an argument. There is a big difference between impassioned arguments and emotional rants, and it has to do with preparation. No one likes a wet towel. Complaining rarely makes anything better. People are naturally drawn to enthusiastic people and projects. They want to join in with the optimists who would rather light a candle than curse the darkness. Advocating for investment in your operation is your job as a professional. How you do it makes all the difference and goes a long way towards being treated with respect at work.