business, sports

College athletics at a crossroad

I was on my college’s bowling team for a couple of years. I was one of the biggest UNLV Rebels fans during the heyday and am still a rabid fan of college basketball. Clearly neither of these make me an expert on college athletics. But I have also been around college athletics through my work and through my own personal connections with former players and with current and former administrators. So let me share my view in recent issues.

It seems like college athletics is at a crossroads, having to decide what model of amateurism will be implemented for key sports going forward. The shame is that for the vast majority of college sports and student-athletes, the model works just fine. Athletes are appreciative of the free college education, and enjoy all the benefits that come with athletics and school – time management, relationship building, leadership skills, and so on.

The one issue with the majority of sports is that they don’t make money. And that drives the focus on the larger revenue-producing sports. One question I have is whether we should care that these other sports lose money. Other programs within a college might lose money, but we fund them if we think they add value. I am of the opinion that these are good programs, that there is a benefit to softball, track, swimming, golf, etc. for the schools, and for the student-athletes. But let’s leave that discussion for another time.

More timely is the question of how to manage athletes through their career from high school, college and beyond. There are several models, such as the Olympic model, the college baseball model, college football and college basketball. Most folks are saying that we should move college basketball to something like how baseball works, where the athlete basically decides whether to go to college or to the professional ranks, and if you choose college you have to stay for three years.

I like that idea, especially given the fact that the NBA G-League is becoming a legitimate “minor league” for the pro league. Plus players have several other pro options overseas. It seems that we could then get college basketball to a more “traditional” state, maybe a little less money in the system given a step down in total talent level, but stability in the system should help compensate for that.

I am not sure that model would work for football, for several reasons: 1) There is no real established minor league system; 2) There are fewer overseas options; 3) The NFL doesn’t see incentivized to build out the system at their cost, when they have such a “good thing” going with NCAA football programs.

I am skeptical that the Olympic model will work for these sports, given the amount of money that the NCAA, the conferences and the schools make from sponsorship. The Olympic model would allow athletes to be compensated by sponsors. The tension in the Olympic system is that the athletes get categories “blocked” due to the larger USOC deals. That would happen even more in the college ranks as each party I mentioned has sponsorship deals, so the universe remaining for athletes will be slim (players couldn’t have their own shoe deal in college basketball, for example).

I do not envy the NCAA and other stakeholders having to make these decisions. I am hopeful that the extent of the issue and the focus and attention on it right now will cause these hard questions to be dealt with. I feel like we’ve deferred them for too long.

business, leadership

Why it is important for everyone to understand the vision

In a recent post, I mentioned some things I heard and learned from Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A. One of them was:

“The bigger the vision the easier to sell to your team. Small dreams don’t inspire others.”

That got me thinking about vision and why it might or might not be important for everyone on the team to understand the vision.

I believe Dan Cathy would say it is important for everyone to understand the vision. He didn’t say it directly. But the way he spoke about service, and culture, and what we know about the company and its service culture, leads me to believe that he wants every employee to feel passionately about their customers and go the extra mile for them because of that understanding.

It certainly is consistent with many/the majority of leadership and business writings today. Simon Sinek built a foundation for it with his book “Start with Why.” Articles and books about transformation point out how a leader can make the transformation successful if they are relentless about speaking to their teams about the vision and modeling the expected behaviors. And we know the most successful companies are the ones where employees are empowered to act on the customer’s behalf, with the trust that they know the vision and will therefore make decisions in line with that vision.

It’s so hard though. There is so much noise. At least a couple of times a week my team catches itself realizing we’re frustrated that someone hasn’t heard a message – only to realize after discussion that the well-crafted and clear message was only delivered once, via email. And of course we then start to develop a more robust communication plan. Communicating vision effectively requires a relentless, maniacal repetition to as many people in as many ways as you can muster.

But the reward for that investment of time and energy is a team that feels motivated. A team that feels empowered and ownership in their work. A team that will fight through the inevitable failures and setbacks because they know where we are trying to go. Vision gives people hope and purpose. And those are two things we can definitely use more of!


business, leadership

Lessons from Dan Cathy

I had the privilege of attending the College Football Playoff Championship game in Atlanta. It was an amazing game, for the third straight year. I went as part of the NACDA (National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors) leadership event, where we pair the game with meetings and presentations from outside speakers, as well as for us catching up with other key stakeholders in college athletics.

One of the presentations was an interview of Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, by their Vice president of Community Affairs, Rodney Bullard. It was an engaging session, with Mr. Cathy providing lessons he has learned in life and business, tacking them directly and frankly, and being very open. Here are some takeaways I noted:

• Favorite quote: “I love competing against companies that know more about their financial statements than their recipes.” This reminded me that we must stay focused on what matters to our customers, which is our product. This was followed by…
• “Hospitality is the most important thing in business. Service is the differentiation point.” So in two simple sentences, I was pretty convinced I understood fully what Chick-fil;-A’s strategy is. I aspire to articulate my group’s strategy that simply.
• As you may know, Chick-fil-A is a family-controlled business and their culture is very spiritual (closed on Sundays, for example). It was interesting to hear Mr. Cathy’s take on that, and how it has led to their strategy and driven decisions they have made. For example, he referenced that they learned their service culture from scripture, in the book of Matthew chapter 5, verse 41. Most people (companies) will walk the first mile, and provide what others basically expect. But those who stand out go the second mile (Jesus walked the second mile with people). Mr. Cathy believes people of all ages and affiliations are hungry for hospitality, and that allows companies willing to invest more in service to excel. He mentioned his belief that service is the most profitable element of their business, because it doesn’t really cost the company any more for a staff member to go the extra mile, but the value in loyalty and return business is massive.
• Restaurant comes from a French word, restoration. Calories yes, but emotional/experience.
• Leaders lead – so wen there is a big problem (he referenced restoring the west side of Atlanta). Two lessons – don’t let things happen “on your watch” when you are big enough and powerful enough to do something about it. Also, build a team to tackle big projects, you can’t do it alone.
• He discussed vision and strategy, saying that vision needs to come from you as the leader. The leader should be captivated by the vision, it should have a sense of calling, the leader must be passionate about it, an inspired sense of where we need to go as a group. He also mentioned that he believes visions should be big, huge. “The bigger the vision the easier to sell to your team. Small dreams don’t inspire others.”
• Mr. Cathy mentioned that every year during the holiday period he travels to somewhere distant, and exotic, where he can have his senses engaged and reflect on the past year and plan for the next year. This year, he traveled to Tokyo, to think about how he could improve personally in 2018. I thought it was a great lesson for all leaders – if someone with as much on his plate as he must have still takes the time each year for this sort of personal reflection and development, then surely we should as well.
• Finally, Mr. Cathy spoke about finding common ground with others, instead of fighting over the things we disagree on. He gave the example of the LGBTQ protests several years ago, and how he invited the leaders in to discuss and find common ground, knowing there were differences in philosophy and beliefs.

business, education, leadership

Attending a conference

Attending a conference is a great privilege. A chance to learn valuable information about your field of study, industry, or specialized topic. A chance to meet a diverse group of new network contacts, and build further relationships with colleagues from your company or folks you may have worked with in the past. A chance to learn, hearing how others think, how others are tackling issues.

But attending a conference is not a right. You don’t have the right to party all night with the same crew you always hang out with. You don’t have the right to skip sessions with relevant info because you’re tired or you’d rather clear your inbox sitting in your room. You don’t have the right to attend without the responsibility of bringing the information back to your workplace and sharing with your teammates.

Here are a few simple tips to maximizing the benefit of attending a conference:

  • Sit with others. Assuming you go to a conference with one or more colleagues from your company, split up at all opportunities. Sit with people you don’t know at the opening dinner, or mingle around the room at the opening cocktail reception. Attend different breakout sessions than your colleagues so you get more educational information out of the conference.
  • Meet others. Bring lots of business cards. Trade them relentlessly. And follow up with the people you met where the relationship can benefit either party in the future. Make sure your business card is backed up by your story – an easy way to think about the conversations (especially if you are more introverted) is to focus them around the conference itself. So talk about why you are attending the conference, ask others what they want to get out of the conference, and generate conversations around speeches or topics you saw at the conference.
  • Share with others. Take lots of notes at the sessions. Make notes of the people you met. Make notes of the interesting products at the trade show. Whatever was interesting and informative needs to be captured. And more importantly, when you return back to work, arrange a brief session with your teammates to discuss what you’ve learned. And don’t just regurgitate all your notes, frame a discussion around key topics to get their input. Some of the things you heard could be game-changers for your company, get them talking about them, set some follow up action items to do more research.

Maximizing the value of attending conferences can benefit you and your team and your company. I hope 2018 is full of learning opportunities for you, including attending a conference.


business, leadership

Stop doing tasks

Have you ever noticed that when you take a vacation, or get pulled into a big project unrelated to your normal work, that the work still seems to get done? Did you ever switch departments in the company or even leave a company and stay in touch with folks, and magically that department or company is still doing fine?

 I noticed it again this holiday season, when I took some time off. I noticed I received and sent a lot less emails. Yet when I came back, we still had events, we still got marketing plans done, we still booked new programming, we still accounted for our operations, we still moved projects forward.

There are a few lessons in this, like humility, and recognizing that this works best when you are developing a succession plan and bench strength, to fill in for you during temporary or permanent absences.

The biggest lesson is not one I will spend time on here, which is to ensure the team understands the objectives and goals of the group at the highest level. There are plenty of writings on this you can check out, but it is critical to long-term success of any group that the team hears clear, concise and consistent messages around what we are trying to accomplish.

The lesson I want to spend time on here, is to stop doing tasks. What I really mean, of course, is to shift our time allocations from the tactical to the strategic. But what I noticed during my short time off is that tasks always seem to get done. Directionally, they get done on time and efficiently when the team has that clear direction I mentioned above. But even without that, any group that cares about their work will get tasks done.

Many leaders, including myself, have a hard time letting go of tasks. We still do too much work ourselves. We know we can do it better and faster, so we do it ourselves and miss the opportunity to teach and train and coach. This is a mindset issue, and is difficult to change without high levels of discipline. This is a great area to seek mentors and ask those around you to be truthtellers and hold you accountable – basically call you out for doing work yourself.

Many leaders aren’t great at reviewing others’ work. I was blessed to work in public accounting where you are trained to review others’ work, and there is a disciplined approach to work product review. This is an area where leaders can get training to build those skills.

Finally, we have to ensure that incentives and expectations are consistent and reinforced – that the strategic work we need to do takes priority over tasks. We have to be willing to sacrifice some near-term “success” (finishing a task) for the bigger picture and stay on track to move forward strategically.

Randomly, as I was writing this, I got to the chapter in the book “Winning Well” that discussed this very topic. The authors noted that the inability to delegate might be driven by control issues, belief the team can’t do the work, you get frustrated quickly when things aren’t on plan, or you feel like you are chasing the work when the team doesn’t follow up.  They then identify three possible root cause for bad delegation – you delegate process, not outcome; you don’t define the finish line; you don’t hold people accountable. I recommend this book for a variety of insights, but this one fit the theme for sure, so I will let you check it out and see their recommendations for overcoming these issues.

Please don’t’ take my post title too literally, but if you try to move your time and your team’s time from the tasks to the projects and strategic thinking, I believe you will have more success as a team.

business, training

Teaching finance to non-finance professionals

I have been in my career 23 years now. 21 of those years were spent in finance, and for the last two years I have been trying to apply my finance background to help grow our entertainment division and help us make better decisions.

During my first 7 years, I was in public accounting and did quite a bit of teaching, at new staff school and around the office. That teaching was to professionals who understand accounting and finance basics, and in most cases had recently finished their schooling where they learned these concepts.

When I joined MGM, we did a lot of training of our staff in my various roles, again mostly to folks who had a finance viewpoint. During that time, we started to realize there was a need to teach finance to the rest of the organization. So we built a training class discussing the basics of finance. It is about 3-4 hours, and has worked really well in many situations from HR teams to operating personnel to new hires into our management associate program. I am now looking to do a similar training (and maybe series of training) to my entertainment team.

I believe the key to teaching finance to non-finance professionals is a top-down approach. I start by discussing industry trends, not discussing finance at all. I want them to understand the business, of which finance is merely the scorekeeper and storyteller. I then spend a decent amount of time on corporate finance concepts, like capital, debt, valuations, analyzing industry and company financial statements. This gives them the linkage to how their individual/department/operating unit results roll up and contribute to the overall company. I feel like this linkage, and the attitudes and skills it should foster, are critical element to energizing operating units to make decisions that are best for the overall company.

I spend some time on key accounting principles or issues that affect them directly. And I like to discuss the structure of finance within our company, so they know the players and who fills which roles. Who can they reach out to when they have a question?

Finally, we work through two exercises to help them with their day-to-day financial acumen. We review an operating department’s financial statements and do variance analysis, ratio analysis, and analyze statistics. We also do some ROI calculations, so they can be aware of and participate in those workings when finance is helping them evaluate capital improvements.

We’ve gotten good feedback on these classes, the shared services center I used to manage still teaches these classes, including an all-day version for our management associates from all divisions, where they add in a CFO roundtable, and deeper exercises to understand departmental financial statements and financial decisions.

I feel like teaching finance to non-finance professionals is beneficial for both sides, and can help bridge gaps in communication and expectations as those two groups interact throughout their recurring financial reviews as well as during projects.

business, career, education

Conferences – the good and the bad

I recently attended two conferences put on by Sports Business Journal in Los Angeles (Marina del Rey to be exact). I like the way SBJ does their conferences, so it got me thinking about what I like and don’t like at conferences.

I have probably attended over 100 conferences in my professional career (maybe close to 200), plus assorted training sessions which function similarly. I have been a speaker at least 25 conferences. I have had a hand in organizing over 20 conferences. These conferences have ranged from small gatherings to huge groups. They have covered industries/topics as varied as college sports, accounting issues, real estate, gaming, shared services, analytics, entertainment, media, and technology. Here are my top learnings. I think these learnings can help in a couple of ways – obviously for those organizing a conference to ensure “best foot forward;” but less obviously for those considering attending a conference you can look for these characteristics to see if the conference will provide value.


  • Conferences should be never be “one day” conferences. By extending to at least a second half day, you provide significantly more networking opportunities for the attendees.
  • Conferences should end by early afternoon on the last day, preferably by noon. This tends to keep folks attending the last day’s sessions but gives them time to catch flights home.
  • Plan the run of show to a detailed level and rehearse.
  • Get speaker slides, bios, and other info well in advance.
  • Ensure an active staff to interface with the hotel – to ensure proper room temperature, manage A/V issues, etc. These should be seamless to the attendees because you have put in the time and effort to ensure the event is planned well.


  • Provide ample time for networking, and the inevitable other work folks may need to take care of (calls, emails, etc.)
  • Provide forced but welcome networking opportunities. Get people up and moving in specific sessions that foster networking. Just because they have time for networking (see above) doesn’t mean they will use it for that purpose, so “make” them. One interesting way I’ve seen this done is to integrate personality and behavioral profiles, giving the attendees a takeaway and giving them topics for networking. I’ve also held sessions at conferences where the attendees break into groups that are logical (like by industry) but force them to meet new folks (by ensuring they don’t sit with others from their same company), and have them do some “work” – like identify the top three problems facing their industry and how they can be addressed.
  • For after conference cocktail parties, provide a hook. Unique entertainment, something to keep folks engaged and “loosen them up” and provide something for them to talk to each other about. This tip is especially useful for my fellow introverts. At the recent SBJ conference, a sponsor put on a ping pong tournament. .Great fun, engaging, and gave everyone something to do and talk about while enjoying finger foods and beverages.
  • There is a classic debate in conferences – individual speakers or panels? My view is that a mix is actually always the best. In fact this comment covers this bullet and the next bullet. The problems with a program of all individual speakers include added time needed to manage the preparation, reliance on high profile speakers showing up, and the fact that not all speakers are good at it. The problems with a program of all panels is that you need that many more speakers, they may not be inclined to prepare hoping the other panelists will carry the conversation, you need a good moderator to keep the panel pacing well and holding the audience’s interest. There are also pros to both styles, and I think a mix helps mitigate the cons.
  • The second classic debate is the style of presentation. So interview/free form discussion versus rehearsed presentation. Again a mix is usually best. Prepared presentations can bore an audience with poorly prepared PowerPoint slides they can’t even read, or get lost in a monotone voice. Free form discussion can wander and might never actually address the issues you wanted addressed in the first place.
  • Keep sessions as short as possible. This keeps the audience engaged, and awake, particularly if doing breakouts where they have to move between sessions. If the topics need more time to really be understood/discussed/debated, they are likely perfect candidates for a breakout session. So a rehearsed presentation at a high level gets the entire audience to understand the basics of the topic, and those that want to go deeper can during a breakout.
  • Give the audience a way to ask questions without shouting it out in front of everybody. Often, they will be too shy, especially if a large group. You can use text, email, etc. If you do take questions from the room at large, ensure staff with microphones are sprinkled throughout.

Coming back to what prompted this blog post, I’d like to compliment SBJ for achieving success in their conferences. I’ve been to four now, enough sample size to see the commonalities and know they didn’t “get lucky.” Here’s some of the things they do:

  • Flawless A/V and room and hotel logistics – temperature, meals, etc.
  • They often go with a complete program of interview style sessions, and rarely do breakouts. So they don’t fully follow my advice for variety, but their key to success is a combination of short sessions, mixing up the moderators, and changing between 1-on-1 interviews and panel discussions.
  • They provide time for networking and help facilitate it.
  • They have an iPad with the moderators where questions come in from the audience, and they interject them seamlessly into the discussion.

So if you are in the sports and entertainment industry, check out SBJ’s extensive list of conferences and consider attending. No, they didn’t pay me for the plug! If you are going to other conferences or are asked to help organize one, hopefully you can find success with some of the tips I provided.