Good To Great: Jerry Fisk On His Vision For Fredonia Athletics

Jerry Fisk, Fredonia Director of Athletics (Photo by Lydia Gaughran, ’20)

On his first day as Fredonia’s Director of Athletics, Jerry Fisk and I had a conversation about Jim Collins’s popular business book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. Analyzing elite companies in the 1990’s–Coca-Cola, Intel, and General Electric among them–Collins identified five traits they all shared:

Level 5 Leaders: Great companies have a leader with great ambition and great humility–a desire to achieve matched by a desire to deflect credit for that achievement.

First Who . . . Then What: Great companies focus on the quality of their people rather than their job descriptions.

The Hedgehog Concept: Great companies become profitable by providing a unique service that they can be the best at.

A Culture of Discipline: Great companies use disciplined thought to take disciplined action.

Technology Accelerators: Great companies think differently about the role new technology plays in their organizations.

When I pressed Jerry on how Fredonia Athletics would become great he responded with a line I’ll never forget: “We need to learn what ‘good’ is before we can become great,” speaking to his belief in celebrating small wins while developing these traits of greatness:

Jon-Ryan Maloney: My first question is about leadership. The way it’s described in Good to Great is that a “Level 5 Leader” has an enormous amount of ambition, but also an enormous amount of humility. How do you think about your development as a leader?

Jerry Fisk: I think I aspire to be a Level 5 Leader. I had a funny conversation with a colleague before I left Elmira: my colleague said, “Wow, I didn’t know we’d taken rentals from $10,000 to $120,000 in two years.” It was because, possibly to my own detriment, I hadn’t chosen to seek that glory. Coaches and student-athletes at Fredonia will find that there’s a tremendous amount of humility and service in my leadership. I want to make sure we have the best student-athlete experience. I want to make sure the coaches understand how hard I’m working toward accomplishing common goals, but it’s not about me. We started “Celebrate Mondays” last week (each Monday a Fredonia Athletics team will travel to a local elementary school to greet students). I asked every person that I knew was going to be there to speak with a coach or with the student-athletes. It’s not about me, it’s about me making sure that it happens. I think that ties very closely to what Collins is describing in a Level 5 Leader. I’ve never asked for a raise; if my actions aren’t speaking loud enough for me then I don’t think my words are going to be sufficient.

Maloney: What’s fulfilling to you then? If you don’t want any credit, what does fulfillment look like to you?

Fisk: Fulfillment looks like success on the court and in the classroom, but the biggest piece is the relationships. It’s not happenstance that I have the relationships that I do with all the coaches only three weeks in. I’ve spent thirty-plus hours per week in meetings with them to hear what’s in their hearts and to hear what they want for their programs. My responsibility is to shepherd those programs and steward the resources we have to accomplish great things. Fulfillment for me is seeing their happiness when they win, seeing them look in awe at new facilities, hearing the excitement in their voices when we talk about what’s going to be at Fredonia. It’s very fulfilling for me when I have conversations with coaches and support staff about the vision they’ve had for their programs for a number of years, visions that I know I can help them accomplish.

Maloney: Part two of the book says that an organization can’t have success unless it has the right people in place. When I first read that I thought to myself, “The new leader must come in, fire everyone, and start with new people,” but Collins found that the great organizations didn’t do that. So how do you find the right people and put them in the right places?

Fisk: That’s exactly the situation I find myself in. The exciting thing is that I haven’t met with anyone that appears to be checked out. We have folks that have been here a long time: twenty or thirty years. We have people that have seen Fredonia through the highs and the lows; they have so much institutional knowledge and they care so much about this place, and now someone is coming in and enabling pieces that maybe weren’t enabled before. The single component that’s going to decide whether someone that’s internal to the organization remains internal to the organization is their ability to see that things don’t have to be done the way they always have been: if they have the ability to work with me to see what progress can look like–how it can impact the student-athletes, the alumni, the community, and the campus. They need to be willing to be challenged so that we can look at doing things differently, not for the sake of change but for the sake of progress. That’s a big distinction for me. Before I started there were a lot of people reaching out to me and the mode of their questions was, “What change can we look forward to?” Yes, there are a few things that need to change, but there’s a lot of progress you can look forward to. I don’t think that’s semantics; I think there’s a fundamental difference between changing to make it look like what I want it to look like, and changing to make it resemble best-practices. That’s a big difference. I was asked an important question in the interview process: “What would you counsel everyone that’s here about moving forward, whether you get the job or not?” My answer was that change and progress are coming. Get on board. Be excited about it. Be invigorated by it. But if you dig in and don’t change it’s going to be hard to succeed when everyone else is moving forward. If anyone on staff is happy with where we are and wants to be in that place five years from now then we don’t have the same vision.

Maloney: I’m thinking that everyone would say “Yeah!” to that, but. . .

Fisk: But when it comes time to implement it, that’s when it becomes real. And I get it: if I’d been here for thirty years and had the kind of continuity that Fredonia State Athletics has had, that change would be scary. Even though I knew I was moving to something better it’s still a scary, new opportunity and you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s okay. We don’t have to know, but we have to know where we want it to go. There will absolutely be things that happen along the way, but our ability to overcome those challenges, that’s what is going to set us apart.

Maloney: Jim Collins talks about “The Hedgehog Concept,” that great organizations seek to be the best in a unique niche. Last year I interviewed Dr. (Cedric) Howard about Blue Ocean Strategy and this sounds very similar. When we think about being great as a college athletic department we think about Cortland. We think about Geneseo. How do we think about that differently?

Fisk: It’s important to think about it from the aspect that those are very successful programs. That’s the single statement that I want us to be able to apply here: “That’s a great athletic department.” There are a lot of things that they’re doing that we can’t do here. I might want to play in the NBA, but I can’t. You might want to be in the Olympics, but you can’t. We can’t do those things, but can you be the best that you can be? Yes. Can I be the best that I can be? Yes. Is it our duty to put that forth on a daily basis because there are a lot of people that are looking to us? Absolutely. So I think the Blue Ocean piece of that is serving the niche that we want to serve. If we try to recruit a thirty-mile radius around Cortland and Geneseo we’re probably not going to find much success. Now, we’re going to do things to differentiate us, like a student-athlete leadership seminar and the Gala in the spring. We’re going to have some things that differentiate us, but there’s no reason that we’re looking at the same kids. It’s inevitably going to happen that a coach chooses to recruit someone in that area, but we’re not in the Red Ocean because we don’t have to talk the same language and sell our facilities against theirs. We need to have enough pride and enough vision and enough gumption that we’re excited about where we’re going and sell that. And when we sell it we make it happen. I don’t care what Cortland does or what Geneseo does or what Brockport does. They can do them. We’re going to do us, and we’re going to have the kind of student-athlete experience that differentiates us.

The other thing that differentiates us is the people we have. I would add the human element to the Blue Ocean. We’re going to do things differently, but I don’t think there’s enough credit given to the differentiation that staffs can make. We have a loyal staff that’s hungry and revved at the start line. With some vision and leadership—and with Dr. Howard as a great resource—we’re going to accomplish great things. People are going to be excited to come to work and everyone on campus is going to see that. Everyone in the community is going to see that. All the student-athletes are going to see that. Now, if we’re trudging through each day like we’re walking uphill in sand, they’re going to see that too.

Maloney: But you can’t control people’s attitudes.

Fisk: You can’t, but you can lead by example, and I’m the biggest example you’re going to have in the department. I’m excited to come in every day. I don’t care if my car won’t start and I have to walk through snow piles to get to work–it’s still a good day when I get here. That’s how I want people to be empowered. One of the analogies I used when I was here for my interview was about pulling on the same rope. When you’re all pulling on the same rope it doesn’t matter if I’m 280 pounds and there’s a coach that’s 100 pounds–we’re still pulling on the same rope. How much you pull on the rope doesn’t matter, but that we’re on the same rope matters. Over the course of time that will gain momentum. One of the things you’ll find with my leadership is that you’re either in or you’re out. I don’t make that decision. You make that decision. Over the course of time it’s got to be those small steps in the same direction that are celebrated and communicated over and over again, because if someone’s fifteen degrees off and we both take 10,000 steps we’re a long way apart. We need to make sure we’re all pulling on the same rope which is the anchoring point that can keep us moving in one direction. That comes back to vision and leadership.

Maloney: What are those small steps that you talk about? How do we know when we have something we can celebrate?

Fisk: There are a lot of things we can celebrate. We can celebrate rosters that are full. We can celebrate positive evaluations from student-athletes because they had a tremendous experience during that year. We can celebrate making SUNYAC playoffs. Before we celebrate making playoffs I think we can celebrate wins. I don’t care if a team ultimately goes 2-14; I do care, but we’re going to celebrate win number one after it happens and we’re going to celebrate win number two after it happens. That’s another way to reinforce that we’re going to get to 14-2 instead of 2-14. Those are the little things. People coming in with a smile on their face and saying, “Hello.” People being willing to stop in my office and exchange a pleasantry and just check-in because they know that there’s something positive coming down the pipe. I think those are the things we can celebrate. Increased attendance at games due to increased community involvement–I think that can be celebrated. When something bad happens in athletics everybody knows about it, but when something good happens nobody talks about it. If one of our student-athletes were to get in trouble with the local authority over the weekend it’s in the paper and everybody knows about it. But if another student-athlete who’s earned academic awards, athletic awards, that’s done the right thing and been a tremendous citizen on campus is accepted to grad school, let’s talk about that! That’s a success. Our ultimate goal has to be graduating student-athletes that are good citizens equipped to impact the world around them. If they’ve been accepted to grad school we’ve done a part of our job. We’ve done what we need to and they’re moving on to that next phase. Those are all successes that we can celebrate. I don’t know what the number is, but when we graduate 85 student-athletes this spring, that’s something we celebrate. When we retain 96% of our student-athletes from semester one to semester two, that’s a measurable that can be celebrated.

Maloney: How are we celebrating these things? Is it in a staff meeting? Is it through e-mail?

Fisk: It’s a lot of things. We will do “High Fives” in staff meetings. We will talk about things one-on-one and then I’ll make sure it’s passed along to campus leadership. You’ll see a change in our web presence that will celebrate things like that. You will see more television displays around the building that run programming; we will celebrate people on that. I will go to practices to celebrate people. We’ll celebrate them at the Gala at the end of the year. We will celebrate coaches throughout their seasons. We will celebrate recruiting goals. There’s a principle called “social proof:” if one person is doing something and getting accolades for it, the next person wants to do it. Let’s celebrate things so everyone else wants to do the same thing. If everyone is celebrating hitting their recruiting goals, that probably gives us full rosters, which gives us an opportunity to withstand attrition and injury, which gives us the opportunity to put the best product on the court, in the pool, or on the field.

Maloney: Just getting all the little things right.

Fisk: Exactly.

Maloney: How do you think about discipline? Jim Collins makes the case that great organizations use disciplined thought which leads to disciplined action.

Fisk: One thing that has been very clear to me in the last three weeks of speaking to coaches, support staff, and others, is that we need to move forward with increased intentionality. What Collins calls “discipline,” I might call “intention.” I think we’re doing a lot of good things, but we need to have the intention to do the same thing every day, be the same person every day–not coming in one day moaning because your dog threw up on the carpet or your child was sick. Having the steely resolve and focus to be disciplined and intentional every day gets you to the goal. Part of that is having a vision, because a vision can help lead to discipline. If you get in a boat and start rowing, do you look at the horizon and see where you want to get or are you just rowing? Because if you’re just rowing you’re never getting where you want to go. It’s having a goal–and I won’t even say having an end-point in mind–but having an end-direction in mind. If anyone says, “I’m 100% happy with the state of our program right now,” then I don’t think we’re on the same page, even if you’re Coach (Geoff) Braun and your women’s volleyball team went to the SUNYAC Finals this year. I won’t enjoy working with coaches who want anything short of excellence. Now, if we’re making the right small steps and celebrating them, are we winning the Commissioner’s Cup next year? I’d love to, but I don’t know if that’s the goal. Are we moving from our current position to two positions higher–one position higher? Are we making the steps in the right direction in a sustainable and intentional manner? What I’ve told staff members when I thought their goal was very aggressive right away is that nobody goes and runs their first marathon until they’ve run their first training session. Let’s work on the training session and get to the marathon. I want us to keep working so hard that we’re going to accomplish great things on the way, but I’m unwilling to sacrifice five years from now for a win tomorrow, because tomorrow we’re not going to be where I know we can be. Five years from now we may not be where I want to be, but I know we’re going to be closer. I think that creates the kind of mindset that empowers people to do their jobs because they have some autonomy and can contribute to the vision. That’s a rewarding place to work.

Maloney: I told you in my meeting that I don’t necessarily have an end goal; I just want to make these student-athletes better, make sure they’re healthy, and make sure they’re improving. If you asked me what my end goal is I could say I want to be at the top of the Commissioner’s Cup, but I also think that’s out of my control. So what is it that we can control?

Fisk: I think it’s what you just articulated: you don’t know where you want to be in five years but you know the processes and the small steps that you’re going to make on a daily basis that are going to get you closer to what that is. That’s what everybody in this department needs to do. What are the small, actionable items that we can accomplish on a day-to-day basis, whether they are interpersonal, team-related, conference-related, compliance, you name it. What can we accomplish today that puts all of us in a better spot tomorrow? I’ve said to several people that I don’t want to be known as a “boat raiser.” If I were solely working with you to improve the weight room downstairs, and then I work with Amy (Simon) and Megan (Valentine) and improve how we do compliance, and then I work with Jerry Reilly and we improve what we do on the website, those are all good things but they’re all in individual areas. I want to raise the water, because when you raise the water you rise all the boats. That’s the excellence that I want us to aspire to on a day-to-day basis. There are days that are going to be a grind for each one of us–it’s just the way it is. That’s why we don’t focus on that day. That day’s small steps might be interacting with everybody and keeping a smile on your face, because you never know what someone’s fighting personally or professionally. Maybe that interaction affects them personally and not professionally, but if we have happier people that are more satisfied personally that’s a better athletic department. Now, five years from now if we’re working as hard as we can will we be at the top of the Commissioner’s Cup? Maybe, maybe not, but we’re going to be more formidable and people are going to know who we are. We can’t control the outcome, but we can control the process. You can’t determine the consequence, but you can choose the action. If the action is letting up on the last sprint of the day, or cutting out early because you’re not feeling it, or not getting the paperwork in by the deadline, those all have consequences. We can try to mitigate them, but we don’t get to choose the consequence. All we can do is control those small steps on a daily basis to move us in a direction, and my job is to keep everybody pointed in the same direction.

Maloney: Collins says that if all these pieces aren’t in place first then technology won’t help. By technology here I’m thinking about facilities, or maybe specific technology like a scoreboard. Once you have all these pieces in place and everything is functioning well, what are the other things we need moving forward?

Fisk: I think we need an engaged community. We need an engaged alumni base that’s excited about the team that they competed on as a student-athlete. I think we need better facilities. Whatever number of years down the road it is, people are going to walk into Steele Hall and say, “Wow!”  But if that technology is a new scoreboard and it doesn’t change the outcome, doesn’t get us any extra recruits, and doesn’t do anything else to enhance the department or the student-athlete experience, what good does it do? I’ve challenged all of my coaches to do several things: recruit, retain, and graduate good student-athletes who are engaged global citizens that care about the school when they leave and do it in a compliant manner that stays within budget, all while fielding a winning team. If we’re doing those things over the course of time and we add in a tincture of technology: a new facility, a different take on an existing facility, it just being available, I think that’s accomplishing a lot. I’ve introduced myself to every team that’s been on campus, and across the board I’ve told them one common message: I’m not a coddler; I expect you to do the right thing, but when you do the right thing you’ll never have an administrator that will champion, advocate, or celebrate you more than I will. I want to accomplish a lot together and they’re a big part of it. That’s what we need from the coaches and that’s what we need from the teams. If we’re going to lose a game by a significant margin I’d just as soon do it on an old scoreboard. If we’re going to start finishing seasons and games the way that we all want to, let’s make it look good. Pictures of scoreboards look great when you’re on the right side of the score. If it’s on a beautiful scoreboard, that’s even better. I don’t want a picture of a beautiful scoreboard with a lousy score.

Maloney: You’re about to go into your first staff meeting. Everyone is excited, anxious, and I think mostly curious. What are you thinking about?

Fisk: I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve showed the agenda to a couple of people and they get big eyes and say, “That’s the meatiest agenda I have ever seen.” That’s exciting. If I was happy with where we are I wouldn’t be busting my hump on a day-to-day basis to get us to where we want to be. But I’m not happy with where we are and neither is the staff. This is an opportunity for us to engage the department as a whole and make sure we’re all pulling on that same rope. Going back to intentionality: there’s a reason the room will be set up the way it is for our staff meeting (in a circle). There’s a reason why I’m sitting next to you for this conversation instead of behind my desk. We’re sitting around the same table. It might not mean anything to anyone else but it means something to me. I’m not in front of anyone. Twenty-five years from now if I were in a position to retire and somebody could say that my legacy was, “Nobody outworked him, nobody out-cared him, and he put his all into making this place the best that it could be,” that’s all I can ask.

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