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Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick Talks About His Values, Principles & Leadership

Swarbrick says he values feedback on his job performance from two groups. We’re not in either one of them! (But we won’t stop.)

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NCAA Football: Notre Dame vs Army Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame Fighting Irish Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick recently discussed his approach to leadership, how he processes feedback about his performance and his advice to those wanting to be a college athletics administrator.

A transcript of the 15-minute interview, conducted for the Athletic Director U website, is below the video. Or you can skip to the part that most interests you:

Katy Brown: I'm Katy Brown at the Collegiate Sport Summit along with Jack Swarbrick, the director of athletics at Notre Dame. Jack, thanks for sitting down as we’re at this forum and talking about the way that directors of athletics lead, and then all of the things that you deal with. What are your guiding principles that you really live with day in and day out at Notre Dame?

Jack Swarbrick: Well we have five values that we try and operate and organize the entire business around. And I guess the most important part of that sentence is the discipline of making sure those are integrated into everything. So when someone comes to me with a new initiative, I'll say, “Tell me which of the five values it serves.” Or, when we have a tough decision to make, “Help me understand how you think the values implicate that.”

And the discipline of that, it's less about what the values are, as the discipline integrating them into everything they do. Is it part of your personnel evaluation? Is it part of your decision making? And so that's important to it, and for us those involve faith, because we are a faith-based institution. And we think it's central to our identity, and who we are.

Education, because we are in the education business. We want to manifest that education, not just through the degree that a student will receive at Notre Dame, the great education they'll get there, but we want the sport experience to be educational as well. And that's important to us. Tradition is a value, because it's important. It connects the generations.

Katy Brown: You have tradition at Notre Dame? (This was said jokingly.)

Jack Swarbrick: Oh my goodness. Anything you do twice, is a tradition. But that also works in a second dimension, because we want our students to understand, they have to create their own traditions. Don't be frozen by what you inherit when you come here. Create your own traditions. And that's an important one.

Community — It's the community, the broader community in which we live and work. It's the community of campus, in which we want our students integrated fully. And it's the community of team, which we want to develop in the best, most positive way. And finally competitive excellence. We are in the business of winning national championships. And if you set your goal lower than that, you'll achieve less. So those are the five values we try to integrate into everything we do.

Katy Brown: Do you have a personal leadership mantra or anything that you personally, that has stuck with you even before Notre Dame, that's important to you?

Jack Swarbrick: I think the two things that have always guided me in that is one, to never allow the personal consequence to play a role in the decision you're about to make. Once you do, once it becomes a factor, it really clouds decision making and often leads to bad decisions. And so I think you just can't let that happen. And the other is take risks. Don't be afraid to be wrong. Don't be afraid to mess up. College environments tend to be a little more risk adverse, and for good reason. There are a lot of dynamics at play there, including very important public reputations. But if you're not going to take those risks, you're not going to maximize your opportunity to serve your students.

Katy Brown: That's a fantastic one, and I know, I mean you have had a different career path than ... You know we see more people from the outside business world coming into college athletics, but you don't have the traditional, coming up through different schools and moving around. So what is it about that, that you learned, what are some of the important things you learned from your journey, and all the different arenas you've worked in, that have kind of molded into who you are, and the way you lead?

Jack Swarbrick: Well this segment isn't long enough to talk about all I didn't know when I took the job, which was part of your question.

I'm a big believer in sort of borrowing, if you will, from everybody I admire as a leader. I love that. And so it's less about what I did, than who I did it with. And I took pieces from everybody. The lawyer who made ... A mentor made the point to me once that a work product can never leave the building unless it's exactly what you want it to be. It can't be 90 percent of what you want it to be. It has to be 100 percent. So establishing those standards becomes really important.

It's understanding that the best things you can do are the things that have the broadest impact. Not necessarily produce the biggest gain or the highest recognition, but can you change communities? Can you impact a large group of people?

Customer clarity — one of the things that most struck me when I took this job, was terrible confusion in our athletic department as to who our customer was. Because you have so many constituents on a college campus right? So achieving the clarity that it's just our students. Everybody else matters, but our customer — the students we serve — helped us a lot, I think.

And then there's just a lot of value-related ones, like ethical conduct, being honest with people, even when that's hard to do. You're helping them when you are honest with them. And staying value-based in the decisions you make. That's become a bit of a politicized term in this decade, and it's not that. It's that make sure it's values-based decision making.

Katy Brown: What is your biggest lesson learned in your career? I mean you talk about taking risks, and I know you have taken some risks, and you had some things that didn't turn out the way that you planned on them. What are some of the things that didn't go your way, that you learned and got better from?

Jack Swarbrick: That's a long, long list. And that is the key, you try and learn from each of them. I've made some employment decisions, some hiring decisions that were wrong. And as I look back on it, the rigor was insufficient. It wasn't that it was something I couldn't have known, or couldn't have discovered. It was that I didn't apply the adequate rigor. Failure often is attached to me when I lose the focus of allocating my time appropriately.

A chairman of a Fortune 100 company, I was in conversation with once, and I asked him to give me one piece of advice that I could take away from my conversation with him. And he said that every day, there were a hundred things that commanded his attention. And his job was to ignore 97 of them. I was always struck that he didn't say, "My job was to only pay attention to three of them." He said, "My job was to ignore 97 of them." And having the discipline to do that, realizing that in this position, for any chief executive officer of a business, you have to maintain the discipline, do the things for the business only you can do. If you're not spending your time being strategic, if you're not spending your time being focused on the client experience, maybe no one else will and then you'll be in real trouble.

Katy Brown: So then obviously as part of that, you're empowering your people to do those other 97 people who need to be taking care of those things.

Jack Swarbrick: Absolutely, yeah, and trust them. One of the struggles we've had culturally, when I came into the business was my executive team wasn't comfortable with that model. And so I stopped answering their emails.

Katy Brown: Really?

Jack Swarbrick: Yeah, and that created a different frustration. But my point was you're going to have to act, and let's see if I don't give you the guidance if you will act. And the thing I stressed was, I may hate the decision you make. And you've got to be comfortable with that. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have made it, or that I should have been consulted in advance. You and I will talk about it afterwards, why I didn't like it, and we'll come to an understanding of why you had a different view. But don't hold up the decision waiting for me.

Katy Brown: How do you handle getting feedback for yourself? Because that obviously is critically important, is to make sure that you are getting candid feedback.

Jack Swarbrick: Right.

Katy Brown: How do you make sure that happens?

Jack Swarbrick: The first is being careful to segregate from whom you're getting the feedback, right? So I want to know what our students think. So we survey them about their experience in a host of ways. That's important. I want to spend time with them. You better spend time with your primary customer, and they are mine. So that helps me understand their experience, but also their view of how I'm doing, and whether I'm meeting my commitments to them.

I want to make sure my boss is giving me that feedback. So make sure we have the opportunity for him to do that. And then make sure you've created a structured forum for other people to do it. Those two, our students and my superiors, are my most important in a sense. But create a forum for everybody else to do it.

I'm a big fan of 360 degree reviews. You learn so much from them. They can be cumbersome. It can be hard to do, but the benefits of them are enormous, because you may find out that you manage up better than you manage down. Or that your peers outside your business don't view you the way you'd like them to view you. So I've learned a lot from using that resource.

Katy Brown: Are there any ways in which this experience of getting involved in college athletics, that you've changed your leadership style, compared to how you previously led?

Jack Swarbrick: I don't know if I've changed my leadership style so much as I've had to change things about me. And I suppose that impacts my leadership style. I did a lot of public things. But nothing prepares you for the bright light, the public scrutiny you're under at a place like Notre Dame when you're the director of athletics. So you've got to learn to be thick-skinned.

Katy Brown: Thick-skinned.

Jack Swarbrick: And in my professional life in 28 years before that, you didn't have that level of scrutiny. So that public dimension, and that ability. It's a very interesting dynamic for us, because you want to hear it, right? You want to read all those angry letters, or those people who are upset with the decision you've made. But you can't be impacted too much by it. You try and sift out the things that are factual, and ignore the things that aren't, so that's something I had to learn.

By far the hardest thing for me to learn in this job relates to the impact of social media. My instincts every time are to defend our students, when I know what's being said about them is wrong, and then sometimes, incredibly hurtful. But I've had to learn in this environment you cannot do that.

There are two consequences if you do. One is you extend the story. You give it more traction than it deserves. And the second is, if you take any one on, you have to take them all on. So if I respond that something is absolutely libelous about four occasions on which our students were talked about, and I don't say anything about the fifth, I've validated the fifth.

So for all those reasons, you just can't engage. Our response to that has to become much more aggressive about telling our own story, as opposed to responding to people who are talking about us.

Katy Brown: Lastly, what advice do you give, or would you give to people who either are watching this that want to get into college athletics administration, or who are in it and are looking to rise. What are some of the things that you see in people coming up? Or that are most important to you as you are promoting or hiring people?

Jack Swarbrick: A few things. One is know why you want to do it. There's nothing I believe more in, in terms of professional developments and management than understanding your "why.”

If you don't understand why you are in the position you're in, you can't serve it effectively. And so if you want to be in this industry, know why. You might like money, but you'd be a bad banker. Liking athletics is not a reason to be in the athletics industry. You have to understand. You have to have some other motivation that makes you want to be in it. And so I think it absolutely starts with understanding that.

Secondly, get really good at something. This is an industry where supply will always exceed demand. So you have to be able to articulate to me, or another athletic director, or president of an NFL franchise, or whomever it is, what your unique skill is. And I say all the time to young people, "You don't have to start in this industry. Go to another industry and be really good at it. And those skills will transfer, but become an expert. Become really good at what you do."

And the third, our keynote speaker said it well today, you have to be able to articulate why you make a difference. All right? What will happen if I hire you, that I won't get from the other 99 candidates? He mentioned that he always asked that question. I do to always in interviews. And I'm shocked that people aren't prepared to answer it. Because that's key to explaining what value you bring to the business.

Katy Brown: Fantastic Jack, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down.

Jack Swarbrick: My pleasure.

Katy Brown: Yes.

Jack Swarbrick: Great to be with you.