How The Ohio State University Built a Leadership Culture: Podcast #33

Today, I’m excited to share a conversation I had recently with Gene Smith. Gene not only serves as the Athletic Director at The Ohio State University, but also as Vice-President. Below are a few highlights from our conversation, but I encourage you to listen to the full conversation.


Tim Elmore: You were an athlete nearly 35-40 years ago now, but you see athletics every day. What are some of the biggest differences that you see about being a college athlete between then and now?

Gene Smith: Well, the athleticism is at a different level. Kids are faster, stronger, and just more talented and gifted athletically. Personalities of the young people are coming to us differently, too. We have to be able to adjust to those personalities and all of the characteristics of the individual. The time demand that student athletes have on them is just so different.

Tim: That makes sense. Athletes today often say, “I’m going to school full-time, and it’s like having a full-time job on top of that.” I’d love for you to take a minute and talk about your specific responsibilities at The Ohio State University.

Gene: As Athletic Director, we have 36 sports, 1,000 athletes, and a little south of 400 employees. We have a $170 million budget, where we are totally self-supporting. So I’m fortunate to oversee a small business (that some would say is a medium-sized business!). We have a responsibility to make sure we create an environment for our student athletes to be successful academically, athletically, and socially.

As Vice-President, I was asked to take over some self-supporting entities that were struggling and make them profitable. We’ve done a good job with a couple of them, and others are on a good trajectory. I also serve on the President’s cabinet, so I’m an advisor on his leadership team.


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Tim: Well when I have been up to see you all in Columbus, Ohio, I’ve been so impressed by the athletes and coaches up there. I want to dive into another set of questions here. I know that you are a student of leadership and leader development. I’d like for you to talk about some of your top leadership insights that you live by and pass on as a leader today?

Gene: Establish trust. It is so important to walk the walk and behave in a way that people trust you. From there, you end up establishing respect. For me, I always try to be positive, honest, and outgoing. People tend to really relate to you when you do that. Every person I pass, I’m talking to them and paying attention to them. The easiest thing in the world is just to be nice.

Tim: Now we’ve talked in the past about the paramount importance of culture in an organization. Talk for a few minutes about the power of culture and how that plays out at Ohio State University.

Gene: You have to make sure everyone is aligned with your values. We went through a process, in 2006 I believe, when I came here. I helped put together a little task force that took the dusty and old strategic plan on the shelf and rebuilt it. We started with values. We went through a process for about a month, just to get down to our six values. But I, as the leader, have to make sure those values are never forgotten. Integrity is the highest one we have, so that has to be in everything that we do. You have to live your values. When you do that consistently over time, the culture is that way.

First and foremost, you hire character and everybody’s got to be on the same page. When I interview people (in particular, coaches), their jaws drop because my first question to them is, “What are your top 4 values in life? What is important to you?” I rarely ever talk about X’s and O’s cause I want to know who you are.

Tim: I’ve got one more question for you, Gene. We are very honored that you will be joining us for our National Leadership Forum on June 23- 24, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Our theme  is “Leaders at Every Level,” and we’ll be talking about building this culture of leadership. I’d like for you to get real practical and talk about what you are doing to develop leaders within the athletic department, in students and coaches.

Gene: First of all, you have to have your leadership team actually know the people within your organizational structure. We have professional development programs for our head coaches and different programs for our assistant coaches and staff. We have probably 2-3 programs per month with all of the different spectrums. Most importantly, we’ve gotten to know our people. Then, just like our student-athletes, we have to have an individual plan to help them achieve their goal. You have to know the people, work with them, and set up a strategy for them to get to where they want to be professionally.

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Come Hear Gene Smith Speak
at the 2016 National Leadership Forum


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How The Ohio State University Built a Leadership Culture: Podcast #33