Episode 049 – West Coast Conference Commissioner Lynn Holzman
Lynn and I talk Gonzaga hoops, Kansas State’s Bramlage Coliseum, and the importance of people and relationships to an organization’s success.
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Hey everyone and welcome to the All-Star Leader Podcast, where together we learn about leadership from the best and brightest, and keep it fun by connecting it to our passion for sports!
I’m your host Daniel Hare, and today we are talking with Lynn Holzman. Lynn is the Commissioner of the West Coast Conference, headquartered in San Bruno, California in the San Francisco Bay area. The WCC is home to men’s basketball powerhouse and national runner up Gonzaga, as well as BYU and Pepperdine among others. Prior to joining the WCC as a senior Associate Commissioner in 2012, Lynn spent 16 years at the NCAA.
This is Lynn Holzman. Lynn thanks so much for coming on the show!
- Before we get too far along would you share some thoughts on Gonzaga men’s basketball, Mark Few, and the remarkable season they just had? What do you think it says about the state of Division I athletics that a small school from a smaller conference can play for the national title and very easily could have won it?
- Didn’t happen over night; 20 years ago the school committed itself to its athletic program and especially men’s basketball
- Back then Gonzaga was having serious enrollment/financial issues and were considering closing down. But the president saw the opportunity in men’s basketball and invested in it.
- Diligently worked to build a culture of success and family
- They are a university/program where there has been stability in leadership (president / athletic director / head coach); they were clear about who they are and what types of student-athletes fit their culture
- They’ve been knocking on the door for awhile no
- This wasn’t a fluke; they were persistent and tenacious
- Studies show that success in high profile sports really can positively impact universities in terms
- Basketball v football playoff: from an optimistic side, the Hoosiers / Cinderella model makes it possible. But it is so tough.
- The ongoing commitment is so big. You see it with St. Mary’s who has consistently improved, made the NCAA Tournament and had stability in their leadership, but it’s been hard. The gap in financial investment in the top schools v the rest of the Division I membership makes it very tough.
- One other bit of recent news that caught my eye. The state of Oklahoma passed a law (Georgia has something similar) which allows for schools to recover damages through a lawsuit from donors who cause an NCAA violation to take place and cost the school money (e.g. missing a bowl game). As a former NCAA official and now a conference commissioner, what are your thoughts on these types of laws?
- Interesting intersection between federal/state/local and NCAA laws and rules
- Demonstrates the high value we place on sports and college sports; if politicians are taking time to address these issues…
- Looks well intended to be a deterrent
- NCAA is limited in how they can respond to certain situations because of lack of jurisdiction, and laws like this might allow these governments to come along side the NCAA with complimentary regulations
- Is it an appropriate role for government?
- In California, laws are being proposed regarding health and safety of student-athletes
- Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into college athletics administration.
- Entire life revolved around sports from a young age
- She and her brother would play in the backyard
- Played college basketball at Kansas State and originally thought about pursuing sports medicine
- Went to UNC-Chapel Hill for masters in sports administration, and got hired on as an intern at the NCAA; then hired full-time
- Promoted within the NCAA and spent 16 years there while also getting an MBA from Purdue
- Always had a deep desire to stay involved
- Did all types of odd jobs within the athletics department at Kansas State which opened up her eyes to the opportunities
- Bramlage a very tough place to play; active student section; now known as the Octagon of Doom
- You’ve mentioned that playing and working in sports has taught you a number of skills and values which impact you today, and I wanted to talk about a few of those specifically: 1) accountability; 2) overcoming adversity; and 3) communication.
- Overcoming adversity – recognition that things are not always going to go your way; any progress is progress (marathon not a sprint); persistent and stick with it
- Accountability – delivering on what you say you’re going to deliver; if you aren’t, you have to communicate; when working closely with ADs, coaches and presidents, there is a personal accountability that comes with that; be responsive to those we are leading and serving
- We’ve had several current/former NCAA staff on the show in the past, all who valued different aspects of the organization and took away different things. Looking back now what do feel you learned about yourself and about how to lead from your time at the NCAA.
- Leading by example is only a small part of leadership; her personality/core is about hard work and perfectionism, but that’s just a part
- If you are the leader and people look to you, there’s a responsibility that comes with it in terms of relationships / people; action and inaction both matter
- Leadership is about setting out to make a difference, and people need to feel appreciated
- Must acknowledge and recognize when you don’t have all the answers; must surround yourself with great people
- Leadership not about title; there were times at the NCAA when she was calling together VPs to address an issue
- Communication/people/relationship are what it’s all about; we have common goals; listening is important and making sure people are heard; adaptable; also a recognition that it’s not about “me” but it’s about the student-athletes
- There’s an unselfishness that comes with great leaders; get motivated by the success of letters
- You’re deeply involved in several organizations promoting the advancement of women within the college athletics industry and sports more generally. Could you tell us one area where we’ve seen significant improvement when it comes to women in sports, and one area where we are stuck and need to make more progress?
- Improvement with women and women of color in conference commissioner positions, though still work to do in the Autonomy Five leagues
- Progress still needed in women and men of color in leadership positions
- There needs to be more opportunities for women to coach men
- The challenges facing college athletics are not that unlike other industries
- However, college athletics serves a very diverse constituency of student-athletes (female, minority, poor), so critical for the industry to advance
- Important for people to see others who look like them in these leadership roles (“if you can see them you can be them”)
- Something I like to ask all our guests who have worked in conference offices: how do you go about getting individual schools to put their own best interest aside for the greater good of the conference? (if at all?!)
- It’s an art and a science; no two situations are the same
- Learn about the people, their interests and motivations
- The science part is presenting facts/data
- It’s okay for leaders of programs/schools to advocate for their own program; the challenge is to get them to rise above that if in the long run there will be a benefit
- Get coaches / ADs to spend time thinking about the greater good of the conference
- What is a significant leadership mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
- Trying to be everything to everyone; there’s a responsibility you take on for others, but you’re not good for anyone when you do that
- Five rapid fire questions
- Name one trait or characteristic you want to see in a colleague.
- Positive/optimistic energy
- What habit has been key to your success?
- Most important app or productivity tool?
- Most influential leader you’ve personally been around?
- Myles Brand, former NCAA president
- One sentence of advice for emerging leaders?
- Seize and create your own opportunities
- Name one trait or characteristic you want to see in a colleague.
- Antioch Live/Clear Day Media Group – music
- Jonathan Davis – production
- Clint Musslewhite – voice over