I Want Your Job – “Empowering Women in Sports” with Women Leaders’ Patti Phillips

This episode of the “I Want Your Job” podcast features Women Leaders in College Sports CEO, Patti Phillips.

The audio version of the podcast will be released across platforms on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

Patti shares stories from the jobs and experiences that led her to her current role as CEO of Women Leaders in College Sports, offering insights into the importance of branding and messaging, work ethic, networking, and the potential for new opportunities through community collaboration.

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Interview Highlights:

4:58 – Patti shares stories from her first coaching job right out of college, and how the mentorship of Ottawa University’s Steve Hill impacted her basketball coaching ability

7:08 – Patti talks about the transition from coaching into other roles (first with the NCAA, and then as a color analyst with the Kansas City Sports Commission), and how it was the jobs after coaching that gave her some of the best insight into all of the moving parts of athletic programs

On being a color commentator: “It’s like doing a research project before every game. And so, you’ve got to do all the research: those that do it as a full-time job, you know, you’re kind of up on it. But when you have another full time job (which I did), and it’s kind of a part-time thing, it’s much harder to stay abreast of everything. It was a lot of homework, a lot of talking to a lot of people. But I did love it, I loved the energy of it, and yeah you’re right: it really did give me a broader understanding of sports the impact they have within an athletic department with fan engagement, all those kinds of facets that certainly have helped me in my role here.”

9:52 – Patti talks about mentors that helped her along her early career path: Steve Hill (“He literally taught me to be a coach”), the NCAA’s Janet Justice (“Janet really opened my world, quite frankly, and…gave me the foundation for a lot of the work we’re doing now”). 

Patti also talks about her friendship with Anne St. Peter, who works in digital marketing, and has been a central part of building the Women Leaders in College Sports brand.

Besides mentors who she’s worked with in person, Patti also shares her list of influential authors: Brené Brown, Adam Grant, Simon Sinek, John Maxwell, among others:

“I do think people can have mentors and models that they don’t interact with all the time, and we certainly advise our women and folks involved with our organization to really think about that, It’s great to have those folks you can interact with, and talk about your personal experience, but you can learn a lot from other people’s journeys, and so I certainly take advantage of that as well.”

13:15 – Patti shares a lot of the history behind Women Leaders, starting with 2019’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the organization, and including pivotal moments such as major name changes and events in college sports history that impacted women in college athletics.

In the earliest days: “Women came together to really…have a platform with the NCAA, and to create committees, and to make sure they had a voice. So it was really an advocacy group to keep women involved in intercollegiate athletics.”

In 2010, when Patti joined the organization: “It was really a time of trying to re-envision and re-engage, and re-ignite what CCWA and NACWA had been for…a new time.”

20:15 – Patti describes how Women Leaders in College Sports has been very deliberate in its messaging to ensure that the branding and mission of the organization are communicated clearly to its community. She also talks about the realities of being a nonprofit, and how that impacts their choices and the platforms they choose to pursue.

“Our brand is one of excellence in everything we do: we’ll raise the bar, raise the eyebrows. If we can’t do it that way, then we don’t do it.”


Jim: What does it mean to you to inspire women, not just in the sports industry, but across all industries. And what type of advancement, development do you hope to see when it comes to all of this?

Patti: Well, women have a shared experience as it relates to leadership and leading, period. No matter what industry they’re in. And, I think women in the more male-dominated fields (technology would be one, sports obviously), you know….and corporate women will say this, that ‘it is sometimes worse than in other spaces,’ but overall the experiences are the same. It’s much harder. And, it’s this paradigm of the culture that we’ve been in. It’s just a time factor, and that change doesn’t happen overnight.

It changes with great guys, and husbands, and dads like you [Jim] that see what’s happening and that want to be part of the change. Whatever we’re doing here with Women Leaders, and, I am proud and I know that we’re making a difference, we could not do it without our male champions. Without guys like you!

And that’s the thing: it’s been, for years, it was men that went to work and women stayed home. And so as that paradigm has been changing, it takes a long time for the substructure and all of the paradigms underneath it to change. And what we always say is, we’re trying to make a cultural shift here, but that does not happen overnight, it does not happen fast enough for any of us. Like, we all want to be way farther ahead than where we are.

Some women have great stories. They’re like ‘oh my god, I never experienced any bias…I had a great experience throughout all of my professional career,’ and that’s great. For every one of those, there’s nine others that have either opted out, been victims of some type of harassment, or that have been bullied in one way or another.

And so, we need to get to where those numbers are changing, and we are. And again, I think we’re all moving in the right direction. And I do think that, number one, men are the key here, a huge key, and you know it’s just overcoming now what were…years of unconscious bias. You see, now there’s guys like you, that, it’s not unconscious anymore, you’re seeing it, and you want to help, and all that makes a huge difference.

The other factor is women. We have to step up. So, we have created a movement. And we are the changemakers. We tell our members: the women that can lead and are leading are making a huge difference! They’re changing the cultures of their athletic departments. They’re allowing children to be brought in so that women can raise families and be part of these jobs. They’re changing the work-life balance issues, because they’re in a leadership position!

And so, it really takes everybody. We all have to be doing it together, but it is important. And it’s not just for the women: it creates a better workplace for everybody when there’s more diversity in leadership. And, we’re not the only organization that’s doing it, but you’re right, I do think it transcends. So, what we’re doing and the impact we’re having isn’t just stopping at the end of intercollegiate athletics. 

In fact, we’re actually now working more with pro sports: pro leagues are dealing with the same thing. We’ve seen a lot of media around some of the women in coaching, which is great in the pro leagues. And so, we’re doing some work with Major League Baseball and the NFL in those arenas, coaching and helping those women that are stepping into those roles.

We have a program now, or an arm, called the Women Leaders Performance Institute and we’re taking some of our learnings that we’ve had over years through our leadership programs, and, just the information we have through consulting conversations, coaching, teaching with women in sports (a really hard arena). And so, we’ve kind of pulled all that together and it’s very transferable. 

We can teach leadership through the lens of sports, not just for women, for men and women, but the conversations for men, quite frankly, are different. They just are. And that’s ok! 

So, we talk a lot about that: where are we? What can each one of us do individually to create change, what can organizations do like ours do to create change, how can we expand our reach and influence to make a bigger and broader difference? And that’s always the question we’re asking ourselves: what’s next? How do we expand, and how do we go bigger to create this big change that we’re all looking for, men and women?

32:08 – Patti discusses how to measure “success” in intercollegiate athletics, both the success of an athletic director (male or female) in their role, but more specifically to the Women Leaders mission, the success of women being placed in leadership roles or making an impact in the workplace.

37:26 – Jim asks Patti to share the one important story from sports that impacted her the most, and Patti explains that it’s not just one story that has been impactful, noting that many of them happened a while back and laid the foundation for what’s happening today: Billie Jean King vs Bobby Riggs, Title IX, Kathrine Switzer (the first woman to run the Boston marathon).

Looking at today’s landscape, Patti names several other impactful events for women in college sports: Sandy Barbour and Jen Cohen facing off in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl, Carla Williams becoming Director of Athletics at Virginia (the first African-American Power 5 woman AD).

“These are big moments. It’s when women actually see things are possible, you know, [with] younger women you kind of have to see it to want to be it. So that’s happening more and more. We’re breaking down the stereotypes and the barriers around women being able to lead large programs with football. So, all those things are happening now, all the time, so maybe that’s a good thing!”

40:12 – Patti’s advice for young women who want to pursue a career in sports: 

“First of all, getting involved in sports, I don’t think is that different than any industry. You’ve got to be passionate, and work hard, and get after it. When you’re a young person, we talk a lot about managing up and how to stand out, and those things are transferable. Sports is, though…this microcosm where it’s like, you know everybody. Everybody knows everybody. 

So breaking into that, you’ve got to be really good! And, quite frankly, that should be a goal of every young person: to be really good, to be the best, to work hard, to have a growth mindset.”

Patti also offers the advice to be conscious of who you surround yourself with, be a great communicator, and to have some grit in order to keep up with the busy and demanding schedule that comes with working in sports.

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