The last word

Regardless of the profession, those who are in the early stages of their careers live with thoughts about “the next step” in the back of their minds.

It can become all-consuming when those thoughts flow to the surface, especially if there’s any hint of uncertainty. Talk with most any assistant golf course superintendent about his career and you can sense the angst. Golf is not growing. Superintendents are staying in their jobs longer. Golf courses are shutting down. Budgets are being cut. They love what they do, but they’re worried if they’ll be able to do it in the future.

Perhaps the best advice I’ve heard on such a situation comes from what on the surface would appear to be the most unlikely source: a college football coach. Kansas State University Head Coach Bill Snyder is arguably among the best collegiate coaches, not only among those currently in the position, but of all time. He took the worst football program in NCAA Division I history and has made it a perennial top-25 team. His teams play with tremendous discipline and are always well prepared. Heck, he has a highway and football stadium named after him, and the university has a leadership curriculum based on his philosophies.

One might be surprised to learn that Snyder’s first college head coaching job didn’t come until he was a few months shy of his 50th birthday. He had prepared his whole life to finally realize his dream. But most viewed the opportunity presented by Kansas State as more of a nightmare. The program was in just as much disrepair off the field as it was on the field.

At a news conference a few years after Snyder had taken the job, the line of questioning turned to Snyder’s career. Why did he not become a college coach earlier in his life? Was he going to move onto a more lucrative job? Had he done all he could at Kansas State?

Snyder rarely shows his cards, but those sitting across the table from him know he’s always uber-prepared. In a rare display of openness, he recalled a conversation he had with legendary Southern California Head Coach John McKay while Snyder was serving as a graduate assistant on the Trojan staff in 1966 (the position was tantamount to being an intern at a Golf Digest Top-100 golf course). The subject was the progression of one’s career in the coaching business.

McKay told Snyder that his energy shouldn’t be directed toward getting the next job, but rather on doing the best job he could do in his current position and contributing to the overall success of the program. McKay’s philosophy was that this mindset would prepare coaches for the next job when it becomes available.

It’s not that Snyder decided then and there that he would eschew the nomadic life typical of most football coaches. He did go on to other high school and college coaching positions. But McKay’s words influenced Snyder’s focus and served to establish his first principle in leadership: goal attainment. Leaders should set goals based on priorities and personal values, put a plan in place to accomplish the goals, and then passionately work the plan to achieve such goals.

Snyder’s views certainly aren’t revolutionary. But they do cause one to pause for some self-reflection when it comes to career movement. Snyder had opportunities to be a head college coach when he was much younger, but, ultimately, he turned them down. He took the job at Kansas State because he felt he was prepared and the situation matched his goals and personal values.

If the opportunity for advancement does present itself, be sure you’re making the move for the right reasons.

The short-term gain can quickly turn to long-term pain.