SBJ/Sept. 11-17, 2017/Game Changers

Jennifer Cohen, University of Washington


J
ennifer Cohen had worked at the University of Washington for nearly 20 years by the time she was named the school’s athletic director in 2016, making her just the third female AD in the power five at the time. That was good because she was surrounded by familiar faces in her new role, which would make for an easier transition.

Jennifer Cohen
University of Washington // Athletic director
The deeper Cohen got into the AD job, though, the more she recognized the need for a culture checkup. Football coach Chris Petersen gave Cohen a book, “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni, and it asks six fairly simple questions about your organization.

“I really struggled to answer them,” Cohen said. “It was a light-bulb moment for me because, if I’m having a hard time, how is everyone else behaving within the organization?”

So Cohen established what she called a one-page playbook intended to guide the athletic department in its decision-making. One of the questions is, “What’s important now?” Washington had projected a $6 million deficit for 2016-17, so Cohen determined that financial stability would be the most important objective. Sure enough, the Huskies finished the academic year with cash in their pocket.

That had nothing to do with being a female AD, she said. It was just being an effective leader, which is how Cohen hopes she’s perceived.

“You’re looked at a little differently; I understand that,” she said. “But I spend very little time thinking about my gender. I don’t want to perpetuate a stereotype. I’m an athletic director, I’m a leader; I don’t look at myself as a female athletic director or a female leader.”

By the same token, Cohen hopes to feed the passion she sees in up-and-coming female administrators who aspire to be ADs.

— Michael Smith



  • Where born: Arcadia, Calif.
  • Education: San Diego State University, B.A. in physical education; Pacific Lutheran University; M.A. in physical education/sports administration.
  • Attributes I look for when hiring: Someone with a growth mindset. To be truly great, we have to always be evolving, growing, learning and even failing.
  •  Networking tip I’ve learned: Be genuine. Make real and meaningful relationships that are mutual, with people that help to push you to get better in all aspects of your life.
  • Best advice I’ve received for career development: Is not to put yourself on a strict timeline. Focus and trust the process. You will end up where you need to be if you are your very best you can be every day.
  • Sports business industry can foster a healthier work-life balance by: Practicing the principles we teach our student athletes every day. Sleep, nutrition, stress management, personal relationships, exercise, mindfulness all lead to great performance. As professionals, we need to prioritize this in our lives, too.
  • If I had it to do over again, I would: Be easier on myself. I learned later in my life to approach myself with curiosity versus judgment. I spent a lot of years being too critical.
  • Woman in sports business I’d most like to meet: Jen Welter. As a kid, I dreamed of being a football coach. To be the first female coach in the NFL is remarkable, and I have great admiration for her courage and will.
  • Causes supported: I support Childhaven, Catholic schools, the University of Washington educational and sports programs.

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