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Volume 23 No. 17
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The ‘next’ will still involve helping sports scholars find their way

Jim Brown knew when to say when and so did Barry Sanders. Willie Mays didn’t, Joe Namath didn’t and arguably neither did Michael Jordan, who proved the third time is the charm. Since I made my announcement to transition/retire from my role in the Vinik program at USF, it is the question I have been asked hundreds of times. How did you know when it was time to leave?

There are a number of times in your career when you will be making a decision to leave, but most of those decisions are influenced by an opportunity — you are leaving to go to something else. Those are usually very positive changes as there is a level of excitement related to the move: new place, new organization, new responsibilities, etc. The decision to move is yours and is motivated by a desire for advancement, a new challenge, an opportunity to test yourself. Early in my career I made the decision to leave teaching (at that point four years at Robert Morris and four years at Ohio State) because I felt if I was advising students about the industry and careers, I need to have some experience in that area. I left for three years to work in a sports marketing agency, learned a lot and confirmed that the path I was putting students on was the correct one. Then I returned to teaching at UMass.

But there also may be times when you find you need to leave because you are unhappy. Seth Godin refers to this as The Dip. While it is always better to be going to something rather than away from something, it can be necessary for your own happiness and mental health. My father once told me: “If you can’t salute the general, it’s time to leave the army.” I interpreted that to mean if you don’t agree with the decisions or the direction of the organization, then you probably need to find a different situation where you will be happier and more productive.

Part of this month’s Last Lecture at USF included posing the question: Are you a WHY person or a WHY NOT person?
Part of this month’s Last Lecture at USF included posing the question: Are you a WHY person or a WHY NOT person?
Part of this month’s Last Lecture at USF included posing the question: Are you a WHY person or a WHY NOT person?

One of the topics I usually spend a lot of Dr. Bill time (personal counseling) on is the motivation for leaving. I have found that if you are chasing a title, you can be prone to accepting opportunities that are less than ideal because the title is driving the decision. I’m not saying you shouldn’t leave to accept a promotion. What I mean is that the title change should have its share of challenges and autonomy that will enable you to influence the organization and grow as a leader. If it’s just about the title or the money, you might find you are looking for another change sooner rather than later.

In my most recent Last Lecture at USF, I stressed to the students to find out if they are WHY people or WHY NOT people. I am a WHY NOT person and have found my greatest success and happiness working for WHY NOT leaders. If you are working for a WHY leader, you will need to answer questions and make a case. If you are working for a WHY NOT person, you may find yourself asking as many questions as you are answering, with most of the questions being originated by you.

During my time at the NBA I had the opportunity to work for Commissioner David Stern. While he appeared to be a WHY leader, he was merely looking for you to make the case and convince him. The TMBO department we created at the NBA was a perfect example and it is the epitome of a team services philosophy and approach 19 years after we first conceived it because it has been led by WHY NOT people. Oftentimes a WHY NOT person may not be happy working for a WHY person, so there would be another reason to make a change — as unhappy in work leads to unhappy at home and sleepless nights.

Bill Sutton is joined by wife Sharon and graduate assistants on graduation day.
Photo: courtesy of bill sutton (2)
Bill Sutton is joined by wife Sharon and graduate assistants on graduation day.
Photo: courtesy of bill sutton (2)
Bill Sutton is joined by wife Sharon and graduate assistants on graduation day.
Photo: courtesy of bill sutton (2)

As with any career change, retirement and transition is dependent upon what you are planning to do next, not what you are leaving (although it’s hard to separate them). I had truly accomplished everything I had set out to do at USF. We had become the Vinik program, our student employment after graduation was 99%, we were creating international experiences, we created a two-year co-op approach to learning with our residency program and we were ranked as the fourth-best graduate program in the world (SportBusiness International rankings) all in a seven-year span. I knew it was time to leave because I wasn’t able to identify and plan what we should do next. It was time for a new leader. It was fortunate that I had a successor in place with Dr. Michelle Harrolle. I could focus on what Commissioner Stern had told me to do: Find something to go to.

So now that I have said when (Aug. 7), it now falls to me to figure out what is next. I plan to keep my consulting business as it has been very fulfilling and I really enjoy my clients. I also plan to improve my golf game, and travel for pleasure more often with my wife Sharon. But during my time teaching and working in the industry I have formed friendships and relationships with some of the best and brightest minds in the industry. What excites me is the challenge of building and my desire to help people find where they are meant to be in terms of employment. I can assure you that I will be involved in building something that will benefit young people and continue to help them as they move throughout their careers. In fact, you may be reading about it in this publication in the very near future.

And one more thing: I’ll continue writing Sutton Impact no matter what my next may be.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.