Last Updated on April 18, 2022
Interview with Professor Zack Damon
Sport's Degrees Online's Bryan Haggerty had the chance to catch up with Professor Zack Damon, Assistant Professor of Sport Management at the University of Central Arkansas. Dr. Damon offered his thoughts about the evolution of Leadership and Organizational Theory in Sport, advice on how to choose the right sport management program and tips on setting yourself up for success in the sports industry.
About Professor Zack Damon
Professor Zack Damon earned his PhD in Sport Management from Texas A&M University. His research interests include organizational and leadership theory in sport, specifically examining leadership in sport organizations as well as follower development. Professor Damon's goal is to assist practitioners in the industry through research and consulting opportunities geared around organizational performance and management.
Sports Degrees Online: Professor Damon – while earning your PhD in Sport Management, you completed your thesis is Leadership and Organizational Theory. Can you talk a bit about your research interests, and how changes in approaches to leadership are changing the sports industry?
Professor Zack Damon: Broadly speaking, my research interests revolve around leadership in sport as it pertains to how followers develop leadership skills and eventually into leaders, how leaders can communicate better and more effectively with a servant leadership style of approach, and how leaders comprehend and engage in their own decision-making process.
I am especially excited about continuing to explore how followers develop into the next wave of leaders as much of my current, in-progress work has started to bear fruit on what that development process entails. This relates to how changes in approaches to leadership will continue to change as we see more and more of an emphasis on leaders in sport to be better and more ethical. I believe it is difficult to un-train or un-develop leaders who have achieved levels of success or positions of leadership who engage in unethical leadership behaviors, so this line of research that focuses on the followers as the up-and-coming leaders offers a chance to turn back the page and hopefully negate some of those behaviors that we see too often. If we think of any sport scandal that could have been stopped with a leader who enacted greater integrity, ethics, better communication, or was better developed to handle tough situations; then we may not see quite so many scandals so often. That is my goal with my research and part of the changes in approaches to leadership that we are seeing.
Additionally, as we move off the so-called traditional styles or types of leaders, we are beginning to see a greater opportunity for those from backgrounds who have been excluded from leadership positions in sport to achieve such positions. There is still considerable work to be done on the diversity, equity, and inclusion front in leadership positions in sport. The changes away from the traditional models or traditional line of thinking that a leader can only be a straight white man is allowing for greater growth through approaches such as the notion of socially constructed leadership, which allows for greater leadership recognition for women, non-binary, LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous and people of color as well as other people who have been marginalized from leadership opportunities. Leadership teams of sport organizations should be cognizant of this shift as well, and hopefully start to reconstruct their leadership teams, development training, and hiring processes as such.
Lastly, we have seen a shift or a call to engage with the sport industry and its practitioners more from the academic side. This changing approach is needed to continue to evolve the industry, but also to open up deeper research connections with leaders in the industry, bring in the current practices into the classroom to better inform how we are teaching leadership to our students, and to open up a two-way street of collaboration between academics/students and practitioners to cultivate better sport leadership around the world. Different cultures view sport and leadership in different ways, particularly different than what the US may be used to for example. Our students and even us academics can learn so much by expanding the cultures that we study as well as help inform change through research that this symbiotic relationship is paramount for sport leadership growth across industry, research, and teaching. Myself and several colleagues will be launching a formal sport leadership group in this exact spirit to connect practitioners, academics, and students together.
Sports Degrees Online: Many Sport Management students may not have considered doing a concentration – or even taking a course – in sport leadership. Can you explain how an understanding of sport leadership could help students on their career journey?
Professor Zack Damon: Absolutely! When I teach sport leadership as a course to students or even work with teams through consulting their leadership development, I like to frame the understanding and importance of sport leadership basics as the following: chances are there are a group of people in this class that want to achieve a formal leadership position, such as General Manager (GM). There is also a chance that another group of people may not want to achieve a formal leadership position and title but will still have opportunities to be a leader in whatever role they pursue and achieve. This is where preparation meets opportunity for both groups of people to be their best. No matter what career aspirations they have most people do not want to just be mediocre at their career.
This is where having even a basic understanding of sport leadership can help. This also goes back to the notion that leadership now can be more and more recognized as a socially constructed and acknowledged notion rather than only being recognized through a formal title. We can lead every day, no matter what our business card may say. At the very least, we should be leading ourselves and bettering ourselves if we are not directly leading others. We also need to be aware when we may be indirectly leading others and hold influence over them because without knowing it, we may be positively or negatively influencing those around us.
Lastly, studying sport leadership helps students be aware of where their leaders are coming from and the various pressures that those in certain positions face. This is especially important for those who achieve any position that amounts to a mid-level manager or leader, as people in these positions must lead in two directions – below or with their team as well as lead above to their own supervisor/leader. Being aware of different leadership styles and how leaders can most efficiently communicate is paramount to be a successful mid-level leader. Additionally, beyond these broad aspects, understanding that leadership is a process and not a journey will help students realize that the development into a leader and the work to achieve a position does not stop once they achieve a title or promotion. Rather, the work shifts to different aspects of the organization. Leaders are responsible for the vision, culture, and brand of an organization. Often, the skills and behaviors needed to cultivate these things is much different than being the most successful salesperson or executing multiple marketing campaigns. So, having the understanding and studying leadership early on can help students forge a career plan and hopefully, help them identify a mentor or team of mentors to help them along their leadership process.
Sports Degrees Online: It is no secret that launching a career in sports is more competitive than other fields. What advice do you have for soon-to-be graduates who are trying to find their professional footing in the sports industry?
Professor Zack Damon: What I try to imbue to my soon-to-be graduates or anyone else who is about to enter the field revolves around the following. First, communicate well. You can have all the skills and knowledge in the world, but no one will know unless you can communicate and show these things properly. This could be in an interview, it could be by building up your network so that the right people know you and know what you can do, and it can also be by having a portfolio. This is especially true for those getting into sport analytics. Being able to show examples of code that you have written or the problems that your analytics code in R or Python can help solve is a huge advantage. The portfolio can apply to sport marketing as well or just about any aspect of sport that someone is looking to break into.
Second, continue to train and practice the soft skills. I hear this from my connections in the industry all the time: students who just graduate might know the marketing mix or know the pricing structure for different ticket packages, but if they lack the soft skills then the hard skills and hard knowledge risks sitting idle. This relates to the communication part, but it also emphasizes my third point; and that is the sport industry is ever-dynamic and ever-changing. The knowledge that you learned last year may be nearing obsolete by the time you graduate, but what won’t be obsolete is having polished soft skills. An organization can teach and develop the new knowledge and dynamic changes going on in the industry. That is part of the job.
What most organizations won’t have the time for is to teach someone both the hard knowledge and the soft skills. There are plenty of other applicants out there, so make sure you have the soft skills and acknowledge the dynamic aspect of the sport industry. This will probably come up during an interview and is one of the easiest ways to show that you can provide a competitive advantage by acknowledging one or two trends and ideas on how you and the organization can adapt to capitalize on them. Fourth, do not be afraid to fail. It sounds cliché to say that students should not be afraid to fail or take risks, but really after you leave the comfort and safety net of a classroom, taking a risk and potentially failing is where the continued learning happens in life. To help with taking a risk or when you do fail, my fifth and final piece of advice comes in here: have a mentor or a team of mentors. No one successful has achieved success without a mentor or mentors. They help during the times of failure or to help hone in on what risks to take, and if you have a good one, they are essentially cheat codes for career paths. They have probably already failed in similar ways too and can steer you away from the same mistakes and teach you the lessons without having to go through the failure personally since they have been in the same spot. A good mentor can also give you the confidence boost you need when going for a promotion or pitching a new idea.
Additionally, in the sport industry most people seem to genuinely want to see others succeed too. A mentor will want this for you and can be a catalyst for your success in several ways. All five pieces of advice tend to not come at once. Just like leadership is a process, so too is compiling all of these aspects but the continual process of learning and improving will accelerate your success in the sport industry.
Sports Degrees Online: There are so many Sport Management programs to choose from at the bachelor’s and master’s level, it may be overwhelming for prospective students to choose which program is the best fit for them. What factors should students keep in mind as they are trying to choose a program?
Professor Zack Damon: This is a great question, and one that I get asked quite often by prospective students. This kind of decision boils down to a mixture of personal factors on the student’s part as well as a mixture of what different programs have to offer. It may be more difficult to answer the exact personal factors when looking at the bachelor’s level since we are naturally just getting into our careers and figuring out what we want to do and do not want to do with our lives, but that is okay and is part of the learning process.
Students should keep in mind what they want to achieve and where they want to be at the end of their degree program, whether it is a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree. Try to put yourself in your future self’s shoes four or two years down the road. What do you hope you will have learned and what do you hope or intend to be doing then? If it is working with a specific sport organization then finding a program that has potential ties to that organization may sway, you to choose that university. If it is to work in a specific position or field within sport, such as sport marketing or sport-for-development, then finding a program that has the curriculum and connections tailored to those aspects will be key rather than a specific university location.
Other points to consider is how long it will take to complete the program? Some master’s programs are designed such that you can work full time while still be enrolled while others are more of a full-time commitment. Your own life situation will partially dictate which options are the best for you.
Additionally, if you are interested in a niche area of sport – such as analytics – then finding a program that has the curriculum tailored to your interest should be a top of the list priority. This is where the offerings of different programs may influence a student’s choice as well. There is also the brand equity of a university or program name to consider, and the reputation that graduating from certain programs brings with it. Older programs will have more alumni and thus, probably greater networking opportunities. However, younger programs may be more innovative with their teaching style, adhere to more of the non-traditional scheduling of classes that can provide greater flexibility, and offer growth opportunities as the program matures.
I would also recommend that students look at the faculty at the programs that they are interested in. We have extensive networks within the sport industry and are always looking to grow our networks to help our students make connections. Different faculty will have different connections based on their own interests and experiences too and finding a faculty member or two at a program who have similar interests as a student does can offer great benefits to potentially building rapport with the faculty and learning even more about shared interests.
The biggest piece of advice that I usually leave students with is to consider fit and feel. How do they feel after talking to people (current or former students, faculty, industry personnel) about a program or how do they feel after researching a program? How do they see themselves fitting into the program? Do they want a smaller program where they may not get lost in the numbers of students? Or do they want a larger program and the opportunity to stand out amongst a larger number of peers? Do they feel as though they would fit in with the culture of the program and the learning opportunities?
Unfortunately, these questions have no one-size fits all answers. I think this is a great highlight though of just how many sport management programs we have, and the unique offerings of each program.
The good news is that there is a program for you. There may even be multiple ones! It may just take some time and research to find the one that will answer your questions the best. I recommend creating a list of priorities that a prospective student values in a program. It may change over time or the ranking of each may change, but get a list started and then begin to match programs to those items that you value the most. This will help cut down on the potential to get overwhelmed trying to sift through all of the programs. Once you have a list of three-to-five programs or so, start reaching out to faculty and students of those programs to gain further insights, then revise your list and rankings again. This process should refine your own values and priorities while also allowing you to shift what programs you rank at the top. After doing this, you should be ready to apply to your top choice or choices.