There could be a multitude of duties thrust upon a person who is performing interim duties, knowing full well that they won’t be doing them on a permanent basis.
That’s the knowledge and understanding that comes to somebody who already has been in the same position years before.
The interim position is still a temporary moment in time, but the duties remain incalculably important.
Thus, Sean Lester, currently the Interim Athletics Director at the University of Kansas, wakes up each day, goes to work and tries to maintain a high level of focus while he’s in charge of the department that oversees approximately 500 student-athletes, coaches and staff that covers 16 men’s and women’s programs.
Lester, along with KU football coach David Beaty and a number of Kansas Alumni Association officials, were in town Thursday for a luncheon at The Golf Club at Southwind to meet with alumni and KU supporters from southwest Kansas.
Lester, who has been with the KU Athletics Department for 15 years, said that his primary duty as the interim AD was to internally maintain focus, while externally communicating to the Jayhawk faithful across the country.
“There’s a lot of student-athletes and coaches who need attention to know that things are stable,” Lester said in an exclusive interview with The Telegram on Thursday. “The best part of my job is I get up every day and come to work at a great university with great people, and we’ve got great coaches and great student-athletes.”
Lester arrived as his current, but temporary, position when Sheahon Zenger was fired last month by new chancellor, Douglas Girod, M.D., who has been in that position since July 1, 2017.
Zenger, a colleague and friend of Lester’s, had served in the AD position since the spring of 2011, before being fired by Girod on May 21, for what the chancellor called a “lack of progress” within the department.
“Sheahon is definitely a personal friend and an unbelievable colleague,” Lester said of his former boss. “But when you move into my current position, you just have to put all of that aside and focus on the job at hand. Being here 15 years, there are certain areas I know how the leadership is going and that allows me to shift focus to other areas, and just tighten things up and rally the department. We have to control the message.”
Lester said he has been impressed with the leadership skills of the new KU chancellor.
“He’s a surgeon, and in that profession, you analyze things meticulously and make decisions,” Lester said of Girod. “He’s very good at analyzing and then very good at decision-making.”
Lester said that he has found that student-athletes remain focused on being successful and developing winning programs no matter who is at the top of the athletic department.
“The kids are gonna train every day because they want to win,” Lester said. “What I do, what we do at the administrative level, is all about the kids, and our mission to educate them and help them be part of a winning tradition.”
Lester said that external message comes from contact with the KU Alumni Association, the KU Endowment Association and the Williams Education Fund, the fund-raising arm of the athletics department.
“Getting the right message out to our folks around the country,” Lester said of his main role. “You need to have two-way conversations with your supporters. There is the message that you get from the media and what is said in social media these days. What does this mean (the message)? There’s two sides to every story, and we need to remain out in front to communicate our goals, our objectives, so people understand.”
Lester said one thing he doesn’t do with his interim duties is set long term vision goals.
“I just try to tighten things up so when the next athletic director comes in, there is an order and a direction for him to follow,” Lester said. “Then, there will be a momentum of his or her hiring that we want to build on. Thanks to the Jayhawk Nation, there is a level of attention that they deserve.”
One thing Lester won’t be involved in is the hiring process of his future new boss.
“No, that’s for others to determine,” Lester said with a smile.
With a number of high profile facility projects on the horizon — football, volleyball, golf — there is plenty for Lester to be addressing.
“All of those are part of our long-term initiatives,” Lester said. “It allows us to get them into a state where we’re competitive with other institutions. When the new AD arrives, I can show him here’s where we are, and then he or she can determine what to do going forward.”
Certainly, Lester said, the proposed $350 million football stadium project is at the top of the list.
“We’ve got to get the football process going, no doubt about it,” Lester said. “It’s no secret that football drives so much of the success of an athletic department and its programs, so we want to make sure we provide everything that program needs to be successful.”
Ever mindful of his primary responsibilities, Lester said he learned from his first tour of duty as an interim AD from September 2010 to February 2011, when Lew Perkins was fired and Zenger eventually hired.
“You have to be able to know how to shift from one person to another,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure everybody’s willing to collaborate and help people come together.”
Lester said the KU athletic department is strong in many different ways.
“We’ve got great leadership from a number of different people, and we’re in a strong financial position,” Lester said. “We’ve got great leadership from our coaches. When you’re competing at the level we do, nobody can shy away from setting goals to be competitive at a high level. If you’re gonna compete at this level, then you’ve got to support it in every way.”
No matter how long, or how short, the period of time is for him to continue with the interim duties, Lester said he continues to stay focused on what he feels is most important right now.
“It’s easy going to work every day, because I’m working with kids and coaches who want to win,” Lester said. “That’s the best part of what I do.”