Q&A: Rhonda Blanford-Green talks becoming CHSAA commissioner, plans for the future

CHSAA seal plaque

(Ryan Casey/CHSAANow.com)

Rhonda Blanford-Green is ready for the challenges in front of her. But don't expect, as she says, a "change agent."

On March 15, CHSAA's Board of Directors hired Blanford-Green to be the Association's next commissioner. She will succeed Paul Angelico, a mentor and close friend, to become the ninth CHSAA commissioner.

"My culture is Colorado culture. That's where I cut my administrative teeth," she said this week. "Are there going to be changes eventually? Absolutely. But I don't have this laundry list of things that people are telling me or that I want to fix."

Blanford-Green worked at CHSAA for 16 years, including time as the associate commissioner, before taking the job as the executive director of the Nebraska School Activities Association in 2012. Currently, Blanford-Green is the assistant executive director of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, and has been since 2015.

Those experiences in Nebraska and Louisiana, she said, "assisted me in becoming better. Colorado is getting a better version of me than the one that they may have appointed to the position."

Blanford-Green will be introduced to the CHSAA membership next week at the Legislative Council meeting, and also attend the Board of Directors meeting prior to that.

After finishing out her time at LHSAA, she will assume her new role at CHSAA on July 1.

We caught up with Blanford-Green this week to get her thoughts on her new job, her history, the challenges CHSAA is facing, and much more.

Question: Has your phone stopped ringing since you were hired?

(Courtesy of Rusty Costanza)

Rhonda Blanford-Green: Once the release went out, my phone, Facebook friend requests, and LHSAA email blew up. I even received cards at the temporary office where we have been housed since the flood.

The congratulatory messages meant so much. I even received some unsolicited professional and personal advice, but it's all good.

Q: That's pretty amazing. Especially people sending you — I mean, who mails stuff anymore?

Blanford-Green: (Laughs) I know! Within the congratulations, Paul was often mentioned. He is so highly respected not only in Colorado but with our sectional states and nationally. It is a complement to know that people think our leadership and communication styles are similar. Open, honest, direct, passionate about students and educationally based programs, we don't have much gray.

Q: That kind of leads me to my next question, which is that you've been mentored by and have worked under Bob (Ottewill), Bill (Reader), and Paul (Angelico). What do you take away from each of them?

Blanford-Green: When I sit in the commissioner's chair, there will be a piece of Bob, Bill and Paul in that office and in that chair. When you've been mentored by the top-of-the-line administrators, you can't help but exhibit their leadership styles, their communication styles, their core values. They will continue to have a seat at the table.

It's no different than coaching. I've been coached by a diverse group of coaches, from gymnastics to cheerleading, to track and field, to volleyball. When I coached on the high school and collegiate level, I was amazed at how my coaching style was shaped by the coaches that influenced me the most. I have to believe that my leadership style has evolved into the administrators that I have admired and been influenced by the most. I've also started to sound like my mother (laughs).

Q: You're a member of four Halls of Fame. And a big part of that is your athletic success. So how does your athletic life kind of shape who you are now?

Blanford-Green: 85 percent of the women in Fortune 500 companies competed in athletics and/or activities either in high school or college. I believe that athletics and participation shaped who I am. I still remember activities from student council that taught character building and collaboration — I was in student council, no one ever talks about my student council history (laughs) — I'm not the initiator of this idea, just the result. Anyone can Google the "benefits of participating in interscholastic activities" and know that no other high school experience is as impactful for a student's life-long tool box.

 The Halls of Fame inductions are a recognition of the totality of my athletic success. But the building of my character, integrity, perseverance, team concept, and ability to lead, comes directly from my participation.

Anyone who is part of our programs, or part of athletics and activity programs and has great mentors, coaches, music and/or speech directors leaves better than they came. You don't have to be a champion, you don't have to be an 11-time All-American to walk away with a sense of accomplishment, just by being involved, you feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself.

Q: That kind of ties into what Joe (Ehrmann) and Jody (Redman) have been building around the country (with the InSideOut Initiative).

Blanford-Green: Colorado was one of the only states in the nation to be selected to incorporate this platform in their educational outreaches. This program aligns with the CHSAA mission and vision. Ms. Redman is a colleague and friend and she speaks highly about Paul and the CHSAA administrators that have embraced and become intentional about changing the culture of why we do, what we do.

We are high school activities — 92 percent of our student-participants don't participate after high school. We get four years to make an impact that will last a lifetime, and that's a huge responsibility.  I am looking forward to being involved when they return to Colorado in August to begin the second phase of their national platform.

Q: One thing about you is that pretty much wherever you're going, you're breaking some kind of barrier. That's true again here, being our first female commissioner, and also our first African-American commissioner. What does that mean to you?

Rhonda Blanford-Green

Blanford-Green: I used to think that it was a compliment when someone would say to me that they didn't see color. In the last 10 years or so, I thought that if they don't see that I'm a black female, then there's a part of me that they're dismissing.

I don't emphasize it but I also know that it's important to recognize the first and then it becomes a non-topic. It is who I am, and it tends to make for a good story. Barriers and glass ceilings have to be broken by someone.

Lean-In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, co-written by Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) sold millions of copies. I believe because women in highly-visible leadership positions, and especially women of color in those positions, are still talking points.

Q: What about from a student standpoint?

Blanford-Green: Diversity is important to inclusiveness of our Association. We have a responsibility to role model and provide a space for diverse groups, not just color and gender but students with special needs, and socio-economic challenges.

Activity and athletic participation brings together groups of students with school environments and life experiences different from their own. One has to believe within the construct of competition, the opportunities for exposure will facilitate a level of acceptance and diminish misconceptions.

If a member school and/or parent comes in for a hardship waiver and feels that those in the room can't relate to their issue or their story, then a person can go in a different direction of why they think a decision will be made for or against them. We have to be respectful of that perception. We have to be mindful of the messages we send, how we make decisions, how we select activity, athletic and appeals committees.

If we can take away perceived biases, then we can actually get to what we should be addressing and focusing on.

Q: What do you think you can take away from your time in Nebraska, and now also in Louisiana?

Blanford-Green: I'm going to start off by saying how excited I was when I heard that the Board was going to open up position after appointing an internal candidate for the past 27 years. I served as the CHSAA Associate and when I made that decision to leave for Nebraska, I knew that by accepting the position, I could be eliminating myself from consideration for a future Colorado Commissioner's position.

As I told the Board in the interview, my three years in Nebraska, my two years in Louisiana, the experiences — good and bad — the challenges, the decision-making, the diverse opportunities, assisted me in becoming better. Colorado is getting a better version of me than the one that they may have appointed to the position.

I had a great experience in Nebraska, I had an even better experience in Louisiana, which culminates into the inspiration and enthusiasm that I have in accepting the Commissioner's position. Together, we will definitely raise the bar!

It is important that people hear that I wasn't hired as a change agent. The CHSAA Board of a directors made it clear that I was being hired to lead the Association. How refreshing!

I have come to discover that micro-management doesn't lead to empowerment but it does slowly kill the spirit. Positive growth and innovation doesn't come by feeling comfortable. I'll make some mistakes but it won't be because I was afraid to challenge the status quo on behalf of the staff, membership, and Colorado students.

Communication, trust, competency and collaboration along with mission driven decisions and ideas, will takes us to the next level.

Q: You've mentioned that a few times, that you're not here to be a change agent. You have said that we don't need to make all kinds of changes early on. Why is that?

CHSAA building

(Ryan Casey/CHSAANow.com)

Blanford-Green: I think part of being a good leader is listening, and doing your homework and your research. You can tell when a state association is in crisis, and that it will require leadership to come in and start moving right away. That could be an association in stagnation; 20th-century bylaws in the 21st-century; an association that believes that at-large positions without voting rights promote diverse representation. Aagggghh! I knew where educationally-based activities are progressing, and I needed to bring those people along.

The CHSAA has a reputation for getting in front of issues, not deciding to address them after 30 other states do so, or with the threat of litigation or legislative proposals before taking action. I am excited that those barriers won't distract me from doing my job and serving the membership to the fullest.

My culture is Colorado culture. That's where I cut my administrative teeth. Unfortunately for other states, they've had to hear about Colorado all the time. I'm sure neither state has or will miss the comparisons.

Are there going to be changes eventually? Absolutely. But I don't have this laundry list of things that people are telling me or that I want to fix.

I'm excited to come in, take my time, listen to the staff, the membership, our educational partners, and more importantly the Board of Directors before creating a priority list. This mindset comes with administrative maturity, and can only be gained through trial-and-error and past experiences.

My number one goal is to travel the state of Colorado and reestablish those relationships, be at every fall league meeting, meet with our corporate partners, legislators, and educational institutions, including CASE or CASB. My 100-day plan is to reestablish those relationships, and put a face to the name, and reassure our educational partners that the commitment and narrative established by Paul is going to continue through my leadership.

Q: Some of that stability, too, is keeping (associate commissioner) Tom (Robinson) in the office. Why did you feel that was important, and how did you make that happen?

Blanford-Green: I would say about 30 minutes after accepting the job, in the midst of contract negotiations, I asked the Board members if they would mind if I reached out to Tom. The Board members said, "Absolutely 100 percent."

I made a phone call to Tom Robinson and, after talking with his "better half," he accepted. It's a dream to be able to work closely with Tom. I have always called him my "voice of reason."

How blessed am I to have that opportunity to work with him, the excellent CHSAA staff and the Board of Directors as I navigate my first year?

Q: You started a lot of things here that are still in place, things like the CHSAA mission statement, the core values, "We Are CHSAA," along with some diversity initiatives that still stand. Are you excited to come back and work with some of these things you've already established?

Blanford Green: I'm not afraid to have the conversations or bring forth ideas on behalf of the membership and our student programs to keep us relevant. Revising the mission statement, or creating slogans like "We Are CHSAA," and equity programs that illustrate our message and goals, is what we do.

I try not to be a change person just to change. And to know that those ideas and platforms are still prominent and promoting our brand, says to me that our vision is aligned! That's exciting!

Q: What are some of the challenges you think we're facing down the line?

Blanford-Green: We will always need to be in front of safety and risk issues that keep our student athletes safe which protect our membership and coaches. Recruitment, retention and education of quality officials, is a national conversation. Communicating our purpose in the midst of academic changes, club sports, out-of-building coaches, decreased revenue streams, and unrealistic parental expectations will always be a challenge.

The positives are that 50 other state associations face these challenges. I won't be shy about conversations with their Commissioners and/or national organizations to tap into their best practices and ideas.