Transparency, Trust, and Team

Published On: Jan 1st 2023

InterviewSoftballTeam Building

Worried about one of his freshmen acclimating to college life, Oklahoma State softball coach Kenny Gajewski called her up and asked if the two could talk. She naturally worried that something was amiss, and to diffuse any concern, Gajewski suggested they meet for coffee. Midway through their klatch, the player’s face opened into a broad smile. “I can’t tell you how glad I am we did this,” she told her coach, “and how good this made me feel.”

Instinctually Gajewski almost asked, “Why didn’t you come see me before?” Instead, he turned the question on himself. “Why didn’t I ask?” Gajewski left the casual meet-up not only feeling better about his player’s future but wishing he knew then what he knew now.

Gajewski only recently started asking his recruits to take Profile assessments, looking for a way to gain a better understanding of how they think and also alert him to any problems they might have transitioning to college. If you had asked Gajewski about this particular athlete, there’s no way he would have suspected she would struggle. He thought for sure she’d slide right in with the Cowgirls. “The more I can know and understand faster and sooner, the better spot we’re in,” he says. “Maybe had I seen her profile, I would have realized this is something we have to figure out or work on.”

The irony is not lost on Gajewski that he is now so sold on Profile. Not too long ago, he would have fit securely in the skeptic camp. Gajewski took a circuitous, and he would say not recommended, path to his position at the pinnacle of his profession. As a college baseball player, he bounced from junior college to Division II until finally landing at the University of Oklahoma, where he won a national title in 1994. He segued into coaching but pivoted to turf and field maintenance, even starting three of his own turf companies in Norman, Oklahoma.

But like a lot of athletes, Gajewski missed the environment, and when his old college teammate, Tim Walton, offered him a position on the University of Florida softball staff, he jumped at it. It was there, at Florida, that Gajewski first encountered behavioral assessments. Frankly, he didn’t get it. Gajewski always considered himself a people person, the kind who could both own and read a room. “I was like, ‘we have the best team, the best coaches, great facilities, and a good budget. Why do we need this stuff? Let’s just do what we do,’” he says. As the Gators experienced unparalleled success, they would win two WCWS championships and appear in a third in his tenure, Gajewski found his answer.

At the top of the college athletics food chain, everyone has elite athletes capable of doing extraordinary things. What separates good from great and great from exceptional is the ability to channel that eliteness through motivation. That’s impossible to do without understanding a person beyond a very surface level. Gajewski changed his entire approach at Florida, turning away from his reluctance and instead turning to a word that has become his motto: relentlessness.

“I want to be relentless in figuring out how to get better,” he says. “And the only way to do that is to understand people. I have high caliber, elite athletes and some of the best coaches, but understanding how their brains and hearts work, that’s what I want to know.”

Gajewski brought his relentlessness to Stillwater, though at first, he admits, he forgot what he learned at Florida. Gajewski inherited a team that went just 3-13 in the Big 12 in the season before his arrival and quickly turned Oklahoma State into a winner. In his first season, the Cowgirls doubled their league win output, and in his second, they flipped the script to a winning conference record and a third-place Big 12 finish. “But I had a one-track mind intent on building a program,” Gajewski says. “I neglected the people.” He looks back now and sees places where he erred. In his first season, one of his players, Vanessa Shippy, kept asking him questions, peppering him so often that an exasperated Gajewski wished she would transfer. What he knows now but didn’t realize then is that she wasn’t questioning him; she was merely craving information. “I was busy being relentless about the wrong things,” he says. Vanessa Shippy-Fletcher is now his assistant coach.

Via a casual conversation with Oklahoma State men’s basketball coach Mike Boynton, Gajewski got wind of Profile and its CEO Chad Brown. Gajewski respected Boynton, as a person and appreciated how he was growing the Cowboys hoops team. His success sold Gajewski on reaching out to Brown. Brown came to campus, met with Gajewski and his staff and immediately Gajewski knew he was onto something. He cites a quote from a book he read, written by former North Carolina women’s soccer coach, Anson Dorrance: “girls don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It applies, he says, to both genders and really encapsulates what Profile has helped him do.

People - athletes, assistant coaches, anyone - need respect and trust, and the only way you can build that is by really understanding how they think. So many people, Gajewski believes, look at behavioral assessments the wrong way. That is to say, from their own viewpoint. What does the assessment say about them? Really, the trick is understanding how you can relate to others and how you can better understand them. Gajewski’s own assessment revealed no hidden truths. “Yep, that’s you,” his wife, Rachel, said when he shared his report. But because he shared his report with his staff and they shared theirs with him, everyone understood better why people were the way they were and what they needed to operate at their most successful. Gajewski points to a simple request for a meeting with his strength coach.

Without Profile, he likely would have summoned his coach to his office immediately. Instead, because he saw via his assessment that his strength coach needed time to prepare, he asked on a Friday to meet on a Monday. His coach used the weekend to gather his thoughts and prepare notes. “I use this stuff on a daily basis, with how I treat my staff and my kids,” Gajewski says. “Me and my coach, we’ve never been in a better place and it’s because of that one talk.”

Profile seeps into everything that Gajewski does. He’s not a big believer in the word “culture.” He believes it’s so overused that it’s lost its real value. Same with family. Instead, he preaches health for his program. He wants a team that thrives in a healthy environment built on trust and mutual respect. He starts building that foundation every August with a retreat to Broken Bow, Oklahoma. In the last two years, he’s taken that one step further, taking his team to Broken Bow between the end of the Big 12 Championship and the start of the NCAA Tournament. Refreshed and rejuvenated, the Cowgirls responded to the respite by advancing to the WCWS in both the 2021 and 2022 seasons. As his bio on the Oklahoma State webpage reads, “Gajewski puts the needs of his players first, enabling them to perform at their highest level.”

That, the coach says, is a direct result of his involvement with Profile. As a former skeptic himself, he understands why other coaches might not see the value in the assessments. But he challenges those skeptics to at least take an assessment for themselves. See its accuracy, as he did, and then be open-minded. “If it makes you think at all, imagine what it will do to everyone around you. How much better a workplace, a culture, a team you could have if you truly understood the why and the how and the what. You could have the best stadium in the world, but you better figure out the people who are walking through the doors and how they tick. When you have happy people and people with trust, the sky’s the limit for your team.”