It’s good to be Josh Whitman — CEO of his alma mater’s athletic department, one of just 14 anywhere in 2023 with a football team in a bowl game and both basketball teams in NCAA tournament brackets.
But Josh Whitman, Indiana teenager, finally old enough to work and eager to get to detasseling corn for his buddy’s dad’s business? Not so good.
“Man. Very early mornings, walking the long rows of corn in the blazing sun or the pouring rain, wearing long sleeves and pants to prevent cuts from the corn leaves and hanging garbage bags over our torsos to block the dew and the rain ... it was a tough gig,” he says.
A Bronze Tablet-winning finance major and Academic All-American tight end whose first career choice, professional football player, didn’t pan out — “I was cut, or fired, seven times before I was 25 years old” — Whitman made the most of his next two, first as a lawyer, then an AD.
Now in his eighth year back on campus, Whitman lives in the family’s new home north of Mahomet with wife Hope, kids Tate and Will, Scout the dog (after the character in “To Kill a Mockingbird”) and Dreamsicle the cat (“named by our daughter because she is orange and white”).
Whitman, who holds degrees from the UI's Gies College of Business (2001) and College of Law (2008), took park in The News-Gazette's weekly "Beyond the Boardroom" feature, spotlighting leaders of organizations big and small.
My professional role models are ... my parents. Both were teachers, and my dad was a coach. They taught me how to find the intersection between your passion and your profession.
They instilled in me a love of education and sports, two things that have obviously formed the contours of my career. They demonstrated remarkable work ethic.
And they showed me how to be present, loving, supportive parents while being dedicated professionals.
As far as my philosophy on meetings goes ... I think the utility of meetings varies dramatically based on the organization. I still prefer the office drop-in for an unscheduled conversation — in my opinion, losing that opportunity was one of the biggest COVID workplace casualties.
For us at DIA, I think productive, efficient meetings are a critical component of our day-to-day operations. We try to make sure we have the right people in the room, follow the right agenda, and ask the right questions to tease out the best ideas.
Sometimes, that can take 30 minutes. Sometimes, that can take three hours.
The hardest thing about being a leader is ... it can be a lonely journey. You have a broad network, great, rewarding relationships and incredible memories and experiences, but at the end of the day, when it comes time for the hard decisions, they rest squarely on your shoulders.
And it is unrealistic — and, in some ways, unfair — for you to expect anyone else to fully understand the weight of that burden or to share in bearing that responsibility.
When it comes to my single favorite moment in this job … I have been fortunate to have countless memories that mean more to me than I can adequately describe.
They range from large-scale, public successes (incredible victories in our various sports, including comebacks made and championships won) to private, individual moments (conversations with coaches, colleagues, donors or student-athletes in my office or on the road that reinforce why I chose to dedicate my life to college sports) to events (or, in some cases, non-events) that I’ll never be able to talk about except with a select few people.
This role brings with it many opportunities for remarkable experiences, relationships and memories.well-being. I almost always do it by myself, and almost always early in the morning. The quiet, the solitude and the exertion are very therapeutic for me, and I do some of my best thinking while sweating.
Hope will tell you that I am a much more tolerable — dare I say pleasant? — person when I am on my regular fitness routine.
The three adjectives I hope my staff would use to describe me are ... Competitive. Strategic. Focused.
I knew this is what I wanted to do for a living ... early in my college years, when I first gained an appreciation for the size and scope of a college athletics program and the leadership role of a college athletic director.
Ron Guenther opened my eyes at a young age to the work happening behind the curtain to create such a meaningful opportunity for the student-athletes in the program.
On my office walls, you’ll find … not a lot go wall space. I have a lot of windows. But on the walls I have, you’ll find some cool Illini mementos.
I’m frugal in that ... I hate spending money on luggage and clothes. I’ll wear things for a long, long time.
Until not too long ago, I would still wear a jacket that I got in college. I have jeans, shirts, socks that are 10 to 15 years old.
My luggage has to practically fall apart before I buy something new — everything I have is torn and stained, with broken zippers, straps and handles.
If I could trade places for a week with any other business person in town, I wouldn’t mind switching with ... Carle CEO Dr. Jim Leonard. Jim has become a good friend and mentor, and I have such respect for his thoughtfulness, perspective and leadership, both within his own organization and across our community.
Jim’s leadership has propelled Carle to become one of our most impactful local organizations, not only for the care they provide but for the engagement they demonstrate in all corners of our community.
When it comes to my one unbreakable rule of the workplace ... as our coaches would say, be about the name on the front of the jersey. If we set our individual egos aside and do the right things for the right reasons, we will experience success as a program and individual recognition, opportunity and reward will follow.
But if we chase individual goals first, we will never meet our program’s full potential.
The single-most-important question I ask job candidates during interviews is ... why do they want to work for the athletic program at the University of Illinois? Why, specifically, Illinois?
The first thing I do when I get to work most days is … jump into my first meeting.
For lunch, I ... often skip, unless I have a meeting or work function. Seven Saints is a Whitman family favorite. I’m embarrassed to admit how much we eat there. The servers know our kids and bring our food without us ordering it.
I wind down after work by ... spending time with my wife, Hope, and our two kids, Tate (6) and Will (4). For now, they don’t care if we won or lost that day. That innocence is much-needed at times for me and provides a strong grounding effect in my life.
The last luxury in which we indulged was ... buying a new home last summer that has some land, some woods, some water. Continuing to invest time and resources into making that all we want it to be for our family, especially for our kids, has been a lot of fun.
The most beneficial college class I took was ... in law school, Law & Economics, taught by Tom Ulen. It changed the way I see much of the world. It introduced me to behavioral economics — the study of why people make the often-flawed decisions they do.
Honorable mentions, also from law school, would be Antitrust and Negotiations, both of which make regular appearances in my day-to-day work.
The last good book I read was ... “The Obstacle is the Way,” by Ryan Holiday.
I’m up and at ’em every day by ... usually no later than 4:30 a.m. during the week — and often on the weekends. Those first two hours of the day are often the only time where I have complete control over my schedule.
As far as my exercise routine goes ... I try to break a good sweat every day, but in most weeks, it ends up being five to six days. I do some combination of running, Peloton biking and lifting weights.
With how much I travel, running is often the go-to because all I need is a pair of shoes.