By Ian Taylor 

Kiwis love sport. It’s in our DNA. So these past few weeks have been extraordinarily exciting, with many high-profile sporting finals to capture imaginations and spark debate. For those who have recovered sufficiently from the traumatising (and controversial) defeat of the Black Caps and The All Blacks, there were other epic encounters: Wimbledon, with the nail-biting five-hour men’s final, ending in Novak Djokovic’s victory over Roger Federer; the triumph of Simona Halep in the women’s final, not to mention the jubilation of the Silver Ferns World Cup Netball Final victory in Liverpool.

Sport entertains on a grand scale, but for fans to get what they want – great theatre from those who are brilliant at what they do – a huge amount of hard work goes on behind the scenes. High quality leaders are essential to support a dynamic sector that aims not only to entertain but also to promote learning, health and recreation at a grass-roots level.

“Sport is a great environment for learning, particularly for young people”, says Peter Miskimmin, CEO of Sport NZ. “It provides them with an opportunity to learn about diversity, different ethnicities and social backgrounds, fair play, sportsmanship, pushing physical and mental boundaries, pressing on through the pain of setbacks, and discovering how to win with humility and to lose with grace. It’s perfect for building resilience and for putting essential life skills in place early on.”

 

Wider audience

“Sport is uniquely placed to help attain the government’s goals as set out in its ‘Wellbeing Budget 2019’ ”, continues Miskimmin. “This focuses on the value of sport, and we’ve carried out lots of research to prove how sport can make a difference to society, connecting communities and making a stronger NZ”, he says.

But it is not sport alone that makes a difference. “Sport, active recreation and play are three focus areas for us at Sport NZ. So, we’re delighted to see more cycleways appearing too, making it more attractive and safer for people to jump on their bikes; more people are taking up jogging, tai chi, yoga – they’re doing it for fun and they get a buzz simply from being active. Our job is to keep what we call ‘physical literacy’ alive”, he says.

“Physical literacy is about bringing back the joy of living, taking your surroundings and making a game out of it. This is something we’re really passionate about – that life should be fun, and if you get that right in the formative years then you can make a difference to your health – whether you want to be a top football player or just enjoy a regular run in the hills or around your neighbourhood.”

 

Enthusiasm

If adults are active and enjoy it, their enthusiasm will rub off on the young people they interact with. When the older sibling takes up a sport, the baby in the pram will be on the sidelines too, eventually toddling around, kicking a ball. Before long, the interest grows. These human connections are what feeds and fuels New Zealand’s sporting communities.

 

Steve Tew, CEO of NZ Rugby has seen this time and again, and believes those who support youngsters and encourage them to take up a sport are crucial to the longevity of the industry: “For most, it starts with parents who get involved with their kids’ sport, and with that enthusiasm comes passion. So it really all begins at home”, he says.

“In terms of the game, over one million volunteers from around the country are doing a lot of hard work after school and at weekends to keep kids interested, supported and active in sport, from those on the sidelines, to those who coach and mentor. They all have an important role to play, and I believe their corporate world experience helps in this and vice versa. It takes all sorts of people at every stage, and together they operate as a cohesive unit. Just as on a rugby field; you have backs, forwards and locks, each with their different roles. Some are better than others, but it’s what each person brings to the unit that’s important. It all makes for a more positive, active life.”

 

Nurturing Talent

Sarah Sandley, CEO of Aktive, an Auckland-based charitable trust committed to making Auckland New Zealand’s most active city, agrees. “There’s simply no doubt that sport and activity increases community cohesion, greater tolerance, and channels people into a more positive future together”, she says. “In other words, it plays a highly relevant role in our nation’s societal and community wellbeing. Healthier bodies make for healthier minds, stronger communities and stronger economies.”

“But establishing that cohesion and ensuring it’s channelled in the most effective way takes leadership”, explains Sandley. “Leadership is the key word here, so our work focuses on nurturing leadership talent, training coaches, and equipping organisations with the right information to help them to be better leaders. We’re essentially catalysts. We catalyse ‘best practice’, imbuing other organisations with insights and information which empowers them to lead better.”

Peter Miskimmin makes the same point: “You need good leaders supported by good managers to have one eye on the future and recognise the potential in people”, he says.

“And, make no mistake – leadership is the key to all of this, whether you’re the leader of your local junior club or the All Blacks. Planning is essential, as is accountability, regardless of where you operate in your community”, he continues.

“Leadership today is all about bringing people together and encouraging them to step forward. It’s about knowing when to lead from the front, when to lead from the back and how to plan correctly. The challenge is that good leaders are hard to find and it’s a constant search. Those with advanced self-awareness skills and the ability to self-reflect do well. Again, I think sport is an excellent example of an environment that helps develop such leaders.”

 

Changing fast

The world of sport, however, is changing fast. Jennah Wootten, General Manager (Partnerships & Communications) of Sport NZ says that the industry is far more competitive than it was ten years ago. “Sport has to be marketed like any other product, and it relies on participants and consumers to exist.” Like any business that wants to succeed, sport has to keep adapting and changing to reflect the shifting nature of our lives in the twenty-first century. Those in charge have to deal with new and controversial challenges that weren’t around before. For example, issues raised by gender diversity and transitioning, mental health and bullying, plus match-fixing, sledging, cheating and the constant battle against performance-enhancing drugs, all require steely management skills and level-headed decision-making.

Kereyn Smith, CEO of New Zealand’s Olympic Committee draws attention to the changes at the Olympics. “In 2016, golf and rugby sevens were included for the first time”, she says. “But at the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there will be no fewer than five other new sports: karate, skateboarding, sport-climbing, surfing and baseball and softball (as well as some new disciplines within sports like the mixed team triathlon and 3 x 3 basketball). It’s what the people want and we have to keep moving with the times.” One of the challenges of these somewhat smaller sports, is that there can be fewer resources to tap into, compared to their more popular sporting cousins. “Whilst many of these sports have been around for a while, some of them haven’t been operating at the elite level of the Olympic Games”, says Smith. “As such, there can often be an absence of a strong leadership structure to support them – especially in connecting with their International Federations.”

 

Rock solid culture

So with such changes afoot, how can the sports sector attract and retain good people, who have the foresight and strength to lead into a future that is largely unknown? Smith firmly believes it’s all about creating and maintaining organisations that have a rock solid culture; one that attracts people, retains them and enables them to grow.

“We are a people-focused business and we attract people who have a genuine love and passion for active recreation and sport, and who value the positive impacts this can have on society. When we recruit, there’s always a high degree of interest for every role advertised. We’re probably not the highest paid organisation relative to some, so our staff stay with us thanks to the culture we’ve created. It's all about people enjoying the environment they're working in and getting satisfaction from it.”

Sport is most definitely big business and it’s interesting that the two worlds are now beginning to adopt the other’s characteristics. Entrepreneurial business has made moves to introduce more play and creativity to retain good talent, while sport has become more strategic to spark interest across generations, align with the Government’s ‘Wellbeing Budget’, defend public funding and attract mutually aligned sponsorships.

 

Skillsets for the future

Many top business leaders today are using techniques designed to reveal those candidates who have the skillsets best aligned with the company’s future. They’re looking for initiative, energy, and a willingness to challenge – although seen as a risky characteristic in the past for those who wish to stay employed! The same goes for sport industry leaders.

If organisations across the board want to attract the most relevant talent and harness their intelligence, creativity and entrepreneurial skills, they must foster a culture that recognises and rewards these qualities in a variety of ways.

 

Good leadership

Kereyn Smith doesn’t underestimate the fact that keeping talent needs the constant attention of management: “Once you’ve got good people, you have a lot of work to do in order to retain them”, she says. “But the key is good leadership, and here at the New Zealand Olympic Committee we focus heavily on leadership training so employees want to remain and contribute.”

“In developing a leadership culture, we talk a lot about collaboration around strength in numbers, and when we succeed it’s because we’ve pulled together a range of people and skills to help deliver on a project. Bringing this collective expertise together is what helps us win – it’s the same for any team, be it sports or business related.”

Sport is cathartic: it unites and divides people, it evokes feelings of joy and despair, it entertains and frustrates, inspires and challenges. But most of all, it taps into our innate competitiveness, our tribal sense of belonging. Steve Tew thinks that the challenge to people having so much passion, is the fact that everyone has a view on what ‘better leadership’ is. “It’s true”, he says, “you’re going to come under scrutiny, but that’s just part and parcel of the position and this is when you need to be resilient. It helps having a clear vision, a purpose and a long-term plan to solidify goals.” Superior leaders articulate these with confidence and clarity, identifying and deploying the right skills to realise them and demonstrate the insight to adapt as circumstances change.

 

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