Marc Portus* and Derek Panchuk**
*Praxis Performance Group **Chiron Performance
Take Home Messages
1. Good governance increases the chances for sustainable high performance outcomes.
2. Former athletes with business qualifications are commonly perceived as providing high performance expertise when sitting on boards, this is not necessarily the case.
3. Boards need to ensure sport strategies are fit for purpose and the organisation has the capability to deliver.
4. In an increasingly complex world the smart simplification of strategies and plans is likely to increase chances of successful execution.
5. Event prioritisation, the identification of performance gaps and end-point planning should be pivotal when developing a high performance plan in sport.
6. For sustained strategic success, the nexus between top down and bottom up approaches needs to be found.
In part 1 of this 5 part series, we discuss the first component of the HP ecosystem series – Governance and Planning.
As we mentioned in the overview last week, if your governance, strategy and high performance plans are not right you will under-perform at some stage - probably sooner than later. You may have a great group of talented athletes sustaining current performance, but it’s likely to be volatile if you haven’t created the right environment with the right vision around them. To overlay all this, you need to map out your competition priorities and implement the key supporting projects with enough lead time to execute.
Governance: The foundations of a sustainable high performance sport system
In terms of governance its best to start with the authorities in the area – the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) – which was formed to be a strong, independent voice in pursuit of world class governance to make society a better place. Sounds grand. But it is important that Australian businesses are led from board level and senior management with the highest calibre individuals, because if it’s not things inevitably go astray through the rest of the organisation at some point in time. In sport that will affect planning, decision making, training environments and eventually performance, guaranteed. Businesses operating in sport are typically ‘not-for-profit’. So, any profits or surpluses made by the sport is reinvested back in the business, their member states and clubs or some type of sport program or initiative, rather than being paid out to the typical shareholders. It’s a key fiduciary responsibility of the board to ensure this privileged status is honoured. Some of the biggest sports in Australia, such as Cricket Australia (CA), the National Rugby League (NRL) and the Australian Football League (AFL), are not-for-profits, which brings significant tax advantages, and in the recent NSW state election, created some controversy. In 2015, the NFL in the USA bowed to public and political pressure and relinquished its ‘tax-free’ status.
But politics and controversy aside, what exactly does good governance for a not-for profit look like? In 2013 the AICD published the ten principles of good governance for not-for profit organisations, which we’ve adapted into the figure below.
Just in the last year or so we’ve seen Cricket Australia have a number of these factors played out in the media when the sport was dealing with renewing player contracts, the Australian Cricketers Association, and the Sandpaper-gate controversy in South Africa. In particular CA’s board effectiveness (point 6) and culture and ethics (9) were called into question. All ten points from AICD are important, but from a high performance perspective any board of a sporting organisation really needs to ensure their purpose and strategy (point 3) and their organisational capability (point 8) are fit for purpose. Interestingly, back on CA, they have done these two points pretty well. For example see the CA strategy in figure 3, which makes it clear what the business does and why (point 3), and it is clear what their high performance ambitions are - “number 1 in all formats – we will deliver the best high performance system for players”. It’s specific, has real world meaning, and is measurable. That makes it much easier for people to understand the journey, the intended destination and ‘get on the bus’. And when we say people, we mean administrative staff, athletes, coaches, support staff and external stakeholders such as partners and investors.
However, you can have the best strategy in the world with the best looking documents, but if you don’t have the right behaviours and team supporting and executing the vision, its pretty much useless. If the purpose and the underlying high performance objectives aren’t clear it’s hard for sport leaders to bring the system together to create sustained success. Factions develop, people start developing their own visions of success, priorities aren’t clear and competition for internal resources grows out of control. You need a great plan and a great team to bring it all to life, and ideally its your great team co-creating the great plan along with key stakeholder input. This also brings in point 2 from the AICD, you need the right mix of skill sets of people sitting around the board room. One trend these days is for a ‘skills-based’ board, which is good, you need a range of expertise around the table to ensure all bases are covered. This also needs to be complemented by people who do have specific industry experience in high performance sporting organisations. Unfortunately, some boards seem to consider a former athlete who has business qualifications fits the bill, whereas expertise in developing and running high performance programs is often a missing skill set on many sports boards. Don’t get us wrong, having former athletes on boards can be beneficial, but it shouldn’t be in lieu of high performance experience such as high level coaching or developing and leading high performance systems.
Developing a meaningful high performance plan
Underpinning the overarching vision and the specific objectives is of course the plan itself. This is where priorities need to be articulated with a clear understanding of the gaps between the performance vision(s) and where the sport and its team(s) are now. This needs to be carefully assessed and articulated. Given the increasingly complex environment of sport, and business generally, one recent trend is to simplify plans, by reducing detailed plans down to their essence, so they can be easily understood and remembered. The world has become such a hectic, dynamic, information rich and smaller ‘place’ that its difficult to develop detailed plans for any great length of time as things are liable to change, be disrupted and new competitors emerge so quickly. You’ll be forever creating new plans or just have the first ‘piece of art’ collecting dust on the shelf, living a soul-less, meaningless life. Plus, no-one remembers them anyway! One approach to consider is strategy as simple rules, it is good food for thought for sports leaders to consider how they can construct their high performance visions, priorities and initiatives in a digestible and flexible format. Simplification may be about being ‘simple’ but its anything but easy. It’s a great exercise to go through with your leadership team to distill your 30-odd page detailed planning document down to a clear and meaningful one-pager. If you do it well your team will be energised, share a common understanding and the plan will be agile enough to survive a major competition event cycle like an Olympics or World Cup. For those interested you can read about how Simple Rules for a Complex World helped reinvigorate a dilapidated freight railway in Brazil with a very limited budget here.
A key part of a sports high performance planning is to map out the event and competition priorities. To facilitate this thinking one method can be to employ the end-point planning approach, where you map out the key competition opportunities over the cycle and you reverse engineer to map out the key projects and initiatives to start the closing the performance gap journey. After-all, for the most part, you can’t demonstrate you’ve achieved your high performance vision until you achieve something on the performance stage for everyone to see. It’s usually measurable too. The schematic below provides an example of the approach (figure 5). One of the hardest things to do here is to call out the priorities and decide what will be the key focus and get the limited resources, but just as importantly what won’t be the key focus and what won’t get the resources. What you won’t be doing is sometimes the hardest but most important set of decisions you’ll make. You can’t be all things to all people, and you don’t have unlimited resources and time, you need to prioritise. Make sure you understand the full implications before you decide.
Bringing it all together – creating the Nexus of high performance planning
An important concept that we’d like to finish with is creating the nexus of high performance planning. What we mean by this is the ability to understand the big picture as well as the context you are operating in. Where is your sport heading, who are the current competitors and who are the emerging competitors? What’s best practice in your sport and do you understand what next practice may be? This feeds into the R&D and Innovation piece we will publish in week 5 but, for now, a good way to get you thinking big picture is to look at industry trend reports such as those published by Price Waterhouse Coopers and Deloittes each year. You can find these reports on their websites here and here. They provide an invaluable look at the worldwide trends in sport each year and should get you thinking about what it means specifically for your sport and your high performance vision and plans. For example, athletes as content creators is a worldwide phenomenon in sports, you need to understand this and consider if you can leverage this as part of your overarching strategy.
The nexus we refer to is the joining of the dots between the global big picture and the bottom up details from your teams, competitions, daily training environments and staff. This is the sport-specific component to your high performance plans that are critical for it to be meaningful and real. Top-down only plans rarely work, and we’ve seen this recently in Australia with the now defunct Wining Edge strategy, which is a pity given much of it was relevant to the government’s decentralisation agenda (another topic beyond the scope of this article!). You need to find the nexus between the strategic big picture and the organic bottom-up detail specific to your sport and circumstances. This is akin to a form of knowledge espoused by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle known as “Phronesis”, a form of practical wisdom based on a detailed factual understanding, an excellent grasp of the big picture and wise judgement derived largely from experience. The modern high performance sporting leader in elite sport needs to live Phronesis.
Hopefully we’ve given you some ideas to stimulate your thinking and perhaps challenge what you currently are doing. We are open to other ideas and discussion and even contrary views, so go ahead and sign-up to add your comments below, we’d love to hear from you.
This is part one of a five part weekly series on the high performance ecosystem. If you would like to have an email alert delivered to your inbox when each part is released you can sign up here.
Till next Tuesday,
Marc and Derek.
Want to know how to optimise your daily training environment? Or understand how to harness technology to get the most out of your athletes? Chiron Performance can help you find solutions to embed the science of skill acquisition and player development into your team or organisation.