Why Sports Organisations Fail to Change

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Why Sports Organisations Fail to Change

Lack of focus on the future, inadequate support networks and not enough emphasis on the strategic fit of new leadership sees sporting bodies fail to effect real change time and again. And what do you mean by “Change” anyway?

By David James, Managing Partner SRi

Desiring change is the easy part

No business can thrive without change. For many businesses in the sports industry however, at this particularly radical inflection point, successfully changing at pace is now a minimum requirement for survival.

Yet, the challenge of initiating transformational change internally continues to be a particularly difficult task for numerous organisations.

Wanting change, and initiating it, don’t always go hand in hand.

From our view as consultants, advisors, team builders and executive search professionals, we have seen many organisations making the same few mistakes that lead to a failure to achieve the change that was desired at the outset of a reorganisation or new C-suite hire.

What exactly do you mean by change?

“Change” is a word and concept that is, of course, wholly subjective. It can mean anything from a marginal refinement of proposition through to a complete transformation.

When sports organisations say they want to change, it’s imperative for them – and us – to seek a very clear definition of what that term means to them, and their leadership team.

Our job as consultants at this stage of a process is to challenge our clients’ thinking and assertions. How much change is actually required? How much change is realistically possible and practicable? Over what period of time? With what support? What will this change mean for the business and its customers? Once you have clarity on these questions, you have a chance to succeed.

Focusing too much on now and not the future

Easy to say and much harder to do, of course, but keeping a clear image of how they hope their organisation will look and feel in the future is the best way to go about implementing change. The destination is more important than each individual step.

If radical change is sought (which typically follows the arrival of new management or ownership), those desiring it must start by acknowledging that it will involve a drastic and fundamental shift in strategy, staff and function.

Many organisations say they want change, but then aren’t really prepared to navigate the complex political and emotional minefield to implement it. It is often simply too hard. Best to assess that factor at the outset, rather than at the conclusion of a process.

New leadership is a poor strategic fit for the business

Now that change is desired, and the business is looking ahead to their Brave New World, the conversation will in turn move towards clarifying the type of leader required to implement and achieve that change.

Too often, organisations seek agents of change based solely on the conviction that they will offer something progressive or innovative. Yet they fail to take the time and reflect on whether the individual in question suits their organisation’s culture and tone, both now and in the future. The added complexity in all this is that the successful candidate must have the EQ and political sophistication to bring the organisation with them on the journey, and in so doing display flexibility of style and tone to drive that change. Successful change tends be gradual, sensitive and considered, rather than imposed in a style and language that is fundamentally alien to the current organisation. The transformation can be just as radical in the final analysis, but is generally more stable and long-lasting.

Regardless of previous experiences and successes, an individual brought in to drive change will have little success if their tone of voice and style render them a poor cultural fit. It is crucial for a business’ success for this match to be right. There will be organ rejection and a lack of buy-in from those within if this is not the case.

The importance of a strong support network within the organisation is crucial for those entering the sports industry without prior experience. Whilst their experience and skills may be appropriate to implement a needed change, the idiosyncrasies of the sporting industry can be hard to handle for someone with little sports industry-specific knowledge. Without the right support network, these peculiarities can render even the most highly skilled of C-level executives powerless.

A person is not an island

Providing new leadership with a mandate for change does not mean that change will follow.

Change cannot be implemented from the desk of one executive, no matter how inspiring or impressive that executive is. We have seen brilliant, successful candidates isolated in their new roles and ultimately fail to achieve change due to a critical lack of real support from the organisations’ other senior leadership and Board.

Without change being driven internally, top down, from the business’ various stakeholders, there is zero chance of success.

Stakeholders must be receptive and the Board supportive of proposed changes if the company is to have the right platform to achieve effective transformation. This support should not be unconditional, of course, but should at least provide the framework for change to be able to occur. Striking a balance between executive and non-executive support and scrutiny, as well as the additional complexity of the opinions and expectations of a Committee or Council, is key.

Many governing bodies and federations will recognise through past experiences the problems that stem from a lack of collaboration between senior leadership, key external stakeholders and non-executives. Consistency of both message and understanding is paramount.

For change to be possible, vision, courage and consistency of communication is required. This, in turn, must be allied to a clear and unambiguous appreciation of the short and long-term impact of this chosen route.

Change is, after all, the one constant.

David James is a Managing Partner of SRi, based in London.

Recognised as one of the leading executive search authorities in the global sports industry, David works closely with a wide range of national governing bodies, international federations, clubs, agencies, brands and rights holders to deliver transformational talent and structural change at board and C-suite level. ​

David James