Showing Olympic vision – the view beyond Brazil

Posted by in Alistair Milner, Board Level, Elite Performance, Management

For many athletes, all focus is on Rio as the culmination of a four-year cycle of hard work and graft comes to a climax at the 2016 Olympic Games. Those in the boardrooms of sports governing bodies, however, have long been looking past the Games and into the future, writes Alistair Milner, head of SRi’s Elite Performance Practice.

In the weeks and months leading up to an Olympic Games, there are very different questions being asked of athletes, in comparison to the leadership of their country’s sports administration.

For competitors, it’s about ensuring that every ounce of energy expounded is part of a physical and mental process that ensures the greatest chance of a personal best in their chosen event. Everything points towards gaining that gold medal and achieving sporting glory.

For the administrators, there’s a much more complex understanding needed of how they can balance immediate success at the Games along with ongoing consistency moving past Rio 2016 and towards Tokyo 2020.

2014 ISAF Sailing World Cup Qingdao-69While the Olympic Games is, in itself, an absolute and clear end and beginning of the Olympic cycle, it’s actually a very volatile time behind the scenes. Performance directors and their management teams across Olympic sports make decisions on their futures in the build up to the event, possibly making discreet enquiries, and their organisations must do the same.

With this in mind, organisations must have a clear succession plan in place to ensure a seamless continuation of performance and enable leadership to set, and achieve, long term goals.

Well before a flame is lit in the Maracana, those in the boardrooms of governing bodies and performance institutes will be looking at their key performance personnel for the Tokyo 2020 four-year cycle, and tackling three core considerations.

The first task is to scrutinise the existing performance structure to ensure it is fit for purpose. Understanding the current and recent successes and failures of all areas of a federation, from leadership and management through to coaching and the athletes themselves, must come from a wide-ranging and ongoing review. While it’s an inward-looking process, the eye should also be cast outward to other federations and sports – and even outside sport – to see where structures have been successful and where your particular organisation can benefit.

Next, organisations must examine the differences between the current and upcoming Olympic cycles to identify where and how changes can be implemented. The four year cycle up to Tokyo will consist of different funding environments, technology will move on – athlete analysis and training aids, for example – and competitors will improve and evolve.

IMG_9955With proper understanding of how the landscape is changing before they enter that cycle, organisations can make sure they are fully prepared for the flux and transformations that inevitably come with the third consideration – people.

Once a governing body has their structure in place, it must then ensure it has the right people to get the most out of its organisational design. Does the structure allow for the movement of talent to occur without upsetting the wider structure, or will the federation need a like-for-like replacement if someone leaves? If new sports are introduced, are there any specific skill sets that are missing to tackle the changing landscape?

Federations looking to grow particular sports will need to look at the staffing and structure of those areas. Often, host countries look to make a larger investment, such as the BOA did for London 2012, to be competitive in new sports where traditionally Team GB either struggled or did not compete. That resource needs to be analysed and re-thought through from Olympiad to Olympiad.

There are obvious advantages of bringing in someone who can revolutionise their sport – think Dave Brailsford and his marginal gains – yet modern wisdom now points to prioritising the culture fit, which stems from the structure, and building talent around it. This, again, ensures continuity and keeps the eye on long term goals.

While there is no magic answer as to the best structure a sports federation should adopt, and who they should look to fill it with, they will need to act quick to address their review, structure and staffing soon if they are to hit the ground running on the next Olympic cycle. If not, they may struggle to achieve success when the 32nd Olympiad opens in Tokyo in four years’ time.

Alistair Milner is responsible for the development and growth of the Elite Performance Practice, his role focuses on the organisational design, staffing and talent acquisition for clubs, international federations and national governing bodies. If you would like to have a confidential discussion about your current succession planning strategy or best practice advice around how to implement one, please contact Alistair at or +44 (0)20 7092 6966.