The clock is ticking for Tokyo – time to assess whether your Board is fit for purpose

Posted by in Board Level, Commercial, Digital, Elite Performance, Management, Media, Mike Squires, Sponsorship

The warm glow of a remarkable Rio Olympics has enveloped British sport. UK Sport, has, quite rightly, been given due credit for the successful implementation of its long term investment strategy but, with the build-up for Tokyo 2020 already started, this is no time to rest on ones laurels.

At SRi, we have the advantage of seeing the global success of Team GB, with offices in Australia, Singapore, China, Canada, Switzerland, Germany and the US offering an outside vantage point. In each market and across many sports including rowing, cycling, hockey and equestrianism, amongst others, there is real interest, verging on paranoia in some cases, about Team GB’s success and how it has been achieved. The answer to this is, of course, complex and will be the subject of numerous other papers addressing a range of differing factors. However, a major common factor behind either success or comparative failure has to be the leadership at the very top of international federations and national governing bodies.

The ultimate strategic responsibility lies with the Board and the Chair, and their initial focus needs to be whether the leadership team is fit for purpose.

The days of appointing Chairs as a reward for long voluntary service and a passion for the sport is, and should be, a thing of the past. Both external and internal pressures, coupled with the demands of time and multi-stakeholder politics, can lead some to ask why anyone would want to take on such a role! The fact that financial rewards rarely feature only adds weight to the question.

Fortunately, the unique draw of sport means that there is no shortage of exceptionally able men and women who are prepared to take on these roles. However, in doing so, they also take on the daunting responsibility of leading their sport in challenging times. They will, at an early stage of their tenure, need to take a hard look at their Board team and assess whether there is collective clarity about the objectives of the organisation and whether they have the necessary skills to tackle the challenges they face.

In addition to the macro economic and political pressures facing any organisation there are a number of sports-specific pressures and challenges.

The first of these will be the financial state of the sport. Funding is one of the underlying issues in any organisation and in particular in sports, which have a traditional reliance on the public purse. However, sports boards now need alternative sources of income. Understanding the corporate sponsor market, the ability to realise which assets can be monetised, plus the intricacies of media and TV rights negotiations, have not always been amongst the skills in evidence on sports boards.

Attracting and retaining grass roots participation in any physically demanding activity is an ever increasing challenge, particularly in this world of high levels of obesity and couch potatoes, as well as competition from other forms of entertainment. Falling participation figures inevitably results in a fall in public funding.

To address this, social media and consumer marketing understanding are now critical skills around the boardroom table. These are also vital to meet the expectations of spectators. Enhanced fan engagement is now a key objective for many sporting organisations; traditional consumer marketing skills have recently been surpassed by the impact of digital marketing and this experience is hard enough to recruit for at the executive level, let alone on the Board.

Media and consumer fascination for sport and its propensity for drama, passion and crisis are no longer confined to the sporting field of play. Several governing bodies have found themselves propelled off the back pages and onto the front pages in recent years amid threats to sporting integrity within their field. Traditional sporting boards rarely have the required levels of competency in the areas of press and publicity, let alone crisis management and government relations, but these skills, with varying levels of emphasis depending on the sport, are critical to effectively handling the issues which so many sports now face.

The legal complexity of sport has made the worthy retired general practice lawyer sitting as a volunteer on a sports board perhaps more of a liability than a help. Chairs now need to assess what specific, relevant legal expertise is required.

Ultimately, any sport will be judged by its success on the field of play. High performance expertise is another core competency for a Board. Advances in all aspects of high performance including sports medicine and psychology means that this expertise has to be right up to date.

Over and above these examples of specific expertise is the very obvious trend and requirement for transparency, integrity and diversity, resulting in growing demand for independent Non-Executive Directors (INEDs). The balance between sufficient independence but with a genuine affinity and affection for the specific sport can be tough to achieve. To be deemed to be independent, it may be decided that a prospective candidate should not have held office in that sport for a period of time. This may, however, be very limiting on the potential candidate pool. This leads to the need to define what independence means in a practical sense.

To address all of these challenges, and there are many further factors not mentioned in this list, a number of Chairs are starting to seek external advice to address the fundamental issue about the competency and capability of the Director team.

Over the last few years, initially influenced by the success of the London 2012 Olympics and now inevitably further influenced by Rio 2016, SRi has been approached by a wide range of different sports to assist in evaluating and strengthening their Boards. The points and questions posed by this brief paper addresses the first stage preparation SRi adopts at the start of this process.

About the author.

Mike Squires is the Chairman of SRi and, with 35 years’ experience in executive search, has led the firm’s development to being recognised as one of the leading sports focussed search firms. He has also been a leading figure in helping sports boards assess their capability and to help them broaden and strengthen their capability in order to meet the ever increasing demands and pressures of the sports market.

For more information on SRi’s Board Practice, please contact Mike Squires on