The Olympics and leadership: From the CEO

To the tens of millions of viewers who tune in to watch, the Olympic Games are a spectacular global celebration of the world’s best in sports. But there’s nothing like being there in person. At the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, I witnessed an amazing testament to athletic and cultural achievement. I was equally impressed by the sheer scope of the organizational challenge.

For the past few years, John Furlong, the CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) for the 2010 Winter Games has spoken to Ivey’s MBA classes. His task in terms of leadership is monumental. Challenges range from how to motivate people who know that their jobs are over immediately following the Olympics, to how to lead with so many stakeholders – including the athletes, the International Olympic Committee, the Canadian Olympic Committee, various governments & sports federations as well as Canadians as a whole. His largest challenge, even above coordinating the most complex project management that I’ve ever seen, and during a significant economic downturn – is to instill pride.

He recently joined Ivey’s MBA students via satellite to share his thoughts about leading a team responsible for the Olympics and how to achieve that inspirational sense of purpose.

Like all exceptional leaders, John expects excellence. “For an organization to be successful, there has to be a sense of always trying to achieve the best you can,” John believes.

He makes it clear to every single person at VANOC that “they are part of a large team and their individual piece is critical to success.” And he’s proud of their commitment. As John explains, “People in the organization are smitten with their responsibility. We employ champions in life. There is a champion at every desk.”

To achieve that level of commitment and sustain it, for an event that is months away that will be over in two weeks, is extraordinary. But the formula of VANOC’s success is not new. It is based on what I consider the three timeless signposts of effective business leadership.

First, the VANOC team set a clear goal: to make Canada look great on the global stage. Every idea and every detail in our planning and execution is focused on that goal. John believes that the Olympic Games are just “too big and too compelling to make it about 14 days of sport. It needs to be bigger than that.” Our mission is “to touch the soul of the nation and inspire the world by creating and delivering an extraordinary Olympic and Paralympic experience with lasting legacies.”

A clear and focused mission is vital for all the fundamental business reasons such as cost-effectiveness, customer responsiveness and revenue generation. But, equally important, I believe it simplifies the communication challenge for leaders. Your employees know and understand where your organization is headed. And when you have a relatively limited time to stage one of the world’s largest events, everyone must know early on where they are going.

Everyone should also know how they are going to reach their goal – and this is why values – the second signpost – are so essential, from the outset and throughout the life of a project or organization.

The VANOC team established five compelling values. They are:

Team work: Fair play, respect, compassion, accountability and inclusion
Trust: Integrity, honesty, respect, fairness and compassion
Excellence: Recognition, compassion and accountability
Sustainability: Financial, economic, social and environmental sustainability
Creativity: Innovation, flexibility and adaptability

The complexity of organizating and preparing for the Games almost defies description and in the midst of a global financial crisis, it’s been doubly arduous. As John says, the difficulty “never goes away. It lives with you. But what holds us together is our values.” John believes that VANOC has endured the rough patches and lingering challenges precisely because these values are a living reality. They are not just words on a wall. As he says, “They are what the organization believes in and what prevails in the hearts and minds of the people who work here.”

The third and perhaps the most important signpost is that John walks the talk. He knows that, as a leader, authenticity and honesty are paramount. “You can’t fool people. People are watching me all the time; but, it’s not about me, it’s about all of us.” John continues, “You have to be an example and give people something to follow.”

As the leader of VANOC, John worries most about the reputation of the organization and of Canada. “If we struggle, it plays out across the country.” For this reason, he believes that VANOC must be proactive in its communications. “We must always think about how Canadians would think and react to our decisions.”

Overall, John believes that the games are about inspiration. He feels that “If through the Games we can get people to find their own podium in life, than we have done a good thing for Canada. Not everybody will be an athlete, but everybody can be better. The Games are about getting the country to realize its potential.”

The 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver are mere months away. It’s been a tough journey. The expectations for success are high. But, the VANOC team has an important leadership edge. We have a focused vision. Our values continue to ring true. Our lines of communications throughout the organization and with our stakeholders are open. Most of all, we are authentically hopeful about the outcome of 2010 Winter Games – and that optimism is now gaining momentum across the country. That’s why I know these Games will indeed “touch the soul of a nation and inspire the world”.