Flying High… What Sport Leaders Can Learn from a Canadian Success Story

Published April 12, 2012

My colleagues and I have been thinking a lot about what it takes to create a high performing sport organization. Traditionally, assumptions were made about the efficiency and effectiveness of a National Sport Organization based on podium results or participation numbers. But we know that this way of measuring effectiveness is nowhere near complete, nor does it provide a meaningful story to funders, members, key stakeholders, or the general public.

We recently posted a blog about a simple, yet powerful set of principles that, when implemented, can help sport leaders make better decisions and determine appropriate strategies. In today's Ottawa Citizen, I read about Porter Airlines' success story and the simple principles that CEO Robert Deluce shared recently when asked what made his organization not simply survive, but thrive in such turbulent times. Here is my take on what he had to say:

Key principle 1 - Know what you're doing: For Deluce, this meant knowing the aviation industry and having a deep passion for it. For NSO leaders, this means taking the time to understand all aspects of your business; getting a handle on financial realities, possibilities and legal requirements; examining the structure that underpins your organization and being open about new ways to organize your business; being strategic in your decisions and tactics; and managing your organization in such a manner that brings added value to all involved ... staff, athletes, coaches, volunteers, funders, and supporters.

Key principle 2 - Setbacks can make you stronger: Deluce and his team did not give up when the building of a bridge to the airport was blocked. He said that "That was one of many speed bumps that turned out to strengthen us. We hired more talent and raised more money. We are certainly better off for it." For NSO leaders, facing setbacks is nothing new. But what might be new is the approach you take when facing these challenges. One way to bleed opportunities from setbacks is to use a risk management approach. By asking “what are the risks associated with this roadblock” AND “what are the risks if we don't find a way around it”, you open up all kinds of new ways to think about the issue. Learning from mistakes is what athletes and coaches thrive on. Let's bring that attitude to our daily work environment the next time a setback occurs.

Key principle 3 - Build your own brand: Deluce did not go the conventional route when uncovering his company’s new brand. Porter’s mascot is the raccoon, which is the epitome of nuisance for most of us. But not for Deluce and his team. They believe the raccoon exemplifies qualities that Porter prizes above all else: innovation, adaptability, and persistence.  For me, Deluce has been able to translate core values into an image that connects with both employees and clients. He's also incorporated a few critical marketing truisms to capture and retain our attention by connecting his brand to something unexpected. He's made it simple for us to remember, concrete enough for us to make the leap, and credible with staff and leadership buying into the core message. He's also savvy enough to connect their core values back to his clients in an interesting way which is a critical aspect of branding your message... or the art of storytelling. So what can sport leaders learn from this? Create a brand that distinguishes your sport from others. Create an inviting platform that connects people who are passionate about your sport and want to contribute, and adapt some of his strategies when you build your marketing and communications plans. Or check out what Dan and Chip Heath have to say about this in their book Made to Stick.

Key principle 4 - Stick to your core: Deluce is clear on this point. Don't get distracted by what your competitors are doing... even if it seems so enticing. If you know what you're good at and you know what you value, then sticking to your core is much easier. Porter promises speed, convenience, and exceptional service; and offering service out of huge Pearson Airport in Toronto, for instance, would distract from that. For sport leaders this could mean not duplicating another sport's LTAD approach or not trying to increase participation numbers if you are a highly specialized sport. I'm not suggesting that you don't adopt a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship but, if you do, do so with a view of helping you achieve your strategic vision... one that is connected to your mission and reflective of your values.

Key principle 5 - Share the wealth: For Deluce, sharing the wealth meant creating profit-sharing opportunities for his staff. For sport leaders, sharing the wealth might mean finding creative ways to reward high performing staff using innovative and customized methods. Research tells us that people feel really appreciated and are most happy working in an environment where they are paid an appropriate salary for their work, provided with opportunities for growth and learning, recognized by their peers for going above and beyond, and mentored by people they value and look up to. Keep in mind that remuneration is only one of many things smart leaders can use when rewarding exceptional performance.

Key principle 6 - Create value everywhere: Porter's message is clear. They are proud of their made-in-Toronto fleet, and they are committed to providing an airfare cost reduction of 70% to any new location destination. For sport leaders, creating value means recognizing that sport is primarily played in communities across the country with volunteers serving as gatekeepers... think coaches, officials, cheerleaders, chauffeurs, administrators, etc. Creating value means being connected to the lived experience of the sport at all levels. It means listening to what your members have to say and offering them a voice when it makes strategic sense to do so. It means understanding what critical role your provincial and territorial partners have played, are playing, or can play in the future. It means connecting your LTAD plans from grassroots to podium and working tirelessly to get a consistent message out.

Key principle 7 -Service matters: Porter is exceptionally proud of a recent Ipsos survey that showed that 83% of travelers reported they were very satisfied or extremely satisfied with Porter's service. "It's the highest rating Ipsos has ever seen," said Deluce. What's your sport's rating look like? If you were to ask how satisfied your 'clients' (members, athletes, coaches, funders, etc.) were, how would your rating fair? From my perspective, this kind of environmental scanning is a critical aspect of any progressive organization and most of the clients I work with have asked us to help them implement a system-wide inquiry to figure out how well they are servicing their members.

Key principle 8 - Nimble wins: For Porter this means cutting prices for a few days and by the time the competition catches up to the new standard, Porter has already moved on to something else.  What is your sport doing to set standards and how are you trying to exceed them? How nimble is your sport when it comes to making decisions, scanning the environment, assessing risks and opportunities, saying no, sticking to what is core, or finding new ways? What does being nimble mean to your sport? This could be a question worth asking at your next Board or Management Team meeting.

Key principle 9 - Fasten your seat belts: For Porter this means smart growth and the expansion of a new Porter Escapes division. For your sport is might mean a strategic alliance with other NSOs and developing a common approach to get young kids active. It might mean being among the first NSOs  to participate in a new project (like the nine sports that have led the way on the Risk Management Project supported by True Sport and coordinated by the Sport Law & Strategy Group). Or it might mean developing a new financial management plan to secure longer term funding for your organization. There is a clear invitation to think beyond today so that the organization of tomorrow is in a better place than it was when you first found it.

If you have any comments or ideas based on the above, send them my way at


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