The Accidental Leader … Why Sport Organizations Need to Pay Attention to a Growing Gap

Published April 6, 2013

Carleton business professor Linda Druxbury researches and writes about the pending shortage of a skilled workforce. She puts it quite clearly … with baby boomers set to retire large numbers over the next decade, organizations that are not prepared for the leadership gap, are doomed to fail. So imagine my interest in a slew of recent articles that urged the private sector to do more to solve skills crisis.

From my perspective, I’m  not sure why government and business leaders are only urging the private sector to solve the skills crisis … I suggest that the social profit sector is in dire need of a makeover as well. And if I think about the sport sector, my warning system creeps toward the red.

Perrin Beatty, the president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce believes that workplace training is a key part of an employer’s responsibility. Yet, not surprisingly, Canadian firms continually under invest when it comes to helping workers upgrade their skills. For instance, in 2005-06, they spent less than two per cent of their payroll on training. Beatty argues that “If people lack the basic skills they need to do the job, they’re not going to be competitive.” And in this knowledge economy, companies that invest in upgrading the skills of their employees will over time yield significant dividends. The Conference Board of Canada agrees, stating in a 2005 report that “The human resource capacity of any workplace, when properly managed, maintained and utilized, is often one of the biggest and competitive advantages an employer has.”

From a sport perspective, the national Risk Management Project (which has been coordinated by the Sport Law & Strategy Group on behalf of the True Sport Secretariat for the past seven years) has identified a number of high level risks that are shared across NSOs. Not surprisingly, the lack of capacity of staff and volunteers continuously tops the list. Smart risk management means being able to not only identify and rate a risk, but also being able to determine strategies to retain, reduce, transfer or avoid these risks.

Retain the risk

If we were to retain the risk of not investing in our workplace capacity, I would argue that we would not be fulfilling our public duty as articulated in each of the NSOs’ mission statements or in the policy objectives outlines in the renewed Canadian Sport Policy. Yet, as the University of Ottawa professor Stephen Stuart suggests in his response to the 2010 and Beyond Panel “…Canada’s high performance sport systems are not provided with an appropriate framework for dynamic organizational capacity development, designed to raise overall administrative skill and ability levels to consistently be the best in the world, the strong possibility exists that when Canadian high performance athletes compete on international and world stages their preparations will not be as complete as they could and should be.” (emphasis added). Retaining the risk is clearly not a preferred option.

Transfer the risk

What options exist when we consider transferring the risk? We might look at academic institutions and urge them to better prepare the new crop of leaders. The problem is, not many sport management or sport administration graduates are clamoring to work in our sector. When I was doing my Master’s degree in Sport Management at Brock University a few years ago, I was amazed that none of my fellow colleagues were interested in a career in amateur sport. Most wanted to become sport lawyers, agents or marketers. The idea of working in amateur sport never really crossed their mind. To my knowledge, Brock University's Centre for Sport Capacity is the only such institution to research capacity issues in sport. Irony of all ironies … it too lacks capacity – both financial and human resources – to fulfill its mandate. Then we have the consultations and round table that fed into the Sport Policy renewal process. Lack of capacity also topped the list and yet NSOs received recent cuts to their administration budgets. “Do more with less” will soon become “Do less with less” unless we properly address and manage this risk.

Avoid the risk

Unless we do something to reduce the likelihood of this risk coming to pass, I’m not sure we can avoid the many associated risks that are directly related to a shortage of skilled employees and volunteers – our future leaders. Reality bites. Consider that by 2016, almost 350,000 people in Ontario won’t qualify for available jobs. That number is expected to rise to 700,000 in the ensuing years. At the same time, almost 1.5 million jobs will be unfilled in Ontario due to the shortage of appropriately trained and educated workers. Risks like not being able to recruit and retain highly qualified people; risks related to poor succession planning and knowledge transfer; risks related to unethical and ineffective decision-making; risks related to reduced revenue and brand mismanagement; risks related to poor athletic performance; and the list goes on.

Reduce the risk

This is where I think we have the greatest opportunities to make a significant difference. Over the past several years, my partners and I at the Sport Law & Strategy Group have worked in collaboration with sport leaders at the national, provincial and community levels to address the gap in knowledge in a variety of areas, but namely  law, governance, planning and communications. What we have tried to do over the past two decades is inject a level of critical thinking and analysis that is too often found wanting in our sector. The tyranny of the immediate always seems to win out … it’s hard to think about the strategic and the sustainable when there are so many fires to put out, my clients often share with me during the risk management workshops. So what are some of the strategies that we would advocate for? Here’s our top five? list of things the sport sector must do in order to reduce the hazards associated with this risk:

Strategy 1: Develop a workforce strategy for the sport sector to identify our gaps in knowledge, training opportunity, compensation, and education. While I commend the COC for its work on a review of the sport sector’s employee compensation, to my knowledge we are sadly lacking when it comes to strategically mapping out the kind of skills required to manage and administer a 21st century sport organization.

Strategy 2: Make sport jobs inviting to under-represented groups such as aboriginals, women, and person with disabilities. Finding ways for under-represented groups to work in the sport sector may leverage hidden opportunities related to membership, branding, revenue, and partnerships.

Strategy 3: Look for ways to train current employees in sport management skills. For instance, we are in the process of creating a certificate in sport management for sport leaders that would be issued by a university and valued by the sector. People want an opportunity to learn and grow on the job and research tells us that good people will stick around if they feel valued, are recognized for their work, are fairly compensated, and have opportunities to continuously learn. In addition, provide sport organizations with incentives to address the literacy gap. We have shifted to a knowledge economy and with almost half of the province in Ontario’s adult population lacking the literacy and essential skills needed to cope with the demands of a knowledge economy, working with our education sectors to encourage sport administrators to continue post secondary training, is a must in order for our sector to sustain itself.

Strategy 4: Promote a career in amateur sport. From my experience, most people I know of don’t know or appreciate the significance of the sport industry to Canadian GDP. They don’t know what they don’t know. We have blogged before about what sport can do for the wealth and welfare of Canadians so I won’t itemize the long list of sport’s contributions. What I will say is that we, as a sector, have a collective responsibility to purposefully recruit and retain not only the world’s best coaches and athletes but also, the world’s best administrators and volunteers. Strategy 3 should help address current gaps with today’s sport leader. This strategy is about ensuring that our sport management/administration schools are teaching the essential skills to run today’s sport organization – whether it be a local soccer club or a national federation.

Strategy 5: Director training. With other non-profits, there is a push to encourage director training through one of the many Directors’ Colleges. This is where volunteer directors go to become great board leaders. While it might be too big and too bold to imagine a future where every director on a NSO Board has gone through a formalized training program before he or she is considered as a possible candidate, I would hope that over the next decade, we could create an accessible program that would give directors the knowledge they need to meet their fiduciary, strategic and generative responsibilities.

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