Cardiff Business Club interviews Liz Nicholl CBEDate Posted: 25 January 2018
On January 15th, Liz Nicholl CBE, Chief Executive of UK Sport, addressed a delegation of over 170 business leaders from across the capital at Cardiff Business Club.
On the back of what had been a challenging 2017 for the organisation, Liz spoke to Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, managing director at ClearlyPR, about the significant strides made in developing British sport over the last 20 years, the legacy of the London 2012 Olympic Games, and how organisations manage to rebuild their reputation and regain the trust of key stakeholders in the face of public criticism.
Liz Nicholl (LN), Paul MacKenzie-Cummins (PMC)
(PMC) British sport is in a very good place right now. What do you put this down to?
(LN) It has been a journey - one of building and attracting the technical expertise to lead the delivery of world-class programmes to support our athletes. The Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 marked a pivotal moment for sport in this country, with Great Britain finishing 36th in the medals table. We resolved to improve on this and while advances were being made, it was never more visible than when London was awarded host city status for the 2012 Olympic Games.
This was instrumental in changing the profile of elite sport and the desire and opportunity for athletes to become the world’s best. The key fuel has, without doubt, been the National Lottery. None of what has been achieved over the last 20 years would have been possible without that funding for several reasons.
(PMC) In what way did the National Lottery transform the fortunes of sport in this country?
(LN) It enabled us to invest in coaching, technical expertise and to support athletes in full-time training environments. In doing so we could focus on the very best support in the lead up to the next Games, and the one after that.
Then, when we learned that London was successful in its bid, additional funding allowed us to focus on a seven-year programme of how we develop the talent we already have and that which is coming through our future potential medallists. The results speak for themselves. From 36th in 1996 to 4th in 2008 (Beijing), then 3rd in 2012 (London) and 2nd in 2016 (Rio) and the Paralympic progress has also been impressive.
In the lead up to London, sports started to work better together in collaboration with one another for resources. They began to learn from each other and realised that the problems faced in one sport were similar to those faced in another – they weren’t unique.
Sports didn’t need to be in competition with each other, they needed to be in competition with the rest of the world. London helped us to create one team, with one mission. This continues today.
(PMC) Bullying in sport has garnered much media attention over the last 12 months, how prevalent is this as an issue?
(LN) The recent claims of bullying very much took us by surprise. Every individual case is important and unique, but it is not endemic. There are a number of issues, particularly with regards to communication with athletes.
When you want to be among the world’s best, it is a tough environment. But it is the responsibility of coaches to identify how one athlete can differ from another and recognise the most effective – and proper – way to get the best out of each individual and provide the support that individual needs.
(PMC) What steps have UK Sport taken to tackle the problem, and how can an organisation such as UK Sport rebuild trust?
(LN) UK Sport is particularly good at addressing and dealing with such issues when they arise. In this regard, we identified the problem and established the solution that would rectify it. The very public nature of the issues being raised called into question the level of trust people had for sport in general.
We now have a sport integrity unit which advises sports on policies and practises relating to managing issues. While this will provide greater reassurances for athletes and all those involved, it will take time to fully rebuild the trust.
In the meantime, we now help sports carry out regular performance health checks through which athletes and staff are encouraged to say what they are seeing, hearing and feeling on a day-to-day basis and some direct questions are asked, such as 'Have you ever experienced inappropriate behaviour?'
The systems we now have in place are stronger than ever before and it means that any concern raised can be acted upon appropriately and promptly. This is already seeing athletes feel more confident in not only raising their concerns but also contributing to how things can be improved further.
(PMC) In the world of high performance coaching, how do the sexes compare?
(LN) There is a real imbalance between male and female coaches at the very top, with around 10% of all senior roles in sport held by women. There are a number of reasons for this.
Many women are deterred from advancing their careers due to a lack of female role models in senior positions. Some report a lack of confidence in their own abilities to successfully perform at a senior level.
There is also a call for more effective networking opportunities for women to get together to learn and share the experiences of others facing similar challenges in their careers. When they do apply for senior roles some women often report a male bias on interview panels. Unconscious training has recently been introduced training to tackle this.
Diversity in sport, or any sector for that matter, is important. By not having a broader demographic at senior level we are simply missing out on talent. Ultimately, if someone thinks you can do the job, don’t hold yourself back. If you don’t apply, you’re simply doing the job of the selection panel – let them make the tough calls, not you.
(PMC) What has been the greatest challenge you have faced as a leader, and how did you overcome it?
(LN) The cultural challenges that we were presented with in 2017 took me and everyone by surprise. It was like a whirlwind and we didn’t immediately have the answers. This was made worse in the sense that we were still on a high following the amazing success of Team GB and Paralympics GB at the Rio Games the previous year. All of a sudden, UK sports was being publically criticised and scrutinised on a daily basis – the contrast could not have been any starker.
We addressed each criticism. After publishing a list of all things we had been working on to address the very real concerns being aired, things started to feel more settled.
Last year was a difficult time, especially given the extent to which we really do care about our athletes. It has never been a win-at-all-costs approach. It has always been a commitment to excellence, support and guidance.
(PMC) Of all the experiences you have had, and the lessons you have learned, what one piece of advice would you give to those who aspire to reach the top of their profession?
(LN) You are only as good as the people around you. Selecting the right team and supporting and developing your people is the single biggest responsibility that any leader has. Remember that you never stop learning.