This is a Sport Australia podcast production.
Hello and welcome to the Sport Governance Podcast series. My name is Kate Corkery and I am the director of Sport Governance and Strategy at Sport Australia.
Over this series, we will take a deep dive into the sport governance principles and how they come to life in practice. Each podcast will focus on an individual principle with a special guest joining me to share their experiences and practical advice with respect to that principle.
In today's episode, we are focusing on Principle One - the spirit of the game — values, driven culture and behaviour.
This principle highlights that an organisation's culture and behaviours should be underpinned by values which are demonstrated by the board and embedded in decisions and actions of the board, its directors, members and the senior executive. Joining me today to talk about the spirit of the game is Petria Thomas, a superstar of the pool during her career, Petria won three Olympic gold medals, three world championships, nine Commonwealth Games gold medals, 13 Australian championships and three Pan-Pacific gold medals. Petria has been appointed as the Commonwealth Games team chef de mission for Birmingham, following three games as athlete services manager and her Gold Coast role as general manager of team services. Petria has also led the Australian team at three editions of the Commonwealth Youth Games. Well-known to issues of culture and behaviour. Thank you for joining me today, Petria.
Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
Culture can be a challenging subject for sporting organisations due to its abstract nature. How would you define or describe culture?
I think culture is really the accepted behaviour and the standards that the organisation has, it is a hard one to define, but generally it is about what people expect. That level of behaviour that I suppose is acceptable to everyone and is acceptable in today's society.
In terms of your career and your time in the pool. Did you have experiences of positive culture or negative culture?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I think, you know, all of us throughout our lives have experienced both positive and negative culture in various circumstances that we've been in. And definitely, you know, as an athlete, I had that experience as well, both positive and negative culture. Thankfully for me, it was more positive during the time I was involved in swimming. You know, all in all, I had a great experience as a member of the Australian swim team.
And in terms of the impact of positive culture, how does that change your engagement in performance as an athlete?
Obviously, if it's a positive culture, people feel comfortable. And I think, you know, when you can feel comfortable in your environment is when you're going to get the best out of yourself, no matter whether you're an athlete or a staff member or whatever it might be. So it is really important as you say, it's quite an abstract idea culture, and it's really hard to define. But I think it is really important that, you know, people feel like they're safe and in an environment where they can speak up if they do see things that are not acceptable.
Yes, speaking up is a challenge as culture becomes negative and arguably at times toxic. Were you able to ever call out behaviour or did you need to call out behaviour?
Not so much when I was an athlete, as I said, there was a fairly positive culture when I was involved in the sport of swimming. But certainly as I've gotten older and as I've grown to understand more of what culture is about and what's acceptable and unacceptable there have been times in my professional working career that I have actually spoken up and it's not easy to speak up, but I think it's really important when you see things that don't sit right with you to call them out. Because, you know, I've often heard of the saying, “the behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept”.
And certainly the role of governance and the leaders in the organisation, whether they be the board or the CEO, have a significant role in establishing and role-modelling good values and behaviours. In terms of defining or determining values and behaviours, how important is the process of defining them and consulting values?
I think, yeah, it's really obviously critical that from an organisational perspective, that the organisation has a strong and sound set of values and which leads obviously then to the culture within the organisation, both for its staff and its members. The consultation on that process is really important because, you know, I think when the top down just sort of says, oh, these are our values and this is our culture, you need that ‘buy-in’. And I think you can only get that ’buy-in’ when you've had a strong consultation process. And it is a tough process, I think, because obviously members and staff will come from a diverse perspective. But I think it's important to capture those perspectives as best you can when you get that ‘buy-in’ and I think is when you can really establish a good, strong culture where it is okay to speak up when things aren't necessarily going as they should be.
And in terms of the role of the board in establishing and role modelling values and behaviour in your many roles in sport as athlete, senior administrator, team manager, what is the role of the board in terms of values and organisational culture?
Well, I think obviously the board is the peak of the organisation there. They're the ones making the decisions about the direction of the organisation. And I think it's really critical that, you know, they obviously are role modelling the behaviours that they want the members and the staff to portray. I think I suppose in my experience, it's quite often that you actually don't see the board very often though, except for maybe you know like presentations and special events and things like that. So I think the visibility is something that could be really improved because, you know, you quite often, you know, when you're an athlete or even as a staff member, sometimes the board can be a little bit faceless, to be honest, because you don't see them and you don't hear often about the work that they're doing and things. So I think that visibility could really be improved to show or highlight that they are role modelling those behaviours that they want and the culture that they expect of the organisation.
You have a bit of challenge coming up in 2022 with the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, establishing values in a Commonwealth Games team where you've got athletes and individuals coming from a raft of sports with different values, how do you do that?
It's really tough, actually. I’ve been on a number of multi-sport teams now with the Commonwealth Games, and it's really challenging to bring together 700 plus people from, you know, I think 19 or 20 sports that all have their own subcultures and own standards and things. It's hard to bring all those people together, expect them to gel and feel like they're part of something bigger. It is really challenging, but I think the approach I've taken to it in the past is just to treat people how you like to be treated yourself. And when you pass an Australian person during a games with the same uniform on as yourself, just lift your head and say hello or sit down next to them in the dining hall and share a meal with them and ask them how their day was. So I think they're the sort of basic approaches that that I'd like to see our Australian team members, certainly for Birmingham in 2022 to take. But it is really hard to bring such a broad group of people together and feel like there's something like something bigger going on than just their normal sport.
And your experience at the Gold Coast with the team there? Did the team gel and connect in a really positive culture at a Gold Coast in 2018?
Yeah, we actually had some really positive feedback through our survey process that we did after the games and I think whilst we can always do better, I think we actually did pretty well on the Gold Coast and people were sort of reported feeling valued and had a good experience. And I mean, on a games team, I mean, there are two primary goals for us, for Birmingham, as they were, on the Gold Coast, is for people to be able to come onto the team and we provide them with the environment where they can perform at their best. Both athletes, coaches, administrators, everyone - everyone on the team has to perform to get the result. And then also it's really critically important that they have a good experience and that they feel part of something that's just, that is bigger than what they normally do in that multi-sport environment. So, yeah, so we did quite well on the Gold Coast, but obviously still looking for improvement and hopefully in Birmingham we can have both a great team performance and great team experience for everyone. And that's part of it.
When we talk about governance generally, we tend to talk about policies and processes or systems or we tend to get focused on the box ticking and on the theory of it, this culture based principle, does it give us a way to look at governance in a different way to bring it to life?
I think it's hard. It's a pretty dry sort of topic area, unfortunately. And I in my daily work environment, I deal with processes and policies and athlete agreements and all that sort of stuff. So it is tough. And I think as an athlete, you sort of just, it's almost like they're just things that you have to do. I don't think we probably spend enough time on educating athletes about why all these things have to be in place. And it's both to protect them as participants in the sport and also to protect the organisation as well. But I think it is, it is a pretty dry topic area, but we all know that those things are there for well, the administrators certainly know that those policies and processes, are there for a really important reason, and that's to provide structure and protection for both participants and the organisation itself.
Excellent. Thank you for your very interesting insights on this important topic today and for joining us here on our podcast series. Thank you, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Thank you for joining me today. If you'd like to access a copy of the sport governance principles, you'll find them at the sports website. SportAUS.gov.au/governance. If you have any feedback or questions, please email us at email@example.com. My name is Kate Corkery and I look forward to you joining me for the next podcast in the Sport Governance Series.