Is Your Organization in Athletic Position?

My kids are playing coach-pitch baseball this year for the first time. I love baseball and softball, so it makes my heart so happy that they are loving it. One of the things we’re working on with them both in the field and in the batter’s box is to be the good athletic position. Up on the balls of their feet, not back on their heels. Ready to field a grounder, ready to take a whack at the pitch. It’s universal for any sport, but it’s hard to remember that athletic position isn’t natural for young ones during their first foray into playing sports.

Athletic position for any sport. Photo: Science for Sport

I ventured over the mountains last week for a quick stop in Colorado Springs to attend the Association of Chief Executives of Sport (ACES) Conference. ACES is the membership organization for those individuals who are responsible for running the United States’ National Governing Body organizations for the Olympic Movement.

The conference was chalk-full quality education, and the National Association of Sports Commissions had the privilege of facilitating pre-conference education to kick-off the event. One of the speakers was Marilyn Hannes, President of SeaWorld San Diego. Hannes spoke with truth and candor about crisis communication and planning by drawing on the very real and public challenges faced by her organization in recent years.

Hannes presenting to ACES executives

Hannes’ presentation drew on numerous parallels to what the world of sport is facing today, particularly in the Olympic Movement post-Larry Nassar and the other controversies that have tainted some of the USA’s most historically unifying and pride-inducing sports.

Hannes mentioned multiple times in her presentation that she wished SeaWorld had done a better job articulating all the great things the organization was already doing for marine life and the health of the ocean long before coming to its non-glowing return to the public eye through the Orca Whale controversy. To put it simply, SeaWorld was sitting back on its heels, the antithesis of “athletic position” in business.

The organization could have been banking goodwill to draw on during rough times. But it wasn’t. There are many, many more nuances to this particular story, but the point is that often times, whether a small organization or a big one, we do not do a stellar job telling our story in advance. In any industry. Our reactive nature can wind up hurting our organization by calling into question credibility when times get tough.

Photo: SeaWorld

Hindsight truly is 20/20. But in today’s world, organizations cannot afford to be on their heels. Hannes – and others at the conference – spoke candidly about the human and financial resources required to deal with a crisis. These efforts can wreak havoc on an organization’s core business functions and leave it hanging on for dear life, if it survives at all.

Dr. Daniel Diermeier from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern has an excellent book called Reputation Rules in which he details how an organization can surmount dire PR situations. It’s a fascinating look at many of the biggest organizational controversies of our time and how they did – or didn’t – overcome. The focus is restoring public trust by addressing four elements: empathy, transparency, expertise and commitment.

At the ACES opening reception, I got to hear new USOC CEO, Sarah Hirshland, convey her vision for the future of the Olympic Movement. She nailed Diermeier’s four elements of trust succinctly and convincingly. There’s no doubt it’s a long way to recovery for the US Olympic community, and only time will tell the outcome, however.

Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the USOC. Photo: TeamUSA

As for Hannes’ and SeaWorld, her courage to share the organization’s story and the clear leadership she has displayed throughout, coupled with the truly remarkable programs in SeaWorld’s portfolio, have resulted in noteworthy growth in attendance and renewed goodwill development. They are now in true athletic position.

Unfortunately, it’s not “if” but “when” an unpleasing circumstance will hit the press. Regardless of the size or type of your organization, it is prudent to have resources and plans in place, along with a whole bunch of goodwill. As Hannes described, this effort isn’t a “one and done”, it’s diligent, purposeful, and perhaps most importantly, continual.

Go Red Sox! Photo: K. Sweet

Marshall Field once noted, “Goodwill is the one and only asset that competition cannot undersell or destroy.” What are you doing to enhance your organization’s goodwill today? Get off your heels, get your organization in athletic position, and be ready for the ball to come your way. This is Stoll on Sports.

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