Governance & Commercial Growth, Sport Business, Talent ID & Recruitment | Jan 11, 2019
C-Suite conversations on leadership, recruitment, onboarding and culture across global sport.

Sports and entertainment executive search specialists Nolan Partners speak to senior executives from LFP, the USTA, Dugout, the Chicago Cubs and the Toronto Blue Jays on their approaches to leadership, innovation, culture, and hiring best practice.

By James Emmett

The start of a new calendar year provides an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, begin afresh, make resolutions to be better, more fulfilled, happier, healthier, more successful.

Individuals make personal vows to themselves, but the opportunity is there for organisations to refocus at this time of year too; to clarify purpose, update the corporate mission, breathe fresh life into a set of values, systems and behaviours that define organisational culture; to make plans, perhaps, to tweak the recruitment strategy and processes to reflect that evolution, that new ambition.

“There are no greater cultural signposts within an organisation than in the people it hires.” The words belong to Paul Nolan, the eponymous chief of executive search firm Nolan Partners. Since 2006, Nolan’s firm has conducted over 600 successful searches for executive positions at sports and entertainment organisations around the globe. Cultural fit, matching candidates not just on provable skillsets but on an intangible appropriateness for an organisation – a shared ethos – has become a speciality.

In a series of ‘C-Suite Conversations’ recorded behind the scenes at the Leaders Sport Business Summit in New York in 2018, Nolan, alongside his colleagues Chad Biagini and Andrew Moss, talked to leaders of some of the most innovative organisations in the sports business to glean insight on how they define effective leadership in sport, how they hire for it, and how they’ve adapted their recruitment processes to match their organisational ambitions to keep them ahead of the pack.

Look for positivity, resolve and humility

Crane Kenney is President of Business Operations at the Chicago Cubs. The franchise is one of the founding baseball clubs in the US and the only one to remain in its home town. After an infamous 108-year drought, the Cubs finally won a World Series in 2016, and since that point, Kenney and his team have been busy capitalising on sporting success by harnessing the power of the Cubs’ brand and the passion and loyalty of its fanbase to a set of enhanced business objectives and products that span the hospitality, entertainment and media gamut.

With the help of Nolan Partners, the Cubs hired Lauren Fritts as VP of Marketing in January last year. She joined from the position of Director of Consumer Marketing at Gatorade and is typical of the type of hire that Kenney likes to make: experience of the sports industry, but not blinkered by it; open-minded, forward thinking and positive.

To evolve your business, bring in business people

Experience is a crucial criterion in the recruitment for almost any role. And while it’s tempting to conclude that the best fit for a role is someone who has done exactly the same thing already at a very similar organisation, it’s not a particularly innovative, needle-moving approach, and it’s unlikely to bring an injection of fresh thinking into your organisation.

Didier Quillot has been CEO of LFP, the French football league, since March 2016, and over the course of his tenure he has gone about taking the organisation to the next stage of its professional iteration, evolving away from a traditional sports administration model to one with ambitious commercial objectives, a business mindset, at its core. Recruitment has played a key role in that development, with Quillot keen to attract some of the best business minds into leadership positions across French football, from ownership level – where US billionaires Frank McCourt and Joe Joseph DaGrosa have bought in at Marseille and Bordeaux in recent years – downwards.

“You need to like and know football,” says Quillot of the perfect candidate, “but you have to understand P&L and cash management too; you have to work in teams, not silos, and ideally be fluent in English.

“I’m looking for people from sports business – from Nike, from Adidas – but also people coming from media, telcos, advertising,” continues Quillot, who himself held leadership positions at Orange and Lagardere before joining LFP.

A start-up mentality, an entrepreneurial spirit, an inclination towards innovation – all traits admired by Quillot, and, too, by Matthew Baxter, President of Dugout, the behind-the-scenes football content company that would perhaps more readily be described as ‘disruptive’ than LFP.

Baxter, whose first role in sport was as Chief Media Officer of Liverpool FC, having joined the club after several roles in the movie business with Warner Bros and MGM, believes that flexibility is the key quality to look for when hiring into sports media in the current climate, and that game-changing hires can be made outside of traditional sports organisations.

How do you motivate well-rewarded executives to come out of a big job at, say, a bank, to join a nimble, small but growing organisation like Dugout? According to Baxter, you show them that they “can make an immediate difference, an immediate impact to your business, the investors, and the people around you.”

Don’t be afraid to be bold and disruptive

In the same month Quillot was hired to LFP with a mandate to professionalise, former WTA CEO Stacey Allaster was brought in to the role of CEO of Pro Tennis at the USTA on a mission to innovate. And innovate she has done, not least in her own approach to recruitment. In 2017, Allaster was tasked with re-imagining the officiating set-up across US tennis. She embarked on a search process, alongside Nolan Partners, to fill the position of Senior Director Pro Tennis Strategy, Officiating and Pro Circuit, eventually hiring Sean Cary to the role, which, it’s safe to say, was an appointment that raised eyebrows across the tennis industry. Cary had been hired not from within the game, but from Cricket Australia where he was Head of Cricket Operations.

Allaster describes it as the best recruitment of talent in her career. “Recruitment is a balancing of art and science,” she says, “taking in a candidate’s competency, commitment, character, and leadership behaviours – how they’re going to use those building blocks to maximise their own performance, but also harmonise and optimise the team.”

Hire for cultural fit and growth mindset

For Crane Kenney and the Cubs, cultural fit is the most important aspect in the recruitment process. Identifying that fit requires a “multi-phased” process. “The paper process and the qualifications, that’s the first bit, and then firms like Nolan get behind the numbers to see if a person’s ethos fits with ours, sees if there’s a cultural fit,” he says. “The worst fits are where you have someone who is incredibly intelligent, forward thinking, but doesn’t understand the team concept. For us, hiring is so much more about fit; there are incredibly talented people that are the wrong fit.”

It’s a criterion that resonates with Kenney’s MLB colleague and rival Andrew Miller, EVP of Business Operations at the Toronto Blue Jays. For Miller, hiring for cultural fit doesn’t mean hiring the same type of people, but of finding “different perspectives who are able to trust and respect each other, strive towards the same goal of winning the World Series, and have a growth mindset.”

And growth mindset, according to Miller, can be tested for. “We spend a lot of time trying to learn how to interview better,” he says. “We learn how to discern those types of traits – through refining the job description, which questions we want to ask, and then evaluation based on criteria for those traits – so for grit and growth mindset, we’re asking a lot of questions about overcoming adversity, situations where people have failed, ways people have learned, what people are interested in learning. Then we try to triangulate that with work product, questionnaires and essays, reference checks to try to understand beyond an hour-long interview how it has been applied in their life.”

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