Building Communities

When I was in primary school I was the kid who organised the lunchtime sports competitions. I was sports captain for my house at high school and organised team sports while at university. As an adult I’ve worked at Netball Australia, the World Swimming Championships, and the Deaflympic Games. In one form or another I’ve been doing this type of work my whole life.

Apart from sport, my most formative experience in learning about leadership was in the late 90’s when I worked at Anyinginyi Congress, an Aboriginal Health organisation in Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. With an Aboriginal team we ran sport and recreational activities for the town and surrounding areas. It was a fantastic experience that helped me to learn that leadership is a lot more than being the person who stands out in front. I learnt about leadership in the form of bringing communities together and building community through shared activity.

I’ve always been driven by an intrinsic motivation to help communities, so I’ve gravitated to the not-for-profit sector throughout my career. In Tennant Creek, sport is a massive thing. Many of the people who live there are genuinely disadvantaged and are living on the edges of society. The Aboriginal community is diverse; many live suburban lives like anyone else but there is a group that is living on the fringes of society, and it’s sport that draws people together.

After seeing firsthand the impact that sport can have as a community-building tool, I was able to develop values and principles that I’ve incorporated into my working life since then, including here at Gymnastics Victoria. I feel like I’m contributing to social cohesion for a different, but still diverse, community.

What Does Success Mean?

Success in a private organisation is pretty clear – in simple terms they need to make money to survive, and if they don’t then the business is going to close. For a sport like ours with 70,000 members we have lots of different points of view about what success means. Does success mean having a financially stable organisation; does it mean increasing the number of participants; does it mean winning medals at Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games; or does it mean that children involved in our sport are in safe environments with knowledgeable coaches? All those things are important, and of course success is a combination of each.

Winning medals is nice, but so is getting as many kids as active as possible. If you can win medals you get more participation which helps to achieve our core goals – bringing people together.

Our new slogan “start here, go anywhere” treats gymnastics as a life skill, like swimming, or running . Increased participation also creates a deeper pool of talented athletes which can improve our chances of winning medals in a whole range of sports in the coming years.

“Start here, go anywhere” is really saying that as the alphabet is to English, gymnastics is to sport. It provides a base level of speed, flexibility, strength, spatial awareness, and balance. That base level capability can provide a foundation for lifelong participation in, and love of, sport.

Looking Ahead

One of the things we’re incorporating in to our planning for the future is strategic foresight. We want to predict what society looks like in 5 or 10 years so we can position our organisation to meet the changing needs and tastes of our community. We look at things like connectedness through social media. We look at the health of our children and of the nation as a whole and ask ourselves how gymnastics can be a platform to drive better outcomes. We want our young gymnasts to use the lessons they learn in sport to become leaders and develop as successful people in all walks of life.

As the sport’s peak body one of our major changes was to build a customer service culture rather than a sports administration culture. Administrators often seek compliance as the primary tool for change whereas we’re here to help our members succeed – to run successful businesses and for our athletes to taste success on the world stage.

Supporting people is the best way to build engagement and trust which is critical to our success. In our head office team we’ve built expertise so that our community members trust us enough to listen and act on our advice and suggestions, and then act on it.

Building a customer service culture, engaging with, and listening to our community by acting on what people say builds trust. This trust gives us license to do many more things successfully and feeds back into the gymnastics community – the very people we’re here to serve.

We have built a successful administrative foundation which now allows us to focus on athlete success – whether it be a 5 year old learning how their body moves or an athlete winning gold at the Olympic Games.

Jamie Parsons is the CEO of Gymnastics Victoria.