RSS Feed

Interview

London 2012 was a shining, triumphant moment in time. For the organisers, the preceding seven years were all about building towards a monumental vision, with an intense focus and unrelenting to-do list. As the final fireworks at the closing ceremony fizzed and died in the black of night, thoughts must have turned to a cold reality: “how can I ever find another job that matches this”?

Rob, tell us how you got involved in the London 2012 Olympic Games?  

I got a call asking if I’d like to meet the HR Director for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. It was a totally out-of-the-blue phone call, and the next day, I was on the train to London where I met with Jean Tomlin, HR Director for London 2012 in her Canary Wharf office.

Knowing how incredible London 2012 became, it's difficult to imagine how it was planned out, what needed to be done, when and how and by whom, what did this to-do list look like?  

Although previous Games organisers share knowledge, I was surprised – and a little worried if I’m honest – that there wasn’t a more detailed “how to put on an Olympic Games” guide available. So we spent the first year literally scoping out, planning and setting out our HR strategies, and essentially breaking down this massive task into manageable chunks of work. It was a fantastic, vibrant environment, full of great people, incredibly exciting and fast moving. One thing that struck me very early on was that in all my previous jobs, every day you saw the ‘output’ of what the organisation did; selling food, making beer, selling furniture. But this was different, we were never going to see our ‘product’, the Games, until the night of the opening ceremony more than five years later. We had over 50 functions within the Organising Committee including venues, commercial, sport, ceremonies, technology, and transport, all working together against incredibly detailed and integrated milestone plans, leading to our immovable deadline, 27 July 2012.

I was fortunate enough to be a spectator on Super Saturday. For anyone lucky enough to have experienced that, it was something that you could never forget. Not just for what went on in the games, but the truly electric atmosphere. You must have thought "if only we could bottle this"?  

Agreed, I think most people in the country felt that way at the time. The good feeling around the country; in the streets, on transport, in shops, bars and restaurants, I don’t think anyone wanted it to end. For a short period of time, it really felt like we came together as a nation. I think part of what makes the experience so special is the defined lifetime of the organisation, knowing that it won’t last forever. I had told myself this would be a one-time thing for me, and then I’d go back to a ‘normal’ job. But the challenge, working with passionate, like-minded people, the excitement of the event business, the pace and intensity gets into your blood, it’s addictive. The night of the closing ceremony was very emotional for a lot of people, in part I think relief that everything went well, the realisation of years of planning, the pride of our friends and families, and in many cases the release of physical and mental exhaustion. It probably took a few months after the Games to get back to ‘normal life’ but then you realise normal life is just that, ‘normal’. You crave the challenge, the pace, the intensity, the people. So when I got another call out of the blue from Jean, one Tuesday morning in April 2013 telling me to “pack a bag, we’re going to Azerbaijan for the weekend”! It didn’t take long for me to say “OK”! Azerbaijan had got the rights to host the first ever European Games in Baku in June 2015 and a couple of former London 2012 executives had been in discussions with the Government of Azerbaijan and they wanted to discuss the possibility of working with them on the project.

Was this a case of, be careful what you wish for? You have a family, and you had been completely immersed in London 2012 for nearly six years.  

Few great opportunities are easy, or come without some form of compromise or sacrifice. I’ve been fortunate to have the support of my family to pursue them, this was another incredible opportunity. Over that weekend, we spent hours discussing a simple but very big question, ‘is it possible, to do in two years what normally takes five to seven? And in a country with no previous experience of hosting major multi-sport events? The conclusion we came to was that it was, but we’d probably need to mobilise an international team of 4500 experienced people to Baku, and fast! We’d also need to find 1000 plus local staff from an employment market that was small, inexperienced and fairly static in its nature. Traditionally, people with a job in the oil and gas sector in Baku don’t move jobs, especially not for a temporary job. We presented our plans to the Azerbaijan government over the Spring and Summer of 2013 and eventually, on September 1st 2013, got the approval to progress our plan… we had less than two years to go.

We had decided to set up an office in London to manage our international recruitment for the simple reason that, following London 2012, there was a great pool of talent based in the UK. We recruited the core of our leadership team and mobilised the first 100 people, including key Directors, to Baku within 100 days. Our approach was a simple one; good people follow good people and, if we could get the best leadership team possible, we would have the best possible chance of pulling it off. The international team has now grown to over 400, from more than 40 different countries, in a year. The speed and scale of the mobilisation is unprecedented in major event history. I describe the team as having ‘one degree of separation’. They are highly-experienced and well-known to each other and it’s meant the team has bonded very quickly, based on strong relationships, and people get clarity much quicker about who is doing what, when and how, essential when given the short time span. We’ve hired around 800 local staff so far, including over 150 of the best graduates in Azerbaijan, onto our Graduate Academy programme, an unusual innovation for a ‘temporary’ Organising Committee, but an essential part of our national resourcing strategy for these Games. We’ve still a lot to do but we’re giving ourselves the best chance of getting there.

Tell us about the European Games, where the event will be placed in the athletic sphere?  

Unlike the Americas and Asia, Europe doesn’t have a continental Games. The aspiration is for it to become the top, multi-sport competition in  Europe, and to enhance the performance of European athletes at major world events, such as the World Championships and the Olympics and Paralympics. Baku 2015 will host the first ever European Games from 12th to 28th June 2015 and we’ll have more than 6,000 athletes from the 50 Olympic nations of Europe competing in 20 sports disciplines. Many sports will offer automatic qualification for Rio 2016, to the winners.

Tell us about Azerbaijan the country.  

Azerbaijan is a fascinating place and would surprise many people. The capital city of Baku is a stunning backdrop for the Games and the Azerbaijani people are incredibly welcoming, friendly and proud of their city and country. The infrastructure and development of new sport facilities are progressing rapidly and will be a big part of the legacy from these games. For example, right now, Baku has no public swimming pool, and so post games, the aquatics centre which is being built to Olympic standards, will be a public swimming pool. There will also be a new main stadium with a capacity of 65,000 people. Azerbaijan has a very young population, with 40 percent of the population under 30, so this event is a great opportunity to inspire a generation of young people to participate in sport. The country has significant ambitions to host major events in future and to use these events as catalysts for developing its travel and tourism industry, and reduce its dependence on the oil and gas sectors of the economy.

What about working within what must be very different cultures and a foreign language?  

You have to be very adaptable and always be mindful that these are the Games of the people of Azerbaijan. It’s a very relationship-based culture, where face-to-face discussion and a handshake is how decisions get made and business gets done. Culturally, the people are used to a lot of top-down command which actually works quite well during our planning phase, as given the condensed time-frame we made a conscious decision to manage our planning with a smaller centralised team doing more ‘top-down’ planning because we can do more with less for longer this way. However, at Games-time we need 99 percent of decisions to be made at venue level and that’s a big cultural shift, and will bring additional language challenges, as many of our front line workforce won’t be English speaking.

Within the Organising Committee we have a Function dedicated to building our operational capability and readiness for Games-Time to help us make this shift. The decision to recruit 150 of the best English speaking graduates in Azerbaijan was also a conscious decision, as at Games-time many of these graduates will fill frontline management roles, leading teams of local staff, volunteers and contractors. Although our business language is English, we do have translation services, especially in technical areas like; Transport, Technology, Security and Venue design, where precise and timely translation is critical to operations. Our international team of over 400 has been recruited from over 40 nationalities, so we are naturally very diverse culturally, and as many of the team are used to working in other countries, are able to adapt quickly.

Give us an idea of what stage you are at now?  

As an event organiser you’re planning goes from 30,000 feet two years out from the Games, to one foot from the ground just prior to the opening ceremony. We’re probably at 5,000 feet right now, but descending rapidly. We’ve got around 1200 staff based in a single site office and the next three or four months will see a gradual transition of these staff out to their Games-time venues (over 60 of them) and roles, leaving a small central control hub – it’s a complex jigsaw puzzle led by the HR team. In parallel, we’ll start planning for the rapid closure of the Organising Committee, once the Games are over, and providing career and personal transition support to staff, which will include planning for the repatriation of over 700 international staff and their families to over 40 different countries. It’s a very challenging period for people, they’re working extremely hard, under the intense pressure of an immovable deadline, but with the certain knowledge of leaving the Organising Committee within just 48 hours of the closing ceremony and saying goodbye to everyone they have been on this unique journey with.

From an HR perspective, what are the fundamental parts of succeeding with a massive undertaking like this?  

Like most organisations it’s about having the right people in the right place at the right time, but adapting that for the context you are operating in. For us that’s managing an organisation that is temporary in nature from start-up, through rapid growth to Games-time and then closing it down, all within a two year timeframe. Given the temporary nature of the organisation, it’s just as important to decide what you’re not going to do, as what you are going to do. Selecting the right leadership team is always vital to any organisation, but especially here, to establish the tone for the organisation and help us attract international talent, quickly.

Resource planning of course plays a big role, as the workforce budget for a Games of this scale typically runs into a nine figure sum, and is one of the top three or four budget lines for any Organising Committee. The management of the allocation of that resource, across over 50 functional areas within the organisation, takes up a lot of time and effort to ensure it’s aligned to project deliverables. There are some pragmatic choices you have to make, we need the organisation to be highly flexible and adaptable through its lifecycle, so we keep our job titling, grading and reward strategies as simple as possible. Speed of communication and clarity of decision-making are also vital, so the organisation structure needs to be flat and the internal governance clear at each phase of our lifecycle. Other simple examples are; you don’t have traditional succession planning, performance issues have to be dealt with rapidly, you’ve no time for any hiring mistakes, absence management isn’t normally an issue and your investment in learning and development is a very different approach. In general terms simple strategies, brilliantly executed, are far better in an event environment than a complex strategy executed to moderate standards. There are other local factors to take into account. For example in Azerbaijan there is a detailed Labour Code setting out the law on a range of employment matters including working time, pay, overtime, holidays etc. and We’ve had to find creative ways to get the flexibility we need in our workforce and remain compliant with the Code. The effective integration of our international and national staff is also something we spend a lot of time and effort working on through our engagement plan.

Explain what it's like to go all-out, being totally focused on a goal, for a sustained period and then it instantly ceases. How do you prepare people for that?  

A combination of expectation management and support. For experienced event professionals, they are used to managing these transitions on a personal and professional level. For people involved in a major event for the first time, it’s vital we manage their expectations on what they can expect their ‘emotional journey’ to be like and provide the support and tools they need to plan for, and manage their personal and career transition. This will include career transition support and outplacement programmes, as well a talent marketing programme to sponsors, suppliers, major local businesses, government and future Organising Committees. For some people, they get a real sense of ‘loss’, almost grief, when events are over and the teams disbands. Fortunately, event organisers have got more professional at managing this transition and providing support. Developments in areas like social media also make it much easier for people to stay connected after the event that it was even a decade ago.

And how is the project progressing at this stage, any cause for concern?  

We’ve made great progress, but given the condensed time-frame for this project, it will be a race to be ready for the opening ceremony on 12th June 2015. The European Games is essentially a new ‘product’ we are developing and launching for the European Olympic Committee (EOC) in Baku. We want to leave a strong foundation for the event and a brand for the EOC and future host cities. The future alignment of the European sporting calendar to the European Games will be critical to that success, by ensuring the sports competition held at the European Games attracts the highest quality athletes.

There's a lot of debate and controversy about what Legacy really means. What's your interpretation?  

Legacy is about leaving behind sustained positive change as a result of hosting events, such as a major games and in Baku, that legacy will come in many forms. In the short term, a legacy of improved infrastructure, transport and the development of local businesses supplying goods and services. Looking to the future, I think we’ll also see the emergence of Baku as a tourist destination. Azerbaijan has a very young population, so increasing sport participation across a wider range of sports will also be a significant legacy opportunity for the Government and local sport federations. There will also be a significant human legacy through the transfer of knowledge and experience from our international team to our national staff. This legacy will enable the Azerbaijani team to organise future planned events such as Formula 1 in 2016, the Islamic Games in 2017 and Euro 2020 games, with less need to bring in international experience.

What do you make of your career, how it's panned out, and particularly your incredible experiences with being involved with these events?  

It’s been hard work, but when you are presented with this sort of opportunity, you’ve got to take them. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some very good bosses throughout my career from whom I learnt a huge amount and owe a lot to. I believe strongly in the positive influence of sport and I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had opportunities to combine that passion with my career at London 2012 and now Baku 2015. London 2012 will naturally be a highlight and the greatest privilege, because it was such a massive undertaking and an event that had a profound impact on so many people, both in the UK and around the world. But Baku 2015 has proven to be a fantastic experience so far too and hopefully, we’ll be able to look back after the Games with similar pride with what we are aiming to achieve for the European Games, and for the international profile of Baku and Azerbaijan.


FOR FURTHER INFO www.baku2015.com 

Receive more HR related news and content with our monthly Enewsletter (Ebrief)