Episode 41 is an interview with English Institute of Sport National Director – Nigel Walker.
We talk about the importance of an equitable system, thoughts on how funding will change and also how high performance is evolving.
Nigel joined the EIS in September 2010 having previously been Head of Change and Internal Communications at BBC Wales.
A former international athlete and rugby union player, he represented Great Britain as a high hurdler before switching to rugby, earning 17 international caps for Wales. He has also served as a UK Sport board member from 2006-10, was Chair of the Major Events Panel and a member of the Audit Committee. He’s also one of very few BAME people in his role or equivalent (Chief Exec) amongst UK sporting organisations.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 16.4.19 – Ep 41. Nigel Walker
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
T: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
Today’s interview is with English Institute of Sport’s National Director, Nigel Walker. Nigel is a former hurdler and rugby union player. He’s worked at BBC Wales as Head of Change and Internal Comms, was a UK Sport board member for four years and has been in his current role since 2010. He’s also one of the very few BAME people in his role or equivalent amongst UK Sporting organisations. We talk about the importance of an equitable system, thoughts on how funding will change and also how high performance is evolving. I asked him first if he still identifies as an athlete or whether that feels like a different lifetime.
N: It is a lifetime in the distant past. I can still remember what it was like to be an athlete and a rugby player, but I identify myself far more as somebody who is a leader, Chief Executive, has done a number of jobs over the last 20 years which I’ve really been very lucky and fortunate to have done.
T: Talking about that your job that you’re currently in, for those who don’t know what you do, can you give me that 30 second/60 second [unclear 0:01:33]?
N: Well, the English Institute of Sport is responsible for delivering sports, science, medicine, technology and engineering primarily to the Olympic and Paralympic sport. So it would be things like nutritionists, physiologists, physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, all the so-called –ologies, and the technology and engineering, people far smarter than me, provide performance solutions to teams. So it could be aerodynamic helmets and suits, it could be bikes, it could be the sleds that Lizzie Yarnold went along, just nipping away fractions of a second to give us a competitive advantage. That’s what we do in the EIS…
T: [Overspeaking] And what do you do personally?
N: What do I do personally? I am the National Director or Chief Executive and in theory I am the link between the board and the executive, the senior leadership team and the staff who work with the senior leadership team to provide direction, to come up with strategy and to make sure we’re using every single pound, shilling and pence to its maximum impact.
T: What gets you up in the morning? What’s the bit of a job that you just thrive on?
N: There are a couple of elements, broadly speaking. It’s working with people who are as enthusiastic and as committed as I am about doing the best they can for others. So it’s working with athletes, working with coaches to make them fulfil their dreams. It’s also very fortunate to get to go to the Olympics as a guest of the Olympic Association or the Paralympics as a guest of the British Paralympic Association and see people actually achieve their dreams. People can sometimes come in to the pipeline, they can be 16 or 17 depending on the sport and you may hear a name then all of a sudden at 19 and 20 they’ll just be coming onto people’s consciousness. Then within two years you’re watching them in an Olympic games or Paralympic games and they’re willing a gold medal, a silver medal, a bronze medal, whatever it is and you think, “The organisation that I work with has helped them in some small way to achieve their dreams.” That [unclear 0:03:28] of moments are magical.
T: How is performance evolving over the years?
N: It’s evolving in a number of ways. There are things like if you’re a nutritionist, it’s been around for a long time and you cook or you give people advice on the foods they have and they’re small changes to relatively big changes like finding a breakthrough working with BAE systems and finding a break through our performance innovation arm which gives our athletes, whether they be canoeists or rowers or cyclists, that performance advantage.
T: I’ve read articles that say that EIS is the envy of the world. In what way compared to other countries?
N: Well, in a number of ways. One because we’re relatively well funded. The advent of the lottery in 1997 has had a real impact and as a consequence in 1996 in Atlanta we won one Olympic gold medal, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent I think…I’ll be corrected if it wasn’t Matthew Pinsent, way back in 1996 to a period now where we’re awash relatively speaking with gold medals. The lottery has transformed that and EIS has had its share of that so we’re lucky in that way. We’re lucky that we’re supported by the Government. We’re lucky that we work in a high performance system which is relatively small. So you’ve got national governing bodies, the British Olympic Association, the British Paralympic Association, UK Sport and EIS all working together and being close enough for us to make sure that we work in the same direction [s.l. to have 0:04:58] no star is the same. In some countries it’s much more difficult. So when you add funding to a system which really works for the betterment of the system rather than any individual component that makes you very lucky indeed.
T: Sorry, Nigel. I should know how long you’ve been in this post.
N: Nine years. I know I look a lot older, but…[laughter].
T: When you look back over your nine years, what are most proud of?
N: There are a number of things I’m proud of. Being part of a system which I’ve just described, lucky enough to work with the people that I work with, but also using the money that we’ve had in a way which has a performance impact, performance impact which we can measure. I’m really proud of that. I haven’t done it alone. My part has been small but the people who have gone through the EIS in my time here, some people have been here 10, 12, 15 years, Alex has only been here three or four years, every one of them has played a part.
T: Some of the challenge…you must have had a number of challenges in your nine years.
N: I’ve said we’re well funded but you’ve never got too much money. So the challenges are…of all the good projects we’ve got research students, we’ve got PhDs, we’ve got MSc students, we’ve got very bright people doing research. Which ones do we invest in? If you’ve got 30 potential projects and you can only afford to fund 10 which are 10 that you should put your money on? We’ve made some good decisions in that area. Again, some very smart people have helped to make those decisions and therefore we’ve been able to bring that performance impact into the system.
T: There’s been lots of talk recently re the change in funding sports from money to medals. Does that have an effect in any way?
N: Well it does. Some of those are cheap headlines, I will say that. People have talked about no compromise in the system. I was on the UK Sport board in 2006 and no compromise was born in about 2007/2008. No compromise was about the targeting of funds to those most likely to succeed, it wasn’t about tolerating bad behaviour which some journalists have tried to portray. So I’ve been here during that time.
Is there going to be a softening or a changing over the next two or three years, over the next two or three cycles? Probably, because there’s a recognition that some sports have been cut in recent times. If we carry on in that way, if you get 20 years or 30 years from now you might only have six or eight sports. Sport is for everyone so we’re trying to find a way…or the system is trying to find a way where as many sports as possible continue to receive finding which means that we may need to change the model from…having a line. You have 300m or 350m to allocate and you start with your best performing sports and you go all the way down to those performing at not quite that level and wherever the money runs out you cut it off completely. I think we’ll move to a softening where perhaps those sports which would have traditionally fallen below the line will receive some form of funding for their best athletes. So it might not be a world class programme as such but it may be elements of that world class programme which is funded in the future. No decisions have been made, that’s me reading the tealeaves, but I think we may well move down that road.
T: Who’s your primary client? Athlete, sport, UK Sport.
N: Well, it’s the national governing bodies of sport. We have a number of stakeholders. We’re wholly owned subsidiary of UK Sport so we work very closely with them. Part of that stakeholder mapping includes the BOA and BPA, but our clients come from the national governing bodies. So we work with the national governing bodies who come to us and say, “We’d like two physiotherapists, a nutritionist, a psychologist.” The conversations are as simple as that and we work with them to make sure they can make best use of those practitioners that they do have.
T: Can we talk cheating for a moment?
N: We can.
T: How does somebody in your role who’s all about performance think or feel personally and professionally when you hear about doping incidents?
N: It is the double edged sword. I’m pleased that people have been caught ‘cause they’re no longer cheating, but it disappoints me that we have people who still think cheating in the way forward. So we work very hard as an organisation and as a system to eradicate cheating and to let our staff know unequivocally that it will not be accepted. We have a whistleblowing policy that if staff see something which they think is unacceptable or close to the line or just plain cheating they can report that anonymously and it will be followed up. This system, it’s impossible to say it’s pure ‘cause you don’t know what everybody is doing but it’s as pure as it can be and there’s certainly no mixed messages that cheating of any description will be tolerated.
T: I’m just gonna change track a little bit. I was told that you were the only BAME person in this sort of role or equivalent amongst UK sporting organisations. What do you think about that? Is that important to that?
N: It’s disappointing and a sad indictment of that element of our high performance system. I feel quite passionately about it as you would expect. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved. I’ve had my fair share of luck, there’s no two ways about it, but we need to work hard as a system to make sure any of the artificial ceilings which exist for people of a BAME background disappear as quickly as possible. I work with an organisation called Sporting Equals and they’ve just launched…I’ve gotta get this right, Sporting Equals Leaderboard Academy and it’s aspiring people from a BAME background who go and they’re coached. I went a few weeks ago and I delivered on that course and they asked, “How have you managed to do it?” There’s no, “Well, if you do this a, b, c, d and e, you’ll end up in this.” It’s not about that. It’s about having ambition, it’s about knowing what you need to do in order to make your goal a reality, and working hard and doing it day after day after day. Then it’s a responsibility of the system to change. Not to make it easier for people of BAME background…I should just say BAMErs, it’s much easier to say BAME, but to make sure that it’s an equitable system so if they’ve got as much talent as somebody else in society they’ve got an equal chance of making it through.
T: Is your organisation [unclear 0:11:23]?
N: It’s equal in some ways and not in others. So we’ve actually got more female; of the 430 employees I think it’s 54/46 in favour of women. When you look at the higher end, the senior people in the organisation, we’ve got some work to do as far as gender is concerned. In terms of the BAME background we’re reasonable, but we’re not where not where we should be. We’re better than some organisations but we’re not where we can be. There are often conversations about, “What can we do? Where do we advertise? How can we make ourselves more attractive?” I’m gonna say we work on this every day. We don’t work on it every day, that would be an exaggeration, but it’s something which receives a reasonable amount of attention over the course of 12 months, over the course of the cycle and our board are fully on board with that as well.
T: So looking forward, how do you think performance will continue to evolve in the future?
N: Well, the technology and engineering bit will continue to be important. It’s what you do with the money. You need a certain amount of money but it’s what you do. So our PhD students, our MSc students are working every day…and we select them very carefully to find those performance advantages. We’re talking about tiny increments now because we’re a well-developed, sophisticated high performance system.
T: Are [s.l. sports 0:12:45] always receptive to your ideas?
N: Not always. It depends about the way that you introduce it to them and if you treat them like adults and don’t say, “Look, we know more than you” but we say, “What are your performance questions? How could we help you?” “Ah. So if we employed a PhD student to have a look at that you’d interested?” It’s about the conversation. It’s their sport and they’ve forgotten more than we know about their sport and we have to recognise that, but equally they have to say that we might have something to offer and that’s the spirit in which we enter these negotiations and these discussions. As I say, the system’s not perfect but we’re pretty close. We’re closer to perfect than disaster which the other end of that spectrum.
T: [Laughter] A great point. This podcast is all about different people’s ideas on performance, different people’s ideas of success. So I suppose I’m really interested to know what is success for you personally?
N: Knowing that every single pound, shilling and pence has been well directed in this organisation and that our relationships with our stakeholders are as good as they can be, which all leads to success in the international arena. It doesn’t have to be gold medals, it could be somebody fulfilling their potential. That could mean they get to a semi-final of an Olympics, it could mean they come sixth, or it could mean gold. It’s about ensuring that people do the best that they can do when it matters and playing our part in that. That might sound a little bit fluffy but it’s not all about golds and silvers and bronzes.
T: That’s for you in your role. What success for you as an individual.
N: That’s a good question. In every job that I’ve done I’ve wanted to do it to the best of my ability and people who know me will say that I am driven. I’ve always been driven and when I stop feeling that certain spark in the morning that will be time to retire. It won’t be for a few years yet.
T: Do you feel successful?
N: That’s a really [laughter] good question. Some of the time is the honest answer. I can look at my CV and I can look at what I did as a sports person, I can look at what I’ve done in the roles that I’ve performed and I can say yes, I’ve done well. Are my competitive instincts to be as successful as I possibly can be sated yet? No they’re not. And it’s not about me as an individual; and it really isn’t about me as an individual. I just like to be the best person I can be…I was going to say every day, it’s not every day but most days to be the best person I can be and to get the best out of the people that I work with and that’s what drives me on. I’d like to think that the EIS is a better organisation now than when I came here. This is not down to me but if I thought the organisation somehow had reached the peak of its curve and was going down the other side I would leave immediately; but I don’t feel that.
T: You come across very passionate, very motivated. Are you always that way? Is that your…where you’re barometer’s set?
N: Most of the time. I drive my wife and my children mad. Because it’s gotta mean something…and this is the bit that drives the kids mad, it’s gotta mean something and if it doesn’t mean anything why are you doing it? Now, you can take that the nth degree and obviously it becomes ridiculous but anything I do, whether in my work life or my personal life, it’s for a reason. It could be enjoyment because you wanna have fun, or it could be because you wanna be the best you can be today, tomorrow and the next day. That’s honestly how I feel. When I no longer feel like that it will be time for me to get my pipe and slippers out…I don’t smoke a pipe by the way, pipe and slippers out and to do something…
T: [Overspeaking] [Unclear 0:16:45].
N: …[laughter] yeah, a little bit more relaxing.
T: Did you expect to be in the position that you’re in?
N: Never. I remember when I was a sports person, I looked at the Head of Sport job at BBC Wales and I thought, “That would be a great job.” I didn’t really think I would go for it and then I took an MBA and I thought, “Actually, I…” and then the opportunity came round and it was a fantastic job. I did that for nine years. I did a few other things at the BBC as well.
T: How do you go from thinking, “Oh, I don’t know” to, “Actually…”? What enables that?
N: I asked a person, “If I wanted to take a qualification which would be the most flexible qualification I could have?” They said, “Take an MBA.” I was about 26, 27 at the time and it took me three or four years before I started it but then I started taking an MBA because I didn’t know what was gonna come. I was in the civil service, I worked for the Welsh Rugby Union and then I worked for the BBC. I’ve always had a tentative plan but that plan’s always been flexible, but at the heart of that has been be the best person I can be during that period of time.
T: Well, I’m just gonna wrap things up with some quick fire questions?
T: What did you eat for breakfast?
N: Porridge. I have porridge 360 days of the year. I’m boring like that [laughter].
T: [Laughter] Favourite piece of kit?
N: In terms of?
N: Exercise kit. Well, any kit. My trainers.
T: Sporting hero?
N: Two. Daley Thompson, Gerald Davies.
N: Daley Thompson because I was 16 or 17, or 15, 16 whatever it was, and I saw him win the Olympic gold medal in Moscow. He did it easily and he told people how easily he did it and I just loved that. Gerald Davies because I’m Welsh and I was brought up on Gerald Davies, Barry John, Gareth Edwards. I played on the wing and Gerald Davies was the best winger in the world.
T: Most useless piece of advice you’ve either been given or given to somebody else?
N: Given to loads of people, “Don’t worry.” It’s a ridiculous piece of advice.
T: The greatest passion outside of sport?
T: And last one, best performance enhancer?
N: Hard work.
T: Hard work. Brilliant. Well, thank you very much. It’s been wonderful talking to you.
N: I’ve enjoyed it.
T: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to a questionofperformance.com.
[End of transcript]
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