Episode 44 is an interview with the CEO of Sport England, Tim Hollingsworth.
Tim’s worked at a senior level in a number of high-profile roles in sport – including seven years as Chief Executive at the British Paralympic Association, Secretary General for ParalympicsGB at the PyeongChang 2018, Rio 2016, Sochi 2014 and London 2012 Paralympic Games and Chief Operating Officer at UK Sport.
We talk about his views on leadership, what challenges that brings, how he copes with criticism and what his ambitions are for the sports industry.
For seven years, until November 2018, Tim was Chief Executive at the British Paralympic Association, the National Paralympic Committee for the United Kingdom. He has also served as Secretary General for ParalympicsGB at the PyeongChang 2018, Rio 2016, Sochi 2014 and London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Prior to that, Tim was first Director of Policy & Communications and then Chief Operating Officer at UK Sport. Previously, Tim worked for four years as a Director of a strategic communications consultancy, HBL Media, for two years as Head of Corporate Media and Internal Communications at Granada Media plc, and spent five years as Head of Media Relations at the Confederation of British Industry.
Tim is a Trustee of the Football Foundation and a Member of the International Paralympic Committee’s Paralympic Games Committee. He is a former Board Director of the Youth Sport Trust and the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. He holds Honorary Degrees from both Bath and Exeter University as well as a Masters Degree in Drama from Exeter.
Prior to that, he had a decade’s worth of experience working in senior corporate communications roles – all of which builds an impressive CV that saw him awarded an OBE in 2017.
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: 25.6.19 – Ep 44. Tim Hollingsworth OBE
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.
I’m at Sport England today chatting to their new Chief Exec, Tim Hollingsworth. Tim’s worked at a senior level in a number of high-profile roles in sport. For seven years Tim was Chief Exec at the British Paralympic Association. He’s also served as Secretary General for Paralympics GB at PyeongChang 2018, Rio 2016, Sochi 2014 and London 2012 Paralympic Games. Prior to that Tim was first Director of Policy and Communications and then COO at UK Sport. So I want to know his views on leadership, what challenges that brings, how he copes with the criticism and what his ambitions are for the sport industry. Might be interesting though to first hear simply what he thinks is the point of sport?
T: You did tell me that you might start with this question and it is because it’s such a simple question it’s actually quite hard to answer in some ways. But I think the point of sport, on the one had you could get quite grandiose about it and say that it’s enriching of life and in fact it’s essentially something that is part of what makes us who we are. But I think it’s much more simple than that, which I think sport at every level can be a way in which people can just get something better for themselves. They can actually find something for themselves that they like about it. Whether it’s simply being active, whether it’s being part of a team, whether it’s a technical skill or whether it’s achievement, success and ultimately that sort of level. The point of sport is that it offers an opportunity, an outlet for everybody in a way that actually also makes sense to everybody. So there should be, and we’ll perhaps talk about this, no exclusion from it. I think the only other point, I can’t think of anything else quite, which offers so much to both an individual, a community and a nation. And that’s a point of sport as well, particularly when you look at it from my point of view and Sport England, is that, you know, you can easily see the point of sport to a person, to the individual, why it matters to them.
You can then see how important it is to communities and actually building locally, or regionally, people’s identity and how they feel. And then as we’ve seen frequently, and we’re seeing at the moment, you know, in the Women’s World Cup and the Men’s Cricket World Cup, a national identity as well and a sense of belonging. There are lots of answers to your question but at the end of the day it’s because it provides something for everyone in a way that can make their life better.
I: You’ve worked at a senior level across many different sporting organisations, you we’re COO at UK Sport, seven years at the BPA as CEO now you’re Sport England’s CEO. Can you compare and contrast those sort of working at a senior level across different organisations?
T: The contrast comes in what the organisation is setting out to do, the similarities come in the sorts of jobs, tasks and ambitions that you have in the role. I was very lucky in UK Sport because I learnt from exceptional leaders. When I joined Sue Campbell was the Chair, John Steele became the Chief Executive and then Liz Nicholl took over and then that’s when I became COO. And so I had a vision there, for me within sport, of what leadership can and should be. And then obviously in the British Paralympic Association it was a huge privilege to be around the time when the Paralympic movement was starting to shift and change rapidly and we had the obligation both to the athletes and the team and the wider movement. Whereas here it’s very much about now recognising the scope and the breadth of what Sport England is seeking to engage and be responsible for. So there are clear differences in the way that the organisations set themselves up, the way the organisations are focussed, and the sorts of practise and processes that you encounter. So each time when you move from one role to another you have to recognise those differences and those different challenges. But the similarities are about style of leadership, how you want to be, they are absolutely about the challenges of communication and advocacy of the purpose of the organisation.
For me, if you’re not a leader, if you’re not the brilliant advocate for the organisation in terms of what it stands for, what it’s there to do. Doesn’t mean you have to always be the spokesperson but you have to have that inner strength that you believe in the purpose of the organisation ’cause the title of that old book, “Why would I want to be led by you.” And in that sense, unless you can really clearly advocate why, and understand why, then all the technical skills about, you know, organisational structures or functions or budgeting becomes secondary. And I think also there’s a strong sense of similarity across the piece around recognising that at the end of the day a lot of leadership, well almost all of leadership is about people. And it’s about both what drives and motivates people but also the challenges people can face both in their individual lives and as part of teams. So, yeah, particularly in three sporting bodies who are all to a degree overlapping and inter-linked, it’s made, in some ways, a very seamless journey. But each time I found that the individual challenges, that I’m realising now in Sport England, the individual challenges do vary.
I: I would guess that when you move into a senior position you’re often following another big beast. Are you aware of that, is that something that you’re conscious of when you change position?
T: I think in Chief Executive roles it would be rare that you’re not, and obviously Jenny Price, who was my predecessor here at Sport England, had 11 years in the job and took that through an enormous period of change and growth and focus. You are aware of it therefore, it’s impossible not to be, perhaps though, it’s a reflection once you get in being in a Chief Executive role that you have to have the confidence and the knowledge why you’re there now. That you weren’t employed to be a replication of that previous person, you’re there to be the strengths that you’ve got and you’re there to bring to it the clarity of vision and the character that you have as a leader. And that takes a bit of confidence, actually, not least when something’s been working well and it can sometimes take a lot of confidence just to admit that all you need to do is keep something as it is. But you also have to have that belief that you have the job that you are a) successful in getting it but also b) hopefully wanted it because of what you believe you could do in the role. And therefore not be afraid of making change or at least perceiving where change is needed, just because somebody previously had a very strong view. I mean leaders are never going to be alike and the character of the organisation does shift and change as a result.
I: Have you struggled with that at all? Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? Or has it been sort of fairly straight forward process for you?
T: There’s a bit of me that will tell you I suffer from imposter syndrome every day of my working life [Laughter] and perhaps always have and always will. I’ll be honest and say that in this job coming in I am very lucky on two fronts. One, the environment in which Sport England operates, and to a large degree, although clearly it’s become much more subtle than this now I’m in, I understand Sport England. I understand the landscape in which it operates. I understand, I know an awful lot of the, you know, the focus of it, but also more importantly, it’s an arm’s length body of government, it’s a National Lottery distributor. I worked for UK Sport before, similar. I understand the political dynamic within government. I understand the governing body dynamic within sport. I understand, you know, the focus and purpose I believe of trying to make people more active and why. So in some ways I’ve been helped enormously by the fact that my previous 15 years were in a not dissimilar environment. The BPA is still a partner, UK Sport is still a partner, there’s a sort of family atmosphere to some, at least, of the role.
I: So you sort of knew what you were getting into?
T: I knew what I was getting into. And I used to joke about this massively, going into the BPA before London 2012, I knew all the acronyms. There’s a huge thing, where you’re going into a meeting and actually, you know what people are talking about, you’re not sitting back and going ‘what does that stand for’?
I: Yes, Google later.
T: Who are you talking about and what does it mean?
I: You talk about it being public bodies, what are the biggest challenges working as a public body, do you think?
T: I think there’s a real and a perceived. The real one is accountability. Absolutely, categorically. I have the role of Accountable Officer for Sport England. So that makes me personally accountable to the government, not to the DCMS but to, sorry, to Parliament, very crucially. So I’m accountable to Parliament for the money that government gives Sport England. And what that does is two things. One, it sharpens the mind. If you read chapter 3 of the Treasury document Managing Public Money you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, let alone make any decisions. Because the way which it sets out what you’re accountable and how you’re accountable. But obviously the whole thing is on the basis of managing risk and, you know, being proportionate in your response. The other thing obviously is just integrity, the recognition that it’s public money and therefore you have to always recognise that it’s not only structurally the right thing to be doing but it’s actually in terms of public perception the right thing to be doing. This is what we would want public money to be spent on in our view. So on the one hand it’s a very real thing about the accountability of public money and the duty that you have there. And the duty also to recognise that public money should be last resort not first resort.
We have scarce resource, we have a lot of money relative to a lot of organisations but we have finite resource. So we have to make sure that strategically it is focussed in the best, most effective places. And that can sometimes mean turning round to extremely positive and extremely worthy, you know, programmes or organisations and saying, we’re not in a position to fund you at this time. And that’s a responsibility. The perceived one, very quickly, is the other side of the coin. Which is you’re perceived as bureaucratic, you’re perceived as the dreadful old word, which I hate, the quango. The idea that it’s a very, very administrative process, very burdensome, not very fast moving, perhaps not very creative. All of that, like all perceptions, there’s grains of truth in all of that. One of my ambitions in jobs with Sport England is to make us in the vanguard of being not that. And actually for people to see us increasingly in the future as an organisation that has an agility and a collaborative approach that is akin to how the world is now, whilst recognising we do have to have processes and governance in place to sustain the effective use of the public money that we have.
I: If things go wrong, where do organisations tend to slip up, in your opinion?
T: Very rarely on individual tactical things. I don’t feel, in my experience, it’s one fundamental blunder, if you like, or some really bad, it can happen. I think it’s much more cultural. I think organisations tend to slip up when they don’t understand, or they don’t recognise the failings that maybe in their values, or their culture, or the way that they want to behave. And that can manifest itself either in the sort of behavioural attitudes that can lead people to make bad decisions, maybe it’s a culture of fear, maybe there’s a culture of complacency. Or actually, it can just be that they don’t maximise the opportunity that they’re presented, because they’re not collaborative. Or they don’t believe actually that their commitment should extend to wanting to maximise the opportunity for others as well. So, whether it’s slip up, or go wrong, I would imagine most people would identify with this. That it’s probably more cultural and more about how an organisation behaves that can be the systemic fault, rather more than it holy missing the point of what they’re there to do, or wholly making an error when it comes to making a judgement call.
I mean we can make 100 different individual decisions, which quite a few may be in the fulness of time prove not to have been the wisest or best decisions but as long as they’re made with the best intentions that’s fine. Where we’re gonna slip up is if we actually fail to deliver because we are, you know, we don’t actually culturally understand the role that we’re here to play.
I: When you look back over your career, the past few decades, is there something, or a few things that you’re particularly proud of?
T: Yes. I think I’ve been very lucky in lots of different ways, both before I got into sport…I was very proud of the day in 2004, actually, when I was in a car in IKEA car park in Croydon and my mobile phone rang and it was Liz Nicholl offering me the job of Director of Policy and Communications at UK Sport. Because I didn’t know it then but that was a transformational phone call for me, because I’m in the role that I’m in 15 years later because I had an entry point into an environment where previously I’d have no engagement. But I think within that I would undoubtedly say in reflective terms I’m proudest of my time at the BPA. I’m proud particularly of how we performed on the field of play as a team when I was in the Chief Executive role. I’m probably prouder of how we were off the field of play actually, in the way we sought to be genuinely a leading national Paralympic committee who understood what it took to win. But did it with an absolutely collaborative intent and help to grow the movement internationally and played our role. And also in the UK particularly working through others, not least the likes of Channel 4 and some of our commercial partners, really promoted and challenged perceptions of disability and what’s possible.
I: You said just then, ‘understood what it took to win’. What does it take to win?
T: One of the things I would say to there is, make sure you have brilliant people in the roles where it matters. So, I took a decision in 2011 as soon as I arrived at the BPA not to be the Chef de Mission for London 2012. Which at the time was seen as being quite a radical decision because the Chief Executive of both the BOA, British Olympic Association and the BPA, historically then became the Chef de Mission, became the lead for the team at the games. It was the easiest decision I’ve ever made because I’ve never worn a tracksuit in anger and you need to be credible. And I know that’s not me but I know that it is people and actually if you look beyond London where we performed extremely well, the team were fantastic. But if you really look through then the Games subsequently, the Sochi, particularly the Rio games and then PyeongChang Winter Games and I’m sure into Tokyo, the team itself was led by brilliant performance people not least Penny Briscoe who’s the Che de Mission again in Tokyo. And I think it’s understanding the environment and being incredible in it. I think it’s understanding again perhaps over-emphasising too much, but the cultural aspect of the environment that you create.
So, focussing as much on the how as the what, being as confident about the way in which you’re delivering messages, the way in which you’re providing for services as technically what they are. It manifested itself for me perfectly in Rio. That was an immensely challenging Games for Paralympics GB and the build-up, just as it was for everyone in the Paralympic movement. The games was fundamentally bankrupt and wasn’t gonna happen, there was all that messaging. The IPC, with our huge support, was making a very tough decision around sanctioning Russia around doping. It was a pretty uncomfortable environment anyway going out to Rio because the whole Games environment was quite uncertain. So we had a huge challenge going into that Games and then when we got to the village, as many teams did, we found that it really wasn’t up to scratch in terms of what you were looking for. Lots of teams, I know this, functionally delivered for their athletes in that environment. I think we were exceptional in actually creating an environment that enabled them to focus purely on performance and then feel supported at every place.
I’m particularly proud of how, when you say ‘what does it take to win’, it’s understanding it’s how you go about it, rather than just functionally what you’re doing is the missing link of the elite level. And also, definitely having the right people in the right jobs to ensure that if it comes down to that moment for an athlete no stone has been left unturned.
I: I’d imagine you can’t do any of these senior roles without getting criticism at points. Have you experience that and how do you personally cope with that?
T: Yes, is the short answer. And I’m anticipating every bit as much in this role, given not least our primary function of funding, albeit we seek to be more strategic than just a grant giver, but funding will always attract criticism because the people that are not in receipt of funding are liable to be less forgiving than the people that are. But equally I had a period of time particularly in the BPA where criticism, I faced a Public Accounts Committee hearing on classification, where the impression that was given then was there was huge amount to be critical of, didn’t actually agree with it but let that one go. I think the reality is you have to be confident in your own sense of where you sit with the issue that’s being criticised. Can you defend it? Can you justify it? Can you not only that, can you feel that because of the decisions that you took the right thing to do and is also, I keep coming back to this, but is also the criticism around behaviour. So I had a meeting last week, which I think is quite instructive there, where I heard quite a lot of views about Sport England historically from someone and they were expressed really positively in context of trying to help me understand, you know, where things could change for the better. And I look upon that as valuable, I look upon that as helpful.
I had one a bit previously where somebody tried equally to express those views and concerns but did it in a way that was, you know, quite negative, quite forceful and quite unhelpful. And actually I found that that was far less valid as a result almost, possibly in reality not, but the way it was pitched at me felt, and it wasn’t directed at me personally but it was at the organisation I now represent and support. So in that case it’s also about whether you feel that your own perspective on it is challengeable as opposed to the issue itself. Criticism about a decision that you’ve made is perfectly acceptable, but you know, making it about the individual concerned, or if the individual concerned has been in some way at fault then you get into the issue of whether it’s difficult or not.
I: What’s ‘success’ for you?
T: One foot in front of the other. No. [Laughter] I absolutely think now, success for me professionally, will be a combination of a professional and a personal belief in the progression of sport England. Professionally I think we have a very clear ambition, which is to really find a new version of sport for the 21st century, that is really much more accommodating of the world in which we operate now. Whether that’s the sort of digital environment, whether that’s recognising the inequalities that exists within broader society and how they impact on people’s ability to be active. Whether it’s recognising that actually traditional mainstream sort of organised sports, whilst so important, are not for everyone and that we actually are finding and must find new ways to allow people to be active. If we can really not only galvanise around that but then try and help to shape that through both our advocacy and our investment then that would look like success for me. Because what we’d get then is the true end game which is a nation that is happier and healthier, more driven towards their own sense of well-being because of sport. So professionally, that would be success.
I: And personally?
T: Personally I think a recognition that we’re trying to be the best organisation that we can be within that, that I’m leading it in a way that makes sense to me, that makes sense to the board, I should say, absolutely. But most important to my team around me that they feel strongly that they understand and identify with not only the strategic ambition but also the culture and values and how we want to operate. And I think ultimately that we have a sense of identity actually, that people know what it is to be part of Sport England. And I personally can take some responsibility for that as it’s Chief Executive.
I: Do you feel successful at the moment?
T: In the realm, no. Because I think I’m too early to, I’m still here six months in, so there’s a modicum of success in that. But no, of course not, I don’t think that that would be fair on me, but I certainly don’t think it would be right on the organisation to say we’ve been successful so far. And I know I’ve got huge challenges to face up to, which I’m looking forward to. And I know also that I’ve got quite a bit wrong so far, because it’s a newer, bigger environment, the scale of this job is different than before. Where, if I’m allowed to, I can feel a modicum of success now, is having left the BPA I’m struck by how that period of growth and success for Paralympics GB and the Paralympic movement did coincide with my tenure at the BPA and therefore people make that association. And I’m trynna not sound immodest and it’s starting to sound immodest. But that idea actually now I often get people who are introduced to me as being, you know, that was a meaningful thing. The Paralympic movement has grown a lot in the last seven years and I have been part of that in my role and therefore it can feel, now I’ve left, it feels like a…But it’s almost more a sort of warm glow than anything more than that. Just that sense of actually, that was good, I really enjoyed that and I feel like I put my heart and soul into a professional role that was a deep privilege to have. But no, I don’t feel successful at the moment because I now there’s…I feel a need to be successful.
I: There’s quite a bit of shuffling going around in senior positions in sport at the moment, and UK Sport is obviously getting a new CEO, Sally Munday in September, October or some time. Does that open up any new possibilities for you, or do you see the two organisations as being quite separate?
T: No, not at all. And it’s a great fortune for me that having worked, I already mentioned what Liz Nicholl first did for me by employing me back 15 years ago. So Liz moving on from UK Sport, I’ve seen it in the CEO to CEO point of view, I feel fortunate that Sally is taking over from that respect. Because Sally and I’ve known each other, personally, but in a professional context for quite a long time and actually had a stint together on the Youth Sport Trust board. Where she and I felt like we were there as a couple of representatives of the sport view, in the YST and quite often, if nothing else, used to sit next to each other in the board meetings. So Sally and I know what, but we think very alike, I know she’s a fantastic leader, she’s again, a real collaborative leader, she’ll be very focussed on UK Sport’s role in the landscape. And I think she’ll be quite exciting too in terms of what success looks like for UK Sport now, because they’ve been so successful. How do you achieve and maintain that focus on what it takes to win and the medal success, whilst balancing out the different priorities that people have perhaps now for elite sport.
But, for Sport England and UK Sport I think there are two elements to it. One, we’re never going to be university joined because our border stop at the English border and Sally’s don’t and UK Sports don’t. So we have to be equally as aligned with Sports Scotland, Wales, Norther Ireland for the whole thing to work more effectively. And that’s a really positive part of the agenda, we have good relationship that are growing there across the piece but more with UK Sport I think where we can align is on two fronts. One, when you look actually at the talent pathway and the development of talent, England is clearly by far the biggest contributor to what becomes the GB team and the elite end of the sport sector. So, England has a greater responsibility to help develop that. I think we can do more to join that up and I think we will and I think that conversation’s already under way. I think we can also do more, really importantly, to make that more diverse at an early stage and that’s a big part for us. I think there’s a big criticism, unfair, of both UK Sport and then Team GB and Paralympics GB, in that it’s not very diverse or it’s not very representative of the nation. ‘Cause at that late stage it’s too late, that’s when you should only be discriminating on ability, at that level.
So you have to actually bring a much more inclusive and diverse agenda to the base of the talent pyramid and that’s where we, as Sports England, has much more a role to play with the governing bodies. So as we seek to advocate and galvanise a more inclusive sport and physical activity sector, part of that must be about how can we make that talent development pathway a more inclusive environment. What are the barriers of that currently, what is it that’s preventing, you know, particularly around race and ethnicity as much as it is, I mean obviously gender and disability are relatively well served by the elite pathway but it’s particularly about ethnicity and social [unclear 27:25] circumstance that is fundamentally proving to be a barrier to entry into world class success. So lots of areas where I think we can work together. The other thing of course is we’re both seeking to find ways to demonstrate the inspirational power of sport in a public context. So, the more that we can link to, you know, the world class success and the athletes and the medals, with actually a belief in what it takes to be active and why being active is so powerful, then I’m sure we can do more there as well.
I: I’m very aware of your time so I’m just gonna wrap up with a few quick-fire questions. What did you eat for breakfast?
T: A banana and quite a lot of coffee.
I: Favourite piece of kit?
R: Because I’m not good at any sport, the accreditation I used to be able to wear at Paralympic Games as Secretary General got me absolutely everywhere, other than the field of play, which is the one place I didn’t want to be. So without question the most valuable, if not favourite piece of kit, was my lanyard accreditation for four Paralympic Games.
I: Sporting hero?
R: Lots of random ones from my sort of Fulham supporting, a few cricketers as well, my two great loves. Huge amounts of Paralympians, but I’m actually gonna say, and it sounds cheesy but it true, Baroness Sue Campbell. Simply because Sue has been a constant in my career and has been, for someone who came in from outside, who didn’t really understand the sport network, nobody has shown me more than Sue the power of sport to transform lives.
I: Most useless piece of advice you’ve been given or given to somebody else?
T: The most useless piece of advice I’ve been given, don’t do a drama degree. Because it was somebody that thought I wouldn’t be able to do anything on the back of having a drama degree. In fact somebody once said to me it will be like having a criminal record when it comes to getting a job. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, it’s made me who I am. I pursued something I love, almost passionate about and led me to a career actually in communications that wasn’t unlinked that then led to where I am now. But I now go around telling people, “If you want to do a drama degree, do a drama degree.” Abraham Lincoln’s advice which is very good; “Whatever you are, be a good one.”
I: I wonder if this links to the next question. Greatest passion outside of sport?
T: Well, we’re all got to say our family haven’t we otherwise, [laughs] we’re contractually obliged to say that, and beyond our family, which…It’s probably the theatre actually, yeah it is.
I: So drama has stayed consistent?
T: Yeah, but has become much, in some ways the theatre of sport has taken over. I’ve been in some incredibly electric environments within sporting arenas and stadiums as well. But no, I do have an abiding love of, and passion for, theatre and what it can do and writers and performers who I sort of feel quite strongly about. But not in a way now that is anything other than a blissful and occasional hobby.
I: And the last question. Best performance enhancer?
T: Double espresso.
I: And I believe you’ve just got a machine now?
T: We have just had a coffee machine installed in Sport England. If you ask me, ‘do I feel successful’. A little bit more now on the basis that the coffee machine has been installed after six months, yes.
I: Fantastic, well thank you very much for talking with me today, Tim, I appreciate it.
T: Thank you, thank you very much for having me.
I: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com
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