Today I travel to the Elite Performance Centre in Sheffield to talk with the CEO of GB Wheelchair Basketball – Lisa Pearce.
I really like Lisa’s ambition. When I ask her about success, she answers passionately that GB Wheelchair Basketball has the potential to be “the sport that changed the perception of para sport in the UK”
We talk about everything from her time at the London FA leading a transformational change programme which resulted in the most diverse board in grassroots football to her current role and how she’s focusing on building a Wheelchair Basketball league structure and commercialising the sport.
ABOUT LISA PEARCE
Lisa has been Chief Exec at British Wheelchair Basketball since February 2018. She has a proven track record in the strategic management of sports within National Governing Bodies (NGB) and local government; and over 10 years’ experience at senior level of driving grassroots participation and securing new commercial partnership relationships.
Previous to her current role Lisa led an extensive transformational change programme at the London FA, launching a new three-year strategy to get more people playing and enjoying football in London with initiatives focusing on women’s, youth and walking football. She also led the organisation through an overhaul of its Board and Council which has resulted in one of the most diverse boards in grassroots football both in skills and background.
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: 1.12.19 – Ep 51. Lisa Pearce
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
TP: 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 and what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
I’ve been invited to the Elite Performance Centre in Sheffield today to talk with Lisa Pearce who’s the Chief Exec in wheelchair basketball. I got to meet the staff, see the facilities and had the privilege of watching a bit of a training session too. I really like Lisa’s ambition. When we talked about success she says with such passion that they have the potential to be the sport that changes the perception of parasport in the UK. I’ve a lot that I want to know about her current role but first let’s a sense of who she is by exploring her time at the London FA where she led a transformational change programme resulting in the most diverse board in grassroots football.
L: When I joined the London FA it’d been an organisation that had had very little change over a long period of time but it was the first country football association in the country, so it’s like reaching the history and heritage. And football has the largest participation in football in any other place in London in the country. So I just thought, “Wow, what an incredible opportunity that would be.” Football was always my sport so I was like, “Wow, I’d love to go and work in football.” When arriving, as you do in many organisations that haven’t had a lot of transformational change or have done the same things for a number of years without having that next element of leadership or a fresh look, coming into the London FA it was clear that we needed to change. We needed to look at that at all levels; both from an engagement with our football stakeholders, whether you’d be players, coaches, referees. We needed to look at what our long-term strategy was because how people are playing is changing and a lot of recreational football is really how the capital’s football is being played. But that’s more to do with the pressure on space and facilities and all of the other challenges if you think about the close space that is London and the demands that it has on its green space with so many different sports.
The other thing as well is that at the time there was a big change coming with the beginning of sports governance codes in. April 2016’s governance code came in and it really started that school of thought around actually having a board that has the skills and the representation of the people that it represents and for it to be more inclusive in how it really interacts. Working with the board and working through the transformational change programme as we then went through consultation with our stakeholders and with our players and our volunteers and our coaches, we were really clear about what we needed to do and then we redesigned behind it. So not only did we redesign the staffing structure but we also then redesigned the board. The board started this fantastic moment of leadership around going, “Okay, yeah, we want more representation of London on our board and the skills that we needed for the future to be fit for purpose to deliver this ambitious new strategy that we had for the capital and football. And this huge opportunity still to continue to grow the sport and all elements of the game, not just the traditional 11 a side and the game which is where very much London FA had been previously focussed.”
So with Simon Hughes which at the time my only independent director on the board, we started the public campaign to really help us inspire and engage with the London community around going, “Come and join us. Come and be a part of this. This is what we’re looking for. These are the public roles that we’re going for. If you wanna be a part of that, apply to be a part of our board.” I remember one of the radio interviews I’d done, I’d pre-recorded it and it was with BBC London. They wanted to do it live but it was my first weekend I’d had off in, I think, almost…it must’ve been about seven months. It was ridiculous ‘cause it was so hard core with all the stuff that was going on with the change programme. I pre-recorded it and I was down in Woolacombe ‘cause I was surfing and [laughing] I wanted to listen to it. You’re always a bit afraid ‘cause you knew that they were gonna have people that were going to be calling in to then also debate whether or not they believed that what we were trying to do was the right thing, etc.
Paul Mortimer was the individual, the pundit really to kind of listen and receive that and then actually have his perspective. I remember that moment of then listening to his reaction to that and actually going, “Oh, my god. We’ve absolutely got this right.” He spoke at that interview around, “This is absolutely what football needed” and even he might consider applying for it. So like the individual that I am, of course I then tried to hunt him down on LinkedIn and go for him ‘cause, obviously, ex-pro player, he’s director of women’s football at Charlton and an incredible focal point. London man his whole life and what an incredible opportunity that would be, to have somebody like him on our board.
We went through this whole public recruitment process. The FA were great in supporting that transition of change as well to kind of bring some independence to that process because when you do change, sometimes people get a little but wobbly so you’ve got to hold people to account. So the FA were brilliant to join us on that journey. Then we ended up with the most diverse board in grassroot football. It was really incredible that that board is second to none. We’d brought in people like Kirsten Furber; he was at the time the people director of BBC Worldwide, at one point a billion turnover company. London based. Really wanted to bring in the kind of people in organisational development and what we could do for our coaches, or volunteers etc. Paul Mortimer came onto the board. An incredible addition as a pro player but all of the other roles that he had in sport. We picked up Ruth as well who at the time was the CEO of Women in Sport. We just had this incredible group of new individuals alongside those individuals that had been a part of the game for a number of years to really help us raise our game and our expectations for the future of the sport.
Probably one of my proudest moments exceeded all expectations and I’ll always remember everybody saying that that was never gonna be possible, but it’s probably one of the things I’ve enjoyed most so far in my career to date. How you need that diversity of thought and you need that representation and that we need to make sure that that is at every level of our organisation. It always starts at the top and that’s these boards of these organisations, whether they’re the British Wheelchair Basketball board…and we’ve gone through some transformation on that here as well, or the London FA board. It has to represent the people that it serves.
T: You talk so passionately about your time at London FA, but you moved on from them. Why move on from them and why come to British Wheelchair Basketball?
L: I think it’s a realty interesting question and probably one that’s a difficult one to answer.
L: When [laughing] you go through an organisational change programme, at times you might be an individual that has a point in time because that’s what it needs for you to be. But you might not be the person that it needs to go to that next level after you go through such a turbulent transformational change when you really do change a board level and the opportunities and challenges that represents. Our council members voted for that change and that was absolutely brilliant but at times it’s difficult for some people to accept that that change has happened and what you don’t want to become is that distraction. So for me, I knew if we were gonna do the change that London needed that would also mean that at the end of that change I too would need to go and I didn’t see a negative in any of that. There’s an incredible new CEO there. He’s come from Sport England doing great things. A fantastic team of people that are passionate about football doing incredible things.
T: So why Wheelchair Basketball? Was it just this what the role that came up and you wanted the chance to lead a sport or is there anything else?
L: When I got the call about Wheelchair Basketball I wasn’t looking at that point. I always thought I was gonna do another six months actually to do the final transition piece with the London FA. I got a call from the recruitment consultant and I was like, “No, this is actually too good to be true. This isn’t real. This is really interesting.” I really loved my time at London FA around that kind of inclusion diversity representation piece, around transformational change. And learning more that I did around Wheelchair Basketball is that it too had gone through a long period of growth, very much all the way through London Games and then it was stagnating. For me, when I look at London and looking back to that moment and thinking, “Wow, what was the thing that inspired me most?” I actually think about the Paralympic Games, I don’t think about the Olympic Games.
For me, people talk about inclusion and we talk about gender and we talk about women’s sport. You’re passionate about women’s sport, I’m passionate about women’s sport too but at what point is that narrative gonna change? I think what’s really clear is that 100%, with the great work that’s been done netball, hockey and football, that narrative is changing. You look at the figures this weekend that’s been happening around the WSL, it’s just incredible, but what about parasport? What is the next thing and what is inclusion really? So it’s okay to deal with what the easier option is and I know it sounds challenging for me to say…actually gender’s probably the easy subject because although it’s been under represented, but even if you take that you’re a woman and you’re a para-athlete, the likelihood of you getting any sponsorship or getting the coverage or the same experience that you are gonna have in women’s able body sport, you wouldn’t have it.
So for me it’s about what’s the next move and also about that it matters to be involved in something that I genuinely am passionate about and I care about. Our jobs are lifestyles so ultimately you need to kind of be very invested and, for me, as a sport in its own right wheelchair basketball is such a dynamic, on court action packed. It absolutely can be broadcast. We’ve shown that with the relationship that we built with the BBC. Any other team, parasport that’s got a domestic coverage at the BBC, you name it because there isn’t one. We’re the ones that’ve done it first.
T: So you’re Chief Exec of British Wheelchair Basketball leading a sport. What’s on your to-do list at the moment?
L: Wow, what’s on my to-do list? Commercialisation of the sport definitely top of the agenda. Continuing the organisational change programme; so making sure that we’re staying focussed in delivery against that strategic plan. We very much milestone map everything, we we’re much more agile in how we approach the business. We’re going through planning cycles at the moment so it’s hitting that time of the year. Although preparation is happening for the Paralympic Games in the summer, we’re actually planning for Paris and LA, as well as the wider work that we’re doing around participation and the wider stakeholder work with Sport England. On list there I’m doing things like payroll. We’re not a big organisation so I’ve actually gotta do payroll later today to make sure that everybody gets paid later this week. If I look at my diary next week I am in London a couple of days, I’m doing a guest speaking lunch for some corporates in Windsor. I am also doing various different standing committees of our board.
T: How do you prioritise things?
L: You stay focussed on where you’re gonna make the biggest impact. And sometimes you’ve just gotta be really flexible in what the business needs from you because people at times need you to also drop what you’re doing and go and support them. I kind of get used to, “How can I help you?” and then I stay very disciplined on the work that I do and how I get that done so if somebody needs something I can still be there. I don’t tend to worry about if my agenda changes or something just lands. I’ve kind of got conditioned like going to the gym. You think everything’s done…’cause when you do organisational change programmes, you thing, “Oh yeah. I’ve got there. We’ve got everything out. We know where we’re at” then something else will hit you on the other side. You’ve just got to be able to adapt and deal with that, and have that resilience and that agility. Not to impact on everybody else but also just to be solution focussed about how do you then overcome whatever’s ahead of you. For me now, we’re at that stage where it’s actually future planning. Not just the next 12 months out but where are we in the next five to 10 years out and what are those buildings blocks. The last 12 months have all been about laying really solid foundations for the new strategy that we launched.
T: What do you find personally in this role? What do you find most challenging?
L: I think in every role the most challenging thing that you have are people. They’re the best thing and the most challenging.
T: How so?
L: Because everybody’s so different. Everybody’s needs are different and your relationship with people…I don’t mean just staff, I mean with different stakeholders and such, is that everybody wants something from you. You need what you can be for them so that they can be the best that they can be and building those relationships and taking the time to do that. Also supporting and being challenging at the right time as well to get that, to elevate that individual to the next level too. It’s kind of the best thing at the job but the hardest thing about the job too.
T: The flip side of that, what do you wish you did more of? What do you wish you could spend more of your time doing?
L: Oh, good question. Probably balancing my life a bit better. So spending…
T: [Laughing] Less work.
L: [Laughing] I’ve definitely got to that discipline point and I think everybody would say it in that it’s not actually about working longer, it’s about working smarter. So I definitely feel like, over the last I would say five years, I’ve got much better at being able to that. I can work in any environment. I get used to it whether I’m in an airport or I’m in a train station I can do those things and being very focussed on it. But I think also it’s really important that people get to know you and you have the balance to life, because you can’t separate your work persona to your personal persona. You are the same thing and you need to be happy in both. I think sometimes we don’t always…I know in the past I’ve not always given the right balance to that but I work really hard at it and I have an amazing partner that calls me out on it if I’m not getting it right.
T: Talk about work/life balance and things but I suppose…what keeps you awake at night? What is banging on your door of work/life balance that’s not enabling you to achieve it?
L: I think probably the biggest thing that would always keep me awake at night is (1) are we creating the right environment for everybody? So whether that be the athlete, whether it be the staff, whether it be the membership; and the other bit is the commercialisation. So all sports. The sector’s changing, the decrease in funding coming both from public sector and the pressures of the Lottery funding. We need to be in a position where we are commercialising our sport in its own right. Real cost is so important to that. We’re laying foundations this year around building towards the ambition of a professional league. We find out later at the end of this year about whether or not we’ve been voted in as a Bucks Sport. That’s really important for us because we’ll be the first team parasport coming into Bucks. Why is that important I guess for the landscape? Well, those universities that compete for Bucks points also invest a substantial amount both in scholarships and within the workforce development programme for competing in those Bucks tables as well as the academic tables.
And for us to have a pro league we need to attract the best players from around the world to compete against our best players in the UK. That will create another investment model into the sport and also improve the level of broadcast that we have. If we look at broadcast that had with the BBC last year, the best coverage viewership that we had was linked to women’s league. There is no women’s league in the world for wheelchair basketball. It’s all co-ed but if you compete as a country the women don’t play the same rules that they would if they were playing as co-ed…playing alongside the men because there’re points advantages given to women on court. So there’s a real exciting opportunity for us to not only trailblaze the world in what we could do around a professional women’s league but also what we can do around a professional men’s league and how we can work with the university partnership and the potential around community franchises in the future to build a league structure to lead the world in wheelchair basketball. And the broadcast will work; we’ve proven that with the figures with the BBC.
I’m really excited. There’s lots of other planning going on at the moment around how Olympic and Paralympic sport are working closer together around rights and building fan bases and I think that we have a really key role to play in that.
T: You talk very passionately about your time at the FA, you talk very passionately about your time at Wheelchair Basketball and you obviously know your stuff. How did you get to this point as far as those key milestones along your career that has enabled you to now be leading a sport?
L: There’s been lots of different milestones along the way. Some of it has been…I’ve made mistakes and those things have happened. For me, I’ve worked full-time since I was 17 for many different kind of personal reasons and I think my experience of coming into the love of sport is that I always played it as a kid; it was my friendship group. So my passion was always there and I saw the difference it made to people. My first real full-time job was actually working in a leisure centre so you get to see loads of different sports and lots of different things going on. Then I just really had some incredible opportunities with some great people investing in me. So after working in the leisure sector I then worked for a charity, a crime reduction charity Nacro around sport inclusion. I moved to London and that was incredible, that gave me a whole other different perspective. I was like this kind of sport for good and all of these things, great. Then I kind of moved into local authority environment. I was very fortunate in that local authority environment where people invested in me and my personal development.
My real game changer when I joined Reading was very much around…I progressed very fortunately into three great roles. Reading Council funded my Masters in Business Administration specialising in public and community sector leadership. I was very fortunate to have that investment in me ‘cause obviously I didn’t go to university but I very much had the opportunity to continue in my professional development and learning throughout my career. That kind of creates this whole work ethic too. When you have to work full-time and study, and use your annual leave for your exam study, it’s pretty hardcore. It kind of conditions you into this really valuing the experiences that you have in investing in people and making sure that you’re creating the right environment. Then my belief of what Reading was gonna be just didn’t materialise. We were hoping to create this super leisure and cultural trust and the politics changed. I guess I got a little bit disillusioned and I wanted to kind of challenge myself again in a view that maybe you can do all the right things but the outcome doesn’t happen.
Then I was happy to move and had the experience of working for some big leisure trusts and then I went into tennis. It was unexpected to go into tennis. I got a call about that. I’ve always loved Wimbledon; who doesn’t love Wimbledon, right? I think my first experience of watching Wimbledon was when Martina Hingis as a 16 year old won the Wimbledon championships which was just kind of incredible. I really enjoyed that experience of tennis but then I had this incredible opportunity whilst I was there to lead that region, which is the biggest region in all tennis participation across Great Britain, to do Davis Cup. So got this then little bug of the performance sport element.
Then moving into football was something very different and challenging. If I’d done all of that in tennis and I had this amazing moment in Davis Cup and Davis Cup legacy, it’s like what more can I really do there? I thought, “Oh my god, football in London. How awesome is that? Let’s give that a go.” And knowing whether or not I was ever gonna be the right person for a Chief Exec role. I should think that everyone that moves into that role is that…the reality of that role and the perception of that role are very different things. So then having that experience and delivering the change programme and knowing what that change programme would mean but it was the right thing for football in London, with Wheelchair Basketball coming along and having the passion and the belief in what that organisation could be, that’s kind of where I ended up.
T: So what’s success for you personally?
L: I think success is about leaving the place that you’re in better than when you arrived. I think it’s about leaving the legacy not only as people but also around the progress that that sport can make. Then the ability I think to change people’s perceptions, perceptions of their reality. If you think about Paralympics and parasport you kind of get to see it really once every four years and everybody talks about how amazing that is, but the reality is it could be something that you could see…and you can actually see week in week out in our national league structure with our partnership with the BBC Sport. And it’s about socialising all of those things to change public perceptions in around the difference that the sport can make.
I talk a lot when I’m in different environments with business and in conferences around…I mean we are the sport that is inclusive of non-disabled people. So out of 17,000 people that play wheelchair basketball today, 21% of them are non-disabled and that’s because it’s the sport that you can play on the terms of the individual. You can get into that chair on that court whether that chair is the reality of how you live your life or whether or not it’s a piece of sports equipment. But the agility and the athleticism…you know, it’s the same court, it’s the same hoop height, the only difference is you get to do two pushes to one bounce. It is such a demanding sport and it’s so incredible. We talk about obesity and we talk about all the challenges facing young people today around emotional wellbeing and things, sport is so important and this sport has a role to play in supporting that.
T: You said that success was leaving something better than that. So how do you hope to leave British Wheelchair Basketball?
L: I want us to leave with amazing commercial partnerships, a pro league and that we are the sport that changed the perception of parasport in the UK.
T: Just gonna end with some quickfire questions. What did you eat for breakfast?
L: I never eat breakfast. I’m awful. So I haven’t had breakfast yet. How bad is that?
T: Favourite piece of kit?
L: When you say kit, what do you mean by kit [laughing]?
T: Anything. However you want to define it.
L: I suppose…oh my god. I would say my Netflix account which is not a piece of kit.
T: Sporting hero?
L: I don’t have one. I have many.
T: One or two that you think about. I’ve really put Lisa on…[laughing].
L: Oh my god, is it awful. I have absolutely…
T: [Unclear – laughing 0:24:54] questions.
L: I cannot [unclear – laughing 0:24:55]. How awful is this? It’s because I’m thinking about five or six different people. I think people that are fundamentally…I wouldn’t say sporting heroes, I’d say the people that have changed our sector. So you look at incredible people like Tim, you look at Liz Nicholls, you look at Kelly Simonds, you look at all those people, for me what they’ve done is…I had the privilege of being part of what I do today because of them.
T: A useless bit of advice you’ve been given or given to somebody else?
L: Once I got told that I should wear different shoes so now I just wear trainers.
T: [Laughing] Right. Greatest passion outside of sport?
L: My family.
T: Last one, which you’ll be pleased to know. Best performance enhancer?
L: Coffee [laughing].
T: Brilliant. It’s been fantastic talking to you. Thank you, Lisa.
L: Thank you.
T: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.
[End of transcript]