Public airing of AOC's dirty laundry a wake-up call for all organisations: Deakin expert

08 May 2017

Tackling a problematic culture must be the Australian Olympic Committee president's top priority following this weekend’s presidential election, according to a Deakin University sport governance researcher.

Deakin Business School’s Dr Geoff Schoenberg researches sport governance and said the situation that has unfolded with the AOC was avoidable and must be rectified.

“The spotlight has been turned on the AOC for all the wrong reasons, with news reports illustrating serious issues within the organisation,” Dr Schoenberg said.

“With the president now elected, governance changes are needed to address the organisational culture and ensure the organisation does not end up right back where it is now, with a damaged reputation and its dirty laundry very publicly aired.”

Dr Schoenberg said the situation within the AOC should be a wake-up call for all organisations as to how things can go wrong if good governance practices are not in place.

“Any organisation that does not take a temperature check of its culture and governance could easily end up where the AOC is right now,” he said.

“Good governance could have helped the AOC avoid the public controversy and can assist the organisation in avoiding future issues.”

Dr Schoenberg’s most recent research has highlighted a range of elements that are needed for good governance from the structure and composition of boards to group dynamics.

“What my research has shown is that, ultimately, good governance requires positive group dynamics that create an open climate encouraging of new ideas and constructive conflict. Sport governance has traditionally been the domain of white, able-bodied men, which can limit opportunities for a diverse range of perspectives that can lead to better organisational outcomes,” he said.

Dr Schoenberg said that at the end of the day a board is put in place to fulfil a range of tasks from overseeing management, setting the strategic agenda and financial responsibilities.

“Ultimately, the board is instrumental in organisational culture. The way the board conducts itself, the internal and external issues it prioritises and the relationships between the board and staff members all highlight what is accepted and will filter down to the rest of the organisation,” he said.

“The election can act as a starting point for creating the change needed to put the focus of the AOC and media back on Australian athletes and the Olympic movement.”

Based on his research, Dr Schoenberg outlines the following elements of good governance that would help ensure boards are focussed on what is best for the organisation and not individual priorities.

TERM LIMITS

“Term limits ensure that no one person is irreplaceable and bring in new perspectives and ideas. Term limits also reduce the likelihood of the individual power plays we have seen with the AOC.”

BOARD COMPOSITION

“A diverse board helps with problem solving by drawing on a diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds. In sports organisations, good boards are made up of more than sports people, they include people with expertise in the likes of marketing, law and accounting and are diverse in gender, age, ability and cultural backgrounds. However, simply having a diverse board isn’t enough, members need to be empowered both formally (ie. through board structures) and informally (ie. through group dynamics) to contribute their thoughts and viewpoints.”

POWER PATTERNS

“Power patterns within a board need to be considered. The governance of the AOC provides an example of what can happen when a board is dominated by one person. While this can bring efficiency it also negates the original purpose of a board to provide advice, direction and oversight. Furthermore, when power is shared among all board members there is naturally a better set of checks and balances to ensure that all board members are operating in the organisation’s best interest. Sharing power also reduces the risk of the ‘hit by a bus’ problem that happens when the important decisions and information are concentrated in one person. “

BOARDROOM CLIMATE

“Boardroom climate sets out ‘the way things are done’ with good governance requiring that board members and related parties can speak openly regarding issues or new ideas and not fear reprisal or marginalisation. Based on the news reports, this level of psychological safety was clearly not encouraged at the AOC. Had it been, the matters that have been made public may have been able to be handled in-house.”

CONSTRUCTIVE CONFLICT

“Conflict is not always bad. Good governance promotes constructive conflict around tasks during board meetings. This type of conflict ensures new ideas and ingrained practices are thoroughly considered from a range of perspectives. I imagine the special meeting of the AOC board held last week would have included some level of conflict as the board had to make decisions on how to handle the emerging issues.”

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Media release Deakin Business School

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