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SBD Global/August 22, 2014/People and Pop Culture

Hangin' With ... Australian Olympic Committee Secretary General Fiona De Jong

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Fiona de Jong describes her leadership style as "very collaborative."
FIONA DE JONG was recently appointed secretary general of the Australian Olympic Committee. De Jong, who is the first woman to hold the position, spent 10 years as the AOC's director of sport. The former int'l triathlete spoke to SBD Global about her new position, her background in law and her vision for the future of sport in Australia.

On her background in law …
Fiona De Jong: When I was a lawyer, it was largely in intellectual property law. Then I went into project managing large, complex, legal transactions in the financial services area. It was both my skills in law and project management that I was able to bring to the role of director of sport, of course coupled with my background as an athlete. I think being a lawyer gives you a number of skills that are right for that job. In particular, drafting a selection criteria, which in Australia was a large part of that role. That is, how do our athletes actually make it onto an Olympic team. In Australia, we certainly have an approach where it ought to be a fair and transparent and well-documented, well-communicated process so that every athlete is very clear on what it is that they need to do to make the team. In every sport that’s different. In the team sports, it’s obviously more subjective; that is, the coaches have their views of what’s required and what’s not. Then there are other ones that are totally objective, like swimming in Australia where it’s the first two that hit the wall, then you’re in. It’s been really interesting and fascinating for me to be able to bring together that legal background and have it be applied to the sporting aspect so that the athletes can feel that there’s a fair process around how our team is selected. Through that journey, it’s been about establishing each of those criteria over the years to have them be clearer, more understandable for the athletes and more specific on what has to be done. Then when there are issues that an athlete feels that they haven’t had the opportunity that they ought to have been afforded, then we’ve established a process that they can follow. I built quite a robust appeals process that athletes can go through if they feel that their selection hasn’t been in accordance to criteria that was first established. Many organizations would shy away from that and go, “Well, it’s a lot of hassle. Why create the work that goes with that?” But I really believe in transparency and openness when it comes to athletes. If they are on a team they know generally they deserve to be there. If they aren’t, they had their opportunity and they had the opportunity to know exactly what they had to do and they know that the process was followed. This appeals process has established a panel of pro bono lawyers that are available to help athletes in that appeals process, which, I think, is important because we know a lot of athletes don’t have money. They feel it’s them against a large sporting organization. Having the cooperation of the legal team in Australia has been an integral part of that.

On her new role ...
De Jong: I inherit a really great organization. We have a rich history, but there are also a number of opportunities that I’ve been able to see through my long involvement, particularly with our teams. For me, there are probably three areas that I’ll be focusing on. First of all, is innovation as an organization. It’s important that we stay relevant to the youth of Australia in the sporting space. The Youth Olympic Games have actually given us an opportunity to try some new things in a leadership role with our youth teams. I think there’s always room for innovation with all of our national sporting federations and the AOC has an opportunity for a leadership space in that area. The second area that I see as being a leadership opportunity area for us, is really looking at how to use technology to touch more people with the Olympic movement in Australia. It’s not just about the athletes who go to the games. It’s about inspiring the next generation about being active and all the attributes that sporting athletes carry. So using technology in that space with the social media opportunities that we have now is really an area we’d like to investigate.

On her leadership style …
De Jong: I have a very collaborative leadership style. I’m keen to open up the doors of ideas of our people and give them an opportunity to be part of the future of our organization. I think in the past, sporting organizations have run with a top-down approach. Ours hasn’t been too different in that regard, but I think there can be benefits that come from a sort of bottom-up approach -- not always, but in some things. For me, doing a few things on the culture of our staff is an area that I certainly have some ideas in. I did the math and we have 296 years of cumulative service among the staff at the AOC. I have 10 years of service, so I’m thinking that the ideas of 296 years of knowledge is going to be superior to my 10, and I’m keen to hear them.

On the AOC’s application for a change in the Australian Olympic Foundation’s tax status …
De Jong: I think the change will be felt more in the athletes than the AOC. That’s really what we’re about as an organization. We have to fight for and stand up for our athletes to enable them to pursue their dreams. That’s our job. We’re dream-makers, as I see it. To give athletes the ability to not have to work and hold down jobs as well as training is a real game-changer in their development. That funding will allow us, not only to support those athletes that are on the podium, but those that are third to 10th. We can spread the money deeper across more athletes and top off those athletes at the top so that they don’t have to work as well as be an athlete. The sponsorship market in Australia is not what it used to be and it is harder for athletes to continue to be athletes full time. It’s not just the training components. There’s also recovery elements that athletes need to undertake to be the best. Finding a way to allow them to not have to work and just focus 100 percent on their sport is an avenue that will really see us have results in terms of Olympic Games and medalists.

On the London 2012 Australian swim team controversy …
De Jong: Like any national Olympic committee, we inherit the cultures of each of the sports that exist in any given year. Come that one month of the Games we expect them to come together and bond in a new cultural environment of being part of an Olympic team. In London, we didn’t have as much of an understanding of the culture that was going on in swimming at that time prior to the Games. Had we been able to identify that then, perhaps we would have been able to put measures in place to provide a more supportive environment. So with that in mind, we have identified the culture and values of our Olympic team as being an important component and we are working with all the sporting federations now -- three years out we’ve started the campaign -- to ensure that the Olympic values are part of the underlying values that athletes have or carry in any given year or any given day, so that when it comes to the Games it’s not something new or an expectation that is foreign to them.

On the biggest changes in Australian sports over the last 10 years …
De Jong: I joined the AOC in 2004. We came off the back of hosting the Olympic Games in 2000 where there was a lot of money and a lot of sponsorship that went into supporting the athletes. I think we benefited. We kind of had a lag in benefits still in 2004. But since 2004, a lot of athletes retired and we had to grow the youth crop of talent. That had been difficult, especially with the international competition doing things smarter and operating at a new level. I’ve seen the struggle that national federations have between developing their youth programs and keeping their elite programs operating. It’s two sides of the sword. You need to produce the high-end elite athletes who showcase your sport and continue to get the funding levels that is also really important to put the money into the juniors. Over time, I’ve seen that struggle between the various sports. For me, I really want to be able to redress that downward slide and find Australia back in the top five nations where I believe we belong.

Hangin' With runs each Friday in SBD Global.
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