SBJ/September 10-16, 2012/Olympics

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  • Blackmun’s gold-medal performance

    The day after the London Olympics ended, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun replied to a senior staff email with simple and succinct praise for the organization’s work.

    “Everybody … on the team amazed me with your selfless commitment to perfect execution. Bravo,” Blackmun wrote.

    The Games, by all accounts, were a resounding success for the USOC. Team USA won the medal count, its athletes avoided any public relations scandals, two corporate sponsors agreed to renewals and some 20,000 guests passed through USA House. But Blackmun’s email congratulating his team for everything that the organization had achieved was fewer than 20 words long.

    USOC Chairman Larry Probst (left) hopes Blackmun remains at his side.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
    “That’s a perfect demonstration of the kind of guy he is,” said USOC Chairman Larry Probst. “There’s no ego or drama. He’s a top-notch executive, and the USOC is lucky to have him.”

    Blackmun has gained the trust of staff and Olympic partners with his humility, practicality and selflessness. His approach has restored employee morale, strengthened ties with NBC and corporate partners, and revitalized relations with the International Olympic Committee.

    When he steps before a podium next week at his third U.S. Olympic Assembly in Colorado Springs, Colo., he will do so as the trusted leader of a stable organization. That’s no small feat.

    Shortly before he took it over, the organization’s employees had gone through a round of layoffs; then-NBC Sports & Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol had called the USOC a “rudderless ship;” and International Olympic Committee members had questioned the organization’s revolving door of executives.

    “He has brought credibility back to the USOC with the Olympic family,” said Scott McCune, Coca-Cola’s vice president of worldwide media, sports and entertainment marketing. “There was a big gap there for a while, [but] he leads with humble confidence, and leading with humble confidence is a formula for success.”

    When Blackmun was named CEO in early 2010, morale at the USOC was as low as it had been in six years. The staff had been divided by a jarring change in leadership that saw longtime CEO Jim Scherr replaced by USOC board member Stephanie Streeter. The shift coincided with the termination of 10 percent of the 425 staffers.

    One of the first things Blackmun did after getting the job was call an all-staff meeting. Some 400 USOC employees gathered in the organization’s conference center, and Blackmun opened the floor to questions. People asked tough ones. Would there be more layoffs? Why were people fired? What was going to happen to the pension plan, which had been cut?

    “A lot of them were tinged with emotion, not positive emotion,” said Bob Condron, the USOC’s former director of media services. “He answered them all. It was tough, but you felt like he was doing it honestly. We didn’t know for sure [if he was the right guy for the job], but that was a good beginning.”

    Scott Blackmun (second from left) meets the press with a group of U.S. Olympians in London.
    Photo by: JEFF CABLE
    Other small changes he made along the way boosted staff morale. The USOC held weekly senior staff meetings, but Blackmun felt that the meetings weren’t productive, so he eliminated them and replaced them with monthly staff meetings. He also established a reputation for being low maintenance and approachable. He preferred to take taxis rather than private cars when he traveled, and he once joined a handful of employees in a conference room to watch a soccer match during lunch.

    No one found him to be a micromanager. Instead, employees compare his management style to the approach he took managing the soccer field as a college goalkeeper at Dartmouth. Like a goalie, they say Blackmun watches what his senior staff does and stays in close communication with them, but sits back and lets them do their jobs.

    “He’s allowed the leadership team to grow and play their position, if you will,” said Chris Sullivan, the current head of the USOC’s international relations.

    Finding a management style didn’t come easy to Blackmun. With the exception of a one-year stint as acting CEO of the USOC in 2001 and a four-year stint as chief operating officer of AEG, he’d spent most of his career as a transactional attorney.

    “I didn’t come in with a management style I wanted to follow,” Blackmun said. “It evolved. At the end of the day, I think I’m demanding. I encourage balance. I care more about what the work product is and less about when and how the final product is done. I prefer push back. I want people to disagree with me. If there’s one thing I micromanage, it’s our communication. That style evolved on the job.”

    The most important thing Blackmun said he wanted to instill in staff when he started at the USOC was a service-first mindset. He wanted employees to remember in everything they did that they were working for athletes and national governing bodies.

    “If you look at what the USOC is here to do, it is to generate resources for NGBs and athletes,” Blackmun said. “It didn’t look to me like we were treating our primary constituents like they were customers and clients. Really serving them is something we’ve been talking about since the day I arrived.”

    That service-first mindset has allowed Blackmun to win over the support of NGB executives.

    Before the USOC hired him, the organizations felt like they managed the sports that produced the athletes who eventually form Team USA, but that the USOC told them how to run their organizations and didn’t value their opinions.

    Blackmun, a transactional lawyer for most of his career, says his leadership style has evolved.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES FOR USOC
    Blackmun healed that rift by meeting with NGB leaders shortly after taking the job. He began emailing NGB executives summaries of board meetings, and he started sharing the USOC’s financials at the Olympic Assembly. Neither of those things had been done in the past.

    “National governing bodies truly feel like it’s a partnership and that [the USOC is] working with [NGBs], not preaching to [NGBs],” said Mike Plant, a USOC board member who represents NGBs. “That might seem like semantics, but it’s not.”

    Blackmun found a way to bridge similar tension between the USOC and NBC. The relationship between the two organizations had been strained since the USOC announced plans to launch an Olympic network in 2009.

    Despite that tension, 21 Marketing founder Rob Prazmark proposed in 2010 that the two parties work together to sell joint media and sponsorship packages for the first time. The idea ran into resistance internally at both the USOC and NBC, but Blackmun worked with NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel and Seth Winter, NBC executive vice president of sales and marketing, to finalize a joint-sales agreement for the financial services category. It resulted in deals with TD Ameritrade and Citi.

    “It was his open mind that said, ‘Let’s do something different,’” Prazmark said. “There was a leap of faith Scott had and Seth Winter had, and that produced two stellar sponsors.”

    USOC board member and USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean said, “It was a very unselfish thing to do. It’s the kind of thing [USOC marketing predecessors] never would have done.”

    Blackmun’s biggest achievement came last spring when the USOC reached a new revenue-sharing agreement with the IOC. It was something that the USOC had been negotiating for seven years, and it had been blamed for the failed Olympic bids put forward by both New York and Chicago.

    Probst and Fraser Bullock, who was COO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games, assisted Blackmun in negotiations, but both said he was the one who got the final deal done. The USOC and IOC had agreed to the framework of a deal, but each time they tried to put the deal on paper, various terms changed.

    Blackmun met IOC Director General Christophe De Kepper in Washington, D.C., where they spent a full day working through those issues. By the time the negotiation ended, they had finalized terms of the deal. It was signed weeks later by Probst and IOC President Jacques Rogge.

    “The IOC found him pragmatic,” Bullock said. “They found they were able to trust him. [He] and Larry were able to build a bridge with the IOC that had been missing.”

    Just how strong that bridge is won’t be known until the USOC decides how to proceed with bidding to host the 2024 or 2026 Olympics. Blackmun considers the USOC’s goal of bringing the Games back to the U.S. its biggest challenge.

    “That’s probably the biggest thing we need to focus on,” Blackmun said. “Making sure we pick the right Games, the right partners. It’s not really just selecting a city. It’s really a nine-year partnership we form with a city, and not just a city but a country.”

    Blackmun will work with the USOC board to develop a selection process for a city. He’ll do it the same way he’s done most things since he arrived at the organization — with no ego and no drama, just an eye toward what’s best for the USOC and its constituents.

    It’s that approach that has his boss, USOC Chairman Probst, and others hoping Blackmun will be in the same role in 2017 when the IOC names a host city for the 2024 Olympics.

    “I hope he’s in that position for a long, long time,” Probst said. “He makes my job and everyone else’s a lot easier.”

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