Learnings in leadership from being a Paralympic volunteer

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games are in full flight, and with them have arrived a flood of memories. Back in 2012 I was fortunate to be one of the 70,000+ volunteer Games Makers at the London games. Stationed in the Olympic Park’s Copper Box Arena, my role was to update the public scoreboard for the Goalball competition.

Nine years on, and this experience remains one of the most memorable of my life. Being a part of the Paralympic games inspired me in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and taught me so many ideas that I have taken into my career. Now seems as good a time as any to reflect on these learnings, and dive into what made the Paralympics such a brilliant event to be a part of.

A compelling vision motivates

Probably the best view I’ll ever have on a commute — the OIympic Park empty before a day of events

70,000+ people from around the UK and beyond. None being paid for the work. Each travelling to London at their own cost, and potentially paying for accommodation — not just for the games themselves, but also for interviews and for training sessions. Some doing jobs away from the buzz of the Olympic Park. Many filling roles without a view of a single minute of sporting action. The majority leaving — like me — with fantastic memories, and the willingness to do it all over again.

Why were so many people motivated to work, despite the fact it would cost them? The opportunity to be part of one of the world’s biggest events is a massive draw. Being part of that vision — and the way that vision was sold — was enough to motivate mass numbers to apply (over 240,000 applications were received) and to help. In a study carried out post-Olympics, by far the strongest motivator identified by the Games Makers was because “it was the chance of a lifetime”.

The vast majority of organisations cannot offer a vision as compelling as helping to put on one of the world’s biggest sporting events. Fortunately, the vast majority of organisations also aren’t needing to hire tens of thousands of people to work free-of-charge. However, the success of the Games Maker programme should highlight how critical it is to put together a vision, and to promote being a part of it. Nothing is more compelling to an employee than seeing where a company is heading, believing in it, and wanting to be a part of making that vision a reality.

Little things help — but they aren’t meaningful

Being able to watch a medal ceremony — far more memorable than free chocolates

While working at London 2012, the volunteer team were plied with freebies — mostly provided by the sponsors. Each day we were given a free hot meal. There were buckets upon buckets of Cadbury’s Heroes chocolates to help yourself to. Each morning there was a new pin badge to collect and put on your bag. Discounts on official merchandise — as well as in many shops in the nearby shopping centre — were available.

Were these appreciated? Of course! Did they have any tangible impact on my enjoyment of the work? Not in the slightest.

Work becomes enjoyable when you are given a safe environment, a vision you buy into, and support with what you do. There are clear parallels here between the Paralympic Games workplace and almost any other workplace in the world. Little touches are always nice. However, they aren’t meaningful.

Environment impacts performance

A crowd at London 2012. Silence please!

Goalball as a sport is pretty unique. Three visually impaired players represent each side. Each wears blackout eyeshades to ensure they cannot see anything. At each end of the court is a 9m wide goal. The aim is to score more goals than your opponents by rolling a ball into the opposite net. The ball is hard, weighs 1.25kg, and contains three surprisingly quiet bells. The players use the noise of the ball to detect where it is, and block it from entering the goal.

To hear the ball, silence in the arena is crucial. Players need full focus, free from distractions, to hear the ball clearly and play the sport. To achieve this, it was necessary for the crowd to be continually reminded of the need to remain silent — even in exciting moments of each game (though celebrations were encouraged for each goal, and appreciated by the participants who would frequently dance in celebration!). Repeated announcements were made to switch off mobile phones.

If you took the Paralympic-winning goalball team and asked them to play in an arena with music blaring, the distraction would be too great for them to perform. The same applies to any team you work with. Any distraction takes away focus. The role of any leader is therefore to build an environment that maximises focus and minimises distraction. This may be in keeping focus on a single piece of work, or it could be around the team’s physical / virtual working environment.

Public praise gives a buzz

Some of the volunteers and Omega staff that I worked alongside

It’s commonly stated that a good guide for feedback is to criticise in private, praise in public. I don’t fully buy into this — some people (myself included) don’t enjoy having attention drawn to them in a public manner, so the context in which you praise publicly needs to be very carefully considered. However, when done right public praise definitely gives a buzz, and makes you feel like you have made a difference.

Before, during and after the Olympic and Paralympic Games, countless praise was given to the masses of volunteers. Not on an individual basis, but as a collective. A special award for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee included the Games Maker collective. Numerous news articles were published thanking volunteers for their efforts. Love them or hate them, Coldplay even dedicated their performance of Yellow at the Paralympics Closing Ceremony to the athletes and volunteers.

Personally, the highlight came on the platform of Balham Underground Station. I was on my way to my first shift when a little boy looked up at me, turned to his mum and said “Look Mummy, a Games Maker! A PAR-A-LYM-PIC Games Maker!”.

Only a little thing, but that recognition — and the awareness it brought of the role I was about to fill — made me incredibly proud.

Companies — make sure your employees get the recognition they deserve. It doesn’t have to be a personal shout out with lots of attention drawn to the individual. All it needs is mention of a job well done.

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