Jim Sloman OAM, the man who headed up SOCOG, talks about leadership and the importance of making the hard decisions.
In Australia, from a logistics point of view, there is nothing in peacetime – except perhaps coordinating disaster relief – that quite matches the sheer size and complexity of running a modern Olympic Games.
Jim Sloman OAM was the man whose job it was to pull the Sydney 2000 Olympics together, one that led his team to produce “the best Olympic Games ever”, in the words of then-President of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch.
Sloman grew up in the industrial port city of Burnie, Tasmania. After completing a Bachelor of Civil Engineering at the University of Melbourne, he headed for the UK where he worked for the venerable firm of Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons.
“I went to the UK in 1969, and McAlpine and Sons paid my fare over. The late 1960s and early 1970s was an exciting time to be there,” he says.
Returning to Australia in 1973, Sloman joined Civil and Civic and settled in Sydney. During the next 23 years he worked his way up through the ranks of first, Civil and Civic, and then Lend Lease, developing his leadership style along the way.
Sloman is currently Chairman of major events company MI Associates, a company he helped found after the 2000 Olympics. He is also Chairman of the privately owned UK construction company Laing O’Rourke’s Australian operation, a board member of listed property company the Goodman Group, as well as a board member of fit-out company ISIS.
Sloman ascribes his leadership style partly to the influence of Lend Lease founder and Chairman the late Dick Dusseldorf, and CEO Stuart Hornery, “Dick was a European Social Democrat who believed that you looked after everyone. Stuart took over after him and I was privileged to be there at the time.
The tendency for engineering firms to give young engineers responsibility early on was also a biginfluence. “Lend Lease allowed people to run very quickly and very early – Stuart Hornery ran Civil and Civic at 34 and took over Lend Lease at 38 – so even if you were young and just out of university, when you went onto a site you were given something to run. [Once you’d proved yourself] you were given a job of your own where you had a project to deliver to a certain quality and cost within a time frame.”
Laing O’Rourke founder, Chairman and CEO, Ray O’Rourke is also credited by Sloman as an inspiration. “I’ve come to admire Ray as I’ve got to know him over the last seven years. I admire what he’s done in pulling together an organisation from scratch and the human capital-led culture he’s developed.”
Sloman took Lend Lease’s culture of empowering individuals into SOCOG. “I learned that you had to empower people to get on with it,” he says.
“The Olympics was all about that. Give people a box they can’t move out of with parameters like money, time and quality. Of course, you would give some people a bigger box than others.
“For example, in the run-up to the Olympics we empowered strongly at a venue level, but decisions that affected the whole game footprint or were politically sensitive went further up to a committee that I chaired,” he says.
Hand in hand with empowerment, however, managers and leaders need to be able to make decisions, according to Sloman. “With the Olympics we had a date, the opening ceremony, that wasn’t going to be moved for anything.
“Bringing a project like that in was all about making decisions and sometimes you didn’t have all the information. It was the old 80:20 rule at play, in that sometimes you can’t wait until you’ve got all the information, because it will take too long to get that remaining 20 per cent, so you’ve got to make a decision on the 80 per cent you do have.”
Indeed, being decisive is how Sloman characterises his management style. “I see myself as a decision-maker. It’s important to have consensus when you can get it but I’m not afraid to make decisions. I lead from the front, I get out there and get it done. While some people may say I’m aggressive, I think I’m a lover not a fighter; but if it comes down to it I don’t mind a fight,” he concedes.
Importance of teams
It’s not a phrase that’s seen much in business literature these days but Sloman is an advocate of leadership by walking around.
“At a lot of places I’ve seen the management team lock itself away and not get out and about. I’ll go out on the floor and talk to five or six people. That’s how you find out what’s really going on. It also has the advantage of people seeing you as being available.”
Sloman talks from experience when it comes to the importance of teams. “At SOCOG I got a reputation because when I took over the COO position three and a half years before the opening ceremony, all these silos existed. Sport was working out how they were going to run the event but they weren’t talking to anyone else,” he says.
“So you had all these people in the technology, workforce planning, administration and venue planning departments and no one was talking to anyone else. I went ballistic about it and ended up turning the organisation on its head. I developed a catchcry of ‘one team, one tent’.
“The project had a date that was never going to shift. So I said, ‘On the way through there is going to be some arms and legs hanging outside the tent and I’m not going to waste my time pushing them back in; I’m going to chop them off, because I don’t have time for all of that’. That became quite a piece right across the Games.”
Sloman also became notorious for his decision to turn off internal email for everyone in SOCOG six weeks before the Games. “Now, that created all hell. We didn’t shut it off completely as there were people who had to liaise with the various national Olympic committees in other countries, sponsors, government departments and so on but, basically, we cut out local communication by email.
“If you are going to run an Olympic Games you need people talking to people, making decisions on the spot. It is a very dynamic event, you haven’t got time to be bloody sending emails to people and hoping they might read and respond to them. You have to talk to them face to face or on the phone or on a walkie-talkie – whatever – and make the decisions that need to be made.”
It sounds amazing but, until the Sydney Olympics, there was no playbook, no set of processes and procedures that told an organising committee that this was how you ran an Olympic Games.
“The old saying was that the only amateurs in the Olympics were the organising committee,” quips Sloman. SOCOG immediately set about changing that situation.
“We started at the start, talking to people who had done it before, and then we pulled together a whole process: what to do first, second, then third, and so on, over the entire seven-year period from when you win the games to the opening ceremony.
“The IOC bought that intellectual property off SOCOG and then created a knowledge management database in Lausanne, which they now give to each city that wins an Olympic Games.”
While some of us may wonder how it is possible to keep an overview of such a large undertaking, Sloman argues that it’s not that different to running a business like Laing O’Rourke that may have 300 or more projects on the go at any one time.
“Ultimately it’s all about getting the big picture right and having the right people along with some very detailed planning,” says Sloman.
“For the Olympics, the key manager level was the venue manager; and there were 37 venues. We used a template that was the same across all venues with some appropriate variations. There was a service level for each venue that was consistent across the whole Games.”
Rather than try to keep tabs on every single thing that needed to happen, as the opening ceremony drew closer, Sloman managed for the exceptions.
“We had an issues register which used three levels: the basic venue, the people who had a cluster of venues, and then I chaired a committee that had oversight over the whole.
“I told everyone that if I found out about an issue that wasn’t on the issue register I’d fire the person who kept it to themselves. I didn’t actually have to do it but sometimes you have to be brutal. I didn’t want to get to the opening ceremony and find something goes wrong that could have been and should have been fixed six weeks ago.”
Management and leadership
On the question of management versus leadership, Sloman is characteristically down to earth.
“Management is pushing pieces of paper around and meeting the requirements of the business. It’s not about making things happen yourself. Rather, it’s standing back and letting the people you’ve empowered run right past you.
“Leadership is inspiring people and making sure they’re equipped to do their job. It’s also making timely decisions, and then allowing it to happen, leading from the front and driving it through.”
While Sloman believes that real leaders are essentially born rather than made, he doesn’t discount the value of education and training.
“You have to be confident in your own ability. When I interview people for jobs I look for a base level of education, as it shows they’re committed, but then it’s all about style and attitude. Are they go-getters, are they going to go out there and do things? You can fake a lot of things but it’s very hard to create an attitude and style that’s not your own.”