Hard-wired Humans and the Sydney Olympics


The Sydney Olympic Games set the benchmark for the modern Olympics and was proclaimed as “the best Games ever”. Sandy Hollway was the CEO of the SOCOG, the organisation responsible for the Games. Sandy heard me talk recently to a group of CEOs and recognised a lot of human instincts in the way SOCOG was organised and its key leadership practices. He was happy to be interviewed to share his observations with others.

The Context
Clearly, organising an Olympic Games is a large, complex, time-constrained project. SOCOG grew to 2,500 staff and 60,000 volunteers working at around 100 venues, including sports, media, logistics and uniform venues. And the delivery dates are immovable! 

What organisation design, communication and leadership practices did Sandy and his team implement to achieve such an exceptional outcome?     

Structured by Location -- Not Matrix
From human instincts the best form of organisation design is to structure by geography – by location not by discipline. Staff would be in family-sized teams of around 7 people in geographical clans of up to 150 people. Our natural affinity is to people in our location with whom we are in face-to-face contact.   

This natural approach matched SOCOG’s structure. The key organisation decision was to structure by venue. At the base of the operation people were in small subject-matter teams that reported into a location manager – the venue leader. For most venues the total staff numbers were around 80-100 people, so natural clans existed.  (A few larger venues had significantly more than 100 staff.) The teams had strong familiarity with their territory. The venue clan comprised the various functions that contribute to running an event (sports, catering, spectator services, ticketing, media, security and so forth).  Their shared success would be delivering the event – not to their practice discipline. 

The role of subject-matter experts, the heads of functions such as security, ticketing, media etc was to monitor and escalate any issues affecting the whole system. They were not the line of primary identity for people on the ground responsible for running the events. 

Leadership Appointments
Given the focus on venues, the appointment of venue managers was a key decision. Sandy says that great care was taken in these appointments, in the capability of venue leaders and in assessing if any were not up to the job. A few did not make it through to the Games. 

Venue managers were chosen as much for their people-leadership skills as for their technical skills. They had to be inclusive in their style, they had to be enjoyable to work for and they had to be firm yet fair. 

Familiarity with Territory
A key way to ensure teams were familiar with their territory was to run test events. Sandy says that running test events is less about making sure an event runs smoothly. It is more about the team working together, getting to know how each other works and establishing a sense of identity and pride.

Sandy heard me talk about grooming! It connected to the tone he set at SOCOG and what he expected of leaders across the organisation. Leaders engaged in “constructive socialisation”. Teams and units frequently got together for lunches and for drinks after work. And at an organisation level there were regular staff events. There was a strong ethos of “we are in this together”.
Leadership Style
Sandy didn’t add, but I remember well the newspaper articles at the time reporting on his leadership style. He was one of those dream CEOs who people love to work for. He did tell me that he did a lot of walking around, being in contact with people, knowing their work and valuing their expertise. I asked him how many of the 2,500 people he knew, at least by sight, and where they fitted into the organisation. He knew almost all staff by sight! Such a high recognition from the tribal leader drives a strong bond and sets the leadership culture.  

No Emails!
In the busy period just prior to and during the Games Sandy and his team wanted people to talk to each other. Emails were cut off a month before the Games! Okay, it was back in 2000 but even then emails were a common business tool. The executive team wanted people to talk issues through to resolution. Emails – as a one-way communication tool, often sent to people at a desk nearby – would have slowed things down. And given that primary contact was at the location, face-to-face communication was available. They made sure it was used!

I was a volunteer at the Olympics so Sandy’s story had special meaning. I had a dream job – looking after photographers at the swimming pool! From that vantage point I had a brief glimpse of how smooth the organisation ran and how connected the staff were to each other. It was by design! 

Andrew O'Keeffe

April 2013



Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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