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Business interview: Claire Nelson, CEO Netball Scotland

Business interview: Claire Nelson, CEO Netball Scotland

As part of our leadership series, Claire Nelson, CEO of Netball Scotland discusses the worlds of sport and business, and what each can learn from the other.     

‘Test of character’

Our sport by its very nature is an indoor team contact sport, so we shut down and suspended all activity and moved into a remote working operation pretty quickly. I’m very grateful to the team who adapted very quickly. The biggest challenge is the unknown, the complexity, the many different scenarios. At the moment you just can’t play our sport and one of the biggest challenges is accessing facilities such as sports centres and leisure centres – you can’t get in to play our sport anywhere.

But we must look at progress and the opportunities ahead and try to seize that. I listen very closely to those around me and think about what the situation is teaching me, what do I need to do differently, We’ve written a new strategy which we are about to activate to pivot the business and diversify our brand. We are more than just a sport, we want to speak to women and girls and use our brand and platform so that they can be seen as decision makers and powerful consumers. We need to commercialise the business in new and better ways, create a model that futureproofs the sport and is not so reliant on being indoors.

Add into the mix running a remote team, keeping people focused and engaged, following the government’s guidelines, has been challenging. But we’re very focused on how to take control of our own destiny. It’s been by far the hardest of my five years with Netball Scotland and a test of strength of character for myself and my team. But I’m excited for the future because of the people we have.

Vision that empowers

I reflected on the Eisenhower statement of getting people to do something for you because they want to when I won my global award [‘Leaders Under 40’, 2017]. Leadership is getting your team to buy into your vision, and then empowering people to make it happen. They need to trust in you because you’re passionate and authentic and deliver results. But the key thing is empowerment, taking people on a journey with you, not just the people in our organisation but our membership. They are all passionate about our sport, they’ve all come on that journey and made sport what it is. It’s a team effort so you need the support of your people, who will make you a great leader if you can inspire and empower them behind a vision.

Strong principles

My leadership style is around passion, I’m passionate about what I do and believe in, that’s what people buy into it, whether they’re a partner, player or member of staff. People know that I care about what I do. I need to think about how I do that consistently across all my team through the medium of digital communications, as we’re not all together, so how do I achieve this in this new way of working so that everyone is impacted and empowered by my energy. I haven’t got all the answers. We’re not getting into the office any time soon, so a heavy focus of ours is ensuring we have got a solid wellbeing infrastructure so my team can continue to be effective, recognised and have their voices heard. Leadership should transcend any sector. If you’re a good leader you will inspire people to deliver, and this comes down to picking the best people and creating an environment in which they can thrive as individuals and come together collectively as a team. Whether you’re in tech, sport or hospitality, those principles are the same.

Sporting lessons

One of the driving factors for taking the role with Netball Scotland was to bring business into sport. Women’s sport is limited by funding and resources, so we have to think smarter like a business, create the capability and digital focus using data to professionalise our operation. Sports knowledge and expertise should be a part and not the sum of what we do. You need a great leader, a coach who is inspiring, attract the best talent, as you need a person that will nail that position so an expert in that function. What’s important is that everyone is aligned to the strategy, with the right values and behaviours in everything they do.

Everyone has a role to play whether on court or on the bench, and you’ll only succeed if you’re a team. You want the best functional experts together in the right environment. The way a coach or manager approaches building a successful team in sport should be looked at and those principles taken into the workplace. When learning about building a winning culture, most references come from the sporting environment, therefore sports analogies make perfect business sense.  

‘Team ethos’

I hire on two things: attitude and potential. I need SMEs [subject matter experts] but also people with the behaviours and mindset to create a team ethos. I also look for good human beings as I believe in kindness. I want to surround myself with people who know more than me and can bring ideas into the business, who have bags of potential and want to come on a journey with us. I’m very fortunate to work with one of the most positive nurturing fun group of people. We have more capabilities than we’ve ever had but the human aspect of who they are as people, what they believe in, makes this team so high functioning. 

Prioritising mental health

We have strategic partnerships with Breathing Space and SAMH [Scottish Association for Mental Health] with whom we’ve just signed a charter. I am very passionate about using our sport as a platform to target barriers to participation for women and girls. When it comes to females taking part in anything and putting themselves forward, the greatest barrier is themselves, which sits with their self-esteem. We want to make a difference, especially now when mental health suffers due to inactivity and the harm that social media can cause.  

Using our sport to tackle mental health is strategic priority for us - how do we engage, activate, empower and educate, and build resources and tools to combat this. It starts with us, so we talk very openly about mental health, we check in constantly with staff and have support systems in place. If we want to be successful, you need a happy, healthy team who can thrive in their work environment. Unless businesses understand that mental health is critical to productivity and results, they will limit themselves and fall short of their potential and expectations.

A big thanks to Jessica Mawer of the Strathclyde Sirens and to our own Pamela McCulloch for making it happen!

Photo: Daniel Odoom, Odoom Brothers

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