Be humble, be brave: Craig Tiley, CEO at Tennis Australia

Management.Disrupted TA

Craig Tiley is the CEO of Tennis Australia.

Tennis Australia has overall responsibility for the promotion and development of tennis within Australia, including the marquee Australian Open. Last year’s Australian Open attracted over 1 million visitors, supported by over 9000 employees and support staff.

Craig started his career as a tennis coach in South Africa and the United States, with a long history in administration of the sport culminating with his appointment as CEO of Tennis Australia in 2013.

Highlights from the interview include:

  • Why Craig unilaterally imposed a set of values on the organisation when he was made CEO: “I said these are the things and the values that are important to me. And so we’re going to have this organisation adopt those values” (Video from 3:20 and 6:20)
  • How Tennis Australia builds a culture of teamwork in a sport that celebrates individual success (using some great examples of Lleyton Hewitt and Nick Kyrgios) : “I think our product is two-folded, one it celebrates individual success, but also it does celebrate team success” (Video from 9:21)
  • Why Craig considers himself a feminist: “I’d consider myself someone that, I will advance the agenda of anyone that hasn’t had the same equal opportunities as me” (Video from 20:20)
  • Craig’s principles for effective communication across the organisation: “Listen, and you’ve got to be the best listener, that’s how you communicate best.” (Video from 21:31)

The video:

The interview:

Steve Pell: I’m Steve Pell from Management Disrupted; I’m here with Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia. Craig thank you for joining us, could you just tell us a little bit about what your role involves here?

Craig: First of all it is good to be here Steve and have a chat about this. I am CEO of Tennis Australia, and that involves overseeing the entire business. And we are a business that not only delivers tennis in Australia but also responsible for all of our events, including our marquee event which is the Australian Open.

Steve Pell: And how big is the organisation you are responsible for here?

Craig: Well if you look at it as the number of employees, we have over 500 employees that work at Tennis Australia and in each of the states, and then we have a team that works overseas as well as a part of that 500. And then we employ a little over 9000 people during part of December and January, so from a people size it’s fairly big. It has a very, very large seasonal workforce, and a fairly large full-time workforce.

And then from a revenue point of view, we are a company that turns over about $330 million a year in revenue. And the primary source of revenue, of course, being the Australian Open which is again our primary driver of revenue. It is off the back of that, that we are able to generate some funds to invest straight back into the sport.

Steve Pell: Craig, a fascinating point that I’m excited to dig into around how you go from managing 300 to 9000 on an annual basis, must be a big challenge. But before we do, can we jump into your journey, how did you get into where you are today?

Craig: Yeah, before I got here, I actually started out, I played a little bit tennis, but I wasn’t good enough to be a tennis player per se to make a living, but loved coaching. I loved making a difference in people’s lives; I loved to see people develop. And so coaching became a natural fit. I got right into it, had some success in it and then built a business around that and started running facilities. And if you’re living in the United States coaches are like really held up on a high regard – they’re like medical professionals in the community. Probably a little bit different in Australia which I wish it was that way, and I think it should be because they’re really key to the growth of people and kids’ lives.

And then I went from coaching to administration then to into leadership and management in the sport, and then ended up here, and progressed in Australia. So the principles I had when I was running a very small business of maybe 10 people, today to the business of several thousand people has been exactly the same.

And so in the learnings, I’ve had I have been lucky on that journey, I grew up in a successful family that was focused on hard work, and good values. They’re not old-fashioned values, they’re important values, of hard work, treat people right, treat people the right way and then good things will happen, if you have a good approach to life. So that’s generally what I’ve followed.

Steve Pell: Tell me about what you’ve brought from being a coach to your role today, what’s come through?

Craig: Well I think as a leader of an organisation you are a coach, and you’re coaching not only the teams that are under your direct report, but you’re coaching the entire organisation. You’re setting the ethos of it, you’re setting the culture of it. You’re also coaching your board; your board provides magnificent leadership and input to you. But you’re the person working in the business on a day to day basis. And then you’re coaching your stakeholder group which in our case is very very wide.

But it’s interesting when you do different exercises on culture; I’m a big believer when you are the leader of the organisation that your culture is the culture of the organisation. So, when I took over in 2013, and I was lucky to do that, it was a very simple decision on what our culture would be. I said these are the things and the values that are important to me. And so we’re going to have this organisation adopt those values, and I think that’s important, when I move on, someone else comes in because you have to live with those values every single day. So there’s no question that the coaching part of it has been great development and enabled me to be lucky enough.

Because I still feel everyday that I’m coaching which is communicating with people, giving people environments that they can really excel and improve in. Giving them feedback, continuing to evaluate their performance and saying, you need to do more of this and less of this, and this is what I think you can do to accelerate your performance, that’s coaching. When you stop doing that you stop getting outcomes.

Steve Pell: What would be your number one tip for a CEO who doesn’t have a coaching background, that’s come through your coaching experience?

Craig: That’s a good question, I think there are a number of tips, but I think the number one tip that I’d give is just listen. The greatest listeners are the greatest leaders.

Steve Pell: Fascinating, ok let’s flash forward 10 years, you’ve come through in 10 more successful Australian Opens, you’ve decided to move on, and you’ve written a management book, what would that management book be called?

Craig: That would be called Time Flies, and because I think the biggest challenge we all have as leaders, as anyone is how we just been narrowed on time. And there’s less time for everything and until we can get ourselves to a position where we learn how to manage.

I think time management is probably more a term of the past, and it’s more now the fact that this time is being squeezed so much. The digital platforms and social media and the way we engage with people is so much more less engaging. To try and now get performance in that or get coaching in that time is extremely difficult. So I think in 10 years’ time, time is going to be even more of a critical issue and it will become a great asset of an organisation.

Steve Pell: Let’s us just flash back for one second you talked about when you moved to the CEO role, that basically unilaterally imposed your values on the organisation as a whole. Some people would say that’s a bit controversial, pushing that down through the organisation, what would you say to them?

Craig: I could totally see it being controversial, but you know but everyone makes their own choices. I felt like I have some values which I knew already were important to most of the people in this organisation. I worked as one of the leaders, not the key leader, but one of the leaders, and so I knew what people were thinking, and it was aligned to.

I have values of teamwork as critically important to the outcome. Not one person can accomplish it, but you get a group of people to work together, then effectively you get it done. I have a great belief in loyalty but not so much loyalty to the cause but loyalty to each other, you know that creates the elements of trust and transparency, I’m a great believer in excellence.

Excellence is just you know how you communicate. Someone asks you a question, answer it, someone sends you a note, call or send a note back and follow up and that’s all around excellence in your workplace. And then the number one thing for me which previously was not in this organisation, because we’re sport and we’re heroes with big egos, is humility, and that’s my core value.

And so that’s one thing I felt that was really missing. When I looked at that and said, we can go through an exercise and have everyone feed up what important values are and come up with two or three or four catch words, and then say ‘okay we got it fixed now’. Because it’s not something that you just name, it’s something that you do every day. And if I know I’m doing it every single day; then I hope it gets adopted by them so then can just call it out in words and put it somewhere, and try and live those values.

Some people would say that’s a form of benevolent dictatorship; I would more say it’s more of a form of being really smart about being true to how you’re leading the organisation. People know once every five weeks we bring the whole organization together in a team chat, and that’s been a very raw discussion with the team to say, you know what things aren’t going as well in this area, things are going great over here, let’s celebrate your service, do you have some ideas of what we can do better.

People are making crazy comments we’ve had recently about certain values of life and naming of arenas, and that doesn’t align with our values of diversity and equality. So we’ll have a conversation with our entire team, and anyone can put their hand up and have a chat, and they do, its fantastic. That’s one of the highlights I have of working here –  it’s looking forward to that once every five weeks, the big team chat.

Steve Pell: One of the really interesting things that comes out of a lot of these interviews is the difficulty that organisations have if they have values that are all different to their product. So if a product is about vanity or a product is about an individual being a star and then you have a culture of teamwork that will usually clash.

One of the things that’s interesting for me in talking about humility here is that you’ve got a product that celebrates individual success, how does that mesh with the way that the organisation goes about doing it’s day to day?

Craig: Well I think our product is two-folded, one it celebrates individual success, but also it does celebrate team success. You know we have Davis Cup and Fed Cup and a lot of the team events around as well, how successfully the Australian team generally is doing globally. So we have both of those, but the humility piece is even important for the individual success, and we also have those conversations with our stars.

You know whether it be Lleyton Hewitt former number one, who is now is working full time for us, and is a great advocate of how you behave on the tennis court and the kind of energy and passion that you put in there, and you put everything out there. And he’s instilling that value on to Nick Kyrgios hopefully who continuously, you know, he’s making some improvement, and other members of his team.

So I think that it’s just, its using those individual people that had unbelievable individual success, the best in the world of what they do, then expect them not to have a certain kind of edge to their personality is probably a bit unrealistic. But they come into an organisation that has these great values, they adopt them very quickly.

We’ve seen Lleyton as a good example of that, and he’s very much part of the team. So I think, look it’s not easy, I mean there’s not specific techniques we go through it’s just really more what permeates through how people are acting on a day to day basis.

Steve Pell: So traditional management theory would say, you lead an organisation at 300 people which is your average day to day, very differently to when you have 9000 people running around here fulfilling the Australian open.

How do you get those values across the broader larger scale organisation when you do scale up for the Australian open, how does that work?

Craig: Well I think first you need to realise who the customer is. In this case, the customer is, can be, all of our staff that work that time, so only working there for the three weeks of the event. And we go through several weeks of training and then you have this high expectation they’re going to deliver this world class, unbelievable service to all of our customers, which is a million people that come through the gates.

And of that, there is over 20% that are coming from overseas, so those are our best brand ambassadors. So we better our entire staff, nine and half thousand, take care of that group so that those brand ambassadors can do more for our brand, and more for the country of Australia, the city of Melbourne than anyone else ever can.

In fact, they do more for us than any money we’d ever have to pay for any kind of campaign, so it’s really important we take care of them. So our approach to it generally is making sure we have good training, and making sure we have good insights to that training, making sure we’re getting great feedback, real-time feedback.

And make sure we have unbelievable processes of communication in place, that people can provide feedback, they know we’re getting it, and they know we’re acting on it in real time. So that’s allowing, and we deliver the Australian Open and all these projects, we’ve set this up, so we allow these people that come in January to be project leads. They’re leading a team of people, whether it be information services, or whether it be transportation, they leading a team.

For example, there’s a group of people that lead the transportation team. They’ve been doing it for over 30 years, and they’re so proud with the work that they do, I don’t have to worry about culture, because the 250 drivers that they hire that they bring into the organisation desperately want to be part of it.

And we know, like the ball kids we hired 300 ball kids we had over 3000 that apply for those jobs. So we have an 89% return rate of all of our staff in January, so we know we’re doing something right.

Steve Pell: Craig what’s the worst piece of common advice on management in your opinion?

Craig: A couple I think, I’d say one of them people have always said, best practice is one of your keys to success. I’ve come to learn in this environment of speed and time – Time Flies, the book – is that best practice changed really after you’ve just said best practice. So there’s no such thing as best practice because it’s constantly changing and constantly evolving.

When we deliver the Australian Open, last year was good, but it wasn’t as good as next year’s going to be. And so last year can be our base line, but it has to in every single area be considerably up from what it was, and we have to make leaps not just small little hops.

And the other one is, money’s the best incentive, and I’ve come to learn that I think I used to think that. Because my whole career at the beginning I never made any money. So someone paid me a little bit more, and I was suddenly motivated, but only for a day. It’s the intrinsic motivation, and the happiness people have in their roles, the feeling of professional development and that people care about you.

Steve Pell: Who’s the most unexpected person to teach you something about management or leadership?

Craig: I can remember the day clearly. I mean I met this person, and Jorge Paulo Lemann, and he is currently, he is one of the most successful businessmen globally, currently lives in Zurich and is from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

I met him one day at the University of Illinois in the United States of where I was working, and I met him through tennis. And he was a successful businessman then, and he’s since gone on to own, I think 3G Capital owns Heinz, Anheuser-Busch, Burger King, his company portfolio is phenomenal.

But the lesson I got from him was treat everyone the same no matter who they are. And I got to know him, became friends with him and to this day are still friends with him and stay in touch. And at the time when I met him I was a tennis coach trying to make a career, you know I was one of the many tennis coaches trying to make a career out of it.

He was a successful businessman, I came into contact, we engaged, but I didn’t know who he was at the time, didn’t know who he was afterwards either. But we stayed in touch, and I followed his career and spoken and few times, and we’re now in business partnership with him on the Laver Cup which is fantastic, we’re able to have that connection.

But he taught me that without saying it. This is someone that is the best in the world in business and I was one of hundreds of thousands. And my treatment was no different to the treatment he would have given to a President of countries.

And I got that from my father as well, and I’ve taken those qualities right throughout my business career, everyone’s the same to me. Now I learn from my own family, my beautiful wife and three young kids.
Steve Pell: What else did you take from your father, your family has come up few times so far, what else impacts you?

Craig: I think he tried everything in life, and took risks on everything, and I think that’s been my approach too. It doesn’t matter where I live, what language I have to learn to speak, who I’m going to be around, you know, what environment I live in, well I’ll give it a go. And I never look at the risks I just look at the opportunities.

I think he taught me that, because he did some crazy things and he did some very high-risk things in life and in adventure and in business. But I learned from just being a son in the family, one of four kids, just by observing that and seeing it, and I’ve got a family that will do the same kind of thing.

And I think sometimes it freaks my mother out, because we’ve gone through lives of just taking risks and things, whether it be doing something crazy, jumping out of an airplane or jumping off a mountain, or just having a go at business opportunities. So the only fear I have is of failure, and so that’s one of my drivers, and I’m always inquisitive and also productively paranoid.

And I personally think that those may be good qualities of leadership because you’re always looking over your shoulder, but you’re also looking forward. And if you have that combination I think that’s, it’s a stressful one to have, but I think it’s an important one for success.

Steve Pell: Do you look for them when you are hiring?

Craig: Yep, the culture piece is a big piece of hiring and I, first of all, I’m a big believer, and we mandate it that there’s a very strong gender focus and gender equality focus in our organisation. I grew up in South Africa, and I have grown up in environments where there has not been equality. And I had a father who fought against it and pushed for it and got himself into trouble for that as well.

So I understand what it takes to do that, and I’m in a leadership position, so I have to make a difference. We have to be an organization that represents our constituent base; we have more girls and women playing tennis than we do boys and men, so we need to be a leadership organisation that has that same approach.

And I think there’s a huge pay equity gap, I think there’s a huge gender balance gap still in Australia, we need to play our part, on setting an example and we’re there, we got a few more things to work on to get completely there.

Steve Pell: When you are hiring for your top management team there how do you look for that paranoia, how do you screen for that?

Craig: I don’t know if you screen for that, but when I hire for the senior management team, I take them parachuting with no parachute, no I’m just kidding, no I just see what people do. I spend a lot of time looking at a lot of things and talk to family and friends, because they’re very important roles to hire for.

I’ve made some mistakes, but I’ve learned from those mistakes. You hear this old adage, hire slow and fire fast, and I think that’s just probably a saying to make sure you really take your time. Get the right people in because it’s much more effective getting the right people in than it is when you have the wrong people in there to try and move them on.

So we do have the approach of really taking our time and getting it right. Looking for productive paranoia is really just looking for someone who is vigilant about potentially bad events that can hit a company, but then turns that fear into action and preparation. I think is just one trait that I think really points to big time leadership. I wouldn’t want everyone to be paranoid, to be looking over their shoulder.

It’s someone that I like, someone that you can go and have a social chat with, someone that you enjoy spending time outside the work environment with. And then you know if it’s someone that can perform, then you got a winner, and so you go and look for that. And if you find that you’re lucky and that’s why we do global searches, and we get help, we’ll go and get some head-hunters to help with us, because they know that pretty well.

Steve Pell: Craig, you talked a little bit about the diversity imperative a few minutes ago, do you consider yourself a feminist?

Craig: Yeah, yeah I do. Well, I’d consider myself someone that, I will advance the agenda of anyone that hasn’t had the same equal opportunities as me, and I think that that’s a really important element of success in business. Now there are two sides to that – there’s one if you can do good about getting it right, but the other one, it has a business advantage.

I mean people forget that, woman leadership is highly successful, so it has a huge business advantage when it comes to the gender piece, and diversity across the board. We’re a multi-cultural society so we need to embrace that and show examples of how it can actually really advance and improve your business.

But I do consider myself, if something’s wrong, I will say it. That is considered sometimes a problem, because if I don’t agree with something I will say it. But I’ll say it in a good way, but it’s about trying to get it right, not trying to criticise what it is and that probably comes from a family trait too. Everything is on the table and it doesn’t matter how tough it is to have that conversation, it should be on the table.

Steve Pell: Craig, it comes across to me that you see one of your big roles here as being a communicator for alignment of the organisation, what are your principals for good communication into the organisation, how do you think about the role?

Craig: well as I mentioned that earlier, listen, and you’ve got to be the best listener, that’s how you communicate best. And in fact, the nonverbal communication is as important as us talking now or showing what we do.

I think communication is also who you are, I can walk past someone, and I can say, you know Hi Steve, Hi Emma, you know how’re you doing and use the name and look in the eye and say, “how’s the day going?”. Or I can be in the elevator going down from this we’re on the 8th floor down to the 1st floor, and five staff members can get in there, and I can be on my phone and not say anything, I never do that. I always want to engage in conversations, say how’s the day going? You know, what are you doing? And if I don’t know anyone, have I met you yet?

And there’s been a couple of times, yeah you met me last week, and I will be like geez sorry I forgot. But it’s ok just you being yourself, and I do think it’s important, so communication is not just getting up and having a meeting with the team, that’s a small bit about it, it’s what you do every single minute. So you got to be outward, you can’t hide, my desk is in the open plan like everyone else’s. I want people to come to me whenever they can, so this whole appointment calendar thing doesn’t work too well for me, unfortunately.

It is my view that it’s got to be genuine and it’s got to be all the time. And it’s got to be listening, and it is got to be hearing when you listen too.

Someone the other day said something about their family; they were having a tough time. So I went straight upstairs and asked my assistant can you send them a card, totally unrelated they got a card a couple of days later in the mail. It was just natural thing to do, but I think come back and think about it, they probably weren’t expecting that because I just listened to a conversation that has been had, so that’s communication.

Steve Pell: It sounds like; there’s a lot of willingness to be vulnerable on your behalf, why is that so important?

Craig: That’s a really good question, I never really looked at it that way. It comes a bit natural, I think it’s important, because people can’t come into your world unless you’re vulnerable or else you portray the vulnerability.

And for success you want people to come into your world, but you don’t want to have to force them. The moment you’re forcing them, then you’re providing direction, and then if it goes too far, you’re providing a form of dictatorship. So I want people to come into the world that I’d like to be in, it’s the world of opportunity and draw people in.

Steve Pell: Craig one last question here, what do you wish if we go back to day one of your professional career, what do you know now that wish you knew then?

Craig: Everything.

Steve Pell: Pick one

Craig: I think what I know now, that I didn’t know then is how fast things change. And back then, is I felt like I had to be on top of everything, and I was trying desperately to be on top of everything, and high levels of stress because I couldn’t.

So I was on top of enough things where I thought I could be on top of everything. What I know today is you cannot; it’s physically impossible because things change so quickly. So back then I’d be far more relaxed, and I wouldn’t worry about it, and I’d see what happens, and just keep doing what I’m doing.

And then I probably would have, what would be different then to today? I don’t know, I probably would have not worried so much about having to have a job and make a living. Because now I’m not worried about it at all, so yeah that would probably be the biggest thing.

Steve Pell: Craig thank you so much.

Craig: Thank you

Share your thoughts. Be kind & play nice.