An Interview With Lord Sebastian Coe - Olympian, Chair of The London Games, & Politician
Prolific world record setter, one of the UK’s greatest runners, chairman of London 2012, president of the IAAF and keynote speaker, Lord Coe demonstrates to audiences his political and strategic expertise in leading with vision and clarity. We caught up with him to talk about his three careers and what he attributes his success to!
Hi Seb. You've had three careers - can you tell us about that journey?
Well, my first career was in international athletics; it then went into politics, which was a long and abiding interest; and then I guess the athletics and the sport came together in the perfect storm! First, as the chair of the bid for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the chair of the organising commitee, and then, in a very big way, around the challenges of turning around a sport that had really suffered some big and damaging reputational issues.
As an athlete, you achieved four Olympic medals, including a double Gold. What do you attribute these incredible achievements to?
I worked with five or six very dedicated people - a team created by my father, who was my coach. He brought together the smartest people of their generation to form a backroom team comprising top physiologists, nutritionists, atomists, biologists, mechanic experts, and so on. That team dedicated pretty much all their waking hours to turn me into the fastest two-lap runner of all time.
How did you approach your role as chair of the organising committee of London 2012?
The interesting point for me is that it started, in microcosms, from my own athletics background. During that time, I observed and absorbed, almost osmotically, the managerial skills of the team around me. I'm not an MBA student or a management gradaute, but I recognised from this experience how important it is to find the right people; to trust them to get on with what they need to do, within an all-encompassing vision; and to protect them from all the inhibitors that would stop them from creating and doing the best work of their lives. 30 years later, that is the kind of environment that I wanted to create around the delivery of the Games. I think we were pretty successful in doing that. My little team back then may have been 5, but 30 years later it ended up as 7,500 people.
A huge feat of project management I can imagine!
In my speeches, I talk about the challenges of project management and pulling together the Games, which are more challenging and inordinately complex in terms of project management than a city in normal circumstances ever undertakes.
It's the amalgamation of 18 government departments, 6 London boroughs, 105 national and international Olympic members, 205 national Olympic committees, 79 national Paralympic committes, 10,500 athletes, 30,000 journalists, and an audience of 4 billion over the period of the Games. That's just a small slither of it!
It was about pulling together an organisation that starts with 60 people, which is how your triumphant bid blinks into the daylight, through to seven years later to an organising committee of 7,500 people, and probably another 2,500 that are working in your emergency services and your borough cleaning services and all the other businesses and organisations that come to the table, 70,000 volunteers (500,000 applied) and millions of people the length and breadth of the country that maintain running commentary on everything you do for seven years!
What was the vision behind London 2012, and how would you describe its legacy?
The vision sits at the heart of the organisation.
It's natural instinct for people to want to figure out how you're going to do something, and of course that's important, and I've just given the bald numbers of what it takes to pull all these different moving parts together, but the question that often should be asked before the how is the why? Why are you doing this? Why are you getting up in the morning? Why are you coming in to an organisation that has no certainty of outcome, where you are serving no longer than that 7 year period, and perhaps even shorter than that? Why are you doing it?
So it took us some time to create the vision. That's a deep-dive. We sat there for perhaps 2 weeks figuring out what it was that we really wanted to do and why we were doing it, and we coalesced around the vision to inspire a generation; to inspire a generation to do something different that they might not have done had the Games gone to Paris, New York or Moscow. And not just in sport. We created platforms for young musicians, actors, actresses, singers, website designers, landscape designers, architects interested in delivering sport, urban planners: we wanted to get a legacy in every manifestation that they Games deliver across.
I think in a large part we achieved that. And the proudest and most important part was the diversity of the organisation. It wasn't a 'nice to have'; it was very important and made us a better organistion, and at one time we had more women in positions of seniority in the organisation than we had men. When we went to Singapore to bid for this incredible prize, we took 30 kids from East London schools.
So, diversity and 'why' were really inextricably linked, and I think that's why people remember the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
What advice would you give today to a young person to help them achieve their goals?
I suppose for me everything tends to coalesce around a simple concept: life is not an exact science.
I always encourage people to do what they're passionate about, and to do it by challenging orthodoxies; by not just accepting the status quo. When my team came together to help me, they broke the rules, they smashed the mould, around what was the orthodox thinking surrounding middle-distance running: you go out, your run loads of mileage and you become a long, slow runner. They absolutely turned it on its head.
So I guess one of the major lessons in life that I've always adhered to is do what you're Contentpassionate about and occassionally be risk-adverse. There's always that voice saying you can't really doing that, but, probably on most occasions, you can! Don't ever decide that you can't do something because somebody tells you it hasn't been done before. That, for me, is always the greatest motivation.
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