Strengthening the chair and CEO relationship in a crisis

Thursday, 01 October 2020


    The CEO and chair of Super Netball, Chris Symington and Marina Go, learned that trying times can strengthen a professional relationship.

    There have been few bigger gambles in netball than the introduction of the two-goal “super shot”. Seen by some as a panacea under discussion for more than a decade, the rule change had never made it past the competition committee review stage. But when it was trialled at the bushfire relief charity match earlier this year, the sight of goal attacks and goal shooters scoring from a 1.9m zone within the goal circle generated crowd and broadcaster excitement, convincing governing body the Super Netball Commission that its time had come.

    Rebooting the competition during the height of the pandemic gave the commission the freedom to implement rule changes that in other times would have been next to impossible to get over the line. But that didn’t stop the backlash against the two-goal super shot, with traditionalists alleging the commission was tampering with netball’s DNA. Diamonds captain Caitlin Bassett likened the board’s pursuit of entertainment to the Lingerie Football League. She wasn’t alone in her condemnation. While calling the change exciting for the game, former great Liz Ellis AO called the way it was implemented “nothing short of a blindside”.

    It was a testing period, especially for Chris Symington, the Melbourne-based Super Netball CEO, who had to explain the commission’s decision to stakeholders. He had experience bedding down reforms as general manager of Surfing Australia, but nothing could have prepared him for the super shot controversy. A little under 12 months into the job — Symington’s first as a CEO — he was charged with steering Super Netball through a once-in-a-century pandemic and decamping to the northern capital to oversee the enforced relocation of the competition to Queensland as a second wave of COVID-19 raged in the southern state. “The amount of decisions we’ve made over the past three months, you could easily have made over three years in a normal working environment,” says Symington.

    Baptism of fire

    “It was a rocky time for Chris because he was at the front, getting slammed,” says Marina Go MAICD, chair of the Super Netball Commission board and a director of Energy Australia and 7-Eleven among others. “I got calls from club chairs, but they were respectful — they weren’t screaming at me.”

    A former magazine publisher and Netball Australia board member, Go earned her director’s spurs as the first female chair of the Wests Tigers in the bruising, male-dominated world of the NRL. She is a firm believer in the notion that CEOs only prosper once they have shown the resolve to make “risky” calls. She also knows that a successful CEO means a successful board. To help Symington sell the rule change, she sat in on some of his calls to netball stakeholders, speaking after him to strengthen their position and show a united front. Symington appreciated her input. “It put a face on the decision,” he says. “It showed that I had the board’s support.”

    Super shot opponents complained that they weren’t given enough time to fully digest its ramifications for the game. Go acknowledges there was a “tight turnaround in terms of communicating and implementing” but says, in a pandemic, time was of the essence. “During a short time frame in a crisis, you have to get the outcome you need and use what’s at your disposal, including time.”

    The commission will reassess the impact of the super shot at the end of the season, but Go and Symington have achieved their aim of dragging Super Netball into the mainstream conversation. Forged in the crisis, their bond has only strengthened.

    Symington says understanding the dynamics of working with the board and the public expectations of a CEO have been big challenges in his first year in the job. “Marina has encouraged me to be courageous and take risks. If you try to move forward with a business-as-usual approach you’ll fall behind and miss opportunities.”

    Go is delighted with their progress, but knows the future remains uncertain. “The more successful you are, the harder it gets,” she says. “Chris is a humble person, which is a great trait. What he has done is to pull a rabbit out of a hat. He understands that no matter what’s thrown at you, if you’re sure of your course, and you’re flexible and agile, you can still win. We have to understand we don’t have a monopoly on women’s sport the way we might have years ago. Our competitors in female sport — cricket, soccer, AFL — have done a great job. We have to be more aggressive in our approach in terms of moving faster, innovating and evolving. The commission understands that, but the whole sport doesn’t as yet.”

    Pandemic in play

    When COVID-19 struck, postponing the start of the 2020 season and putting millions of dollars of broadcast revenue at risk, Go tasked the board and executive with getting the game safely back on the court — and on our TV screens.

    The pandemic supercharged Go and Symington’s professional relationship. Where previously they’d talked on a weekly or fortnightly basis, they were now chatting daily, navigating towards league resumption through a maze of conflicting government decrees. With tensions mounting and the game’s immediate future at stake, the potential for misunderstanding was high.

    “Any relationship is tested when it’s put under pressure,” says Symington.

    Super Netball’s mooted 1 August start was based on open borders and free travel between states. But the Victorian lockdown in early July plunged the league into a state of emergency. To avoid a devastating non-start, tricky governance, biosecurity and logistical issues had to be negotiated as the Super Netball Commission considered Queensland, WA and NSW as potential playing hubs. A full 60-game season based in Queensland was the outcome. “It was a great example of the board working really well, opening doors and having conversations that led to opportunities,” says Symington.

    Super Netball’s TV ratings showed a modest two per cent increase in 2019. With a new broadcast deal due for negotiation in 2021, and increased competition from emerging women’s sports for the corporate dollar, Go is conscious of the pressing need to create a more viewer-friendly product.

    “I knew from my West Tigers days that what drove interest in the club was the column inches people were writing about us,” says Go. “Every time somebody talks about your brand — positive or negative — the corporates that invest in your brand pay attention. It’s a mushroom effect. What I hope I’ve done is given Chris the confidence to deliver in a crisis and the understanding that the commission has his back. We’d rather him try something really outrageous, that potentially moves the dial in a meaningful way, than be conservative. We’re more prepared to fail.”

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