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A League Of His Own

Football Federation Victoria’s Chief Executive Maxwell Gratton has a passionate approach to leadership. It gives him more than a sporting chance of success.

WHEN MAXWELL GRATTON, at the time CEO of Basketball ACT, accepted the job of chief executive of Football Federation Victoria (FFV) late last year, it was a return to home turf for the former FFV’s operations manager who was responsible for special projects and discipline.

Gratton may have left basketball administration behind him, but he exited on a high note. His two-year stint as CEO resulted in the organisation posting the first surplus in its history. Basketball ACT’s chair David Leaney attributed the turnaround to Gratton, telling the Canberra Times:

“We’ve had two years with Max and if you think where the organisation was – with a deficit budget and all sorts of issues – he’s really been the man on the ground to steer us through some tough issues.”

Gratton was named ACT leader of the year, in the not-for-profit category, at the Institute’s Leadership Excellence Awards last year. Recently, the Institute’s chief executive David Pich FIML, together with Gratton, explored the myths and realities of sports administration.

DAVID PICH: When you took up the CEO role at FFV it was hardly uncharted territory for you. Prior to your CEO role at Basketball ACT you were with FFV for seven years. What has changed since you’ve been gone?

MAXWELL GRATTON: When I left the FFV, it was recovering after some challenging financial times. It was in a really different place to where we are now, where our strategy is to add value to our stakeholders, which is our clubs. Contact with the local club is how most players, referees, and volunteers interact with the sport. Equipping and empowering our clubs is going to be the base from which the game can further grow and develop. The strength of the federation is very much underpinned by the strength of our clubs.

DP: I always think that people who work in sports are passionate about their jobs, but that’s probably not accurate because you can be passionate about other things as well. Do you feel you have to be passionate about the sport itself?

MG: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think if you’re not passionate about something, you’re never going to reach peak performance. But you don’t necessarily need to know the complete intricacies of that sport to be able to derive some passion from it. One thing that enabled me to really fire up the passion [for basketball] was a lot of the synergies that I saw between basketball and football. They’re both global sports with real breadth and depth of diversity, as they are played by both genders as well as people of all abilities. Sport can be inclusive, help develop friendships, be character building and good for your health. It can build people, places and communities, and that is the real passion in sport.

DP: When you arrived at Basketball ACT it was in deficit. How did you manage to turn the business around financially?

MG: At the time of my arrival at Basketball ACT, it was experiencing an [overall] $700,000 loss against a turnover of $3 million. That’s when you know you’re in a pretty difficult situation. Hard decisions had to be made but in the end I think my legacy was leaving the organisation with its biggest capital works [program] in 20 years. This included the delivery of four outdoor, 3-on-3 courts, which was especially valuable with 3-on-3 [where three people play on each team using one hoop] just being announced as an Olympic discipline from 2020. Basketball ACT now has the best FIBA [the International Basketball Federation] standard, purpose-built facility for 3-on-3 in the country. To achieve this, I have to acknowledge that I’m very thankful and appreciative of the support and leadership of the president, David Leaney. I consider him one of my mentors and he’s still a close friend today. Early on I remember having a coffee with him and telling him, ‘look, the organisation is in a pretty tough position at the moment, so I’m going to make some hard decisions and I need your support. It might even cost me my position down the track, but I will do what is right for the organisation’. And he gave me that support. He and the board fully backed the tough decisions that needed to be made. I also ensured that I had good people around me, because as I’ve also been told that it’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys. I’m very thankful for my number two, Dan Jackson. It’s important to have people who are strong enough to give you an honest opinion and not just tell you what you want to hear.

DP: I can’t talk to an administrator in the world game of football without mentioning ethical leadership, as the scandals at FIFA spring to mind. I wonder whether you might give us your views on some of the ethical challenges that the top echelon of football has experienced in recent years.

MG: For me, ethical leadership is about being authentic, transparent and fair. Good governance also is very important within sports administration, which is predominately conducted in a not-for-profit space. As a sports administrator, I’m really a custodian of the game for the players, referees and other key stakeholders. So ensuring that there are proper processes and procedures in place and that due diligence is followed is critically important.

DP: You’ve been reported as being Australia’s first openly gay sports CEO. And earlier this year, you made headlines for taking your partner, Chris, to an awards night. And I think you were quoted as saying that hopefully it sets an example for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] advancement within sports, and that a lot of people from that community shy away from sport because it’s perceived to be, or is actually, homophobic. What’s your view on the progress that sport, in general, is making to be more diverse and accepting?

MG: I thought it was very important to further discussions about LGBTIQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer] celebration within sports administration. LGBTIQ issues have advanced in many industries and within the community. Sport is one of the last bastions where there is still a level of resistance. I think diversity should be celebrated, and that’s where I’d like to make an impact. I hope it sets an example for the future by just starting the discussion. Hopefully this inspires others to also lead in their own way. I’m told with LGBTIQ issues first there is resistance, then there is acceptance, then there is celebration. I think we’re sort of moving past resistance towards acceptance. But I don’t think that’s good enough, because acceptance, in many respects, could be a branch of tolerance. Because in business culture, whatever becomes the norm is whatever you tolerate, so that’s the lowest form of acceptance in many respects. For example when you accept your friends, you don’t tolerate them, you celebrate them. There is evidence that just by having celebratory and diverse workplaces, you can foster more creativity and encourage more innovation. It can also reduce issues like absenteeism. And there are economic benefits that flow on from having a diverse workplace.

DP: Coming out is a major issue for professional players, because it’s essentially a private issue that plays out in the public domain. I think that one of the most difficult places to come out would be in front of thousands of people in a sporting stadium. But I can’t help but think that society has changed so much, that we’re very, very close to that point when this conversation doesn’t need to be had at all.

MG: I would hope so. But from a Premier League perspective, I think Europe and the UK is still a bit more advanced than in Australia where we’re still debating about whether we should have marriage equality or not. It disappoints me that we’re still discussing this. Hopefully, we shall resolve that issue pretty soon. But I do agree with you. I think progress is being made, but there’s still some way to go.


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