In this interview, we explore insights with Christian Napier of workforce planning, attrition and addressing some of the misconceptions of the major events industry.
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To read the interview transcription, see below.
Lauren: Coming from the 1990s, as you mentioned, working in the HR field, HR analyst, and now into the areas of the major sporting events, why is this space important to you?
Christian: In terms of events, labour’s a big cost driver. We all work with people. Ultimately, the Games are delivered by people. I think everything that can be done must be done to help organise the committees, find the right people, recruit, select, induct, manage, and retain the right people. Then give them the help that they need to be successful, arming them with processes and tools to help them deliver these events … because you know it’s not easy.
Lauren: What are some of the numbers or alarming, surprising numbers that you’ve seen over the course of your experience on workforce attrition? What’s worked well, and where are some cases that may not have worked so well?
Christian: In terms of statistics, it’s so dependent on local context as you know. The staffing models can vary quite a bit. For example, in Pyeongchang, because of the limited budget, the staffing is over 50% secondee from local government. Because Pyeongchang is remote, people are sent on assignment for a specific period of time and then are rotated out. This presents a huge challenge for the organising committee because it cannot retain people.
People just get moved to departments for no real apparent reason. It’s been a massive challenge. I would say one example of something that I think worked is Rio. Not so much with volunteers and line staff, if you would, but when you look at the management team of Rio, they’ve been around a long time. About 60 people that I interviewed in Rio, over half of those people had been working on the Games for more than four years. About one in five had worked on the Games since they were awarded to Rio.
They’ve been with the organising committee the entire time. The Rio Games were a tremendous challenge for all involved, but I would argue, and it merits some research that the longevity of that management team, the heads of the functions, averted total catastrophe in Rio.
Christian: Because those people had been there for a long time. They understood how to navigate the challenges. Many of them had even worked on the Pan-American Games or worked on the bid. I had known them for over 10 or 11 years myself. These people were very experienced, knew how things worked in Rio, and they could just figure out solutions.
I think some research should be done to test that hypothesis, but I think it’s an interesting element where you saw significant attrition of volunteers, contractors, and line staff, but you had a stable management team, and that stable management team was able to offset some of the massive attrition that was happening.
You will hear statistics like 70% of the drivers didn’t show up, these massive numbers of attrition there in Rio, but they were able to still pull it off. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but they avoided total catastrophe because they had that stable core.
Lauren: Yes, and that stable core, were they made up of locals or were they international from other countries?
Christian: The vast majority were locals. Many of them, again, came from Paralympic Games experience. Some of them came from the FIFA World Cup. There were a few internationals. The Head of Games Services was an international. The person that ran Sport Entries and Qualifications was an international. There were a couple of internationals in the Technology area, but by and large, it was a local staff, local management.
Lauren: Excellent. That’s really interesting. I wasn’t aware of that, and it’s just quite interesting to hear that that management team was quite stable to basically navigate through the peaks and the troughs, and the challenges that they were confronted as they understand it. They knew how to navigate and combat what was put in front of them. Very interesting.
Lauren: In your experience in the event world, what were some of the common misconceptions that you’ve actually come across in the event industry? If you could list maybe three, what would be those common misconceptions?
Christian: I would say the first one is that hosting the Olympic Games is automatically a money-losing proposition. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I live here in Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake City Games were profitable. The profits of those Games were invested in a fund that is used to manage the ongoing operation and maintenance of the legacy facilities. Every facility that was constructed or used during the Olympic Games are still in use in Salt Lake City today.
I don’t think that, “Okay, you host the Games, you’re going to lose money.” It doesn’t have to be that way. People need to understand why.
My second misconception would be that people, when they are considering bidding, one of the things they start doing right away is lining up government support. I think that’s important, but it’s not really the right place to start in my view.
My view that the place to start is with the public. You’ve got to get the public on board because it’s very easy for a few people armed with social media to take down a bid. Once the popular support swings, the government commitments will reverse themselves. All of a sudden, the politicians will no longer support the Games because they know which way the political winds are blowing.
You’ve got to get that public support really nailed down first before you take on getting all of the government. If you get the public backing it, the government officials will fall in line because they’ll see it’s their thing.
The last thing I would say, in terms of a misconception, is that working in these events is glamorous, and you know it’s not.[laughter]
Christian: “You know, it’s so amazing you get to work on this.” Actually, it’s really hard work, and a lot of it is drudgery. A lot of it is just — and you know this from your own super expansive professional experience as well. A lot of this is just delivering on a series of impossible deadlines.
It is difficult work. A lot of it can be drudgery. It can be very frustrating as you try to meet a series of impossible deadlines one after the other that may not be completely in your control, but it is extremely rewarding work. It’s exciting work, and I’ve enjoyed doing the work that I’ve been doing. I think it’s a great career but it’s not a glamorous one.
Lauren: [laughs] You are the myth buster there with your misconceptions of the event industry.
Christian: I’m just trying to demotivate any competition [chuckles].
Lauren: [laughs] Well, in terms of motivating our fellow colleagues in the events, what advice would you give to event organisers?
Christian: I think I’ll be repeating some of the stuff I’ve already said, which is making sure you secure and maximise public support for your event. The IOC is really keen on this. They recently created an Engagement Functional Area. They are really focused on trying to build and help local cities build public support for the Games. I think that’s the number one thing.
The number two thing has been a common refrain in all the interviews that I’ve done, that people need more staff, but more staff doesn’t necessarily solve all your problems.
Sometimes, it creates more problems than it solves, because you end up lengthening and complicating communication pathways which slows decision making and reduces the efficiency of your operation. I would say to organisers, try to operate very smart and very lean. Again, that comes when you’re really laser-focused on your core commitments.
The final piece of the puzzle is event organisers need to create a culture of fun and enjoyment because the work can be very, very stressful and difficult.
People can lose motivation quickly which causes them to leave, particularly because the nature of these events, they’re temporary events. So the workforce may be in a temporary position and need to find something later. So to overcome the risk of them leaving for something perhaps more permanent, try to create a culture that is very engaging, inclusive, fun.
I can’t tell you how many times in these interviews, Lauren, at the end of the Games, the Rio people, there were several of them that said, “I wish I would have taken time to enjoy it more.” At the end of the Games, they were exhausted. They never really took any time out to go to a competition or spend time celebrating with their fellow volunteers and staff. It became very stressful. That’s my final thing, just enjoy the journey.
Lauren: I love that. For many people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We can get caught up in the operational delivery without actually stepping aside and actually thinking and looking around what you are contributing to and embracing what’s actually happening before it’s all finished. Then it goes into our memory.
Christian: That’s right.
Lauren: In your many years of experience and wealth of knowledge in the major sporting world, what are you most proud of? What is Christian most proud of?
Christian: Well, leaving sport aside and career aside, I’m certainly most proud of my family. I’ve got a fantastic supportive spouse and four awesome children. That would be number one.
I would say number two would be the work that we did in Salt Lake City. You’ve mentioned it as a once in a lifetime opportunity, and for all but a few, it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Particularly to do something in your home city or country, you certainly feel a sense of pride.
I think anyone who is involved in these events feels a sense of pride when they’re done. “Wow, I can’t believe that we just did that.” I remember after the Games were over, my colleague that sat right next to me was Darren Hughes, who you know. Darren and I just looked at each other and said, “Are we ever going to have a work experience that would be better than this?” We both thought there is no way, because it was just amazing. Even though neither of us had really taken more than one or two days off in three months leading up to the Games and we were all exhausted, but it was just such a blast, so I would say the number two thing would be that original event, which was Salt Lake 2002.
Lauren: Very nice. Beautiful. Now just recently, I have discovered a time machine, so if you could speak to your 20-year old self, what would you say?
Christian: Put more money in Apple and Google.
Christian: Start off with that right there. I’d make some more prudent investments that are (laughs) I would say from a personal satisfaction standpoint, I wish I would have gotten involved in the event industry sooner. I didn’t get into it until my early 30s, and I just fell into it by seeing an ad on Monster. I had no idea how fulfilling it could be to be involved in events. That’s why I’ve stayed in it. I will just repeat what I said earlier, which is I would have told myself to enjoy the journey and try not to get too high or too low, but just stay even-keeled.
Lauren: Beautiful. Really nice advice there. Lastly, if you were a hashtag, what would you be? What would that be for you?
Christian: This is a tricky question because I’m really not good with the social media. I never use Twitter so I never use the hashtags, but if I were a hashtag, I would probably be #kind.
I think it’s really important to be kind to people. I do believe in karma in a certain sense. The way that you treat people, it comes back to you. My exhortation, not only to myself but for everyone, would be let’s just all be a little kinder.
Lauren: Beautiful, #kind. That’s beautiful, Christian.
An absolute pleasure to have a chat with you today. I’m really thrilled and honoured that you could squeeze me into your very tight schedule. A wealth of knowledge that you’ve shared. It’s been an absolute pleasure to explore further with you your experience in the event industry.
Christian: Well, I thank you again, Lauren, for the opportunity. I really enjoyed our conversation today.
Lauren: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Christian.
Christian: Thank you.
Lauren: Bye for now.