The Australian Olympic Committee had been through a six month media firestorm by the time its new CEO, Matt Carroll, got his hands on a confronting review of the organisation’s culture.

The AOC had been battered by a succession of negative events. Its former CEO, Fiona de Jong, had resigned in a blaze of headlines while their longstanding president John Coates had fought off a bruising challenge to his leadership in a publicised election campaign.

Some of its most senior executives received allegations of bullying and poor behaviour. Part of its 36 staff complained the AOC was the most dysfunctional place they’d ever worked. There was even an ugly rift between the AOC and the Australian Sports Commission, which funds high performance sports.

What’s more, the medal tally from athletes in the most recent summer Olympic Games in Rio had been disappointing – our worst in 15 years.

Even with Carroll in place as the new “cleanskin” CEO, the damaging headlines were showing no sign of abating. With the results of the 64-page cultural review in his hands, Carroll knew the bad news would keep leaking out.

So he and Coates decided to publish the review’s findings and its 17 recommendations on its website and release them to the media – effectively putting the organisation’s “dirty laundry” on the table for all to see.

“Why? We knew we were going to get criticised, and we did. We knew we were going to get held up and ridiculed, and we did”, says Carroll today.

“We copped a bit of a battering in the media for a week, but I know that the national sporting federations had a great deal of respect for us doing it.”

“But there was one question I couldn’t have answered if we hadn’t done it and it was: ‘What are you hiding?’ And that would have dragged us backwards.”

They concluded the only way to move on and put their troubles behind them was to engage in an act of radical transparency.

A ‘brave’ decision

The independent review, conducted over two months by The Ethics Centre, was not initially intended to be a public document. But when the report finally landed in the AOC boardroom – a frank appraisal of all that was wrong with the organisation, and what they needed to do to fix it – the decision was quickly made to go public.

“The transparency involved in publishing the report is very good for my purposes in changing the organisation because it is out there”, Carroll says. 

“There can be no pushback … It sets a standard that this is the way we are going to operate.” 

The business community was agog; a corporate leader made a wary comment telling Carroll the move was “brave”.

But while staff and the sporting federations were generally appreciative of the review and the courageous decision to go public with the findings, it was not a painless process.

“It did have an effect on some of the senior managers because there was this inherent criticism of the leadership team – some of whom are new – but they have shouldered that”, says Carroll.

“For the leadership team, there was this feeling they had all been tarred with the same brush and some of them took that quite hard. We have all been tarred a bit, but we have recognised the issues, recognised the problems, we have agreed that we need to make change.”

Coates, however, was accused of sidestepping responsibility for the poor organisational culture when he told a news conference, “The only criticism of me, personally, has been my acrimonious relationship with some stakeholders, particularly [Australian Sports Commission chair] John Wylie, and that has been put in context.”

Extending transparency

One of the findings of the AOC culture review was a lack of transparency around key decisions – like how individual sports are funded, how staff members are selected to work on site at each Olympic Games. This lack of transparency had led to an atmosphere of suspicion and allegations of favouritism.

Carroll intends to usher in a new era of transparency to dispel any suggestion of favouritism.

“Equally, performance is expected. Yes, we can structure everything and will make sure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities. There is a process, and it is transparent, but that doesn’t mean everybody is a winner.

“We are in the business of high performance sport and our athletes expect the same [level of performance] from our organisation. If you don’t perform in your role, yes, you probably won’t get to go to the Games – but you will know why.

“I am always of the view that you tell the truth, otherwise it comes around to bite you anyway.”

Carroll says this level of openness does not mean that everyone gets a say. “Transparent decision making doesn’t mean you are standing out there asking everyone’s opinion.

“But there is a process where everyone knows how it works and they know what the expectations are and, therefore, they can measure themselves.”

A culture of stress

“One reason that it was always so frantic was that people made it frantic.”

Having come into his role with a 20 year career in sports management, Carroll says he did not think there were any serious ethical problems at the AOC. He saw it was more of a matter of applying appropriate ethical standards to behaviours – especially at times when the organisation is operating under “emergency mode”, such as Games times.

“I am sympathetic to the stress the organisation is sometimes under. I don’t think there was a massive problem, as big as the media was dressing it up, at all. It was more about settling the organisation down and having those restructured roles and responsibilities”, he says.

“There was a culture of stress. One reason that it was always so frantic was that people made it frantic, rather than taking a deep breath. We are not changing the world, we don’t save lives every day of the week, we leave that to more important organisations. You have got to get people to take a step back and take a deep breath.”

Sometimes, the solution is to be nicer to each other, Carroll says. “You can have a disagreement with people … but, for Heaven’s sake don’t behave like [you are in] a schoolyard. Have respect for people.

“If you have no respect for people then they won’t have respect for you.”

Carroll says sport’s important role in Australian culture is reflected in the community’s high expectations of behaviour.

“That is why sport needs to retain its absolute credibility. If it loses that credibility, those role models – no matter how hard they try – won’t be able to show that influence and leadership.

“We can change lives, we don’t save lives. Sport has got to have its own perspective: it isn’t the be all and end all of the country. There are other far more important aspects of society in Australia than sport.

“We can play that leadership role, we can play that role of setting some standards, but we also must accept, at the end of the day, it is about sport.”