Transforming in lockdown: How UK Athletics CEO Joanna Coates avoided a false start

Interview

Joanna Coates
CEO of UK Athletics

Joanna Coates became CEO of UK Athletics in March 2020, just five days before the postponement of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and with the UK on the verge of lockdown.

It was in this environment that Joanna had to oversee a major restructure while attempting to rebuild trust in an organisation that had been through a period of turmoil.

"It's difficult to come in and develop a different strategy and do change management when you haven't met any of the staff,” says Joanna, speaking to PwC for our 24th Annual CEO Survey.

"I like to be around people, I like to be with my team, I like that way of motivating a group of people and them understanding who I am and how I operate. They haven’t been able to see that about me so that’s been tough."

However, she is proud of the way her colleagues have adapted and embraced her as a leader. “I think being open to change is a real credit to the organisation,” says Joanna.

Long term planning

Joanna brought in a new leadership team, who she credits with helping UK Athletics (UKA) become more agile by focusing on fast, collaborative decision-making. “You need to gather opinion and act on it very quickly,” she says.

This has enabled the organisation to more effectively manage short-term risk. “Short-term risks were previously very manageable and it was really the horizon scanning and long-term planning that was less easy to manage. It’s absolutely flipped on its head,” says Joanna. The organisation has also become more risk averse as it prioritises the health and safety of its people.

“You need to gather opinion and act on it very quickly.”

In this environment, Joanna’s team is also trying to write UKA’s 12-year plan. It's a deliberate move away from the traditional four-year planning cycles, which she believes do not enable the organisation to properly nurture young talent.

"It takes a while to take a young athlete and put them on a podium. It’s not a quick fix," says Joanna. "So 12 years is a good time to judge if you have been successful.”

Digital transformation in sports

Joanna’s leadership will also be judged on the organisation’s ability to attract a new generation of fans, which includes revamping its live events. "People’s time is precious, they can’t give up a whole day, and we are competing against other forms of entertainment," she says. 

British Athletics, UKA’s consumer-facing brand, has also evolved the way it markets its star athletes. "Our digital content has become more about telling stories about the athletes, what they give the sport, and aligning the organisation to our big social responsibility issues, which is a positive thing."

Joanna says there is also potential for British Athletics to improve fan engagement by providing greater insight and analysis through its data intelligence partnership with PwC. On the track, the partnership already gives the team a "huge advantage" by enabling athletes and coaches to make better decisions in training and competition. 

"It adds that extra dimension to help athletes understand even more where they can improve and enable coaches to analyse their performance in a different way,” says Joanna. “Lots of other sports have used other methods, but I don’t think any sport has got the kind of system we have, to collate data, analyse it and utilise it."

While Joanna believes data intelligence could make live event broadcasts more engaging, her immediate focus is on ensuring the partnership helps maximise the team’s chances of success this summer.

Recovering from the pandemic

Looking to the year ahead, the International Olympic Committee has "categorically assured" UK Athletics via Team GB that the Tokyo Games will happen. 

"The Olympics and Paralympics are everything for us. It's our showcase, it's the pinnacle of what the performance team, the coaches and everyone else has done to get those athletes in perfect condition to compete," says Joanna.

While the Games deliver commercial benefits to UKA thanks to increased coverage and the creation of new sporting icons, a successful summer on the track would also help boost the UK as it seeks to recover from the pandemic. 

"Watching elite sport makes people feel great," says Joanna. "But I am also a great believer that when people see athletes achieve on an elite stage, it inspires them. 

“With athletics, if you watch people do something on a track, it’s then very easy to put on trainers and go out for a run. The knock-on effect for physical and mental health is huge.”

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Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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