Opinion: The Engaged, Strategic Leadership That USA Gymnastics Needs

For over a year now, USA Gymnastics has been operating in a state of turmoil from the backlash of Larry Nassar’s horrific crimes. What started as the largest sex abuse scandal in sports history has evolved to show major flaws in the way that the national governing body for gymnastics is run. They have been through a wave of resignations at the highest levels: the president of USAG, the national team coordinator, and the senior vice president of the Women’s Program, to name a few. 

In addition to these staff members, we’ve also seen the resignation of the entire board of directors in February. Simply put, USAG has attempted to not only rid itself of anyone who had knowledge of the scandal (and did little to nothing) but also to bring in new leadership to change the overall culture of the organization. 

In principle, this is the right idea, and it's also something that the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) required of USAG in order for them to remain certified. When looking into why this abuse was allowed to happen, questions were asked of senior leadership. These resignations have come through in an attempt to change the corporate culture of USAG, because the previous culture was clearly not conducive to protecting its athletes. 

But getting rid of the old and bringing in the new is not, by itself, enough. In order to institute real change and keep athletes safe in future, a special kind of leadership is required — one that only seeks to make changes after knowing the gymnastics community to its core, and one that communicates those changes each step along the way.

Helpful Precedent In Other Industries

Although USAG is a unique organization, there are lessons from which the entity can learn in other companies. Take the example of Siemens Corporation, for instance. 

In 2007, this company went through a massive bribery scandal and subsequently brought in a new CEO in Peter Löscher to turn the organization around. Löscher has described this experience in detail, and he put special emphasis on what he needed to get done in his first 100 days for the company to move forward. 

First and foremost, Löscher saw getting to know the company as his priority. By that, he meant engaging with the people. He committed to a daily routine of breakfast with customers, lunch with high-potential employees, business reviews with the local teams, and dinner with the leadership team in each location that Siemens had an office. Through this practice, he was able to learn about what employees were frustrated by and how they felt about the scandal that had occurred. This allowed Löscher to set an appropriate strategy to conduct change and set the company on the right path moving forward. He not only had his own experience as a leader to draw from, but he heard first-hand from his own employees and customers about what they wanted.

USAG, as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, designated by the USOC, is a completely different type of organization — but the principles are the same. Their “customers” are their members, who have been left feeling saddened, confused, and misguided by what has taken place. The organization needs to listen to these members, take in their concerns and frustrations, and make them feel that they are being heard. It’s not enough to merely follow the instructions set by the USOC in order to remain certified. USAG owes it to their members to listen and set a strategy for change based on member needs.

Scrupulous Communication Is Key

In order for this to take place, USAG leadership needs to be visible and transparent. According to Kerry Perry’s recent statement to Congress, she has implemented “listening forums” where she has traveled to clubs around the country to do just this. These forums absolutely need to continue, and hopefully gymnasts, parents, and coaches are given the appropriate stage through this medium to voice their concerns to the highest levels of USAG. 

Beyond this, any change that does take place — whether personnel changes or policy and structural changes — needs to have its reasons properly communicated to the gymnastics community. Members can’t be left shaking their heads wondering what leadership’s strategy is; everything needs to be transparent.

Going back to the Siemens case study, Löscher’s strategy was clear: customers should be the top priority, and senior management needs engage with them at every level. USAG’s strategy should be no different. Their members should be their top priority, in terms of gymnasts’ engagement with the sport and their ability to feel safe. While there may be hefty legal proceedings going on at the moment, there are still athletes who are pursuing the sport they love and they want to feel supported. There is still a national team of extremely talented athletes who have dreams of going to World Championships and the Olympics, and these gymnasts need to feel that USAG is helping them to achieve these goals despite what is going on in the background. 

Leadership needs to appropriately engage these athletes, hear and understand their concerns, and set a clear strategy to move the organization forward to a new and better future.

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“The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) issued a letter today to USA Gymnastics initiating actions pursuant to Article 8 of its bylaws, which could ultimately result in the de-recognition of USA Gymnastics as a National Governing Body (NGB). This action is in accordance with their bylaws, which grant the USOC the power to review all matters relating to the continued recognition of an NGB. USA Gymnastics is carefully reviewing the contents of this letter and is evaluating the best path forward for our athletes, professional members, the organization and staff."USA Gymnastics’ board was seated in June 2018 and inherited an organization in crisis with significant challenges that were years in the making. In the four months since, the Board has done everything it could to move this organization towards a better future. We immediately took steps to change the leadership and are currently conducting a search to find a CEO who can rebuild the organization and, most importantly, regain the trust of the gymnastics community. Substantial work remains — in particular, working with the plaintiffs and USA Gymnastics’ insurers to resolve the ongoing litigation as quickly as possible. We will continue to prioritize our athletes’ health and safety and focus on acting in the best interests of the greater gymnastics community.”

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