Leading in a Crisis

Leading in a Crisis

 
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Guest Bio

Clint Cooper

CEO, GrowthOps

A Chartered Accountant by training, Clint specialised in Corporate Insolvency with KPMG before diversifying into a progression of challenging executive roles in industry. After leading the performance turnaround of Freemans Insurance Services and setting them back on a path of sustainable growth, he joined Cricket Victoria. Over a 5-year tenure as CFO&COO, Clint oversaw the organisation’s contemporary rebrand, reinvigorated its commercial platform and strengthened financial and governance processes, ensuring the ongoing success of one of Australia’s oldest and most respected sporting institutions.

In 2011 Clint established Cricket Victoria’s pioneering Twenty20 Big Bash League club, the Melbourne Stars. In October last year he was appointed to his current position as CEO and MD of GrowthOps – a holding company combining the complementary capabilities of its creative and digital agencies with the coaching and leader development services provided through IECL. 

 

SHOW NOTES

 

In this rare interview Clint Cooper shares his leadership journey over the last decade from building a Club and supporter base as the first CEO of the Melbourne Stars Cricket Club, to his current role leading the turnaround of recently delisted company GrowthOps Limited.

At the Stars he created an organisation from start-up to become one of the largest Clubs in the league. Over ten years he led an organisation in the very high-pressured, high-profile world of competitive sport through a deep commitment to the principles of fairness, honesty, camaraderie and the building of an environment where players and administrators alike loved to come work. 

In October 2020, after a short break he took on his role at GrowthOps and the challenge of turning around a company already under stress through a period of restructure and the impact of the Pandemic. In the space of a year he successfully steered the company of 400 people across six countries through an environment of considerable uncertainty to safer ground, largely from the confines of a small bedroom in suburban Melbourne. While extraordinarily challenging both physically and mentally, these circumstances allowed Clint to open his mind to what the actual opportunity of leadership could be when stripped to its core. Clint talks openly about the challenges and opportunities presented to him, what he has learned about himself and about leadership in this time, and the newfound levels of optimism and potential this has instilled in him for this next era of growth.

Transcript

Gabrielle Schroder:
Clint, welcome to CoachCast by IECL. I must say it’s a great pleasure to have you here, face-to-face after many months of lockdown in Victoria. I hope you’re enjoying your time in Sydney.

Clint Cooper:
I certainly am. And thanks very much for inviting me into this wonderful podcast.

Gabrielle Schroder:
Wonderful. Let’s start with defining what leadership means to you. On your LinkedIn profile, you highlight that as an executive leader, you’re not just building a business, you’re leading a philosophy. Tell us more about that. What is your leadership philosophy?

Clint Cooper:
Very good question. I think it’s something that has evolved over time and I feel like it needs to be adaptable to the organisation, the situation you’re facing. I think the last 12 months, if we focus in on that, that’s been one of the most challenging leadership roles that I’ve had. And adapting to not only different challenging leadership roles that I’ve had. And adapting to not only different changes in an organisation and the financial health of an organisation, but really building a culture, I suspect is probably, the most challenging thing of any leadership. But my philosophy is really about people. I think that in any leadership capacity, if you don’t have the support, confidence and trust of your people, then you’re not really doing your job as a leader. 

I work pretty hard at doing that and instilling that confidence. I think the other real important part is ensuring people, despite how tough things may be, do have fun coming to work. They want to come to work. They want to enjoy the environment and build something together. I certainly have never seen myself as a leader that sits at the top of the tree and demands and commands, but more of a collaborative leader that sits there alongside in the trenches with everybody and really trying to get an outcome. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
Fantastic. And I think we’ll touch a little bit on the last 12 months in particular, a little further on in the interview, but I want to start perhaps a little further back in your career. You’ve had a really stellar career largely in the very hyper competitive world of sport. And there’s, I think, an enormous amount that we can learn from that. But if I can get you to cast your mind back to 2011, when you moved from your role as CFO and Chief Operating Officer at Cricket Victoria, to be the first CEO of Melbourne Stars. How did you feel about landing that role? 

Clint Cooper:
I was scared stiff. The way I found out about the role, Gab, was at a board meeting of Cricket Victoria. I had done interviews and the like, and the chairman started the meeting by saying, congratulations, you’ll be running the team that we think will play at the MCG. It doesn’t have a colour, doesn’t have a name and your coach is going to be Greg Shipperd, who ended up being a really great friend of mine. It was daunting, having been a bean counter most of my life and tipping into the sponsorship and commercial world, I was excited, but obviously very daunted by what was about to occur. We didn’t have a lot of resources. We didn’t have a lot of money, but the first thing that we did was go and find an impressive board, which included Eddie McGuire and John Wiley to name a few. And I think that’s where I built that probably false confidence in the first instance, that I had the backing of these two guys that would certainly guide me through what would be a pretty tumultuous couple of years around building a club and building essentially a franchise and a supporter base that was the largest in the competition.

I think 10 years is a long time ago. And I certainly know a lot now about myself and the depth of what you need to go to, to build a club, but a culture not just on field, but off field. Having known cricket for a while and the administrators versus the players, there was that tension and it was always about how do we bring the two together. And that the players were treated equally as our staff and the staff equally as our players. And I think that paid off immensely over the journey for my time there in that, whether you are a social media contact coordinator, you were respected and treated exactly the same as if you were the captain or international recruit that came in. And the players, particularly, really bought into that and saw the club as a family. The players genuinely loved coming back to the family every year to enjoy that next journey together. And we had a lot of fun on the way too. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
I find that absolutely fascinating because in sport it is so competitive. When you think about performance and performance in an organisation, particularly sport, it’s very public. On the day it’s win or lose, black or white, high stakes often. If you’re a losing team that often flows right to the bottom line. How do you create a performance culture in that high stakes context? 

Clint Cooper:
Yeah. Big question to answer. I think players or sports people by their nature, are competitive beasts. They want to be the best. And so the best way to get peak performance is creating an environment or a culture where they’re relaxed and they enjoy their time. It’s not a task to come to work for them. It’s not a task to come to training. It’s not a task to do immediate performance. It’s actually something they love and enjoy. I think building that comradery and creating an environment, very different to every other club that was at the time. They loved coming to work and win, lose, or draw, they had a good time. 

In such a high pressure game, the hardest thing about being a leader of sports team is you can do everything off the field right. You can get the most sponsors and most attendees, the best marketing, but the moment they walk across that white line, you’ve got absolutely no control on the outcome, which is extremely hard to stomach. And I spent many a time downstairs in the car park of the MCG doing laps during games. Basically, I just couldn’t stand it to be honest. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
You didn’t watch the game?

Clint Cooper:
Didn’t watch a lot of them, no. Particularly when they got tense. I would be often found roaming the car park by myself. But as an aside, the whole club joined in the celebration and the whole club actually joined in when we didn’t win. But the most important thing is, as a club on field and off, we’ll put the losses behind us very quickly. And that was led by such an amazing coach that we had that filtered the whole organisation, but being able to share the pain, I think, right across that organisation made us bigger and stronger and more resilient. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
There’s the performance on the field, and then there is all that surrounds the game. Often in these high profile organisations you have a risk profile that’s quite different to other organisations. I’m going to particularly player behaviour and conduct risk. We’ve seen over the last little while successive Royal Commissions indicating that there’s very little tolerance in the community for misdemeanours and the buck falls squarely on the bard and the executive. Very difficult to manage and control behaviour. Talk to us a little bit about culture and then how you navigate that very tricky situation of supporting an organisation that is managing that risk. 

Clint Cooper:
With a lot of fear, is probably the first answer. But I think people underestimate sports people, particularly…They’re exceptional, talented people, they are high performing. They ride the highs and they ride the lows, but on the whole, most of them are very good, genuine, kind-hearted people that know right from wrong. And you end up dealing with the issues by exception, if you can actually create the expectations of what it means to be part of this club, or the organisation at that time. We had Eddie McGuire, who’s very well-renowned, outspoken president, extremely influential, and that was a really good guiding stick for the club. Ed has very high public standards for his other affiliation with the Collingwood Football Club. It was almost like, well, we don’t want to upset Eddie either as a playing group. That’s a bit of a tone, but you need the players to actually buy into what that culture is. 

We did everything we possibly could to ensure that the way that they came into the Stars and the way they exited Stars, whether they exited as a player or retired, was exactly the same. They still have that same connection. And that’s largely driven by the playing group and the senior executives of any organisation that sets that tone. Everybody treated fairly, everybody understands what the common goal is. But building the expectations early in any given season and admittedly, reminding players what the expectations were, was a very strong part of our induction process every single year. Cricket for example, there’s obviously a lot of anti- corruption issues that surround the game. Ensuring every single year that our education was up to scratch. But you do deal with some high stakes personalities and some large egos, but on the whole, generally in my time, that was pretty good. The lesson I learnt though was pretty early in the piece that Eddie never wanted to read anything on the front paper of the Herald Sun. It didn’t matter what time of night that I called him if there was any particular issues, but thankfully I didn’t need to do that. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
Yeah. Wonderful. It’s definitely a very good way of sharpening the focus, that headline on the front of the paper the next morning, nothing better. Fast track to 2019. And in, I think around June, the Stars and Renegades merge operations under Cricket Victoria, and you received a great deal of praise for the legacy that you had built and that you had left at the time, and I’m imagining that you were looking forward to a decent break after 10 years. And then of course, you get offered this role at GrowthOps. I’m interested to hear firstly, what compelled you to take on that role?

Clint Cooper:
I was enjoying a good break. In that sports game, whilst the games only go for six to eight weeks during a season it’s pretty full on for 12 months of the year. It was nice to let the hair down a bit, reacquaint myself with my family. From the outset, I was interested in staying sport. There’s something about sport and leadership and management that you struggle to find in any other… I’ve been an accountant, I’ve been at an accounting firm, you don’t get that passion that you do in a sports club. I was keen, but I also thought, well, where I am now, the skillsets that I’ve developed and the opportunities that I’ve been presented, there’s a bigger world out there. I was open to a lot more opportunities than just closing in on sport, not to say I wouldn’t go back to sport at some point in the future.

This job appealed initially because it was a startup. For me, it sounded like there was, based on the representations that were made to me at the time, it was a startup, there was lots of opportunity for this business to grow. They were looking for somebody that can build a culture, who’s interested in commercials, who wants to get their hands dirty. I thought, why not? Didn’t know a lot about the industries that we currently are in, but you never say no to an opportunity because you don’t know everything about it. I think they best thing coming into this role is, I probably went back to my sweet spot of accounting and finance and insolvency background early on in the couple of months here at GrowthOps. But it was a job that appealed on the basis that there was a lot of variety and things that I could learn and continue to learn. Push forward 12 months and it’s probably been one of the best rides of my entire life. Being able to make meaningful decisions that are impactful and being accountable for those decisions, it’s been breathtaking. And you start challenging yourself as a leader because you don’t have the backup of anybody else.  You’re the guy. But I have got an amazing executive team and amazing practice leadership team that have been incredibly supportive and made the job exceptionally easy. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
You are talking about, effectively a turnaround situation. Did that context change the way you focused and led the business as compared to the history that you had with the Stars?

Clint Cooper:
Yeah, it did. It was certainly that eye opener in the first month or so. When at the Stars, you were starting something from complete scratch. Everything you’re doing was new and it was all about growth and excitement and razzle-dazzle. Here, there was some fundamental issues that needed to be corrected and understood and go forward. And the decisions or actions you’ve taken weren’t necessarily welcomed by everybody, but they were necessary decisions that needed to be made. I think what I learned very quickly is the leadership style that I had in the Stars was going to be very different to what ultimately came across into GrowthOps. 

We needed to be incredibly decisive early on, but very empathetic and then build relationships. I think if there’s anything that I pride myself on over the journey has been building strong relationships with key stakeholders and people. And whilst coming into an industry, I wasn’t a creative or I wasn’t a coach, or I wasn’t a digital native, but being able to build that relationship on a different level has certainly paid off and something that I, to this day and will continue to work really hard on, ensuring that is the mantra of my leadership.

Gabrielle Schroder:
Given my role here, I’ve had the benefit of observing some of the things that you’ve had to deal with, really hard complex people and organisational problems – really difficult to solve. And in the middle of it, I know too, you’ve had some very difficult personal circumstances to deal with as well. As a leader, you’re managing the ups and downs of life and you’re also carrying the significant weight of leading a company and the impact of those decisions that you have to make on people. How do you steel yourself for that? And what does performance look like in that context? 

Clint Cooper:
Well, performance in that context early on was survival. And as difficult as those early decisions were, there wasn’t another alternative unfortunately. But being able to make those decisions and set the organisation up. If we hadn’t had made those decisions, COVID has come and probably, we would have been gone too. I think it’s hard to put an exact label on it, but I think the decisiveness and the need to concurrently build relationships, it’s almost two opposite things coming together. Because on the one hand, you’re trying to build trust, I’m the new guy, I want to lead you through. On the other hand, you’re having to make some decisions that are completely opposite to that. But I feel immensely confident going forward that the hard work that everybody’s done collectively has set this company onto the path that it needs to be. And I’m immensely proud of that.  

But even more, on self-reflection over the last, just before the AGM, thinking about what the year’s been like, and what are the ups and downs. It’s funny, you forget about the downs. You do start focusing on the ups and there has been lots of ups. And I think that’s what builds the fire in your belly to go further. And seeing some amazing acts of kindness and transparency across the organisation and people doing that extra yard over some of the most difficult periods and not just in a professional capacity, but in a personal capacity. I think coming out of this, I said to someone the other day, I feel like whilst our organisation was disparate when we first came, in COVID and the changes have somehow weirdly made us closer despite being apart. And I think we’ve got something very special to build upon that. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
Yeah. The common experience that we’ve all had, but of course it’s not precisely common, the COVID hit different states in different ways, and different countries in different ways. You’re based in Melbourne and have had to deal with an extraordinary set of circumstances through the lockdown. It’s layer upon layer, isn’t it, in terms of dealing with this particular crisis. There’s the context that you’re dealing with, the uncertainty of it all, in the business you’re having to lead people through a very very difficult and challenging period. And they’re all going through the similar ups and downs that we all are as leaders. When you’re looking at the qualities of leadership through a circumstance like that, what have you observed of yourself and perhaps of others that you’ve observed?

Clint Cooper:
I think I found probably the level of strength that I never though I had before. Mental strength, because you are dealing with sitting in a very small room at home with two screaming kids most of the day, and trying to manage the positivity of an organisation of 400 people across six countries from a very small bedroom was challenging. I think it opened my mind to what the actually opportunity was. And I took more pride in trying to connect with people one-on-one, which you can do in the office environment. You can walk around and check on everybody, but every single day throughout COVID, I was pinging people on Slack or text messages and just had a rotating board, if you like, to try and build that personal connection that I am here, and I am thinking, and I genuinely care about your welfare. 

I think that to me has been the most important thing, how important the mental health of our staff are during situations like this, but even more so going forward, it’s such an integral part of work-life balance. I think I’ve certainly found that. I think one of the sayings from early on was that we needed to act with resilience. And I think the resilience shown by everybody in this organisation has been first-class. But I think I probably found myself at a high level of resilience that I even thought I had because you were dealing with multiple issues across multiple timeframes without the counsel of anybody to just talk to. But I had some great colleagues that I can pick up the phone and have a rant every now and then, which was good.

I think the last thing too, we talked a little bit before about that steel, how do you steel yourself or making those big changes? Throughout this process, particularly, a lot of thought has gone into it. Just a different level of thinking, you never ever want people to lose their jobs or their livelihoods or anything like that. The ability to think through a problem or a situation, because nine times out of 10, that first solution is not the right solution. It might be the easiest solution or the fastest solution. Really taking the time to consider. And sometimes, I’m sure some of my executive team would be frustrated in the times that I took to make certain decisions, but I think that extra time gave me the confidence that a decision was right, or what path I ultimately took. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
Yeah, and I know this has been a theme throughout your career, the thing that people really do recognise in you, is your honesty and the candid way in which you approach problems and that you will talk them through. And I love this idea of actually seeing the problem right through to the end, which is something that I’ve absolutely observed in you. In thinking about the most recent experience, how has that changed your philosophy on leadership, if at all?

Clint Cooper:
I think it’s a really good question, Gab. I think, probably what it’s confirmed is leadership, it’s not just a steady state. It’s got to continue to evolve and evolve to the situation or the mandate or whatever is occurring in the organisation, but I think as a people we’ve become more empathetic and that’s not just in our organisation but everywhere. I think there’s this certain level of trust and transparency that probably wasn’t there in the past. People would work from home. Yeah, you’re working from home, I’m sure you’re working from home. But now you see what our people and people around the globe have been doing, working from home in some difficult circumstances. You can’t be the old style leader or manager expecting people to be here at 9:00 and finish at 5:00 and they’re in the office and all that sort of stuff. I think that’s the new world of leadership – absolute, implicit trust in your team and leaders to actually deliver what the business and what they need to do. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
In closing, we are sitting here, it’s early December and we’re recording this podcast in Sydney. We’re socially distant, but that must be a big relief for you to be here. How do you think this experience has changed us as a company and the outlook that we have? 

Clint Cooper:
Yeah. I’m just so enthusiastic for what the future holds. I think for this company to survive what it has and the tumultuous time that it has over a very short-spaced period of time, in reality, to get through COVID and to come out the other side. And to be fair, we’ve managed to keep most roles employed throughout that whole journey. Which in many industries, hasn’t occurred. We have this new-found resilience, this new-found comradery that’s only going to hold us in greater stead for the future. I think I’ve said earlier today, in some other dispatches that I feel like now going into this new era, into the new unlisted environment, that we are in control of our destiny and we have a lot more flexibility and capability. You’ve got an executive team and a chairman, particularly who’s just that driven by success that it’s going to benefit the entire organisation. And I truly hope that people who have been here for a long time and ridden the down times are going to share on the upside very soon. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
What are you most looking forward to the new year ahead? 

Clint Cooper:
I think it’s setting a new strategy and new direction. We’ve endorsed a new strategy at board level, but now it’s about being able to go see people face-to- face, to be able to explain that. I found it incredibly difficult to lead from a video screen. I much preferred the one-to-one interaction, but now, coming into the Sydney office and seeing people that have actually got legs, to engage with them. And I think you get that real sense. I could never find the sense of, you couldn’t read people, you can’t read people through a screen. You sit in a room with 30 people around for lunch and you can read them. And I think there is a level of excitement and enthusiasm and opportunity that is ahead for everybody. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
Yeah. It’s that connection, isn’t it? It’s the human-to-human connection, which is what we’re all about at IECL. And it really does make you understand what you take for granted in a very big way. In a lot of respects, although it’s been terribly difficult, it was probably the very best year for learning and for growth. 

Clint Cooper:
Absolutely, yes. I doubt there’s not anyone in the world that hasn’t learned something about themselves or their leadership or management or whatever it is that’s going to improve them into the future. 

Gabrielle Schroder:
On that note, thank you Clint for your time and for sharing your insights and learnings with us. It’s been really fabulous chatting with you today and we wish you all the very best for the year ahead.

Clint Cooper:
Thank you so much.  Thanks for having me. 

Caitlin Manning
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