Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash
You are defined by what you tolerate.
If you are a leader in an organization, I hope these words have weight this week.
This is one of the core tenets of Connected (Culture) Change ™, and this prophecy is coming true for Hockey Canada this month. You can read more here and read the latest at pretty much any national news outlet.
Canadians sure love their hockey. For my friends and readers who are not Canadian, let me tell you that this is a big deal, the center of our identity is falling apart. The very core of Canadian-ness, Hockey, is being eroded to the core. We are facing some very ugly music.
I say this with a bit of humor. Hockey certainly isn’t the centre of the Canadian experience for many, but these happenings are having a broad impact.
The governance review only scratches the surface of what needs to change in the institution that is hockey, the elite levels of professional, amateur and national sport, and the sport that is played in millions of community rinks on weekend mornings and late into school nights across the country. The board was incompetent and ineffective, and failed at their fiduciary duty, yes. But keep in mind the way that non-profit boards work, the people on them may be highly qualified, but they typically do not have long history with the organization. Board tenure is typically capped, and only the CEO of the organization is accountable to the board. The rest of the leadership and management is under the responsibility of the CEO. Boards have no power when it comes to management and leadership decisions. They have jurisdiction only over the fiduciary health of the organization, and their governance responsibilities, they set strategy, hold the CEO accountable, evaluate and compensate the CEO and monitor the progress of the organization against the strategy. Hockey Canada is not the first time I’ve seen catastrophic governance failure, especially around fiscal responsibility. It probably won’t be the last. When this happens, it is typically a lack of experience in both board membership and Leadership (CEO and CFO).
We’ve always known there was a culture problem in the sport. These problems are not new. But nobody wanted to do anything about it before. I’m not going to detail the history, but the criticisms from Pascal St. Onge, Canada’s minister of Sport are on the right track. She criticized Hockey Canada treating sexual assault as an insurance problem rather than a systemic issue that should be confronted.
The key to understanding how this happens is culture. Hockey, as a sport, views bad behaviour of the players (and often coaches) permissible because the team must win. Therefore, the behaviour and actions of the players on the 2018 junior team (and others) is seen as a foregone conclusion. The institution and organization expect that this “type of thing” will happen along the way, accepts that this is “part of the game” and sets up a damages fund, using player fees from community organizations across the country to fund settlements when someone comes forward with a claim. There is a huge advantage to the organization to doing this. It protects players from potential legal actions brought against them, by offering an alternative to victims. After all, you can’t travel out of the country with a winning team if a bunch of players have ongoing criminal investigations against them. Legal settlement is always in the organization’s best interest. Protect the players, protect the game.
The problem at Hockey Canada is accountability – you see it at the board level, you see it at the management and leadership levels, and you see it emerge in lower levels of the sport as soon as competition becomes more important than personal and professional ethics.
The challenge here is that, fixing this goes beyond fixing Hockey Canada, the national institution. The ENTIRE culture needs an overhaul.
An allegory to this is, a criminal doesn’t wake up one morning, rob a bank, and make off with a million dollars spontaneously. This behaviour starts early, it is repeated often, and is reinforced. Maybe it is pinching a few candy bars from the local corner store, and not getting caught. Later, stealing a necklace from a relative and pawning it. Family members write it off as “they are a good person at heart, just going through a rough time”. At school, they are caught with fundraising proceeds from an event at the school. But they are a star football player and suspending them means that the team will certainly lose, so the principal lets them off with a warning. Later, they embezzle small amounts from their employers, a little cash out of the till, cash a few cheques, but they always get away with it. Nobody holds them accountable, and the behaviour is tolerated and reinforced until it escalates to a point that they rob a bank.
Crime does not start with robbing a bank, just as the actions that are the subject of the review do not appear for the first time at the 2018 junior championship.
Hockey Canada is no different from many organizations with toxic cultures. Tolerance of bad behaviour from star performers has caused this. It's so steeped into the culture that it is accepted as a foregone conclusion. A foregone conclusion that the CEO and CFO supported and that the board didn’t even think to challenge.
The lesson learned here, for leaders, is that you are defined by what you tolerate.
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