On Leadership’s Jena McGregor asked Furlong, now the executive chair of the Vancouver Whitecaps Football Club, what he learned about leading complex organizations, how much advice he’s given leaders of London’s games and where he’ll be watching the opening ceremonies Friday night. An edited version of their conversation follows.
We’re just days from the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in London. Give me a sense of what Sebastian Coe and Paul Deighton, the chairman and CEO of the London Organizing Committee, are thinking right now.
I can say for sure that they are making 300, 400, 500 decisions a day about things that need to be done to move the organization to the starting line. You get seven years to organize the games, and because the project is so large, it’s almost beyond the capacity of a person to paint a picture of it. As you get into the final year, your plans will have included building the structures, developing all the infrastructure, putting systems in place, testing events and venues, testing transport, testing security, testing scoring, training volunteers. You’ve spent years preparing and trying to bulletproof your plan so that when the world arrives you are able to basically deal with any eventuality.
But what about the final week? What problems are the organizers solving on a day-to-day basis?
Because there are so many moving parts, you tend to be flooded with last-minute requests—questions and things people want that you didn’t anticipate. You have heads of state coming. Every single [one of those people] represents a potential issue or challenge for the organizing committee. So you end up dealing with a lot of minutiae.
What’s keeping them up at night? What kept you up at night those final days?
We got hit with what probably is the single greatest challenge for an organizing committee, which is the weather. We had spent years planning for the snow events, analyzing snow conditions and what we would have to do if we had too much or too little. Then we woke up on the 1st of January and there was no snow on Cypress Mountain [which held the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events].
The weather was also very warm in Vancouver. So the conditions were not good—you couldn’t even make snow up there. It required what I would say was one of the most significant human efforts in winter Olympic history, where we had to mobilize an army of volunteers to find a solution, identifying a site where we could harvest enough snow, and then moving it to Cypress. We then had the physical challenge of placing that snow in a way that it would survive the Olympics. My biggest concern was that it would be beyond people’s physical capacity to sustain this effort.