What it takes to pull off the Olympics

What’s it like to organize and lead an event that’s been called “the biggest peacetime project” in the world? Just days before the 2012 Summer Olympics are set to begin, we asked John Furlong, the CEO of the 2010 Vancouver Organizing Committee, what London’s organizers are facing. The London Organizing Committee has come under scrutiny for security staffing levels, not to mention the normal pressures of leading a force of roughly 6,000 staff and 70,000 volunteers.

Furlong and his own army of 50,000 volunteers and 3,500 full- and part-time staffers had their share of obstacles, from a global financial crisis that required shaving millions off the nearly $2 billion cost to a last-minute lack of snow at a key venue. And of course, there was the tragic death of luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili the very morning of the opening ceremonies.

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.

You spend years building your team, and you’re trying to build character. You’re trying to build resilience. You’re trying to give people the tools and the strength and the inspiration to be able to face up to anything. But you don’t know what “anything” is.

You write in your book, Patriot Hearts, that there was a lot of debate about you becoming the CEO of the games after you helped Vancouver win the bid. Amid that debate, you actually tried to resign before winning the job. What lessons do you draw from the way that played out?

I believed in [the Vancouver games] enough to walk away from it. If others thought it would have been better in the hands of someone else, it would have been okay by me. Would I be disappointed to leave? Sure. But not at the expense of a bad decision about who should lead the games. Truthfully, I don’t think it’s possible to sustain yourself in a project like this unless you have a profound belief in what it’s trying to do. The fact of the matter is this project just owns you. So I tried to be the example of the guy who could sustain himself through that, who could deal with the adversity, who could deal with the things that would come along.

You can end up getting yourself engaged in these political shenanigans that happen in big projects like this, and I wanted it to be clear that the project was bigger than all of us. So I thought [being clear I would walk away for the good of the event] would say something.

One of the chapter titles in your book is “Calls for My Head.” What did you learn from all the pressures of people questioning your ability to run this organization?

The one thing [all of us who have organized an Olympics] have in common is that every one of us has faced that. The project lives and breathes on the front page, and it’s not easy to overcome that. What I tried very much to do is at all times be cognizant of the fact that our relationship was with the public. What I was hoping for was that the public would look at us and think we were doing our best. This is a complicated project. This is the biggest project in the world in peacetime. It’s not easy to do, and every single time it’s staged it has challenges.

What specifically did you do beyond just talking about the Vancouver games being “Canada’s games” to help get the public on your side?

It was a bit much to expect that people thousands of miles from Vancouver would support the games if we didn’t show up in other regions of the country. We set it up to have real relationships with Canadian companies all over Canada. We had a partnership with every Canadian province and territory. We took the torch relay to within one hour of the front door of every home in Canada. We tried to let every Canadian have a genuine Olympic experience so they could feel ownership.

I’m interested in what kind of mechanism the International Olympic Committee has for passing down lessons from the games. How in touch are you with the London organizers?

After every Olympics there is a knowledge debrief, a knowledge transfer process. You prepare a program that lasts for about a week to 10 days, and you go to the host country and spend as much time as you can giving them the clear, unfiltered [version of] this is how it happened, this is what we would have done differently, these are the mistakes we made, these are the things we were very proud of. It’s one thing the IOC does very well. It causes organizing committees to become very serious about gathering data and knowledge. So London had a very close relationship with Vancouver for years. We had people from London on our team; they learned as much as they possibly could from us.

What about informal consulting, leader to leader?

I have a direct relationship with Sebastian Coe and Paul Deighton [the leaders of London’s organizing committee]. We’re friends. We don’t talk as much today, but we have. It’s really for them to be able to pick up the phone, and say, “We’re dealing with a certain thing. How did you manage this?”

What have you told them?

When you get the games—when they make the announcement—there’s a big celebration. There’s also a tendency to kind of sit back a bit. And one of the things we learned was every day lost at the beginning is a huge problem at the end. We made the very strong recommendation that they be up and running immediately and that they start straight into infrastructure programs and put their organization together right away. Especially in a complex city, you need to take real advantage of the time you have.

The other thing I think is really important is that no organizing committee is an island. We found out pretty quickly that the only way to deliver the games is to have a lot of friends. Corporations, governments, agencies—unite as many entities as possible that can help you deliver the projects. In our case, we had hundreds of partners. It takes a while for the organizing committee to realize there’s room on the stage for everyone, that this is a process that requires collaboration across the country. That’s an area we really have emphasized, to let everyone in who can help you.

If you were to look back, what would you do differently?

The whole exercise is a learning one because you don’t have an example that’s recent from your own country to draw on. Don’t underestimate how challenging it’s going to be, and tell the public that. I would have started that earlier. I would have said in the bid phase, “This is going to take everything we have to give. We’re going to need every citizen and every community and every politician and every leader to play a role in this.” I think you want to start really being grounded in the scope, and not play it down.

When you watch the London games, what’s the one thing you’ll be excited to watch for that only a fellow organizer could appreciate?

The predictions about London—with respect to transportation and security, and all of these other logistical things that they’ve been second-guessed on for the last two years—I think they will all pass, and the London Organizing Committee will score an A on their report card. I will be watching that. The measure of a great organizing committee is their ability to take virtually uncontrollable things and bring them under control.

Are you going to London? Where are you going to be watching the opening ceremonies?

In my living room. I have a professional soccer team I have to look after. I will be watching and cheering.

More from On Leadership:

Photos | Motivation from the playing field

Remembering Sally Ride’s leadership

Stephen Covey’s seven habits, personified

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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