Liz Nicholl OBE, CEO UK Sport Share PDF Print E-mail
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LizNicholl_1Liz Nicholl OBE is the Chief Executive of UK Sport. Having joined UK Sport in 1999, generic Liz has played a pioneering role in the development of the elite sport system in the UK. For ten years Liz led the work of UK Sport’s Performance Directorate, through the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Olympic and Paralympic cycles, as the Director of Elite Sport.

Liz became the Chief Operating Officer in 2009 and was then appointed to the CEO role in September 2010. As CEO, Liz’s leadership responsibilities focus on accountability for the National Lottery and Exchequer investment of around £125m per annum which supports UK Sport’s three key objectives: World Class Success, Major Event bidding and hosting, and International Relations and Development.

As a former international Netball player, and Chief Executive of England Netball for 16 years, including a period as Championship Director of a World Netball Championship, Liz has experience in all three areas and a track record of steering an organisation through successful change.

by Steve Moorhouse

What are the main roles of UK sport and your main duties as chief executive?

UK Sport is a government agency. We have a responsibility to focus on delivering Olympic and Paralympic success and on bringing major world and European championships to the nation through our gold event series, targeting up to 70 major championships between now and 2019. Really we want to provide the stage to inspire the nation, showcase our talent and to gain the performance advantage of playing in front of a home crowd.

We also have an international influence aspect of our work, to make sure the UK is more influential in things that matter, that shape international sport and support the development of a sporting system.

We are a national lottery distributor which is critical. About 70% of our income comes from the National Lottery and 30% from the exchequer. We have an income of around £125m a year and approximately £100m of that goes back into the development of the sporting system.

Everyone would like more funding but is the £125m figure you mentioned appropriate?

We always have to manage with what we have got and it is our role to make the right decisions about the right funding going to the right athletes. Of course the more successful we are, the more costly it could be. We can all support the promotion of the National Lottery which is a significant part of our income and that is a priority for us. At the same time we have to maintain the confidence of government in terms of the exchequer investment in what have been tough economic times. We also have to encourage the sports to reduce their dependencies and increase their self-sufficiency. That can be through commercial activity and partnerships, or through their activities with their members to generate income that way.

You became CEO in 2010. What was the biggest challenge for you back then, bearing in mind the Olympics were just around the corner?

I had been Director of Performance at UK Sport for 10 years and had been with the organisation since Sydney 2000. I was also the Chief Operating Officer and to then move into the CEO role was a great privilege for me, to lead the organisation through a very high profile home Games, with high expectations and aspirations to do better than Beijing. The challenge was maintaining the focus on the journey that had started and been ongoing since the National Lottery came on board in the late 1990s. Of course in 2005 there was this great opportunity and injection to showcase elite talent at a home Games.

London 2012 is widely praised. Are you happy with the outcome of the Games?

It was amazing. We knew it was possible to get 65 Olympic medals and 120 Paralympic medals. As always the work that is done in the system is to make that possibility into a probability. We have great people in the system and the fantastic thing about that success was that it has encouraged them to stay on to Rio 2016. People now view the UK system as successful, aspirational and still driving on. The great thing was that it bought people together like never before. In previous Games, sports would feel like they were competing for funding, but since London they have realised that success across the board is important to everybody.

Speaking of development and lessons learned, Sochi 2014 is the next big event.  How do you take what you have learned from London 2012 into the next Winter Olympics?

Our approach to supporting our winter athletes is exactly the same as supporting our summer athletes. As long as you know what world class looks like it is a matter of surrounding the athletes with the very best support for them to train and compete wherever they have to. We also help every sport, summer or winter, review where they are. We encourage them to work with us to identify where they need help and then we have a number of ways in the system to target that support.

You have talked in the news about having more women in the boardroom. Tell us about the plans you want implemented regarding this.

Fundamentally, I and UK Sport believe that diverse and balanced boards bring a broader perspective to discussions and decisions and therefore better decisions are made. We think that it is better for business. We have been challenging sports, working with them and we have set out an expectation that boards include at least 25% women or the underrepresented gender by 2017. It is not just about women on the board though, it is about having independence. Traditionally, sports have elected from within their membership to their boards. The other part of this in terms of balance therefore is a balance of sporting expertise and business expertise. Where we are seeing an influx of women now, there is a link between the requirements of sports having non-executive directors as well as directors on their boards who are appointed from within. That actually created the opportunity of open recruitment of very good people. This is about balanced boards and better boards.

A report showed that more than half of our national bodies are behind the aim. Are you confident they will get there in time?

Yes I am. Things are changing. In sport governance things do not change quickly which is why we set out the 2017 target. We think that target is very realistic. The sports have to initially change their constitution to enable them to appoint board members rather than elect from their membership. Cycling had an AGM last weekend that got that agreement through and now they can press on with the recruitment stage. I am confident the sports will get there by 2017.

Is a quarter enough or is this just a starting point?

It is a good starting point but I would hope that in the period from now up until 2017 we will be able to create a momentum for change and a change in culture. That will mean the sports do not need an external stimulus and target and imposed numbers. I think we will see a lot of sports go above the 25%.

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