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The Olympic Delivery Authority’s winning HR formula

Over 40 HR directors and industry experts heard Wendy Cartwright reflect on her role as HR Director of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) at a recent Ceridian networking event. Wendy is a high impact, highly regarded HR leader.

Wendy Cartwright
Wendy Cartwright

The ODA was the organisation responsible for developing and building the new venues and infrastructure for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Wendy led the ODA’s HR function from organisational start-up in April 2006 to March 2013, and prior to that held senior HR roles in both the private and public sector. Wendy has a Masters degree in Employment Strategy and is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD. She was ranked #4 in HR Magazine’s Most Influential HR Practitioners list 2012 and was named HRD of the Year in the 2013 HR Distinction Awards.

Here is our take on the key challenges Wendy and the ODA team faced and the main reasons for their success.

Building infrastructure is tough

When London was announced as the selected location for the 2012 Games in 2005, everyone was surprised as so many people expected it to go to Paris.

At the time, there were well known infrastructure projects that were over budget and delivered late so many people were sceptical about the capability to deliver.

So the challenge was to get up and running as soon as possible. The ODA had to start from scratch with no employees and deliver to an un-moveable end date. The challenge was to create a public sector organisation, funded by £7bn focused on regeneration and 20 plus projects. In 2006, the Olympic park did not exist.

An unusual people strategy

From the very start, Wendy and her team created a people strategy that was unlike many others; as from an HR perspective, the end goal would result in exiting everyone from the business. Wendy wanted people to leave with as positive outlook as when they joined.

It’s all about the delivery

When Wendy presented the strategy to her stakeholders, she was told “the strategy is commendable but the most important thing is delivery”. So Wendy’s team were at the heart of delivery and had to execute their strategy to support the ultimate goal.

The venues had to be operable as well as looking good. They had to support regeneration, to help make the London 2012 dream of building a legacy a reality.

The key was to keep the resilience going. Making sure people were able to perform at their best in a highly pressurised environment was crucial. The ODA worked with a partner organisation to create an “Athletes at Work” campaign. It was all about linking sport performance to staff performance, so they learned from athletes on such areas as nutrition, the importance of rest and general health and wellbeing.

The winning formula

Wendy explained that the high calibre of leadership was a key reason for success. They were on top of their game and a delight to work with.

The ODA themselves only employed 250 people but were responsible for 55,000 in the supply chain, so keeping employees engaged they did not directly employ was a key achievement. This involved working across organisational boundaries and ensuring the ODA’s values and priorities were cascaded through the supply chain.

There is an Olympic tradition of each host city having pin badges. London 2012 was no exception and the ODA used them to good effect as part of a reward and recognition scheme e.g. when a value was completed, staff working on the project were given a badge. It was a great success and workers wore their pin badges with pride. Not only did they wear them at work, they wore them in private; people were motivated by success.

The ODA ended up delivering ahead of time, a major achievement for such a large scale project.

So what can we learn from the ODA success that can be implemented into your people strategy?

  • The recognition programme of giving pin badges was a major success. This low cost visible recognition created a culture of achievement, no matter what role people did. For the people that wore them, it was a constant reminder of success. What is your emblem? How could you implement a similar low cost scheme that will motivate your employees?
  • As Wendy explained, “it was a marathon not a sprint”, so performance was key, hence the reason for implementing the “Athletes at Work” programme. How do you prepare your employees for a marathon so you get consistent high performance from them? What would the impact of improving health and wellbeing have on company performance? Can you benchmark how productivity can be improved and how this can improve your revenue or increase customer satisfaction?
  • Are you responsible for people but do not directly employ them? How key are they to your business success and how can you improve their performance to help meet your business goals?
  • How do you balance creating strategy and delivery? What do you spend most of your time worrying about?
  • 8th November 2013
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