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Alex Baumann - Culture, Leadership & People

Alex Baumann Canadian Olympic Swimmer

Alex Baumann joins us today. He is currently the chief strategist at Swimming Australia; Before he rose through the ranks to lead countries to pursue excellence and Olympic gold, he was a multiple world record holder and, winner of multiple international medals. His crowning achievement as an athlete was being a double gold medalist in record-breaking world performances at the LA Olympics in 1984. Alex continues to be a leader and innovator in the world of sports management; he has played critical roles in the high-performance programs of Canada, Australia & New Zealand. In Canada, we recognize him as a legend to most who remember the gold medal from the 1984 LA Olympics and his legacy which continues to grow; we're fortunate and excited to have been able to speak with him on the show today.

The text that follows is an excerpt from our hour long conversation.  The full video interview can be found on our youtube channel and by the link here. The full audio can be found by vis the Spotify link below

To set the stage for Alex and the way you dealt with adversity, your family was in New Zealand when you learned about trouble back home, and at that point, a decision was made to go to Canada; you were very young. When did that happen? What do you remember about arriving in Canada and that time in general?

It was quite interesting from a historical perspective, I was born in Prague, and we moved to New Zealand in 1967; my father taught at Canterbury University in Christ Church. When when the tanks rolled in 1968, we decided not to go back. My father got a position at Laurentian University in Sudbury teaching sociology. I do remember quite a bit. I was only three at the time and five when we moved over to Canada. I arrived in December, I remember the plane landing in Sudbury with snow everywhere. That was my first introduction to Sudbury and my first Canadian winter.

I want to touch briefly on Jeno(Dr Jeno Tihanyi) I was hoping that you could share a little bit about your time with him; he was your coach for all your career, except for the short time you were at Indiana. You credit him with being a father. What impact did you have on your career and who you are today?

Alex Baumann & Dr Jeno Tihanyi

Incredible impact. I also have to say that I saw him more than I saw my father from the age of nine until about 23, when I retired, we were in the pool five hours a day, and he helped me through a lot of adversity. My brother died in 1980, I had a severe shoulder injury in 1981, my father passed away a year before the LA Olympics, those were the times that he was really there for me. He was a child development professor and coached in his spare time, he was very passionate about coaching. And my brother joined the club first; He was eight years older than me. I just wanted to try swimming; I never liked to work out, I just like to fool around. Within about five or six months, I started to be coached by Jeno, and that relationship only grew; ultimately, I credit him for the performances that I had during my career, particularly the LA games in 1984.

I recently interviewed with Tom Ponting; he recalls a moment where you and Dr. Tihanyi are sitting down, and he scribbles down four splits to break the world record, slides them across the table to you. You look at them, look at him and say, "yes, I can do that." 

He knew you very well and knew how to motivate. To say you've impacted the swimming and sporting world wouldn't do it justice; It's been so much more than that.


How do those lessons come out today in what you do?

I think I took so many lessons from Jeno; I think both of us coming from the former Eastern block were probably one of the keys; we had similar philosophies.  

He would work very hard. I don't think there are too many coaches now that are professors and coach full-time; it's challenging to do. He made some sacrifices with his family; he was up at five o'clock and probably wouldn't get home till about 7:30, he worked long days. 

He was passionate about swimming and wanted to succeed.

What you talked about in terms of how do you break down the race into smaller pieces and make it look easier; when I took a look at the splits that he would often put in front of me, they would add up to a world record, but I knew that I could do those splits. To set short-term goals, ambitious goals, reach those goals and then move on to a bigger goal, those kinds of things built my foundation. That's what I did, from the age of nine or ten; at that time, I didn't think that I could ever be an Olympic swimmer or break a world record, and I didn't until I was very close to doing it. He was a hard taskmaster; there's no doubt about that; I wouldn't say he was overly authoritarian, he certainly valued the athlete's well-being as well, but he was tough.


He got the best out of you. I think that's certainly what I learned from him; I think the aspiration to win certainly came from him and the ambition to be the best that you can be and ultimately to work hard to achieve that.

I want to shift over to the Olympics in LA. Those Olympics, obviously for Canada, we're quite an Olympics. Whether it was figuratively or literally, you led Canada into those Olympics as the flag bearer and then got the first gold medal.


What do you remember from the Olympics in '84, and what do you remember from that team?

Alex Baumann at the 1984 LA Olympics

Yeah. Incredible team. Everybody says that swimming's an individual sport, but it's not. It's a team sport as well. You have numerous relays. Now you have seven relies on the agenda for the Olympic games. In my role now, the relays are critical; our aspiration is for athletes to win medals. But also for medalists to come back because ultimately, they inspire the nation and are our role models. LA was quite interesting for me. We had an outstanding team, with swimmers like Victor Davis, Anne Ottenbright, Mike West, Cam Henning, Sandy Goss, and many other great athletes and swimmers. It was great for us in terms of the number of medals, understanding that the Eastern block boycotted the games. It was important to put up some good times, but winning was number one for me; the secondary goal was to break the world record. I remember walking into the LA Coliseum, with 90,000 people cheering; it was an incredible experience, but it was also quite the pressure cooker. I was expected to win, and all I could do was meet expectations; I already had both world records going into LA.  

When I was asked to carry the flag for the opening ceremonies, it was more pressure; I realize now more than anything that I put the pressure on myself. What I learned from my Olympic experience was that there are some things you can control, some things you can influence, and other things that you cannot control or influence, so you should concentrate on those things that you can control. Therefore, I couldn't worry about what the nation felt, what my parents felt, or others' feelings. I could only worry about what I could do. 


I remember going into that first heat of the morning, and I swam; I was about five seconds off my best time, but it was the Olympic record, I qualified first, but the expectations were significant. 

I went into the warm-up pool before the final felt terrible; my splits were about a second and a half off per 50, which is quite significant. At that point, I started getting doubts in my head, "I've trained ten years or 11 years, and I'm going to get a silver medal, not a gold medal;" this is where the coach comes in and gives you that confidence. I did one thing that I never did before: I got rubbed down before my race and went back in the pool one more time. I felt better before the 400 IM; I was fortunate to win and break the world record in the end. I remember the last five meters of that race. It was more relief than being ecstatic about winning. It was a relief that it's over, and it took a while to sink in.

I wondered if you could share your thoughts on a guy like Victor. Did you know him well?

Victor and I were very good friends. We pushed each other, I still remember training camps that we would have, and we would push each other hard, he swam the individual medley, and I swam the 200 breast; we complemented each other well; we both had that drive to succeed. In effect, it was a bit of a competition, even though we swam at different events. He was a dear friend and the big loss to the Canadian swimming system in 1989.

swimmer Victor Davis

A lot of that comes from your Great tribute. 

I want to talk about leadership. Your influence as a sports director has been far-reaching for quite some time.

How do you develop a culture that will foster performance and encourage innovation?

And how can that culture trickle down to clubs, swimmers, and coaches that feed the athletes up the performance ladder? 

Good question. Let me tackle the first one, I believe very strongly in having a culture, a good culture, and I would always put the word performance in front of that. So it's a performance culture. In the first instance, you need to have a good strategy for what you want to do. The first step is to articulate the strategy, and it should be a relatively simple strategy. Our vision for Swimming Australia and the performance side is, "To win when it matters to inspire a nation" it is quite simple. Sometimes we shy away from actually using that word to win, but our aspiration should be to win. We won't always do it, but we want to be the best in the world, and ultimately then that brings out an inspirational component in it as well. I still remember being CEO of Queensland's Swimming just before the Sydney games in 2000. The Australian team's performances in Sydney increased participation in Queensland by about 15% the next year.


So there is that inspirational component. Keep the strategy simple. When I came on board with Swimming Australia, we had a 72-page strategic document. Nobody's going to remember that. If you can't fit it on one page and have another more detailed one that is 8-10 pages maximum, then you struggle for people to really get on board, because there as to be ownership by athletes and coaches. as well. Once you have the strategy, you really have to concentrate on what culture you actually want? What is that performance culture? Make sure it revolves around values and behaviors.


Our values at Swimming Australia are :

  • courage
  • unity
  • excellence

Courage that we have to be ambitious with what we have to do. We want to be innovative. We want to take risks. We have to take risks in high-performance. Otherwise, you're not going to get the results. They are calculated risks, and we're dealing with government funds.


Unity is about collaborating with purpose. I don't believe you just collaborate for the sake of collaboration, but it has to, has to be purposeful. 


Excellence is trying to be the best in the world. We want to be the best in the world.


Once you have your values, then the behaviors must align with those values. In an organization, you need to have those open and honest conversations that can challenge you to reach a higher level, but you can only do that if you have trust in the relationships and you have a strong strategy, then you can call out behaviors that are below the line or recognize behaviors that are above the line. It takes time to build; I believe it has to grow organically; it's not just top-down, it's bottom-up as well, but the behaviors are the key. When an organization is looking at putting a list of behaviors together, you don't want to have too many behaviors; people won't remember them. It's important to have these things in place so that we can have those open and honest conversations; often, they're called critical conversations, where you can put everything on the table. I think we've veered away from that in this politically correct world. We're scared of offending people; there's a way to have these conversations; it takes a skill set to challenge people.


Culture is much stronger than strategy. It is the key enabler of strategy. It takes time to develop; you don't do it just in one workshop. You have to work on it daily, but if you get that culture right and there's alignment between athletes, coaches, and staff, you know, you can achieve some, some great things.


Our philosophy being 

  • performance-driven
  • coach-led 
  • athlete-focused

In club swimming, coaches need to lead; that doesn't mean that they make all the decisions, but they're the ones that greatly impact their athletes. Therefore, they need to drive the culture; it can come from the top in terms of what you're trying to achieve, but ultimately the coaches have that direct relationship with their athletes and can understand what needs to be done. You have to be ambitious. You have to instill confidence in athletes for them to achieve. You have to be technically correct as well, then that leads to driving an authentic performance culture. 

That's interesting. To summarize, if we put the two pieces together, it's similar to an ecosystem where you:

-> Inspire a nation 

-> That inspires kids to come into the program 

-> Then your trickle-down effect in empowering coaches brings those kids back up through the program. 


So it's a really interesting way of looking at things.


The 72-page document I found that interesting. Conventional wisdom suggests that if a document is longer, it's better. If there's more in there, it's better. In the end, you end up pulling it apart, getting rid of the fluff to root down to the core of what exactly it is. 

 Do you have some thoughts on why organizations tend to believe that more is better? And what did you leave in that document that is the foundation of what you do now? 


I'm not exactly sure why; often when you look at the government, things become bureaucratic; sometimes, people try and put way too much detail in a strategic document.


Ultimately even an operational plan should be relatively simple, and that's your action plan for 12 months, and you revisit on an ongoing basis. In the end, you do have to keep it simple because if you have a 72-page document, people don't know what your focus is. You have to have clarity in your document.


You can have an eight or 10-page strategic plan, but you should be able to put it on one page. On that one page you need to have your vision. You need to have your mission. You need to have your philosophy, which, I talked about a little bit in terms of performance-driven, coach-led athlete focused through integrated sport.


You also need to have strategic drivers that will push your strategy or the ecosystem, as you mentioned. The key strategic driver for me is people. If you hire the right people, then I think you have a better chance of executing and implementing a strategy and getting what you need out of, you know, performances.


Obviously, you have some goals as well. Our goal is to be consistently number two in the world, on the Olympic side, number four on the Paralympic side; we're not aiming for number one yet because the USA is very strong at this point. But at some point in time, you'd like to say; we want to be the best in the world. We don't put a medal target in the strategy itself; that sits to the side because this is a long longer-term document. Our current document runs up until 2028 at this point.


The strategic drivers are the next step, innovation intelligence are some of the other strategic drivers, but people are our number one driver, but they can't conflict with the strategy, the strategy has to be key, and people need to align to that. 


And then we have our pillars underneath, so we have:

  1. Coaching 
  2. High-performance program leadership. 
  3. The daily performance and competition environments 
  4. World-leading performance 
  5. Coach and athlete development, which is about sustainability
  6. Innovation 


We have pillars within the strategy and It's relatively simple so people understand what we need to do and it's clear. 


Another point to note with strategy is that you need to bring people on the journey; when you are formulating a strategy, you need to get input from key stakeholders to ensure that they believe in the strategy. It's very easy to write a strategy, but if you really want to execute and implement it, I think you need others because you can't do everything yourself.


Canada's very similar to Australia. We have States we work in a federal model; Canada has provinces, and sometimes it's difficult to get that alignment. That's why you need a clear strategy to provide that leadership. 

I want to go back to people and empowerment & compliance versus innovation. When you're in a government setting, often you can be restricted by rationale like "this is how we do things, and this is how we've always done it." I know that you're, as you mentioned here, you're a big proponent of people.


What weight do you put on empowering people and then trusting those people to go then and innovate and find new ways, better ways of doing things?

I think that the world has shifted; let me answer in two parts, with staff, I think it's very relevant for athletes and coaches as well you need to empower them, but it has to be based on competence. That is why you have to make sure you have the right people in place to delegate the authority so they can be innovative. Sometimes there's a belief that accountability equals compliances, that that's not the case. There has to be accountability for performance; you have key performance indicators for people within their performance plans; you get into trouble when compliance impedes making decisions. You often find that in bureaucracies or government departments, although, you know, I worked in New Zealand and a government agency responsible for our performance sport.


In high-performance, as you know, you have to have urgency. There has to be urgency in being able to make decisions. You still need to make decisions based on evidence; you don't necessarily need a hundred percent of the evidence to make a decision. You may need only 80%; to make that decision because, you know, if you have to get a hundred percent, the timeframe to get a hundred percent is blown out and you can't make decisions in a timely, timely manner. So you have to hire the right people in the first instance, and then you have to let them get on with it. With coaches and athletes, it's the same thing. You have to give coaches or at least delegate or empower them to have those performance discussions with their athletes. In addition, I think now you have to empower the athlete. You have to put the responsibility back on the athlete for their performance; that sometimes takes a bit of skill. The athletes have to want it; we can't be authoritarian or autocratic, I think in this day and age, we've shifted to empowerment to ensure they take responsibility for themselves; if they can't, then I think there's, there's a problem. 

It is about people. It is about empowerment, but it is based on competence; you can't empower or delegate if you don't feel confident that a person can complete the job. I understand that coaches have to treat athletes differently, given the environment that we're in currently, but you still have to have those performance discussions otherwise, you're not going to reach the goals that the athletes want. 

When you talk about innovation, it goes & runs hand in hand with pushing boundaries, finding different ways to do things, and challenging norms. Often when you get into situations like that, if you don't have the right people, or maybe even if you do have the right people; You run the risk of developing a blame culture. As a leader, how do you avoid that? And if you find yourself entering into a situation where that exists, how do you pull an organization out of that?

It's an excellent point. I noticed that coming back to Australia after 12 years away; there was an incredible blame culture across the board, it was not just in sport. It's easier to blame someone else rather than take responsibility, but I think that the way you get around it is to ensure that the relationships in an organization are strong; there has to be engagement. I think something COVID has enabled us to do is communicate better. We're engaging much better. Now it's still maybe on Microsoft teams or through video or something like that, but we're engaging with the athletes, coaches and staff better. 


If you have great relationships and can have those discussions, always push to be solution-focused and ensure that people have input into what you're trying to do, then I think that the blame culture starts to dissipate. There is a matter of, holding people accountable, making sure that they're responsible for their actions, and not trying to blame; that's below-the-line behavior; you need to take responsibility. For example, if I do something wrong or someone else does something, we need to accept that and move on. We shouldn't be afraid of letting people fail, as long as they learn from what happened. In the end we do have to take risks and we will make mistakes, but that's all right. I think as long as you can learn from it, then move on. 


A follow-up question, an organization with a toxic leader, an instance where the leader was developing that blame culture, what do you do?

Well, I mean, it's that's a difficult one; you can have a fantastic strategy written down on paper, but if you can't execute the strategy or you have a leader that that is a micromanager, can't delegate appropriately; then you start to create a toxic culture where there's not enough trust, and there are not enough open and honest conversations.


If that leader doesn't provide a safe environment to have those conversations, that's a problem it is very difficult for people to speak up if you have a toxic leader. It's not easily fixed. 

You deal with a lot of big personalities and believe that the right type of tension is a good thing. Can you speak a little bit about that? 

Oh, I think there has to be tension; otherwise you're not going to perform. If you have too much tension, then that's where it caused the issue. I'll always remember one of the Super Rugby coaches of the Hurricanes in New Zealand, who had a big poster of a Marlin in the dressing room; the analogy was when fishing for Marlin. If your line's too tight, you're going to lose the fish. Conversely, if the line's too loose, then you're going to lose the fish as well. So there needs to be tension in relationships. I think then we get the best out of each other.


But as I said, it's the appropriate tension that you put on. I mean, I'm a pretty hard task. I'm fairly demanding, I do think that you need to reward staff and recognize staff what they do, and then you try to create the right environment and workplace without compromising on what you're trying to do.


Ultimately for us, it's performance. We have a saying that we like it is rowing, saying that everything we do should be based on whether we can make the boat go faster. If it doesn't, well, why are we actually doing it? So there'll be some things that are compliance-based as, as you mentioned before, that we actually have to do that will actually increase performance, but we should always take a look at what we are doing and if it will, make the boat go faster and if not, don't do it.


The other thing is that within a strategy and why it's important to have a clear strategy; if other things get put on the table, but it's not in the strategy, you don't do it. You have a clear path and you stick to the strategy; otherwise, you try to do too much. I always think back to Jim Collins who wrote "Good To Great" and came up with the concept of The Five Stages Of Decay; where an organization goes through significant growth in stages one, two, and three, but you know, they get arrogant & complacent; they think they know it all and they start reaching for anything.


It's not different for high-performance. You know, there, there's no silver bullet in our performance, I often see organizations really put so much emphasis on innovation; by innovation, I'm talking about technology & equipment, I'm not talking about general innovation, rather than getting the basics right. Having the right coaches, having the right facilities, having the right performance, support physiology & biomechanics. You can't get complacent and that's why there has to be that tension. 

Interesting you mentioned Jim Collins, the idea of tension, and how you just described it. Do you think there are parallels and how that would operate in the business world? 

Absolutely as you know, the business world is on the bottom line all the time; there's tension all the time. In high-performance sport, accountabilities are measured against your goals in competing at the Olympics or Paralympics, and like it or not, it does revolve around medals. We won't shy away from that. But you know, I think there are good lessons that can go both ways from high performance to business; in the business world, as you know, it's pretty ruthless.

We often see sport and society at different ends of the spectrum on perspective & on concepts like equal versus fair. It can be challenging for some to understand as equal is often confused with fair outside of high-performance sport. We struggle with this at institutional levels in schools, businesses & customer service within the sport at club levels, often through PSOs NSOs.


How do we best understand the difference between equal and fair, and how do we operate that way? 

And a follow-up, do we need to?


No. I mean, it depends on what level. I think you're; you're talking about. We have a motto that, you know, we'll be fair, but not equal. There's no egalitarianism in high-performance sport; this is where we're going against the grain of society. Often, the public will ask why is high-performance sport important & why winning is important? And for me, it's the aspiration to win. We just have to be careful; It's not winning at all costs; it's about the aspiration to win and how you win, which is important. With club swimming, you can talk about goal setting and moving from one goal to another goal; winning isn't the emphasis. When you get taught performance, when you get to a level of being at the Olympics or world championships, the objective is to do your best and win; we won't always win, but the aspiration has to be there. 


I will always remember Don Talbot, who coached in Canada, and was on the coaching team for 1984 Olympics. He passed away recently, but I still remember him coming back to Australia in 1990 and saying, we want to be number one in the world. Nobody believed him at that time. You know, the US was so strong and, other countries that were really strong as well. But that was the aspiration to win, he wanted Australia to be the number one in the world. At the 92 Olympics in Barcelona, Australia had some good swimming results; in 96 again positive results. In 2000, Sydney, saw some great results with swimmers. Then finally, in 2001, the world championships in Fukuoka, Jp; Australia beat the USA on the gold medal count. People will have to believe that it's possible. It's an ambitious goal. It may be a big, hairy, audacious goal, but as Michelangelo said, "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."


So I do think you have to be ambitious and we are going against the grain of society, but you know, that's what high performance is. 

Thank you for bringing up Don Talbot & his book. Before and after Fukuoka, through to 2008 Australian swimming was quite exceptional. How much of that do you attribute to him? 

A large part. He was the driver, but he got the coaches on onboard and we had some great coaches and then obviously some great swimmers and some great talent with, within Australia, but it needed someone to unite and have that vision to be number one in the world.


When he first got here, he had his critics, but when Australia started performing quite well, it took 11 years. Nobody believed that it was possible to be number one, although the results showed that it was much more possible than in 1990.


He needed to unite the coaches to ensure that they're aligned with that as well. 

I want to ask about how you connect the dots; ultimately at the end of the day, as a high-performance director like you oversee a very small percentage of the actual swimming population and are accountable for quite a bit.


But what feeds that is a club system, and I school system. Over the last 20 years, a concept like long-term athlete development has been heavily popularized. In Australia, how much of that is used is that used every day? Is that leaned upon heavily? Is that something that is a common tool or reference material used? 

We don't call it long-term athlete development here. We have a very strong pathway program. Part of it is that we don't necessarily base our chronological age; it's maturity as well.


We're doing many studies that have come back with some real, tangible benefits in looking where your talent comes from. The challenge, I think in Canada when I was there with LTAD - you have these nice glossy brochures, but you need to have people to implement, which wasn't planned for. That needs to be coaches. We've developed a coaching development strategy for high performance. Ultimately it's the coaches that deliver the, skills; we ensure we can give them enough evidence in terms of what the talent is, how you should train, ect..


It is a very strong pathway project; the Australian government, through the AIS has given us additional resources to put in into the pathway; if you're going to be a world-leading organization it's not about the next performance of the games. It's the repeatable result that you can get, from one games to another and then having sustainability and that, that then separates you from other organizations.


I want to end off on your take on a concept, an idea born a few years ago, for international swimming this year; they found a way to hold & run the league. What are your thoughts on the ISL?

I like the ISL. As long as it doesn't take away from what we're trying to achieve at Olympic games and world championships, I think it's an opportunity for athletes to make money. It's an opportunity for athletes to compete, not as a country rather as a team. I think FINA should be doing this, but there are some nuances between the two. It's a great, great concept to operate on teams rather than countries changes things up slightly. It is an opportunity to professionalize the sport as well. We're very supportive; we'll build it into our calendar as well. It's positive, but I think that in the long run, FINA needs to change; I'm not sure world cups are the best way to move forward. We're probably going to start a similar Australian league domestically at some stage.


It has truly been an honor to speak. Thank you very much for taking some time. Canada misses you, and we wish you all the best. 


Thanks a lot, Jason. Good to see you again. And I miss Canada as well and hope to visit sometime when the international travel opens up a little bit, but now good to see you. 

Thanks for checking out the latest! 

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