Dear Gill: An open letter – Thank you for your leadership.

Alex KaarFeatured Dear Gill: An open letter – Thank you for your leadership.

Dear Gill: An open letter – Thank you for your leadership.

When Gillon McLachlan, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Football League (AFL) said that ‘footy is resilient and footy will find a way through’ in March this year, I don’t think he had anticipated the challenge ahead for him, the AFL and for the people of Australia.


Victorians are in the depths of a seemingly endless darkness, as we descend into a second COVID lock down. Not surprisingly, we’ve collectively and continually reflected upon what might have been… What went wrong? And how do we return to some sort of normality with so much global uncertainty?


The one question that I frequently ponder is – Where is the positivity and hope going to come from?


For my friends and I, many of whom work within the Victorian business community, the return of ‘Footy’ has been the answer. Not in the literal sense of course, however, the power of engagement with a football team is incredibly influential in driving a sense of normalcy. It was Premier Daniel Andrews who suggested that getting football back on TV (albeit in empty stadiums) was important, as it provided a significant morale boost to community and gave a glimmer of hope that someday, life may return to normal.


I have spent plenty of Monday mornings pondering what might have been, had my beloved Demons kicked straight, or chased more.  More often than not, I have been on the receiving end of ill-intended banter, highlighting years of disappointment and misery (hold the Range Rover jokes please).


I understand – football is just a game (unless your team is Melbourne FC – in which case, it’s a religion) however during this pandemic period, it has become symbolic of a simpler time. Sitting back on a weekend watching my favourite team take the field allowed me and many others an opportunity to step back and (albeit temporarily) forget the external stresses and strains that life threw our way.


There’s no doubt the AFL have done an outstanding job in adjusting to an unprecedented and ‘once in a lifetime’ event. Many people in the AFL community should be recognised for their contribution to adapting to the circumstances presented and turning an unthinkable and improbable season into one of the most intriguing seasons to date. On behalf of many of us “football tragics”, I want to thank you all for making the 2020 AFL season possible.


There’s one man I want to acknowledge and congratulate in having demonstrated poise, composure, vulnerability and true leadership.


Gil – the adversity, challenges, roadblocks and obstacles you have faced this year have been at times, seemingly impossible to overcome. However, the way in which you have leant in and embraced the challenge as an executive leader, has been nothing short of inspiring and at the very least… morale boosting.


In fact, your response to the crisis has served as a significant case study, which I often refer to with those who are happy to listen.  We are fortunate in our roles as executive search consultants with Alex Kaar that we able to connect with a wide range of executive leaders and business, all of whom are striving to maintain their vitality.


Whilst Gil is now in his seventh year as CEO, it’s not always been smooth sailing. He spent his first two years as CEO managing the Essendon drug saga, which engrossed the football community, subsequently followed by a contemporary and historically divisive topic in the matters highlighted by the Adam Goodes episode.  At the time, Gil was subject to criticism because of his collaborative and consensus-seeking style of leadership.  As it turns out, that’s proven to be a fundamental leadership quality during the pandemic. Gil appears to be a strong delegator. He trusts his team and he values the input of the customer, in this case the members.


There is no right or wrong formula to leadership. Whether it be a publicly listed organisation, privately owned business, a community responding to a pandemic, or a football team bouncing back from a loss, taking steps towards a positive future ultimately resides with a collective group of people who come together and demonstrate the desire to reach a shared and united goal.


As executives and professionals, in the last few months, we have been forced to deal with some of the most challenging and unique market conditions we’ve ever faced. For some more recently, the underlying sentiment has been ‘how do we pivot and reposition our business to survive and thrive in this new world?’ Look no further than Gil and the AFL. They have set the benchmark as to how large, complex organisations can pivot and continue to service their customers.


What intrigues and impresses me about the response from the AFL leadership, led by Gil are themes of – Disruption, Innovation and Agility. A 17-game fixture, reduced quarters, quarantine hubs, a constantly evolving fixture and renegotiation of multi-million dollar broadcast deals with Channel Seven & Foxtel are just a few changes that have allowed the AFL to survive this pandemic.


Some may argue, but at what cost? The AFL has cut football budgets and reduced headcount by almost 80%.  This directly impacted on their loyal and passionate staff who were instrumental in supporting the growth of the clubs and by and large the industry.  To Gil’s credit, he has led from the front as a high profile CEO, who commands a generous salary, by demonstrating a willingness to take an 80% pay cut.  Whilst he earns a generous salary package, however only a small group of individuals would be in a position to carry the responsibility and burden of the AFL on their shoulders through this period.  There’s no denying, during this period, he’s working harder and being paid less.  He’s in the trenches, with his team, the clubs and the fans.


Given the scrutiny and intense pressure that Gil and the AFL have on their shoulders to consistently deliver a product, service and brand that captures national attention, I am one of many who are grateful for having the football back on TV (even if it does feel different).


How good is it to have football back??!! The friendly banter, the text exchange on Friday night between mates and the unwavering support for your team goes far beyond the two hours of game time each week.


Arguably, whilst this is not the AFL’s role, the impact of having live sport back on screens will go along way in providing hope and positivity for us over the next few months, as we bounce back and fight this pandemic together.


Gil, we thank you (and your team) for providing us hope, positivity and a light at the end of the tunnel.


As you said last year “Cultural leadership is one of the most difficult parts of the job”


We know it’s not easy…. But you make it happen.  And for that, we thank you.


Kind regards,


A football tragic.

Louis Triandos

Louis manages mid to senior level search assignments for a range of clients across the Accounting, Finance, HR and Talent sectors. He's also a passionate Melbourne Demons Supporter.

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