USA Gymnastics Puts Out Casting Call to Search Firms

A sex abuse scandal tarnished USA Gymnastics’ reputation. Now the group seeks a search firm to find a leader who can help recover the trust that’s been lost.

May 9, 2017 – An open casting call is underway for executive search firms to assist USA Gymnastics in its hunt for a new chief executive officer. The organization has been without a CEO since Steve Penny resigned in March because of allegations that he and USA Gymnastics failed to properly address claims of sexual abuse against member coaches and Larry Nassar, the former team doctor. The search committee is looking to finalize the process of securing an executive search firm.

Since these allegations against the coaches and Mr. Nassar went public last year, frustrated fans, athletes, and coaches have been demanding greater responsiveness and transparency from the sport’s national governing body.

Indeed, the incoming CEO will have a big job in restoring the image of the Indianapolis-based non-profit, which is charged with setting the standard for the sport at all levels and selecting the Olympic team.

Executive Recruiter Perspectives

“The CEO of USA Gymnastics is an iconic role,” said Daniel P. Rossetti, managing partner of Ascension Sports Partners LLC, a Mason, OH-based executive search firm that specializes in finding sports leaders. He said it is one of the most recognized C-level positions within the circle of U.S. Olympic Sports.

“The USA Gymnastics brand has certainly been tarnished over the last 12 months with the report of sexual abuse allegations,” said Mr. Rossetti. “The incoming chief is going to need to focus in on building trust again with current athletes and parents, constituents who make up all of their membership across the country, their current marketing partners, and all of their fans. The sport has a strong following and the new CEO is going to need to listen and work on fixing the scars which are now affiliated with its brand.”

That makes this one challenging search, said Chuck Cain, a senior partner at Harvard Group International, “starting with the board of USA Gymnastics having a clear vision and communication of their expectations moving forward.” Additionally, he said, “their process, the search firm and candidates will all be under significant scrutiny internally, within the U.S. Olympic Committee and with the public.” He said it will be interesting to see how the board balances institutional experience against the value of bringing someone in from outside the organization to continue to drive it forward while delivering clear change to protect its athletes.

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Over the last 25 years, sports has grown into a formidable global industry. In recent years, teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Real Madrid, and Manchester United, to name just a few, have seen their valuations soar into the billions of dollars, with no end in sight. Propelled by new digital platforms and technologies, these organizations now compete as global brands on a playing field strewn with entertainment choices galore ….. Here’s some further reading from Hunt Scanlon Media.

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“Both directions offer internal and external pros and cons,” he said. “Beyond the search and hiring of a new CEO, the organization will have incredible challenges moving ahead. They have been very successful over the past two decades, so this isn’t a ‘teardown.'” But, he added, the board and CEO will need to make very direct improvements in reporting, compliance and protecting athletes, while not losing the positive momentum gained on the gym floor and in generating revenue.

“Identifying the next CEO for USA Gymnastics will come with a variety of challenges, but opportunities as well,” said Jeff Yocom, president of Marquee Search, a sports and entertainment focused recruiting firm. “The search’s success will hinge on how much consensus there is among the board of directors.” He said he would be looking for alignment around vision, culture, and the type of candidate the board is interested in pursuing.

“Making sure they are in sync will be crucial” in recruiting the top executive for this position,” he added. “If there is discord, the best candidates will sense that and decline. Outside of being qualified for the job, candidates will need to have a high degree of emotional intelligence given the various stakeholders and high profile nature of the position.” Those likely to be in serious contention, he said, will have a track record in strategic planning and in dealing with crisis management and cultural sensitivity issues.

“While the women’s national team has been wildly successful in recent years, and carries significant influence in the organization, that will be only one part of the chosen leader’s mission,” Mr. Yocom said. “The incoming chief executive will ultimately recognize the importance of building the base and promoting the sport through the NGB’s grass roots efforts.”

USA Gymnastics’ mission is to select and train the Olympic teams as well as promote the sport at all levels. The organization, which has more than 174,000 members, is the national governing body for gymnastics.

An Expansive Field

Sports teams, from the professional level on down to college athletic programs around the world, now all require the same professional talent as IBM. In addition, the sports and entertainment field is one of the fastest growing sectors for the executive search industry. Many C-suite-focused recruiting firms have been drawn to it. And though some specialize only in sports, all are dedicated to providing sports-related executive search and leadership advisory services.

The firms include, in addition to Ascension Sports Partners and Harvard Group International: Turnkey Search, Nolan Partners, CarrSports Consulting, Korn Ferry, Harvard Group International, Prodigy Sports, Marquee Search, SRi, DHR International, Hartmann Mason, College Sports Solutions, Egon Zehnder, Heidrick & Struggles, Russell Reynolds Associates, Diversified Search, Odgers Berndtson, Eastman & Beaudine, Alden Associates, Parker Executive Search, Neinas Sports Services, and Collegiate Sports Associates.

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor — Hunt Scanlon Media

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