Leadership for Free

11 July 2017 By Will Brodie

Australian Ice Hockey League Commissioner Robert Bannerman oversees a sport with a low-profile down-under. Yet, the AIHL is televised weekly on Fox Sports and flies teams across the nation all winter. Its crowds and internet reach have grown every year since 2010. Under Robert’s leadership, the league’s sponsorship, previously non-existent, has flourished. Despite contending with a dearth of suitable facilities, lack of broad public awareness and the tyranny of distance, the AIHL is one of the recent success stories of minor Australian sport.

All this without Robert, or any other official or player, earning a cent. The entire undertaking is unpaid; the AIHL is an amateur league.

Leading an organisation comprised of volunteers provides unique challenges.

“Balancing passion of volunteers with available time is our biggest challenge,” Robert says.

“Volunteers across the league are very motivated, skilled, and have hundreds of good ideas to improve product quality and drive growth.”

But he says the league must constantly “focus on the most impactful opportunities” to avoid volunteer burn-out.

Most volunteers come to organisations full of passion for the cause. When it turns out their visions won’t be achieved overnight, many can drift away, leaving the core of stalwarts with even more work.

Robert says building and motivating a volunteer team is part art, part science. His approach leans on his professional experience working with companies such as Microsoft.

“We have a long-term plan to keep our team engaged and satisfied (particularly top performers). Like most organisations, we set goals, establish team standards…

“We focus on creating an environment where our team has autonomy and ownership of their projects, tools, training, and opportunity to master their roles and a sense of purpose.”

Like any employee, volunteers need positive feedback from managers and the ability to present ideas to senior leaders.

Like many major companies, the AIHL refers to an “inclusive strategic plan”.

“It’s a living document that reminds us of our priorities and guides activities, investments, resourcing, and decision making.”

Robert admits dealing with ice hockey’s myriad stakeholders is his biggest challenge. Such bodies have different “priorities and approaches”, and their responsibilities overlap with the AIHL.

“We have to trust and respect each other to continue working toward efficiencies and mutual objectives; quality and quantity of facilities, reducing costs, driving participation, developing players, coaches, and officials...”

Robert’s ability to garner sponsorships is remarkable. APA Group, Air Canada and OMERS are all marketing partners.

He says his approach is "less of a pitch and more about listening.”

Robert leverages the unique experiences his grass-roots sport offers, such as seating sponsors and their clients literally a glass thickness away from games.

The AIHL also offers priceless experience to its volunteers. An unpaid role as a player, administrator, or journalist can showcase initiative, commitment and character to a prospective employer.

Robert says the most rewarding aspect of his job is seeing such participants develop.

“Players are receiving hockey scholarships to universities overseas, team owners are signing more sponsors every year, and volunteers are being promoted in their day jobs as a result of AIHL learning experiences.”

Even the Commissioner benefits from his unpaid involvement with the AIHL.

“Working with the AIHL has improved (my) professional capabilities and opportunities. I’ve grown my professional network and benefited from experiences with sponsors, broadcasters, governing bodies, professional leagues and teams, new brands and executives, and more. 

“I’ve worked with new leaders and benefited from their diverse experiences, skills, and perspectives. I’ve learned from new mentors. I’ve had an opportunity to try new management techniques in a practical environment. I could go on.”

His advice for anyone considering a senior role in a volunteer organisation?

“Make sure you are genuinely in love with the organisation you choose.”