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Playing Tennis with Rock Stars

Playing Tennis with Rock Stars

When I left academia, I was immediately offered a role in a mining company. With barely two nickels to rub together, I accepted. Not knowing that I was going to be spending a lot of time on the other side of the continent. And Australia is big. Very big. So, 3,938.1 km and a 41-hour drive. Or a 5-hour flight. 

My role was to shut down the company's Perth offices. Now, being surrounded by people who've just been made redundant doesn't bring many dinner offers. And I was going to be in Perth a lot. So, assuming my evenings would be lonely, I wrote to a few tennis clubs to see if I could get a social hit. A year and a half later, I'm still waiting on a reply. From any or all of them. 

There will now be a quick segue into something else. But this will become relevant. I promise. Trust me. 

My Tennis Club

Being on an international Ph.D. scholarship is not all it's made out to be. Want cocktail parties with glamorous people. Tuxedo dinners. To sail through the harbour. Then don't do a Ph.D. It's hard. And lonely. And, thanks to Australian visa and my university regulations, you can only work for ten hours per week. Which means how many companies are interested in employing you? At less than a shift and a half availability per week? Somewhere between none and a big fat zero. So, it's isolating. 

To stay sane and do something practical, I got involved with managing my local tennis club. As with many tennis clubs in Australia, it was in a perilous state. Declining playing numbers. Crumbling facilities. Frustration and apathy in the membership. The oldest licensed sports club in Australia, it was very close to shutting its doors for good. 

I built the club a new website. Mentored its manager. And launched a strategy to move the club away from the standardized tennis club management model. Which focuses on competition, coaching and children. Instead, we focused on flexibility, fun and friendship. 3Cs to 3Fs. Alliteration at its finest. We assumed the following:

  1. Modern, time-poor people would not commit to block after block of competition tennis. They'd feel pressured to play and guilty if they couldn't. So they'd leave.
  2. Organised but fun social hits that required no ongoing commitment were the key to engaged and increased membership.
  3. Support this with food and drink offerings and people would build relationships with each other after playing. 

It works. The 3Fs brought engagement. And with it, the 3Cs also flourished. The club now has 70% court utilisation, compared to a national average of circa 23%. Its senior membership has doubled and its junior coaching tripled. In 2015, the club won more Sydney leagues than any other club in the city. Each court earns the club roughly $125,000 per annum. Turnover has increased 400%. The club is now very, very healthy.

All of which takes me back to Perth. My unanswered emails. And how I briefly forgot that my club was different. That our model of engagement was unusual. Perhaps unique. Which is perhaps why we ended up playing tennis with a rock star.

Playing Tennis with Rock Stars

One random day a few years ago, Emma, the club manager, forwarded me an email. It was from a musician. His name was Jim. He was coming to Sydney to play a couple of shows. And was looking to have a hit at a local club while he was here. 

The days he was going to be in the city didn't coincide with the days we allow visitors to join in with our social play. Despite that, I wrote back to the manager and promised her I'd arrange something. I wrote to Jim and asked him his standard. He wrote back with his International Tennis Number. It's very similar to mine. So I arranged a men's doubles with him on a Thursday night. 

He came and played. And said he really enjoyed himself. He wanted to thank us with a few free tickets to his show. It turned out his band was pretty famous. As was the venue he was playing at. He was the drummer from the Counting Crows. And they were playing Sydney Opera House. 

His offer of seven free tickets, each in the $300-400 range of seats, seemed hugely excessive in return for an hour and a half of tennis. So, I arranged another hit for him on the Sunday before his shows. And scoured the club for Counting Crows fans. Of which there were many. 

Now Jim in one of the kindest and warmest humans you'll ever meet. So, after he had the hit on Sunday, he magicked up two more tickets, so everybody could go. That's $3,600 worth of tickets for about four hours of tennis! But they weren't just ordinary tickets. They came attached with backstage passes. Which meant we could join the band backstage after the concert and have a beer with them. 

Drinking Corona in the Sydney Opera House green room with a world famous rock band is something that very few of us will ever get to experience. And they'd played well. They were psyched. The energy was electric. It was a fabulous night. 

Walking the Talk

It would have been far easier for me to ignore Jim's request. It was a hassle for me to find out his standard. Ring around to arrange a four to accommodate him. Give him directions to the club. Meet and greet him. All that kind of stuff. 

But, at my club, it's what we try to do. To encourage people to play. To make the effort to get them involved. Especially those as enthusiastic as Jim. To create the experience of playing a  great sport with great people at a great venue. If we aren't willing to do that, then what's the point?

And look what happened. A great night for a bunch of great people. One of them, the biggest Counting Crows fan at the club, has since been to Jim's house and played tennis with him in San Francisco. Counts him as a friend. 

A lot of my posts are full of doom and gloom. How an overbearing faith in a certain way of doing things produces the opposite of what is expected. How those to try to reveal it are branded cynical. Negative. Pissed off. How I might come across at times. But I'm not. I'm a frustrated enthusiast. 

This one illustrates the opposite. How a group of enthusiastic people, of whom I was one, ignored supposed best practice. Thought of ways that would work in the environment they had to operate in. And combined this enthusiasm and critical thought to make something great and unusual happen. 

Don't call it engagement. Passion. Purpose. Or any other trendy cliche. It's knowing how to be different. And trusting that difference makes a difference. 

This determination to do something different from the norm is something I hope I share with Steve Wozniak. Whom I've also chatted to at the club. But that's another story. For now, I'm going to check my email to see if anyone has arranged a hit for me in Perth a year ago last Tuesday.

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

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