Outside of being a campaign manager for a presidential election, I can't think of a bigger campaign to run than that of the bid for the Olympics and Paralympics. And if you can, oh well, you get the point. It's a big freakin' deal, with a crap load of pressure, expectations, people and money involved.
Which is why... it is one of the coolest jobs out there. Although, he has little time to think of how cool his job is, I was so excited to make John Harper the subject of my next interview.
John at the Rio Olympics. Rio was a big moment for the LA 2024 team as they took time to visualize to the IOC of how ready LA is for the games.
LET'S SET THE SCENE
Getting the opportunity to sit down with someone as seasoned as John was really exciting for me. And you better believe I was going to take every opportunity to learn as much as I could about:
- How he got to where he is today and what his top 3 priorities are as the LA 2024 COO.
- How to build a team around such a high pressure, public bid process.
- What other cities can learn from the LA 2024 experience.
- What have been the biggest challenges they've faced and how they have overcome them.
- How he would approach another bid process if he was doing this for another city.
- His career advice and more.
I really hop you enjoy this one. I sure did.
John Harper - Leading the charge of the Olympic and Paralympic Bid Process
You ready to jump in John?
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a place called Waterloo, Ontario, in Canada. It's about an hour west of Toronto, but Toronto was home for the early part of my professional career after I graduated college.
If you could compete against one Olympian, who would it be and why?
The first person that jumps to my mind is Carl Lewis. I was a sprinter until a certain age but I just remember, one of my first Olympics in 1984, watching Carl Lewis compete. The 100 meter is always a really amazing event.
And if you could stand on the podium having just won a gold medal, what Olympic sport would it be in?
That's interesting. I'm a little bit split because I'm Canadian- born, but I'm living in the US now, so I’d say it would be basketball. I grew up playing team sports, so I’d like to be standing with my teammates. I think the Canadian in me would say hockey, ice hockey for sure, but same concept, I'd be standing there with teammates as opposed to individual sports.
Rendering of the Staples Center - Rendering Cred: LA 2024
I understand you were at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) for a bit, right?
Yeah, I was there for about five years. That's actually what brought me out to LA.
What is one thing you learned from your time at BCG that you've applied to the situation of the bids and preparing for the LA 2024 Olympics?
BCG taught me a lot of things, but I think the one thing that has been most helpful, is to be one, two, or three steps ahead of either the team I'm leading or the people I'm reporting to. BCG was a culture of moving very fast for the client, so if you weren't organized and able to communicate in a way to get the work done efficiently, you weren't successful.
John and some key members of the LA 2024 Bid Process. Left to right: Chief Bid Officer, Danny Koblin, Olympic Champion, Alyson Felix, LA Mayor, Eric Garcetti and John
In that kind of structure, that requires you to be thinking three steps ahead, I'm sure it takes a ton of discipline. Is there anything you do at the end of each day, week, or month that would be helpful for others that are producing something? Maybe not of this magnitude, but other live major events?
If you get behind the eight ball on Monday morning, you're going to be behind the eight ball the whole week. In this business it’s more of hitting those milestones.
Actually, we are at a major milestone right now. A couple months ago we made our final deliverable. As we were coming up to it, I was trying to step away and say, "Okay, now once that's submitted, we can't afford to waste even a day. Yes, we have to celebrate, but how do we still hit the ground running and make sure we're onto the next thing?" Putting together a work plan and an organizational structure for our people and processes. That’s how we keep the train moving.
Thank you. It was a big achievement for everyone involved.
If I was taking on your task of COO for another host city in the future, what 3-4 books or resources would you recommend I look up?
For more for background on the Olympic Movement, I would suggest Michael Payne’s book: Olympic Turnaround. I would also suggest George Hirthler’s book on Pierre De Coubertin, the French visionary who founded the modern Olympic Games.
What has been the most operationally challenging part of this entire process so far?
The process has been wonderful so far because we have a great team all executing at the highest of levels. The most challenging part has been to message many enthusiastic and qualified people that want to help, that we don’t have immediate roles given our lean team and focused activities. That said, we are building our people roster to be prepared for the opportunities around an organizing committee, should we be selected as the host city in September.
Put me on that list.
Some of the LA 2024 Crew in Rio. Who says managing the olympic and paralympic bid process can't be fun. #DreamJob
Since you are the one that has to think a few steps ahead, have you started to think about the transition that will need to happen if/when you win the bid?
Yes, absolutely – we are in process of developing our first 6-month plan now.
What would be the first 3 steps you'd recommend taking to kick off the process?
This is in progress – but would reference our Stage 3 deliverable – very last question on transition outlines our top priorities.
Although on a very different scale, a lot of cities bid for major events, what do you think they can learn from you and your team?
Stay focused – it is easy to get drawn into many different activities that take up time, resources, and cost a lot of money. When making decisions, we always ask ourselves how will this activity help us accomplish the primary goal of winning the campaign?
And if you were hired to help a city be competitive for other live events, what would be your first few steps in preparing them?
This is a bit dependent on the objective and task; however, two suggestions:
1. BE FLEXIBLE – the vision for our organization started one way, but as the process evolved and changed, so did our organization. Being lean and flexible has been key to being nimble and timely in the process.
2. Where possible AVOID TOO MUCH HIEARCHY – we are a pretty flat organization – this helps clearly define roles and responsibilities, but also allows us to make quick decisions which is critical in such a short bidding process.
Another really "boring" business trip for the LA 2024 team.
I think it’s safe to say you’ve hit a bunch of major milestones and accomplishments throughout this process. Yet someone has to be the task master. How do you let people celebrate those incredible moments, but keep them on task without burning people out or crushing the mood?
We're fortunate that the content and the ultimate task on hand is something that everybody here is extremely passionate about. We work late hours, weekends, and do whatever we need to do to get the job done. Yes it's taxing, but everybody stays motivated because come September, nobody wants to see Paris's card come out of that envelope. We want to see LA.
What would you say are your top three priorities in your role today?
Aside from win, win, and win?
Two Keeping the entire organization focused on our end goal, and in doing so, eliminating inefficiencies. Making people aware of what matters and what doesn't.
Three Making sure our leaders trust the way things are moving, are able to give input at the right time, and feel like there is a structure and method to what we're doing. We don't have another fiscal year, so we can't afford the luxury of making mistakes.
It sounds like your campaign has been pretty structured. Has there been anything that has been unconventional about your strategy that has worked really well?
I would say our approach in general has been different than past committees in the US and maybe even international campaigns. Starting with our leadership, both came from private and global businesses. Casey is a global sports business leader and Gene Sykes, our CEO, spent 30 years at Goldman-Sachs. That leadership structure is much different from other committees. It's not necessarily better or worse, just different.
LA 2024 Chief, Casey Wasserman
We continuously challenge ourselves to say, "Let's not just run our bid and our campaign like things have been done in the past. How can we show that LA is different? How can we demonstrate that Los Angeles is an ideal Olympic city and partner for the IOC? How can we do that physically and tactically in unexpected ways?"
Given you're in LA, have you found that there's any pressure to really push the envelope with tech and media? It seems like it's part of your DNA but I'm curious if there's pressure that comes along with it.
I think we absolutely consider it part of our DNA, and even more so than that, we see it as a huge differentiating factor. The creativity, the technology that is embedded in California, and LA in particular, is certainly something that we can point to and say, "We can imagine the games in a different way."
The nature of our plan is what allows us to be so prevalent. With everything that is in place today, we don't have to build any new permanent venues. We have amazing existing infrastructure, including an Olympic village, which is typically the major piece of stress for an organizing committee. We can focus all of our time, all of our resources, and a majority of our money on how we want to present the games. This allows us to re-imagine the experience for the athletes, international sports federations, national Olympic committees, the media, the sponsors, and the fans, and just really transform the games to an elevated level.
Rendering Cred: LA 2024 - This might be the mother of all athlete villages (UCLA Campus)
It sounds incredible. Is there anything you think other bidding cities can learn from your experience in the future?
You know, I'm not just speaking for LA, I would say, "I hope that future cities will follow the notion of Olympic Agenda 2020". If you’re not familiar with it it's basically intended to be a more sustainable, cost effective and realistic approach to bidding and hosting. Our model is focused on ensuring the Olympics fit into the city of LA rather than changing the city to fit the Olympics. The same goes for putting on the games. Now part of that has been obviously driven by the IOC making a lot of changes to the process itself, but it's also then incumbent upon the cities to be achieving and operating against those processes. We believe that LA in general is tailored for this Olympic Agenda 2020 concept, everything is already here, we've approached our bid in a really cost effective manner, and we're hoping that we can demonstrate that that's actually feasible.
Rendering Cred: LA 2024 - Archery at La Stadium at Hollywood Park
Obviously, I know right now you’re really focused on winning the bid, but somebody's got to think about that immediate next step. How much are you thinking about the transition after the announcement?
Yeah, absolutely. We have to plan for success, and again without being arrogant about it, we just have plan for that scenario. Now that we are past the evaluation commission visit, we'll spend a lot of the time on international marketing, and then the other part of the time we'll be thinking about, "Okay, what does that transition time actually look like, and how do we get prepared to flip that switch?", should we be successful in September.
Rendering: LA 2024 - Of course the Beach Volleyball Stadium would be back in birthplace of the sport - Santa Monica
How much do you think going through this bid process will help you and the team execute the actual Olympics?
You know, I think the process has been, for us in particular, really helpful because it's shone a light on our city to our partners that illuminated that we have all of the existing infrastructure here today, not only with that infrastructure, we've got world class operators that are running these world class venues at an extremely high level on a daily basis.
While we have a number of temporary builds in the plan, what we have been able to demonstrate is that we can have four Olympic sports parks that have self-contained, multi-sport, multi-entertainment areas, as opposed to many individual venues that are spread around the city.
Rendering of the LA Football Club Stadium by LA 2024
This has allowed us to really assess the assets that we already have in the city here and work with those partners. We are able to turn those assets on and not be distracted or stressed about about building a new development or a new village. That will allow us to focus on, again, re-imagining the games.
I think it really gives us confidence that this is absolutely the right place and the right time for this, and that there's no question operating the games will be extremely successful here. We have the time, resources and money - we're not distracted about anything else.
Whether LA wins the bid or not, what are you personally going to be the most proud of?
For me personally, it will have been seeing how we've gone from zero to 100 in two years, and the immense amount of work we've done, and the amazing vision that we've been able to demonstrate, with a lean team, but a like-minded team and the support, the immense amount of support we've garnered. Its come from all aspects of the community, whether it's politicians, the political support, the business support, and the community support is what we always preach.
I've probably never really had as much civic pride as I've had in this role. We're working towards something that's not just impacting dollars and cents to a company's bottom line, this is going to impact people's lives in a lot of different ways. We know that because the people we talk to that were here in 1984 still talk about it, and still talk about it in such an amazing light. To be able to have a hand in potentially bringing that type of a monumental journey that can actually have that much impact on a community and on a country is indescribable. I think even organizing the games won’t compare to the bid process because of how unique it has been.
The Downtown Sports Park - LA Live Aerial - Rendering by LA 2024
This is going to impact people's lives in a lot of different ways.
Do you have any parting wisdom for those in the event world?
It’s a little bit o a cliche but, again, think differently. Don't be stuck in just doing it the way it's been done previously. I think the innovation that exists today can really lead to really fascinating things.
Well John, I really appreciate the time. I know you've got a lot going on, but it's going to be exciting to watch over the next year, and then over the next seven.
Well, I appreciate it Chris. I appreciate all the support and all the thoughtful questions.
It's been amazing. Good luck!
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