Navigating Challenging Times Q & A with David Gallop

Navigating Challenging Times
Q & A with David Gallop

David Gallop is one of the best-known leaders in Australia as a long-term Chief Executive Officer, who led the transformation of two of Australia’s largest national sporting codes into professionally run, commercially strong and socially responsible organisations.

Well known for having delivered focus and discipline to the business and operations of sport, he’s been at the forefront of managing the ever- changing, fragmented world of media rights for sport, by encouraging and establishing the value of subscription TV and digital channels, while recognising the reach and importance of traditional free to air broadcasting. Over those last 25 years of upheaval and change, Gallop has led and negotiated some of the most significant media rights deals in Australian sport.

He is acknowledged as the public face and key decision maker during some of the highest profile episodes in Australian sport including the enforcement of the National Rugby League’s salary cap involving the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2002 and Melbourne Storm in 2010.

In 2016 he was Awarded a Member of the Order of Australia acknowledging his “significant services to sports administration through executive roles with football and rugby league organisations, and to the community.”

A former lawyer, with a style and leadership approach that is widely regarded as measured, considered and pragmatic when dealing with complex issues, he’s worked closely with some of the highest profile people in Australian corporate life. He’s encountered his fair share of challenges along the way, but taken every single one of them in his stride.

On a recent visit to Cairns, Danae Jones sat down with the man himself to gleam some advice from him on navigating challenging times in business.

What top tips do you have for people in business going through the current challenging times?
I love what Simon Sinek said in a TEDTalk he did where he talks about people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you’re doing it. And his best example of this in the TEDTalk is about Apple and the success of Apple. People don’t buy what Apple does, but why Apple does it.

While I do believe in measurables and KPIs, I also think it is important to make sure that your team know that your door is always open. Do your weekly catch up with people, maybe have a traffic light system of all the issues that they’re dealing with. And you know formally how they’re going. But you expect your senior people to be in your doorway every day asking you what you think of something, or getting a bit of advice. That I think is a good balance.

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You have had your fair share of dealing with the unexpected in business. There seemed to be a time where every day you were in the media putting out fires for the NRL with the salary cap saga for example or poor off field player behaviour. How do you deal with the constant unexpected as a CEO?
In all of my roles, I have always had to deal with an elevated sense that the unexpected ends up on the front page of the paper and that’s where you need to work carefully through issues to make sure you arrive at results which are going to be acceptable to the stakeholders across your business.

One of my best examples is when I landed in Singapore on my way back from Europe and the message from my media manager was “don’t answer your phone until you’ve spoken to me there’s been some bullets fired at Kings Cross at Jarryd Hayne and Mark Gasnier.” Now it turned out in the end that the bullets were probably shot into the air by someone sort of not doing anything particularly aggressive about what they did at the time, but when you land at Singapore airport and you get that sort of message you immediately think someone’s had a gun out and they’re shooting at your players.

You’ve led the charge for significant change and progression with the organisations you have been CEO of. Many of the changes have required a lot of forethought, but also some changes were necessary for the sports survival such as the media deals struck and the super league debacle. How did you manage those changes?
When I started in sports administration, rugby league had split into two with super league in the mid nineties and it was a crazy time. I started an amazing journey at that organisation (NRL) where there was no precedent for anything that was happening. You would’ve read stories where people were jumping out of dressing room windows after signing players, players getting cash cheques and coming in and saying the name on the back of the cash cheque was not mine and people saying nah just keep it, we don’t have time to readjust it. So these guys would walk out with cash cheques.

But I think when you look back on rugby league, although there was a lot of pain involved the people that were involved really wanted rugby league to be bigger and better and it’s become bigger and better. So in so many ways the pain of the super league war has produced a lot of fruit for rugby league I think. It’s professionalised the sport much faster.

When the current NRL administration managed to get the Rugby League playing again in 2020, albeit to no spectators in the stadiums during the height of COVID’s arrival, it really seemed to unite the nation. Sport has a funny way of doing that in Australia doesn’t it?
Yes it really does. That is the beauty of sport of all codes within Australia, we are a sporting nation, we love all things sport.

You know I have had the great fortune to travel in my roles all over the world. And you would go to countries where you see 99% of people are really only following that sport. And I think Australians get used to when they turn the TV on, there might be an NRL game, or an AFL game, or a football game or the cricketers are playing somewhere. But for so many countries football is all there is and they’re getting 60,000-70,000 people to games every week. That’s a real eye opener if you’re an Australian I think.

There is a lot of talk about the sporting industry being the lightning rod for a social justice debate at the moment with sexual consent, racism, gender equality matters etc. Do you think it’s fair that players are copping the brunt of what is a far greater problem in society?
I think it’s safe to say that it does a lot of damage when players misbehave. Ninety-nine percent of them are not misbehaving every time. They deserve recognition for a lot of what they do in the community. Football players are role models and their behaviour both on and off the field is noticed by younger generations so it is important they set a good example. We were careful to set up a thing called “The One Community Program” which was a way of recognising all the community work they do.

I know the Cowboys were really active in the community then, and probably more now. And we had to keep saying to the media at the time, you know this guy’s made a mistake, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not doing all this other stuff and these guys are making a contribution.

One thing that concerns me when I see this talk about players being rubbed out of their careers, and I used to take great notice of the fact that for a lot of these young men, and now women, who play the game – they can often come from rough backgrounds and football gives them routine, and it gives them a whole lot of things that keep them grounded. And so I think penalties are important and suspensions etc are important. But I always took the view that we need to be careful with these young guys’ lives.

The other thing we did was these Rookie Camps. They’d do education on alcohol, drugs, sexual ethics, gambling etc. It’s a three day intensive induction into the sport. And you just can’t tell how many players have benefited from that. I do remember occasions when players would come up to me and say that course that we just did on say sexual consent, that opened my eyes up to things that I’ve seen in my footy career. I now understand how dangerous some of these situations can be.

There is always more that can be done. But the earlier you can educate people on anything the better.

How do you make tough decisions with such ease? Some of the toughest decisions you have publicly made, were to take the season’s competition points off the Bulldogs in 2002 and then in 2010 take the Premiership win off the Melbourne Storm due to their significant salary cap breaches. It created an outpouring of negative emotion from fans and players and was heavily scrutinised in the media. But you were steadfast in your approach. Is it hard to make those tough decisions when you know there’s going to be such push back?

I think back at those times and they were relatively easy decisions to make if you like. They were big breaches. Melbourne had Premierships that they’d won with players that were on money that we didn’t know about. So those are the kind of decisions that I think are kind of hard but pretty straightforward. If things are hard to detect, then you need to smash people pretty hard if they transgress to deter that behaviour in the future. It’s the ones that are a little bit 50/50 where you, I guess like everything in life, we all have grey decisions that we have to take. One of the best examples when I was at the league was when there was a game at Campbelltown Stadium between the Broncos and West Tigers and the interchange in those days wasn’t particularly well regulated. Shane Webcke was still walking off the field when Corey Parker ignored the interchange official telling him he couldn’t go on. He went on, he caught the ball and he scored a try. So the Broncos win the game, Webcke’s quite a long way away from the play so he is technically not involved, but still technically on the field. I reckon we spent all afternoon trying to work out what the right answer was. And in the end we deducted the points from the Broncos. But those are the difficult decisions where you’ve got those 50/50 things to deal with.

Then of course I went on to be CEO at the Football Federation. You know football is this amazing sport where it has this tension between the global trappings of the game and the reality of being a sport in the Australian market, which is not number one. It is in terms of participation, but it certainly isn’t commercially. So lots of people have lots of high aspirations for where the sport can get to, they see what happens in Europe, they say why can’t we do that, and the answer back is well we can’t quite afford that. And there’s all these rumblings around in Australian football.

I had a terrific time in that job, spent time with Frank Lowy. The best business strategist I’ve ever come across. Just a great chess player. You would say to Frank I’m thinking of doing this, and he’ll say to you, and he’s still going strong at 90, he’d say to you, well if you do that, this will happen in three moves and you’ll lose your bishop or your knight – the chess analogy.