Transforming HR at the Lawn Tennis Association

Getting HR out of the spectator stands at the LTA has led to decisive wins for the organisation and its people

January… universal time of the New Year’s resolution. Chocolate banished from the house, alcohol a distant memory (for one ‘dry’ month at least), and new Lycra sportswear laid out in anticipation of imminent personal bests…

But what not many will instantly think of when mulling what’s going to most inspire them out of bed on a cold, dark January morning, is tennis.

And yet they should, according to Vicky Williams, director of people at the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). When HR magazine visits Williams at the LTA’s headquarters in south-west London – on a chilly, grey, drizzly November day – stepping through the doors is like stepping into another world. Tennis is clearly far from ‘just a Summer sport’.

Tennis participation has experienced a modest boom over the last few years, Williams explains as she shows me around the LTA’s indoor tennis courts and world-class training facilities (“Johanna Konta is a pretty much daily visitor…”). Last year saw a 10% swing in participation, reversing a year-on-year decline of -5%, and taking this to +5% growth.

But it still has a way to go. While most Brits love tuning in to Wimbledon with a punnet of strawberries, this doesn’t translate well enough into players. Tennis can often lose out to team games, explains Williams, and still has much to do when it comes to broadening the gender, ethnic and class diversity of those playing, both professionally and recreationally.

And yet tennis is in a much better place than it was a few years ago – down in no small part to a revamp of the LTA, and at the heart of this a transformation of its people function, led by Williams.

As the national governing body for tennis in Great Britain, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, the LTA employs 300 people across the four regions of the North, the Midlands, the South-West, and London and the East. It’s split into four functions: performance, which looks after its ‘Performance Pathway’ for players as young as 12 on course to be elite players; participation, tasked with boosting the grassroots game; a major events department that looks after fixtures such as Queens; and the commercial department, which oversees commercial and sponsorship deals.

The body also comprises 25,000 volunteers up and down the country. “They might be club chairmen, club secretaries, they might be helping to coach in the park or making the teas after a local tennis match,” says Williams.

Whether employee or volunteer, all are united by their passion for tennis. But when Williams joined in 2013 this passion often eclipsed the need for the right functional expertise.

Joining an organisation with a fairly limited HR function, where the head of HR didn’t sit on the board, was something of an unexpected move for Williams. She had spent 22 years working in the fast-paced HR environment of contract catering business Compass Group, where she was HR director, business and industry from 2010. She’d decided to take a year out to be at home for her twin teenage daughters’ GCSE year… when she saw the advert for the LTA job.

“I thought: ‘that’s that building I see every day from my window’,” reports Williams, who lives just a few minutes down the road from the Roehampton centre. She adds: “[The position] wasn’t on the exec and all my friends said: ‘what are you doing? We’ve always said it’s important to have HR around the top table…’.”

But Williams is an avid tennis fan: “Björn Borg was my hero growing up, and I remember when he won Wimbledon rushing to buy the papers and sticking pictures of him all over the wall,” she remembers. So Williams was attracted by the mission of the organisation – and also in no small part by the challenge of putting HR on the map.

First off was ensuring the right people were in the right jobs. “In my first three months I felt I was meeting lots of great people who told me lots about how great they were at watching, playing or coaching tennis. But they weren’t in a job that required them to do that,” reports Williams. “That had a detrimental effect on our tennis coaches too as it sort of belittled their experience.

“So my challenge was to formalise the recruitment process to ensure we had the right people doing the right job… There were some tough decisions and tricky conversations.”

Now the organisation is much clearer about a love of tennis being important, but not the most important, attribute. While the performance analysts, sports scientists and physios sitting in the performance side of the LTA will need to have “grown up in sport”, others won’t. An outsider’s perspective can sometimes be beneficial. “Some of our best participation people have worked in a supermarket and helped manage a brand,” says Williams. “We’ve done a lot to expand where we look for people.”

Next on the agenda were values and behaviours. “I had seen in my last organisation where we had a set of words not really embedded particularly well in terms of the behaviours,” says Williams. “So I was passionate about first off making sure we had a set of words, but quickly followed with behaviours under them. Otherwise people ask for example ‘what does integrity mean?’ Because that could mean something totally different in another organisation.”

Key to making behaviours stick is the town hall meeting held the first Thursday of every month without fail, and broadcast to the LTA’s regional offices. “From March 2013 we’ve not missed one,” reports Williams. “We’ve had building work for four months. But when the meeting’s happening the building work stops. It’s the one thing we’ve stopped it for other than the Duchess of Cambridge visiting!

“People never fail to talk about our behaviours at those meetings,” Williams adds, explaining that the next step is linking reward to staff living and demonstrating the behaviours.

The behaviours and town hall meetings are examples of the power of simplicity, feels Williams. “The town hall is always quick and simple,” she says. “I’d always say to anyone ‘try not to overcomplicate things’. That’s what I learned at Compass. Because if you think of something really grand it becomes complicated with 55,000 people.

“My proudest initiative at Compass was revamping the induction process,” she adds. “We had high turnover as you’d expect for our sector, and there were unit managers all over the country who didn’t have the luxury of an HR department to do the induction. So I created an online induction. People were paid for completing it and they didn’t get on the payroll if they hadn’t. That was in the days before mobile phones.”

She adds: “I say to my team when they’re worried about something: most of what we do is common sense.”

Another more recent proud moment was introducing an awards scheme for the LTA’s volunteers. It’s critical they’re treated as well as employees, and fully recognised, says Williams. “That might not sound revolutionary because most employees have an awards system but the volunteers didn’t,” she says.

Overall, Williams is incredibly proud of how far the now 12-strong HR team at the LTA has come.

“I know we’re doing a better job now because when people ask for one of my team’s time and that HR person says they can’t make it, they say ‘oh can we change the time then?’” she says. Another sure sign of HR’s elevated status: Williams being invited to sit on the exec committee within nine weeks of starting (and being promoted to director of people).

But HR holding such a position within a sporting body is still unfortunately rare, says Williams. Which means she’s passionate about sharing her expertise with others. “Sport has lagged behind in getting professional HR in place, but I think it has to and the recent issues the FA [Football Association] has faced show why; thank goodness for Rachel Brace [the FA’s HR director],” she says. “One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older and wiser is the need to give back. So I’m proud to give some of my own time to national governing bodies in swimming, basketball and baseball, and to Tennis Scotland. Because not everyone can afford a me or a Rachel Brace.”

The LTA and its HR function still face considerable challenges however – not least diversifying participation. Williams is acutely aware that tennis is still a very white, middle-class pursuit.

“I grew up in West London in a middle-class household so tennis was around when I went to school. But I’m typical of someone who would play tennis,” she says.

Crucial will be diversifying the LTA’s coach- and employee-base, says Williams. “We typically, because of where we’re based, attract a younger middle-class workforce to Roehampton. Most entry-level jobs are filled by independently- and Russell Group university-educated individuals. One of my plans for 2018 is to shift the dial on that.”

The LTA needs to also significantly move the dial on gender, says Williams. “We’re not yet good enough at getting girls to keep playing tennis,” she says. Key will be boosting the number of female tennis coaches: “It’s probably not the most conducive sport to a woman with a family; the busy times are after work and after school. So we’re working hard on that and have just appointed a head of women and girls to look at getting more female coaches and players.”

Another important part of this new appointment’s remit is developing female employees. “We’ve run a women’s mentoring scheme, I’m very proud of that,” says Williams. The idea is to give women ongoing support so that when a promotion opportunity does come up they feel confident enough to apply, she explains.

Crucial to the success of any D&I initiative is being frank about the organisation’s shortcomings, feels Williams. “Something I learned at Compass is if you have a problem you’ve got to be overt and go out and do something about it,” she says.

This year will be one involving a significant D&I push at the LTA. It’ll also be a year of wider change, with a new CEO starting. “Whether it’ll be much the same strategy-wise or very different, it is still going to be different,” says Williams. “In a larger organisation the CEO changing makes a difference to the top team. Here every single person will need to get used to a different way of doing things.”

Williams is highly positive about the future and all the opportunities a new year brings. And she couldn’t be prouder of what her HR team has achieved: “Can I reference directly that an increase in people playing tennis, and Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, is to do with the people function? Not directly,” she says.

“But this is a people business and it is people driving the support to ensure the public keep thinking tennis is for them. Even if it’s the court being lit or the gate working… It’s a person making that happen.”