Keynote: The backbone of an active nation

Steven Ward, CEO, ukactive

Steve began his keynote by confirming the news that he will be leaving ukactive in a couple of months.

After 12 years at ukactive, the last four of which have been at the helm of the organisation, Steve took the opportunity to share some personal thoughts and reflections on where the sector is today.

“Leaving ukactive active is like running in a relay team. When Dave Stalker passed me the baton, I’ve absolutely run my heart out for the last few years and it’s time to pass the baton on to some fresh legs.

“I’m leaving at the right time for ukactive and the right time for me. In my time we have built a brand new board, assembled a very talented team, improved the way we add value to our members and built some fantastic foundations that will pay off for years to come.

“Today’s talk is about a five years forward view looking to the future. As I look ahead, I thought it might be useful to start by looking back. Four years ago I was writing Dave's speeches and carrying his bags.”

Steve shared some of Dave Stalker’s quotes from a Health Club Management magazine interview to illustrate the challenges of the time.

“Some of the things that Dave said in that interview made me wonder about how much progress we have made. There are some wonderful quotes:

“This is still an industry largely based on gut feeling. We do things because that’s the way we have always done them. That’s why concepts such as the old LIW survived well passed their expiry date. All too often there is a reliance on habitual decision making as opposed to genuine consideration of the value that things bring.”

Steve said it’s likely that a few more things will go the way of LIW, but questioned if it was happening quickly enough:

Another Dave Stalker quote highlighted this issue of diversity:

“Another area we must focus on is diversity. We recently had a parliamentary dinner with the Conservative party where there were more female Tory MPs in the room than female fitness industry representatives.”

Four years on and we may still be in a similar place, said Steve.

What about skills and workforce agenda?

Steve went on to speak about the problem of having too many organisations trying to control similar aspects of the sector and the need for the industry to get behind just one – CIMSPA.

“The risk of collateral damage is real and it would be better off listening to the major employers, training providers and awarding organisations and getting behind one professional chartered body to drive the sector forward.

“You could easily fall into a trap of thinking things haven’t progressed, or not enough, but that would disguise the level of change we have seen in the last five years in this industry which has been enormous.

“The make up of the top ten brands in our sector is unrecognisable. Some of those considered to be market leaders are dead, replaced by challengers. New market entrants are able to emerge rapidly with no baggage, no history, no legacy holding them down. From every direction we are seeing new innovation paying no respect to national or local borders backed by levels of investment we might have only dreamed of before.

“We are in a totally different policy environment to anything before where the people in this room are recognised as the backbone of an active nation. We’ve seen the full impact of our collective call to turn the tide of inactivity, impact on policy and a fundamental shift in focus. Physical activity is recognised as a critical part of public health policy and critical to the NHS future long term plan for its contributions to the social prescribing agenda.

“We’ve seen the collapse of the retail sector open up property to deliver the continued growth of the industry on a scale we’ve never seen before. We’ve seen the boom of boutiques and the reminder that people value activity if its delivered in a high quality and engaging way.”

On the matter of approaching decision making in a new way, Steve noted the importance of using data to drive decisions rather than using “gut feeling”. ”We’ve arrived at the point where there is no turning back on the level of data and intelligence available to guide our decision making. Together with our partners at 4global we are now aggregating 585 million visits from 2,000 sites across the country covering more than 5.4 million members with an opportunity to double that in the next 12 months.

“It means we can evidence our impact, predict our future, benchmark our performance, analyse our trends, target consumers we need to target to drive growth like never before.

“With this data and intelligence we can shape future policy not on gut feel but with genuine data guiding planning and investment. We can place facilities where they are needed. We can put this data in the hands of everyone in the sector all in the pursuit of getting more people, more active, more often.

“If we consider all of this and think about the earthquakes that really impacted the sector over the last five years, it’s my prediction that what will come next will be more pronounced and more seismic.

“I hope ukactive has played an important role as detection system for some of these earthquakes and will continue to do so.”

Steve referred to ActiveLab, the global launch pad of innovation in the sector, the Future Leaders programmes, children and young people agendas and its partnership with Sport England, as well as the work around an ageing society.

He also talked about the new ukactive leadership academy, “that goes hand in hand with CIMSPA which offers us a chance to transform the management and leadership skills in our sector. In collaboration with Pearson, we’ve piloted a degree level apprenticeship programme fully funded from The Apprenticeship Levy to tackle what CEOs tell me is there biggest workforce challenge. Together this is a chance to rally behind something tangible and long-lasting for our sector.”

He thanked Tara for her backing to help make this happen.

“I’m really proud of what ukactive has done and hugely excited by a future rich in opportunity for ukactive and sector as whole.”

“It’s my sincere belief that this level of excitement is not going to be enough to deal with the earthquakes that lie ahead. In the next five years the sector will be transformed once again at an ever more aggressive pace. Things are becoming more volatile, more uncertain and more ambiguous.

“Some of us are going to fall through the gaps that will emerge. We have to focus on building a new future for our sector that’s strong enough to survive these challenges and thrive for decades to come.

“History shows us that chaos always emerges when people decide to draw arbitrary lines. They can be drawn decades before disaster erupts. Drawn with good intentions, they run through the fault lines of society. They split tribes and they create wars for resource, they create inefficiencies in public services, create separate identities. Friction builds up and eventually we see ruptures and the system breaks down.

“Our current approach to politics in the UK is just the same. We’ve evolved a public policy environment where we we’ve sought to place issues into different boxes – health, housing, education, transport, sports etc – all with their own missions and ideologies. All protective of their resources, with no united vision or drive to create the conditions for our nation to thrive. What they all miss, is that they are on the same team, tying to help the lives of the people they are here to serve. And they are utterly dependent on each other for being successful.”

Steve praised the work going on in Greater Manchester as a example of groups working together for a common outcome.

“It’s going be those teams, those people, those institutions and policy leaders who are comfortable working across boundaries who are going to be able to tackle the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. Where we see this most effectively is in areas like Greater Manchester where the major cracking of heads together, to make it clear that there is one goal, one mission, one team improving prospects for everyone in that region.

“We are so far away from that at a national level. As a nation, we are on life support, unable to think, act or decide. We are going to have go through a period of chemotherapy and extensive rehabilitation just to have a chance to recover.

“This national illness has affected every cell in our national body and stopped it being able to operate properly. It’s pushed us further apart at every level and degraded our ability to act with sincerity and passion.

“This is evidenced by the introduction to every chapter of the Sporting Futures national strategy, proudly written by a parade of ministers who have since been reshuffled and lost their jobs.

“Those introductions should be a source of national embarrassment. Because it shows that government clearly understands that activity is a golden threat – they articulate it in their words – yet it shows a clear inability to bring this together into anything tangible.

“The policy function of our nation is failing. This national fog will clear, but we can’t be sure when, how or what destruction will be left behind.”

“We can only hope there will be some sort of national renewal in the years ahead. We don’t know when and we can’t be certain it will come from government.”

So what do we do in the meantime?

“Together we must continue to make our own path, not wait for government or policy makers. I genuinely believe we are the backbone of an active nation. The greatest impact on our success lies in our own hands. The actions we take as a community can drive progress. We have a clear togetherness in our sector. We have one mission – more people, more active, more often.

“We need to grow the value of physical activity to society, turn the tide of inactivity, celebrate the fun of fitness, campaign with everything we’ve got and facilitate the partnerships that no one else can. Serve our sector with integrity, passion and genuine value.

“The same challenges that face continents or nations or policy makers are alive and well in our sector. We’ve got too many organisations organised on historic lines competing for resources and missing the bigger picture. It creates an inefficient system with poor outcomes for the people that we are here to serve.

“These organisations duplicate and operate in a way which is an embarrassing waste of public resources and time. They must never forget that they are here to service the sector, society and not themselves.

“ukactive must never forget that – we’ve played a huge part in this current mess – so must the huge range of other bodies that work for the sector.

“You are our shareholders, you are the drivers of our future direction. Given the earthquakes that lie ahead and the opportunities they present, we shouldn’t be afraid to think about how the landscape might evolve to better serve the sector and better pursue the mission. It might mean working together in different ways across boundaries, some organisations giving up resources. This will require an absence of ego, devotion to duty and some people will have to give up doing the things they love.

“In a five year forward view, it might be very exciting time for our industry. But if we are a similar bunch of people talking about similar problems and similar solutions, we are on the road to ruin.

“Willingness to spot uncertainty, to charge towards it with a greater mission will be a determining factor in our success.”

“Thanks you for your support over the years and for your support for ukactive during this interim process. I’m sure that together we can keep this backbone of an active nation in the best shape it needs to be for years to come.”

Incorporated by Royal Charter Charity registration number 1144545

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