Q&A: Jane Nickerson’s pride on leading Swim England in its 150th anniversary year2 July 2019
Jane Nickerson reveals her pride at being chief executive of Swim England in its 150th anniversary year and discusses the future for aquatics.
2019 is an exciting year for Swim England. Tell us what it means to you to be chief executive of a national governing body as it celebrates its 150th anniversary?
It is an incredible honour being the CEO of a long-established organisation.
I believe the role requires respect for history and tradition whilst ensuring we continue to be relevant today. I am a firm believer that “looking in the rear view mirror” all the time, will lead you to crash, but that you also need to learn from the past to influence the future.
The Amateur Swimming Association has achieved a massive amount in 150 years and building on past successes is key to achieving success today.
Looking back at old development plans shows that our aims and objectives remain fairly consistent but the way in which we deliver is vastly different and part of my role is to ensure we use modern tools and greater learning to help us to achieve our aims.
What has been the biggest highlight for you so far during your time as Swim England chief executive?
This is really difficult to answer.
Personally, attending the Commonwealth Games and seeing our divers top the medal table and our swimmers finishing second in the medal table, with world record swims, was a real highlight.
However, one of the things I am proudest of is a change of culture towards a more collaborative way of working across the whole organisation.
There are a lot of departments and subsidiary companies within our structure and these are now more aligned and working together to produce one overall implementation plan for the whole organisation. Collaboration days are held between departments and there is a lot of cross-department working on many projects.
The last two team (staff) surveys were extremely positive with high engagement scores. I like to think this extends beyond the paid staff to the volunteers also and the management of our events is testimony to this relationship.
At a swimming event, you will see two paid members of staff, 60 volunteers and perhaps some other paid members of staff, doing a totally different job to their day job whilst on volunteer leave.
Achieving incorporation and charity status is certainly another highlight.
Some said “it would never happen” – a dangerous thing to say to me! It happened and with the support and agreement of the entire sport.
We now have a solid governance structure led by our Board which comprises of experts from both within the sport and independent to the sport.
What are the biggest challenges facing aquatic sports and how is Swim England working to overcome these?
Money is always cited as a challenge and rightly so.
However, it is fair to say that we will probably never have enough money to do everything we want, purely because there is always more to do.
The challenge we face daily is the allocation of resources and trying to be fair to all our activities.
I find it challenging that some disciplines receive more external funding per capita than others and that some parents are paying a lot of money for their child to compete for Great Britain or England in some disciplines. We are seeking new income streams and new partnerships to support our activities to try to address this.
Many clubs are having to find new income streams and new ways of working with local authorities and operators, especially those taking over the learn to swim activities which is a revenue generator.
This also links with the challenge of facilities and we ensure there is a focus on the relationship between the club and the operators to maximise pool space and to try to find ways of making pool hire more affordable, especially for those clubs which are no longer allowed to offer learn to swim.
We are looking at new, innovative ways of facility provision and working with a small number of clubs who are looking to build and run their own pool.
Ensuring there are sufficient trained coaches and teachers is always a challenge and we have changed our coaching certificates to make them more relevant and more cost effective. We offer blended learning for teachers to reduce the course time and the time spent in the classroom.
Many clubs struggle to find enough volunteers to support their activities and many of those who do volunteer are worried about the legislation, bureaucracy and governance requirements.
We provide guidance, forums and resource materials to support our volunteers although we recognise, in a changing world, keeping these up-to-date can be challenging.
Swim England is working closely with the government, primary schools and swimming lesson providers to ensure all youngsters meet the national curriculum requirements for swimming and water safety by the time they are 11-years-old. What role is Swim England playing to ensure they then continue along their swimming journey into adulthood?
The majority of our work in this area is through partnership working and influence.
By forging close relationships with the facility owners and operators we try to ensure pool programming provides the maximum opportunity for everyone to swim.
This work is based on our Three Frontiers model which provides facility owners/operators with the insight and tools they need to ensure they provide a viable, relevant, environment with products and programmes that entice people into regular swimming.
Through our leadership of the Swim Group, we lobby for continuous opportunities for children to swim after they reach 11 years of age and we work closely with government to support cross-department working to ensure children have plenty of opportunity to swim and develop a long-term habit of swimming.
We also promote swimming and water-based activity for people with health conditions and have developed acclaimed research which proves the benefit of water-based activities as a preventative, management and, sometimes, cure for many long-term conditions.
Sports governance has traditionally been seen as very male orientated. What has your experience as a female CEO been and do you see this view changing?
I feel I have been a “quiet” champion for female leaders in swimming for many years!
As a volunteer, I was the first female member of what was then the ASA Committee (equivalent to the Swim England Board). Up until this point, the only female members were those who had held the role of President and attended the meetings in their year of Presidency.
I was the first female swimming team manager, at that stage. Females were effectively assistant team managers and went under the delightful title of ‘chaperone’. (I must admit that made me feel like a Victorian governess travelling with a young lady to ensure the young lady retained her virtue!).
There was a discussion around the ASA Committee as to whether I could be a team manager as I was female! Thankfully, they decided it was OK and they would give it a try!
Life has changed since those days and, as a female CEO, I do not believe I am treated any differently to my male colleagues.
I do think it is important that we should all, male or female, be true to ourselves and treat each other with respect and courtesy.
Several years ago, I mentored a group of 16-17-year-old girls who were interested in leadership roles.
One of them asked me if she would still be able to wear make up and high heels if she became a leader? My answer was: “If you are wearing make up and heels for yourself, continue to do so; if you are wearing them for others and you are not comfortable doing so, think about being true to yourself.”
The 2022 Commonwealth Games is taking place in Birmingham. What legacy can be achieved through swimming and diving at a ‘home’ Games and what role will Swim England play before, during and after the competition?
This is a massive opportunity for us; not just for swimming and diving but for all our disciplines and for volunteering.
The Games will generate excitement in our sport in the widest sense and will create a culture of volunteering.
We will have the legacy of a brand new facility in Sandwell, which will provide the local community with excellent facilities, our sport with a national diving facility and a regional competition facility. It will also enable us to build a greater community of volunteers and a larger club base in the area.
Our role has already commenced with influence on the build and use of the facility, and I sit on the Project Board which is now starting to look at the legacy projects.
We will work closely with the organising committee to ensure our key volunteers have appropriate roles at the Games and to ensure the aquatic disciplines are successfully organised.
Our Talent Team will work with British Swimming to field the strongest possible teams and, where possible, we will showcase the non Commonwealth Games disciplines of synchronised swimming and water polo in lead-up events.
How do you see the future of swimming and other aquatic sports developing over the next 150 years?
I think we will have to work extremely hard to ensure swimming remains relevant to future generations.
Whilst our competitive membership remains strong, we are already seeing that young people are seeking different and, often, more adrenaline fuelled or extreme activities. High diving may be our answer to this!
Our clubs will need to adapt to become self-sufficient with less reliance on income from learn to swim. Many may build and run pools and this is where the strength of networks will be massively important.
A consortium of clubs working together to own and manage facilities is something we need to work on now.
Facilities themselves will be different. We are already looking at using shipping containers to provide learn to swim opportunities. Innovative design will be key to maximising facility use and ensuring they remain relevant and viable.
I believe swimming will develop strongly into a preventative medicine, but as this grows it may mean facilities adapt to this and smaller, warmer facilities are built which will not be suitable for our club swimmers.
The challenge will be to ensure an adequate and appropriate mix of facilities is always available.
Traditional funding streams will disappear and we will need to be financially sustainable through partnership working, commercial streams and charitable donations.
Technology will certainly have a place and, whilst we currently struggle to find a technology solution for accurately tracking swims in the way trackers are used for running and walking, I am sure, eventually, this technology will be built into pools making it easier to challenge yourself against others with leaderboards etc, when going for a weekly swim.
Virtual reality could transform pools and give you the opportunity to “swim with dolphins”, or race against the Adam Peaty of the day for example.
Our competitive disciplines may move into a different era of competition with more visually exciting events with prize money.
Water Polo could become faster with smaller balls and pitches. Mixed synchronised swimming is already in place and we may see “Strictly Synchro” on our television screens at some point.
Underwater chess is already in existence – this could lead the way to a whole new competition structure.
My optimistic vision:
- Facilities within easy reach of everyone – perhaps in the middle of town where shops used to be. Places where families can spend the entire day with each member of the family enjoying a different aquatic activity (or spa session!).
- Swimming and water polo leagues on the television, offering high quality, world-class spectacles with prize money.
- Strictly Synchro on main TV channels at prime time.
- Diving spectaculars including high diving in iconic locations.
- A healthier nation due to regular swimming and water-based activity, saving the NHS a fortune which is spent on finding cures for critical life-threatening diseases.
- Vibrant clubs offering skill development, talent development, elite performance and youth club opportunities for those who just want to have fun without competition. Technology making it all even more fun.
- Swimming teaching as a career leading into operational and leadership roles in facility management.
- Swimming coaching (all disciplines) seen as a career to aspire to.
One thing is certain, throughout the next 150 years we have to find out what people want and provide it.
We need to have good, strong governance in place and we need to react quickly to opportunities. Will we have enough money? Never! Too much to do.
The lighter side…
How do you spend your free time?
I am a volunteer Samaritan and I am also the treasurer and secretary of my local branch.
This means a four-hour shift every week listening to callers plus all the time it takes to keep the bills paid, governance structure sorted and accounts up-to-date!
My relaxation is through reading, walking in the countryside and wildlife photography.
I also enjoy time with my nephew and nieces and their families but I am probably the most hopeless babysitter as I am never available.
Describe yourself in three words?
Rather than me describing myself, I will share with you the three words my team came up with at a recent leadership/team building day:
- Loyal / Supportive
Yes, I know that’s four!
What is your proudest achievement?
Not sure if this is an achievement but I was absolutely delighted and completely stunned to be invited to go into Who’s Who.
This was particularly poignant for me because, as a child, I used to ask my mother how you got into this illustrious book and she would always tell me not to worry about it, because it would never happen.
Now I am in there, and my parents are in there, too. Sadly, I can’t tell her she is in there!
My proudest achievement is becoming CEO of an organisation I have valued and loved for many years. I am also proud to be part of a great team of paid staff and volunteers all working together to achieve our aims.
Describe your perfect day?
Every day is perfect – each day is different and there are challenges on most days but life is very precious and not long enough and, therefore, every day is perfect in its own way.
Having said that, days spent climbing through the jungle, looking for elusive animals which eventually come into view, are especially perfect.
Which swimmer, past or present, would you most like to swim against and why?
It has to be Adam Peaty. I am/was a breaststroke swimmer and I think it would be hilarious for onlookers to see the difference in style, never mind the difference in speed.
This article first appeared in the final edition of Swimming Times.