“Show up, pay attention, be honest, don’t attach to outcomes”. That’s pretty much my operating system.” - Simon Calder
Practical spirituality and values-led leadership in the dynamic business of sports marketing and Asian football.
Simon Calder |
Executive Vice President, Operations, DDMC Fortis
In his role as Executive Vice President of Operations at sports marketing agency, DDMC Fortis, Simon, and his team, are the one’s responsible for implementing the practicalities of a global marketing contract for all of Asian football’s major competitions, including the Asian Cup National Team tournament and the AFC Champions League.
Living in Hong Kong and leading the operations for this huge mandate supporting the growth of professional Asian football, Simon talks to me about how the profound life changes he made several years ago support him in his life and work now, the complexities of working across the expanse of the Asian Continent, the intrinsic values that underpin his leadership and the on-going personal practices that bring him peace, balance and keep him connected to something bigger than just his achievements.
So, Simon, tell us a little bit about what you do and where you are in your career right now?
My official title is Exec VP of Operations for a sports marketing agency called DDMC Fortis. Last year we won the exclusive marketing rights for the Asian Football Confederation – the continental football federation for Asia. It’s sort of the equivalent of UEFA in Asia. We [DDMC Fortis] have sponsorship rights and TV rights. That’s the company’s main purpose and it’s split between sales and delivery. The sales guys sell the sponsorship and TV rights, and those rights need to be delivered at matches which is what we do in Operations.
Put simply, when we sell a sponsorship or TV deal, that involves activations at a match - that’s my responsibility. It is a huge contract, covering 47 countries, from Syria to Sydney, so in a year, there’s 350 matches that we will cover, starting at the end of next year. Each instance of a match is potentially quite straightforward, but it’s the complexity of doing that in so many places. Trying to understand how to do business in that wide a region – how to plan for Bhutan and Brisbane, working with customs, import, export, freelance staff – many moving bits and pieces.
So if you were to describe your role in as few words as possible?
Make shit happen. We’re the end of the chain, so if the chain starts with a discussion with a sponsor or a broadcaster, and it starts with very wide scope, blue sky thinking, in the end it comes down to what actually happens. So we have to make good on what’s sold.
Tell us a bit about the culture at work?
The culture of the headquarters here in Hong Kong is an interesting mix. The core group of us have known each other variously for 15 to 20 years. The CEO and the COO have been working together for about 20 years and they’re both from Europe – one is Irish and one is English. So there is kind of a European mentality running through the company, but at least three quarters of the people are Asian or have been working in Asia for the last 7-8 years. It’s an interesting mix between European and Asian approach. We’re trying to straddle those two worlds both internally and in the markets we’re working in. The difference we’re trying to promote is to take the flavour of the European football and bring that into Asia. But you can’t just transplant that and just expect it to work. It’s got to be integrated, so we need to bring enough of that essence of Europe, but integrate it in an Asian way. It’s like us coming to our colleagues and saying ‘right, this is how we should do it’ and them saying, ‘well, but in Asia this is how we do it’. So then figuring out how those two things are going to work. It’s quite a community atmosphere, it’s not like we’re fighting with each other but we are getting reality checks every day.
The Asian way of doing things is different, I’m not going to say it’s better or worse, it’s just different. We do a lot of work in China and the Chinese have been doing their thing for thousands of years – they don’t want to do our thing. We couldn’t go in with that mentality of “we know how to do it, we’ve got this way of doing it and you should adapt to that.” They do it their way, and we need to blend our way with theirs and it becomes a kind of happy medium. That’s kind of the overall atmosphere there, but it’s new, it’s dynamic.
So given this new market, the blending of cultures and broad geographical coverage what’s challenging for you as a leader and what’s exciting about it?
As a company, we have very high expectations; we have high financial targets, but also high expectations of how we’re going to do things. What’s challenging is that the operations department deals with the reality. Sales teams are often dealing with the aspirational idea of things – we deal with a stadium that maybe hasn’t been renovated in ten years, in a city that’s full of traffic and you can’t get to easily.
What’s challenging is bringing expectations to reality, and to try to bring reality up to expectations. Sales guys are by nature very optimistic and we’re the guys that go, ‘you know what, what if it doesn’t work out like that?’. That’s also part of the culture; that there’s a healthy tension between those two.
I’m excited to lead people, to work with a larger group of people. I have a team of 5 at the moment, and that’s likely to grow to 30 in the next year or so. In the last couple of years I’ve been working relatively smaller projects and teams so I’m looking forward to getting a team together and doing something big and difficult. That’s exciting, and scary, I think they kind of go hand in hand.
Pay attention - that’s one of the hardest things in life. When someone pays attention to me, I really respect that and I’m reminded of how valuable that is.
What are the values that drive your leadership style?
Well, I like to keep it simple. I would say the mantra that I use in all sorts of situations, daily, is “show up, pay attention, be honest, don’t attach to outcomes”. That’s pretty much my operating system. Show up – don’t hide from shit. Not just showing up, but being there, front and centre and addressing things and being present. That’s important to me. Pay attention – that’s one of the hardest things in life. When someone pays attention to me, I really respect that and I’m reminded of how valuable that is. When someone doesn’t pay attention, I’m reminded how demotivating that can be. Be honest – because being honest is just the simplest policy. In the past, I might have tried to be the wise guy, play the angles, tell the stories – see if I can win the game. It just makes my life harder. I think I’m making my life easier, but in the end, I’m making it harder.
Do you have an example of that?
I think at some point, my whole life was an example of how not to run a life. I’d left a very stable position and had gone out to start a business. I kind of had the entrepreneurial spirit which I interpreted as cut as many corners as I could, so that I could play the game. In the end I was making commitments that I couldn’t really fulfil. My finances and the way I structured my business was not good, it was almost a full-time job just to keep track of the different structures and the bank accounts that I had. What I should have been doing was getting new business, but what I was focusing on was all of the structure around it. In building that structure, I was making commitments to people and I wasn’t ready to deliver on it. All of that just led to a tremendous amount of stress. All I felt was stress, I would never be comfortable because I wasn’t being true. I wasn’t doing what I said I would do at a very fundamental level.
So what you were saying and what you were doing was different – you were out of alignment.
Exactly. That was a very unhappy time for me, work-wise. What I learnt from that is that I’m probably not a solo entrepreneur. I’m not a one-man band. I work better in a team. I dislike working by myself, I find it very hard. So that was good, I worked that out!
What was the point that kind of hit you to go, yeah, this isn’t for me?
The business came to a natural end, there was a contract that ended and didn’t have anything to go on with after it. But to be honest, it was already done before that. I was covering so many things for so long, there was a point where I just said that’s it, and things got out of control. I think there’s something in that. There’s a point where effort turns on itself, where I was putting so much effort into trying to control things, that I was in the end, making things worse. At that point I was working against myself, I was fighting against myself.
This is important to share, because we learn from our failures, we learn from the things that don’t work but so little of those stories get shared. We want to talk about our successes.
I think it’s called the “over-sampling of success”. Often people are just lucky. They don’t mention that usually. If you want to know how to run a business, I could tell you a few things about what not to do [laughs]. I’m happy to, because for me it was a great lesson. The number one lesson I learnt from it is that I’m not a solo entrepreneur, I’m not that guy. Having a team around me motivates and energises me.
I love what you said about your leadership values - showing up, paying attention, being honest and not attaching to outcomes. Tell us more about that…
The number one thing I believe in life is to define what I can control, define what I can’t control, and to stop worrying about the things I can’t control. I know from experience, because I used to spend all my time worrying about the things I couldn't control. That just leads to anxiety, fear and stress. What I can control, is only myself, pretty much – some of the time, not all of the time [laughs] – but not other people. That’s not to say that I’m useless as a manager, because the role of the manager, outwardly at least, is to control outcomes and people, but that’s not really how it is.
Because expectations are just resentments in draft.
What I focus with the people I work with, is providing them with structure in which to work, I see what happens and then I react to that. What I really try to avoid, is telling someone to do something and then having the expectation that they will do it exactly how I want them to do it. Because expectations are just resentments in draft. I still do it, but I’m reminded, time and time again when I expect something from someone, when the word ‘should’ comes into my mind, that’s the worst thought – it’s useless. I can give my opinion and some kind of structure, then I let the outcome be the outcome, and see what happens. If I don’t agree with it, I can go back again. That’s how I would say that I influence people. I don’t control them but I can influence the people that I work with in a certain way. I’m under no illusions that I can control them – I can’t even control myself all of the time, that’s just a fact of life. So I think that informs a lot of how I work with people.
What does ‘not being attached to outcomes’ bring you?
A sense of peace. It brings me an ability to look at things calmly. When I’m invested in an outcome, then my emotions are running riot. Not always straight away, but if something doesn’t go the way that I want it to go, then my buttons are being pushed, I’m getting angry or upset because things aren't going my way. All those emotions are clouds to clear headed judgment. Emotion has its place, but if I get emotionally invested in outcomes, that becomes a problem. What I get out of it is a relatively calm view of things, most of the time.
I have a propensity to imagine the worst, that’s somehow in my makeup. In my line of work, that’s actually not a bad thing, if it’s used in the right way, because it’s kind of my job in a way. If a sales guy’s job is to imagine the best way things can happen, my job is to imagine the worst things that can happen and prepare for it. It’s also somewhat a trap. Both are a trap in themselves. If the optimist says everything will be fine so I don’t need to do anything, and the pessimist says everything is terrible so there’s no point in doing anything, it’s the same outcome – nothing happens. I try and cultivate a sense of not getting invested with it being perfect, but also not falling into the trap of assuming everything is going to go wrong. It’s a strange combination of that. For what I do, both of things are important. By focusing on actions and not attaching to the outcomes, I can strive towards the balance of both much better.
So how do you combine your sense of drive, passion and ambition with the practice of not being attached to outcomes?
I think my sense of drive and ambition has changed dramatically in the last few years. If I go back four years, my sense of drive was attached to outcomes. Could I get the job, could I get the promotion, could I get paid more, could I get more respect? All these were things that I thought I could control, but I actually don’t, and that’s what I was striving for. I think I was a bit more immune to these problems when I was younger, because that’s sort of the age – your early 20’s and 30’s are when you’re striving. But those things were not good for me, not good for my soul or my wellbeing. Strive probably isn’t the right word, but what I’m focused on now are things like helping people, doing simple things well, looking after myself well, looking at my own actions rather than looking at other people’s reactions.
The irony of that is now, in the work environment, it makes me a better manager than I was and probably a better person than I was.
The things that I’m ambitious toward are unwinding at the end of the day and waking up feeling alive. Simple things like that, which weren’t really on my agenda in my 20’s and 30’s but now, the rest doesn’t really seem important when compared to something like that. The irony of that is now, in the work environment, it makes me a better manager than I was and probably a better person than I was. I think I did a lot of questionable things because of my drive and ambition in my 20’s, but I have different priorities now. I think going to bed at night with a clear head, that’s possibly the ultimate test.
I love that you said “doing simple things well” and looking after your health. I definitely relate to the ultimate test of going to bed with a clear head and waking up feeling alive. That has a direct impact on how you show up in life and on your performance at work.
What got you to this point of awareness?
I’ve always had an interest in meditation. I always had a busy mind and it seemed like something that would be useful to me, but I had never tried it. In 2015 I was not really in a good space, I was really struggling with all of the things I mentioned before. I wasn’t living a healthy life, emotionally or physically, and I sensed I needed something to break the chain. I was overworked, overly anxious, doing okay at work but driven by fear, and not being able to just do things at a reasonable pace. It was either everything or nothing. I was having lifestyle problems, I was drinking too much – I was numbing. So I’d either be 1,000 percent, or I’d be numbing. For a long time, I really thought of balance as being completely crazy on one side and completely checked out on the other. Like having one foot in boiling water, and one in icy cold water – I should be reasonably comfortable. But that’s not how it goes.
I was like ‘forget the esoteric shit’, just give me the instructions and I’m going to go and do it.
I started this meditation course. I really enjoyed it but I think now, I kind of had things back to front. What I was thinking was that my life feels sort of out of control, and if I could just meditate enough, I’d stop being crazy and my life would get under control. It helped, but what I really needed was to change my operating system, I really needed to live my life on a spiritual basis. Meditation was good, because it was an inkling of what that could be. I went into that course thinking I just want to meditate – it was mindfulness-based stress reduction course – MBSR. I was like ‘forget the esoteric shit’, just give me the instructions and I’m going to go and do it. But what I found, was that [the teacher] brought a lot of the Buddhist stuff along too, and I really enjoyed that, so that was the introduction to it. What I believe now, having done a lot of meditation since, is that if spend my day well, doing the right things, then I will be able to focus during my meditation. I used to think that if I did the meditation right, the rest of the day would fix itself.
A teacher I had talked about it being like a car that overheats. If you’ve got a car and it overheats often, the first approach is to address that specific problem, so you stop to cool the car down and then drive off, but it’s going to happen again. So what I needed was to fix the car, to get to something deeper. For me, that was living on a spiritual basis.
I had imagined the spiritual existence would be kind of revelatory, an awakening, a very significant moment. But for me, it’s much more transactional - spirituality comes through the day to day.
What that really means to me is showing up, paying attention, not attaching to outcomes and being honest. All of that is thinking less about me. I had imagined the spiritual existence would be kind of revelatory, an awakening, a very significant moment. But for me, it’s much more transactional – spirituality comes through the day to day. My relationship with my higher power is expressed in how I deal with people; I can’t have a good relationship with the higher power if I’m fighting with everybody. Conversely, if I’m relating well to people, I think that’s connecting to the higher power, and that is a spiritual experience. There wasn’t a white light, or clouds or rainbows or anything like that. It happened over time – it’s a practice, and you need to practice it every day.
I like how you describe that because often I think that living a spiritual life has some connotations and is seen or depicted as wearing certain clothes, speaking in a certain way, etc.- it’s hard to connect with for people.
I believed that too, that was my image of it as well and I couldn’t relate. But it’s been a very practical journey. I think that’s why I’m very interested in the Buddhist route, because I think that is quite practical - the cessation of suffering and needs, but on every step of the way you should feel the benefit and blessing, and I do. I wouldn’t say that I’m a Buddhist or that I follow that path particularly, but there is certainly lessons in Buddhism that I find really appealing. I’m drawn to practical things, that’s part of me. That’s the job that I’m in and why I’ve ended up in the job.
So in 2015, after doing the meditation course, what changed?
I gave up drinking, I gave up lying. To put it simply, I got married, I got sober, I got some spirituality and I would say that pretty much changed all of my basic operating systems. It was quite an effort, quite a journey, but I found a group of like-minded people who helped me. What I found was that alcohol was an important one. I was conscious of this for a long time; there were so many things that I wanted to do, that alcohol was holding me back from. My meditation teacher described it as: if doing spiritual practice is like rowing a boat, still drinking was like rowing the boat tied to the jetty. Like you’re doing all the right things, but just not making any progress, and that’s what it felt like to me. It was kind of the one thing that handicapped everything else. Once I was able to be free of that, then a lot of other things became possible. I learned in that process that things can change.
I learned in that process that things can change. Before that process, I thought, I won’t change - I’m an Australian guy, I drink alcohol, I won’t change. What I couldn’t see was that I was changing.
Before that process, I thought, I won’t change – I’m an Australian guy, I drink alcohol, that won’t change. What I couldn’t see was that I was changing. There were a few things around that period where I suddenly went, okay I can change. It sounds quite obvious, but to me that was a bit of a revelation. For example, my thought pattern became, well I can stop drinking, maybe I don’t have to eat so much meat? Now I only eat meat twice a week, which for me was unheard of. It just gave me the awareness that I’m not fixed.
I also read a book around the same time – The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge and it talks about that – the brain is completely plastic, and this idea that we’re all fixed is completely erroneous, and we’re all changing in many ways.
So essentially you shored up your experiential spiritual practice with some scientific theory!
Absolutely. That’s something that I still think about a lot today, that I’m always changing, and if I’m not conscious about the direction I’m changing, then where will I end up? Not to say I’m thinking about who I’m going to be in five years, that’s too abstract for me, but if I’m changing minute by minute and the next thing I do is the right thing, then I should be generally going the right way. Again, very practical.
I’ve heard that described as “what you do now in the present is what shapes your life in the future”. So rather than excessive planning and always thinking about the future, you’re in the present doing what feels right and true to you now, and that informs how your future unfolds. Which is a slightly different way to looking at it than what we’re taught.
Yes, I like that. I’ve often heard, don’t regret the past and live in the present. What I’ve learnt is that if I live well in the present, I don’t regret the past. But if I live poorly in the present, or unwisely, then I can’t help but regret the past. Not regretting the past is a great idea and a good philosophy, but it doesn’t work for me if I’m living in a shitty way in the present. So the best way is to work well today, and then tomorrow I won’t regret yesterday. I used to live a lot in the past – that was always in my makeup – which I don’t really do as much now, I’m much more at peace in my day to day.
I’m keen to know, how did you integrate these shifts in your personal life with your work life?
What I’ve found, is that work is an excellent training arena for all of these things and that the spiritual life is not an abstract thing. It’s a day to day, transactional occupation. On any given day I have 100 different opportunities to practice a spiritual approach to things. That’s been tough though, because what is fairly black and white in personal relationships or in society can be really ambiguous at work.
My natural tendency is to avoid discomfort, and that can show up in having an opinion, and not expressing it. What I’ve previously believed is that if something doesn’t effect me personally then just keep my opinion to myself. Now, if there’s an opinion that affects my staff, then not giving that opinion to protect myself, is quite selfish. So what I’m challenged to do more often, is to give opinions that are uncomfortable for me to give on behalf of other people.
At work, more than in social situations, there is so much more potential for conflict. At work you’re dealing with urgent views and needing to find a consensus. It’s always a challenge to do that in a constructive way and not to get drawn into the acrimony, investing in the outcomes and getting personal. All of those things are a daily challenge, whereas those challenges don’t come up as often in my personal life. That’s the nature of work, that’s just how it is, so these are good trainings for me.
So it’s a way of applying your personal spiritual practices to complex scenarios in the workplace?
I wouldn’t stop a meeting and start quoting Buddha. It comes back to what we were discussing before, that I can only control my own actions. In those moments where my impulse is to argue, or to really bite, if I can just take a breath, let that emotion rise and pass. Pausing is a really valuable lesson. I’m so aware of what’s going on inside now and how I’m reacting to things. I don’t get that sort of training as often outside of work.
When I’m there, I’m in the flow, it feels like that’s where I should be. When I’m not in alignment, I feel that straight away, and that for me is the closest proximation to spirituality that I’ve come across yet.
You’ve mentioned spirituality a few times, I want to ask what does spirituality mean to you?
What spirituality means to me... what I feel is that there is an unseen order to the universe and my ultimate good is directly related to how well I can align myself to that unseen order (I’m quoting William James). Spirituality for me, is what I should be doing, it’s the task that I should be aligned to. When I’m not there, these are the things that I notice very quickly these days. When I’m there, I’m in the flow, it feels like that’s where I should be. When I’m not in alignment, I feel that straight away, and that for me is the closest proximation to spirituality that I’ve come across yet.
Fear is the one for me that shows up in all sorts of ways, it’s the tell. Fear is kind of the master emotion, anger and jealousy and all of these things are just fear showing up in different ways. That’s when I know I’m not acting in a spiritual way.
How do you maintain the things that are important to you and your values in your daily life?
I pray and meditate every morning – my optimum time is 20 minutes, it’s been as short as 20 breaths sometimes. So that’s kind of like the low bar that I set for myself that whatever happens, I’m always going to sit down and pray and meditate every morning.
I do a very simple checklist in the evening before I go to bed, just checking in on things like have I been selfish, or have I helped other people. The morning practice sets me up for a good day, and if I have a good day, the evening wraps it up. If I have a bad day, I’m reminded where the work is.
Part of my makeup is that I always want to be in control, which is not always healthy. I try to set up things so that I have enough control that I’m on top of my job and I know where my commitments are at, but I try and avoid stepping over into the over-control, the control freak. It’s a practice of keeping things under control enough that they’re not creating stress for me.
My meditation practice is usually Anapanasati - awareness of breath - or loving-kindness meditation. Awareness of breath helps me focus and leaves me with a calm mind, but it’s still a bit like the car radiator, it’s fixing the problem but it’s not getting deep. What I find with loving-kindness is that that really promotes a state of mind and a feeling of love and kindness for other people. That’s the one that I always really enjoy.
If any of the themes here raise questions in you, Simon is happy to connect on LinkedIn or you can reach out to me at email@example.com.