The NRL's former COO, Suzanne Young, knew about boys' clubs and broken noses

Suzanne Young credits a childhood playing a variety of sports with her brothers for training her to stand her ground in a "blokey enviroment"

The National Rugby League is breaking out of its boys’ own culture and former chief operating officer Suzanne Young CPA was in the front row of the push.

Updated 8 November 2017. Suzanne Young is no longer in her role as the COO of the National Rugby League. This article is from the May 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.

Working for the National Rugby League (NRL) is not a job for the faint-hearted. Like a lot of football codes it’s been a boys’ club, at times tarnished by alcohol, sex and drugs scandals that have ruined playing careers and sent sponsors investing their money elsewhere.

But the NRL’s new chief operating officer, Suzanne Young CPA, is far from intimidated. She grew up on a farm, striding the paddocks with her father and grandfather, and her sporting pedigree saw her named Australian Surf Lifesaver of the Year in 1996. The resilience demanded by the rigours of that sport has prepared her for tough board meetings, players behaving badly and the ensuing battles with the media.

Suzanne YoungYoung’s steely stare and strategic business brain have accompanied her on a journey through the finance corridors of Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank (CBA), then on to contractor Leighton Holdings, and now the rugby league.

In a interview with former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley, a die-hard South Sydney Rabbitohs fan, Young explains how the simple lesson her grandfather taught her as a child – “You have to be able to look yourself in the mirror every day” – has guided her through her 25-year career.

Her job now is to drive the NRL, which posted close to A$345 million in revenue last financial year, as a commercial venture that’s as appealing to sponsors as it is to budding athletes and fans. It is also to turn around the bad-boy image that has so damaged the sport’s reputation and detracted from its core of sporting greatness and community spirit.

Alex Malley: Suzanne, you got your first sports injury, a broken nose, playing rugby league in the schoolyard, is that right?

"You know right from wrong and you had to deal with that." Suzanne Young

Young: Yes, I’ve got a flat nose on one side. I went to a primary school called Gubbata Public School … it was a tiny little school that had 15 kids. If you wanted to have a game of sport at lunchtime, everybody had to play. Whether it was netball, cricket, rugby league – everyone played.

Malley: You grew up on a farm in the Riverina (in southern New South Wales). Tell me about that childhood and what sort of things you learned.

Young: I grew up there with my mum and dad, my brothers and sisters, and Grandad lived with us as well. I spent time with Dad and Grandad on the farm, picking up values about life. I have a clear memory of Grandad saying: “You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror every day.”

What he was teaching me was that you know right from wrong and you have to deal with that. You have to know where the line is in the sand and that has held me in good stead. If I’ve had to fight for one of my staff in terms of protecting them or making sure they had a voice, I could do that because I knew I was doing the right thing.

The other thing about growing up on a farm is you become very resourceful. You can’t just pop around the corner to the hardware store or supermarket. You learn to use the resources you have. The strongest thing I learnt from my parents and Grandad was a strong work ethic. “If you’re going to do something, you do it at 100 per cent.”

Malley: Where did your sporting DNA come from?

Young: My parents played sport, we used to waterski in summer, windsurf and sail, and in winter it would be whatever the boys’ sport was, which was usually football. We were always throwing a ball around. In the country that’s really important because that’s how you connect socially with other people.

When I went to boarding school that probably had the biggest impact because there was formal sport. For the first time I played netball, softball, hockey, basketball, volleyball. I ran in the athletics team. I swam in the swimming team – it was a way not to get homesick.

My little brother taught me to be brave. He doesn’t have any fear. We used to get up to shenanigans on the farm and sometimes it would go awry.

The South Sydney Rabbitohs (in red and green) defeated the Canterbury Bulldogs (in white and blue) in last year's grand final

Malley: You’ve talked about having worked in “blokey institutions”. Do you think that childhood experience means you naturally gravitate to blokey environments?

Young: I think so. I’m not really a girly girl. Growing up with brothers, they are quite real, they just get on with it. We used to rumble, have a fight and five minutes later it would be over and we’d get on with life.

Joining North Bondi Surf Club had a big impact on me growing and developing my capability both in sport but, more importantly, in skills that I would use in my career – being able to talk to [everyone from] the barrister through to the greenkeeper. It was that very down-to-earth advice about how to manage stakeholders.

I made a mistake early on at the surf club, which was to take something to a management meeting which I thought was perfectly logical and it didn’t get approved. One of the old guys put his arm around me and said: “Darl, let me teach you how to do it”. He taught me that you can have a great idea but you need to socialise it – if you look at Kotter’s “8-Step Process for Leading Change”, it’s one of those steps [Dr John Kotter is an internationally acclaimed change researcher].

You have to socialise your idea, sell the concept and improve it through diversity of thought. Getting input from others and allowing them to also own the idea, gives it a much greater
chance of success.

Malley: You’ve been at the NRL now for about 100 days. If you think about day one and compare that to now, what has surprised you?

Young: Not surprising but endearing is the passion that people have for the game. They work hard, they go above and beyond to make sure the right thing happens. I don’t think enough people know that – it’s under-baked. I think the other thing that’s amazing is all the good work that the NRL does in the community, at the peak body levels right through the grassroot clubs.

"You have to socialise your idea, sell the concept and improve it through diversity of thought." Suzanne Young

It’s things that we stand for in the community: issues of mental health and how we support people through those challenges. We take a strong stance on domestic violence – internally and externally. [It’s] supporting things like White Ribbon [Australia’s campaign to stop violence against women], and the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

Internally we ensure all the rookie players go through a course called Respectful Relationships so that they understand what “good” looks like. We also have more senior players mentoring those rookies. That’s part of what I want to do here – make sure the message of all the good we do also gets known.

Malley: You’ve talked about bringing more women and children into the game, but it’s an interesting scenario because more mothers don’t want their children playing rugby union or rugby league for a whole lot of reasons, including physical issues [such as concussions].

Young: If I talk first as a mother, I have a very clear memory of being at Clovelly Beach [in Sydney]. The boys were maybe two or three years of age and they were climbing on the rocks, falling over and scraping their knees. I made a conscious decision that risk-taking is a normal part of life. Understanding where the boundaries are, absolutely. But you can’t wrap them in cotton wool. And it’s the same with playing contact sport. I see the bond they have through playing with their teammates and through training.

The discipline that gives: if you don’t train, you don’t play. Listening to a coach and listening to feedback. These are stories I use in the workplace because in a work environment sometimes people get bent out of shape when they’re given constructive feedback.

I say that in a sporting environment when a coach gives you feedback you listen, because you know their intention is for you to improve. It’s such an important message to get through to kids that they are not always going to do things perfectly but they can improve if they are willing to learn.

Malley: When you consider the money these players earn, they’re paid literally not to work but to totally focus on their fitness, on their capacity to play the game. Does that produce tension around how you create balance for them?

Young: I think that is one of the things we need to correct. We have a lot of our players doing further education. We have programs with 18 universities where players who are in elite pathways are working towards degrees – business, engineering, medicine. There’s a significant amount of work we’ve done over the last couple of years to build that support network to help them to make the transition later in life.

We’ve set ourselves targets in terms of the number of players we want to be in education. Many of them do community work, talking to kids in school about eating healthily and looking after yourself. The players say it gives them balance because it’s not all just about being on the field and and winning. It’s about understanding that the world is bigger.

Malley: Any fair observer of the league would say it’s clear people are trying to clean up those parts that haven’t been so good in the past. At the core of the challenge is the principle of equality between men and women. These boys are at the top of their game but are at an age where [their] judgement isn’t perfect. Things go wrong for a whole lot of reasons. How does one keep batting away at this principle of equality?

Young: There is not a single answer. Role modelling at home is really important. Discussion at school is really important, and [also] that they see women succeeding. In the football environment, they have male and female role models around them sharing that message as well. And in some cases, those football players have very strong mothers who are big advocates for them, but also they read them the riot act when they need to.

We have education programs – Respectful Relationships is one of those – where we talk to the players about right and wrong, how they can approach themselves, how they can protect themselves so that they don’t get into a situation that could go pear-shaped and have a negative impact on their life.

Related: Does sport give women a winning edge in business?

And it’s tough for some of those guys, they’re 17, 18, 19 years of age and they just want to be like any 19-year-old, a bit carefree. But because of their skill as a footballer and the opportunity they have in front of them, they have to be more careful.

Malley: What’s been the toughest moment so far?

Young: The best and the worst thing for me has been behaviour. Some of the best of it has been people welcoming me. I met Bob McCarthy [a rugby league legend from the 1960s and 1970s] the other night. He was very welcoming and interested in who I am and how he could help.

Laurie Daley’s been amazing [Daley is one of the greats of the modern game and coaches the NSW Blues State of Origin team]. Having access to some really good men in the game who are willing to give me a go – that’s been amazing.

And then there’s been the confronting behaviour. Having to stand my ground and say no. If we’re going to work together we need to be respectful. So … that’s normal. It doesn’t just happen here. I’ve had that at CBA, I’ve had that at Qantas, Leighton’s.

How CPA charged Young’s career

Young: I wouldn’t have got the job at the Commonwealth Bank if I wasn’t a CPA. David Craig [the chief financial officer] would never have employed me. He wanted someone that had professional accounting qualifications. I knew in my heart in my earlier days I just needed to get this done. It took me a long time to do it with little kids, but I did it.

Malley: Looking at your roles over the years with Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and more recently Leighton’s, you have been in roles for about two years. Was that a conscious move? Moving into the change strategy area and therefore having a shortened life span in these roles?

Young: It was. I have a reasonably high energy level and I am a change agent. That’s what I love doing. I like working in a team where we can improve. When I look at roles, I look at: is this a company I can be proud to work for? Is it a boss that I can learn from and is it a role where I can make a significant difference?

Read more: Bold strategic move 5: Cleaning up an act
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This article is from the May 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK

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