Martin Richard, Executive Director – Communications & Brand Marketing at the Canadian Paralympic Committee, works in a senior leadership role. He ensures he and his team are working collaboratively with the various partners. That could be the local media platforms or other National Sport Organizations. His ultimate goal within the organization is to grow the Paralympic Sport internationally! From a young age, Martin Richard knew he was destined to work with and lead people. In the interview, he talked about the reality of working in sport, and what philosophies he has learned along the way that have helped him stay passionate about sports to this day. Read below to learn from one of Canada’s finest, a leader who has spent decades in the sporting world. Enjoy!
Please note: The interview with Martin Richard was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.
Tell us about your role as the Executive Director (Brand Communications) at the Canadian Paralympic Committee?
I oversee everything that relates to brand communications. This includes brand/advertising campaigns and the coverage of our athletes. I oversee a team of 9 individuals, very talented individuals in a variety of areas. That basically sums up my role in terms of the communication side.
I’m also part of the executive management team. We oversee anything related to the business of sport or Para Sport in Canada, that deals with big decisions or dealing with the board of directors. On the business side, we work with the budget allocated to see where our priorities are going to be in terms of investment, supporting our 26 members, and the different sports federations in Canada that support Paralympic sport. We look at external partnerships whether it’s Corporate Canada, a business model with a sponsor, or a media platform like the public broadcaster such as CBC. Although I specialize in the coverage side, we overlook all areas of operations within our business.
What does a normal day in your role seem like?
There is not a single day where everything is the same. I’ve realized in the evolution of my role that in a leadership role I produce less myself and have great minds that do that for me. I have to set the direction to find the areas of synergies that align with your partners. I must ensure that what I do is done at the right time and has the impact that will help grow the organization. Obviously there is a lot of collaborative work through a lot of meetings, which aren’t always in the office. The bulk of our media platforms are based out in Toronto and Montreal, so there’s some amount of travel required there.
Also, since we are the National Paralympic Committee for Canada we work with other countries. Although we compete on the field of play which is the core of our business, we still share and collaborate on a lot of ideas. We are all trying to achieve the same objective of growing the sport of Paralympics. In my area, it’s to ensure it has the awareness to succeed. Working with countries such as the United States and Australia there is a lot of travel involved. It’s hard to stay put and individuals that have families or additional responsibilities, have to ensure that they balance it well so that work doesn’t take over your life.
If you weren’t in sport, what would you be doing?
In any area that allows me to be creative and innovative. I have a passion for storytelling, so media content is where I naturally fit. But I could also see myself designing products, designing concepts.
Is there a secret hobby you would like to share with us?
Well, I have a bachelor’s degree in Music. Music has always allowed me to escape when I’m stressed out. Or if I feel like my ideas aren’t coming naturally, I go there and suddenly the creativity starts flowing.
For me, it’s about having the ability to do something I haven’t done before and being the first to do it. That’s my internal drive. I always want to be the first one to come up with the idea and have success with it. If you are a sport scientist, you want to build a program that is better than what’s out already in the market. This applies to a variety of different areas. Whether its medicine, science, education or otherwise. I think people get comfortable doing the same thing over and over. When given the opportunity to innovate and being encouraged to do so, it always gives me that extra boost of energy.
Was your current path to success easy?
Nothing is easy, and if it was easy I probably wouldn’t enjoy it because I wouldn’t feel challenged. It’s a very difficult world to breakthrough, particularly when you first start out. The world of sport, especially in Olympic & Paralympic Sport, is not highly funded. So, the resources aren’t there, but the dream and ambition are. You always want to create big things, but you don’t have a lot of resources at your disposal.
What I’ve learnt is money should not be a barrier, there are ways to find solutions that don’t require money, and often it’s through partnership. It’s about getting people excited through certain things and wanting to help you. Especially working with national sports bodies particularly at the NSO level, you often have one person doing an entire field. You have one person in communications, one person for finance, one for logistics, so you also have to look at helping others outside of your area. I always give the example of when I used to travel with the Olympic swim team, I was the communication person but at times I was the driver, or the equipment handler, that’s the fun part you get to help others and learn from it.
What was your first job, and do you think it has helped you get where you are today?
The first one, probably not. I didn’t enjoy washing dishes at a golf club. But at the end of high school and beginning years of University, I had the opportunity to work as a Manager of an electronic store. I was obviously passionate about electronics and gadgets anything that was cutting edge. That role gave me the skill set to manage and motivate people because I led a young sales team. I had to ensure they were great communicators, they listened well and understood the clients and could provide the best possible advice to them. They had to respect the clients so it wasn’t pressured sales. So essentially that was my first experience in the world of business, and what I loved the most was dealing with people.
In sport, you work with athletes. I always say I work for the athletes and not for the sports organization. Although the athletes are part of the organization, I’ve always been very athlete-centred. But, sometimes there are situations where you have to go against your ambitions. Working in the world of media, you can have your athletes doing interviews day in and day out, but at some point, you have to realize if it creates a distraction for your athlete and impedes their performance, then you become a problem. So, the benefit of being athlete-centred is that there are times where I will make the decision of not having the athlete do an interview in a certain period because they need to focus and for them to be their best.
I have learned while working with different athletes, there are different personalities, some like the attention some find it uncomfortable which can lead to unwanted stress. Working in sales I started learning, every customer is different and has a certain need and that you have to approach every situation based on the individual versus a certain generic strategy. All customers liked to be talked to and treated differently, so I always asked people “how would you talk to others?” and often I would hear “I talk to them like I would like them to talk to me,” That’s the wrong answer. You should talk to them the way they liked to be talked to. Sometimes this means you have to sell them less. They don’t need the other things that you pitched and could make your money on, and they might actually become loyal to you because they feel they are being listened to and being provided for what they need.
This is how you deal with media but you are no longer selling a product but selling a message or a story. In amateur sport they don’t call you, you have to call them so you have to build that relationship. I was very fortunate to have this experience at a young age. Some people don’t recognize the opportunity, some people say “oh I work at this retailer or that”, but that is a great opportunity for you to develop great business skills. Also, for the people that are introverted or are shy, that’s the best job for you. It will help you experience what it’s like to be outside your comfort zone and deal with that emotional state.
Regardless of your job you will be put into certain situations, for example, you might have to do presentations and you might say “I’m not comfortable with that.” Well, guess what? Get comfortable, but learn from it. Make mistakes, learn from them. If you can’t sleep at night from nervousness, that’s normal! Live through it so you know next time how to deal through those emotions.
Who or what has the biggest impact in your career?
The people around me. Sometimes you work really hard, and at times you run out of energy, and start questioning how much more can I do, and your mind starts going to a darker place, that usually happens after a major event such as the Olympics, because you’re with people all the time, and it’s so fast-paced, and after the closing ceremony you fly back home and you say “I’m not great, I’m not liking this anymore”, and the thing that always brings me back and kept me going is the people around me.
One particular individual that I always say has really changed the way I see or approach things, is the former national head coach and CEO of Swimming Canada – Pierre Lafontaine. He’s a coach at heart, he’s coached athletes, he’s coached Olympic & Paralympic medalists across the globe. The one thing he always taught me and I think of till today is “when you walk in your office, or wherever you work, you need to ask yourself, what am I doing today that will help us bring a gold medal” and if the answer is nothing, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
You know I work in communications and that has no direct impact on an athlete winning a medal. But then you realize, it actually has a huge impact, as much as their massage therapist, or their team manager, as much as every individual around that athlete, because what you are doing is setting up an environment for success. I’ve learnt that from Pierre, I’ve known him for decades now and we have become great friends, he’s actually the godfather of my little guy. But, it’s through that mentorship and guidance that I’ve really been able to stick with sport, keep the passion alive, and also have that moral compass pointing in the right direction.
Another great philosophy that Pierre brought that is so relevant in this day and age, which wasn’t so much 20 years ago, working in a team environment not everyone is the same, usually people start criticizing differences which creates a toxic environment, which you hear a lot today. Pierre’s philosophy was to celebrate the differences within our team, accept the fact that the person is different and actually learn from them and use that to your advantage to create for yourself a variety of different personalities instead of the same person. Diversity is so important today, people are now recognizing when building their teams, they want diversity, and there is no hiding from the fact that diversity is all around us, but what you need to factor in is the inclusion part. Inclusion is a choice, it’s not a given.
You have to make sure that the people around you buy into this model that it’s a good thing for individuals to be different. Pierre has always said this and has changed so many programs around with that philosophy that “you need to stop criticizing each other and to celebrate”.
If you look at today’s swimming team they are winning medals at the Olympics, 10 years ago they weren’t. We had 0 medals at Athens with a very negative environment. Whereas today people are supporting each other, I am no longer part of that team but I still feel it in the performances and how the athletes/coaches conduct themselves, it’s really a philosophy that has kept growing. So, Pierre has been that person for me, and he’s not even a communications person, he’s a sports person, a coach, but has taught me lessons that go beyond my area of expertise.
What do you believe are the 3 essential skills needed to succeed in sports?
1Itch To Learn
I will only give you three but whether you are working in administration, sciences or communication you’ve got to always consider that you need to learn, learn and learn and strive for that. We need people that are jacks and jills of all trades. The world keeps evolving and if you aren’t constantly learning, you might be left behind. Be curious, read, ask questions, have meetings with people and learn from them.
2Build Good Relationships
Second is relationships, you need to be able to build and sustain those relations. Because that is what will help you to create an environment to help you succeed. People that will motivate you but also challenge your ideas.
Thirdly, I’m not sure if this is a skillset or something you need to embrace, but being innovative. Excellence is actually unattainable, you never achieve excellence in its true form. Because what’s good today, might not be tomorrow. So being able to challenge yourself constantly and being innovative is something you need. But the reality is you can’t always expect to be the innovator and have that idea.
Also, linking to that relationship piece, you have to surround yourself with like-minded people that will innovate but also celebrate and acknowledge that. When you surround yourself with people like that, ultimately, they will come up with great ideas, and will hopefully inspire you to bounce off with greater ideas.
What is something people don’t realize about working in the sports industry?
You will never get rich monetarily. However, you will get rich in experiences. You will build relationships that will last a lifetime. Like the example of Pierre being my son’s godfather. That goes beyond a hello in the hallway in the office. In sport, you get to experience the victory and defeat and all types of emotions. This is where you get the opportunity to learn and become a better person. Also, that travel perk. Yes, you go to so many different places, but you are so busy and focused on your work you don’t get time to explore. But, you do get a live preview of a potential holiday destination!
What challenges did you face starting off in sport?
The biggest was acceptance. You’re a young lad, coming into the industry with different ways of doing things. You think you want to change everything to make a point. It’s always difficult when you start off that way. As much as change is important to evolve and innovate, it’s also difficult to embrace. Also, too much change can create a negative impact on the environment. Accepting someone who wants to change everything is difficult. When you’re young and a little naïve, you don’t consider the value of some of the things that exist. You just want to change everything and you need to balance that in order to be accepted as a valuable team member.
So, how did you overcome this challenge?
I’ll be honest, I struggled with it at first. I was stubborn and ambitious and wasn’t listening. So, I realized at one point I needed to stop pushing ideas, and start listening to ideas and be more open-minded. By taking a step back you get a better angle at viewing different things. By doing this, I got to see from a different vantage point of different people’s ideas and allowed me to become a better leader. It’s easier to connect with the people that think the same way as you do, but as a team leader, your job is to ensure everyone around the table is valued and has input in the process, otherwise you lose those people and don’t get the best out of them.
From all the different projects and consulting roles, you have worked on which of those did you feel the most accomplished with?
When I first started off at the Paralympic Committee, one of the objectives I was given was to increase the broadcasting viewership of the games. All the different media outlets in Canada said the same thing. “We would love to do it, but it’s too much of a risk to do more with your property because it’s not worth anything,” I took offence to that. I work with athletes that are pretty darn incredible and passionate. But, people believe it to be the opposite. You could throw in the towel and call it defeat, but I approached the problem in a different way. So, I thought, “what’s the craziest idea we can come up with?”
I sat down with people that were far more experienced and knowledgeable than me. We decided to remove the biggest risk that the media outlets had said. We basically made the Paralympic Committee the main rights holder for television in Canada. Then, all the other broadcasters became partners of this initiative. We became a potluck and everyone brought something to the table. So, we removed the huge financial risk.
At the Paralympic Games in Sochi 2014, we reached more than 25% of Canadians. This was 10 times more viewers than we had in the previous games. It was a risk, but we were convinced, and we convinced everyone around us that this was going to work. Which, ultimately led them to believe it and that made it a success.
What does sport mean to you?
Sports is in all of us. Often, we just look at sport as the best athletes in the world winning the gold medal at the podium. But, that’s a small part of sport. Sport is everything that enables you to move, feel great about yourself, and be active. Everyone should be able to participate in sport. Unfortunately, this is not the case right now. But, if we want to be better humans and live in better societies, sport needs to be a part of it. Because it brings people together, sport for me is life. I’ve never looked at sport being part of my life, instead, I live sport every day.
Stacey’s Final Thoughts
Working in the sports industry means you are constantly going to be working with people; athletes, media, stakeholders, and more. Martin Richard touches on the fact that diversity exists all around us, and being different from others isn’t bad. You can learn from everybody you come into contact with! Also, no matter where you end up working in sport, it’s important to remember that every aspect of your role – and other roles in the organization – plays a part in the success of the athlete. Martin’s journey in sport shows us that in order to be the innovators in sport, taking a step back and listening to others might help you see things from a different perspective. This can benefit your professional development in the long run. We are looking forward to seeing the new innovative ideas that Martin Richard and his team will bring in the future, and we’re looking forward to the media coverage of the games for Tokyo 2020!