When two-time Olympic gold medalist and marketing expert Therese Brisson took over the reins of one of Canada’s most treasured – and underperforming – national sports associations, the alpine ski community across the country let out a long and slow exhale. She brings not only “fresh eyes” but also a pedigree tailor made for this position.
The six-time world champion and former captain of the women’s national hockey team is bubbling over with excitement as she leads the reboot started by Erik Guay and the powerhouse board of directors, as well as her predecessor, Vania Grandi, who left the post in May. Brisson says she intends to build on the momentum and help take Alpine Canada to new horizons.
With nearly two decades of sports leadership experience with the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own the Podium, the 53-year-old from Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., has crafted an impressive career as a high-level marketing executive for global brand product companies, which gives her a unique perspective on sport excellence and its value to consumers. This is crucial in the “new world” where innovation and adaptation is more important than ever. “The days of selling impressions on banners and events are long gone,” she said.
In a recent interview with Ski Racing, Brisson cited “contributing to country” as one of the biggest honours of her decorated sporting career and a motivating factor to putting her name in the hat to take over at the helm of Alpine Canada. We asked her a few questions from her home in Missasauga, Ontario.
What attracted you to apply for this position with Alpine Canada?
There are a number of reasons. First, that ski racing in Canada has such a rich history of excellence over the last 100 years. The second part that interested me is this terrific board, super accomplished, highly engaged and committed to excellence. This was certainly very attractive to me as the opportunity to work with that group is exciting. The third aspect is that we have a very talented pool of not just [the Canadian team] but also the up-and-comers. To work towards helping the athletes, teams and coaches reach the podium is very exciting. Lastly, Alpine Canada faces operational and financial challenges, especially with COVID situation. We have a tremendous challenge ahead of us. But there are lots of opportunities for innovation and business transformation and that I find really exciting. If this were a “cruise at altitude” assignment I’m not sure I would have been as excited about joining.
What are your skills and history that you think most impressed the hiring committee and board?
First, I was an athlete. And that I have a proven ability to develop Olympic champions, I believe was of particular interest to the board. Through my involvement with the COC (Canadian Olympic Committee) and OTP (Own the Podium) I’ve shown that I not only know how to help develop Olympic champions but I’ve had the opportunity to put in place programs and to innovate and transform sports. Next, is that I’ve been able to transform businesses and turn them around by deeply understanding the consumers and developing a value proposition that creates lasting connection for both the consumer and the company. I’ve been doing that over the past 16 years in Canada with pretty high stakes and with some of the biggest marketing companies in the world so that I believe is a skillset that they appreciated. Finally, I’m deeply connected in the sports community and with sport funding partners that I have on speed dial and know them and how to work with them.
I’m not a ski racer, so I’m not encumbered by “this is how we do things” so I can bring a set of “fresh eyes.” Perhaps there’s a new way for us to achieve the objectives we all have.
Have you met the team staff, in particular the high performance directors Phil McNicol (alpine), Dave Ellis (ski cross) and Matt Hallat (para)?
I don’t actually start until August 4. I know Dave a little and know Matt a little. I was at the bottom of the hill in Sochi (ski cross Olympic finals 2014) when we had that brouhaha with Brady coming fourth and the crease in the pants … and so I was so excited to see Brady on the top of the podium in Pyeongchang (2018 Olympic Games). I had a chance to have a brief chat with Phil and I think he’s a great example of what I’m excited about. This is a world-class group of high performance directors that we have in Matt and Dave, and now Phil.
How will you navigate through the COVID-19 travel restrictions and other challenges this presents?
This is going to be a year like any other we’ve seen before, that’s for sure. We will know a lot more about the FIS calendar and the World Cup circuit by August 15. (Editor’s note: this is when FIS will determine the World Cup schedule, in particular if the World Cup circuit can travel to North America). But we’re going to have to be prepared to react even if we don’t know what it’s going to look like.
On the commercial side, we really need to pause and take stock and look at our brand and our assets. How we can build meaningful assets that we can better serve our marketing partners? The days of selling impressions on banners and events are long gone and I think we need to think about what are the business objectives of potential partners and how can we help them achieve them? It’s because we can engage an audience in a way they can’t and that creates the value for our partners.
What will be your approach to working with the provincial sport organizations?
First of all, in working with all the sports this is not a unique challenge. All the sports struggle with this a bit. We all struggle with how we can give the athlete a more seamless experience from playground to podium. In particular, the safe sport challenges that we’ve experienced in unprecedented ways the last two years has been a huge wake up call for the sport system. If you have policies and procedures at a national level but have no way of ensuring implementation at a club level, then you have a real problem.
When it relates to performance what we’re really after is a seamless experience for the athlete and if we’re working in a coordinated and better integrated way then we also maximize our commercial opportunities to service the athletes and the coaches better. And we’re not wasting resources with duplication and we don’t have gaps in the system. There’s some great things coming out of the provinces so I’d like to see us reapply those things that are working elsewhere and do more sharing and work in a more coordinated way as one team Canada. Then we’re helping our athletes and teams reach the podium while inspiring the next generation of ski racers and fans.
There’s a massive gap from the NorAm circuit and the World Cup and this to me is something I’d like to dive into. But the bottom line is there’s some real experts out there that if we work together better we could truly unleash the full power a passionate and dedicated ski community.
Are you excited about the team that you’re inheriting? The board has been working on building a team and often someone in your position would be brought in to ‘fix things’ and build a new team.
I have a lot of confidence in the high performance team. We have some of the best in the world and a really good coaching staff. Around them we need to ensure we have the right IST team to support them. Yes I’m very excited about the team and I’m sure we’ll continue to assess and evolve and make sure the team has all the support we need … there are a few holes that are vacant that we’ll need to address. But overall there’s a really good group and I look forward to building on that momentum.
How important is a ‘winning attitude’ in your leadership approach?
This upcoming season is going to be a real test for us. How are we going to respond? An analogy … the gold medal game we played in Salt Lake City , there was an American referee. Canada vs USA and we start the game off with 9 penalties in a row. People have asked me, ‘how did you guys not lose it?’ [on the referee]. And I said, ‘never in my years of playing hockey has it been useful to argue with the ref on the way to the penalty box.’ So what do you do? You focus on the things you can control, the penalty kill and choosing to be positive. You have a choice. It’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s how you react.
The resilience that we use in finding a way to win and excel this season is how we will succeed. This can become a real competitive advantage for us.