This isn’t Christopher Liedel’s first time around the block. The CEO of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame (which is expected to open in spring 2020) has also helped build up brands such as National Geographic, where he served as executive vice president and chief financial officer, and as president of Smithsonian Enterprises, the revenue-producing arm of the Smithsonian Institution.
In Colorado Springs, Liedel will be in charge of a venue projected to draw 350,000 visitors annually — one that is expected to revitalize southwest Downtown.
“The great thing about this project,” Liedel said, “outside of being part of the Olympics, which is an attractor, is when I stepped back and looked at what we were trying to accomplish for the community and what the teams were already doing. That was really compelling to me.”
And Liedel may be taking the lead when it comes to one of Colorado Springs’ most anticipated projects, but he often interjects his feelings about the importance of his team, adding teamwork is one of many life lessons to be taken from athletics.
How would you describe your leadership style?
There are a few areas I try to focus on. One is being growth-focused. I like to help organizations that are in mature industries try to grow bigger and find new avenues for revenue. Another is, with startups or business models that are new and emerging, I try to be a good steward of fostering those. I’ve realized, through my experiences not only here but with various companies around the world, that there is not a prescribed model for success. You have to let organizations find the right cadence. If I ever write a book it will be about corporate cadence — the pace at which an organization can change based on its market and management team. Those are important attributes.
Why is teamwork important to you?
Over the last 20 years, the composition of teams and team structures has really changed. Before you’d build members of your team, like players on a basketball court. Now I see success comes from bringing teams together based on skill sets. Members of the team may be part of a consulting firm or maybe another small company that can bring expertise. When I look at how the museum has grown, we have those who built the collections, those who built the museum, those who design museums, those who do storytelling. Those combinations don’t all have to be under the same legal entity. I’ve really embraced this concept of networked organizations where sort of legally independent companies come together with specific skill sets to help us as the core business, the museum, be successful.
Colorado Springs is known as Olympic City USA. What does that mean for the museum?
It’s the reason I wanted to come here — the City for Champions. I remember during my interview process when they showed me the project. When I saw the slide of where the museum would sit in southwest Downtown — the vision for that — in my heart I said, ‘I want to be here and be part of making that real. How do I bring the skills and talents I have to this community? But also, how do I bring in other talented people and create diversity?’
That’s where my team philosophy comes in — I like the team to have the freedom to share their ideas. I believe that significant innovation comes from people standing on the fringe of a project. A number of our key innovations have come from the Millennial crowd that’s walked through and shared ideas of what makes the museum important to them. We’ve gotten athletes’ feedback about how to tell their stories and make them more real and authentic.
What are some challenges you’ve faced?
A challenge I think any CEO deals with is translating vision into execution. As you try to create change in an organization, you need a significant amount of support in understanding where the organization can go, what its future state could be, and a strategy to get from the current state to that future state.
Along the way some may not buy into it. But we’re unique here because we can really focus on vision together because there isn’t an existing enterprise we’re managing. Typically, when you create change, people still have to do their day jobs. You still have to run what makes the organization great now and prepare for where you want it to be.
I think every CEO is having to adapt. You have to adapt to your environment. Time is getting compressed when it comes to product development, whether that’s a museum experience or an exhibit or a widget made in a factory. I think CEOs also need to adapt to new talent. Talent is shifting in terms of where you get resources and what they can do. … The last challenge is resources, whether money, talent or infrastructure. Every CEO is trying to manage those three things. It’s the classic puzzle of time, talent and treasure.
Can you offer insight into running successful fundraising campaigns?
For fundraising, know your purpose. I think a lot of nonprofits get tied up with the mission of the organization, which is always important, and the vision is how we do it, but the purpose is the why. Why do we do this? Why do we get up every day and tell these stories? Our purpose is to fuel people’s passions, whether it’s sports or something else, to be their best.
I think fundraising in the future will be all about the why.
What can small businesses learn from sports?
Think about innovation in sport. Think of Dick Fosbury and the Fosbury Flop and how he changed the high jump. Now, technology helped because years before they used to land in sawdust and you’d probably break your neck. But he changed the sport.
So what does a small business operator take away from that? Also, ask yourself: Can you, in your company, be the best out there? What does it take to create excellence?
And finally you can go back to the Olympic values like friendship. How, as a business, are you building your network? How are you creating a greater experience for your customers?
There are so many lessons that can be learned from sports.
Join Phil Long Dealerships and the Colorado Springs Business Journal for the 2020 COS CEO Leadership Lessons with Chris Liedel, 4:30-6 p.m., Aug. 5, at the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum, 200 S. Sierra Madre St. A portion of the proceeds go to the 2020 Give! Campaign. Sponsors also include Amnet and Stockman Kast Ryan + Co.