Leading by Listening

by: Mark Preston | May 09, 2013

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Chris Nicholson

In January, David A. Haggerty began serving a two-year term as Chairman of the Board, CEO and President of the United States Tennis Association. Haggerty, 55, of Pennington, NJ, brings an extensive background in the business side of tennis to his role in leading the governing body for the sport in the U.S. The former chairman of Head USA, Haggerty began his career in tennis in 1980, when he was hired by Prince as product manager. In his 14 years there, Haggerty worked his way up to general manager before taking a position at Dunlop as the president of Racquet Sports. He was recruited to Head in 1998, where he served as president of Head/Penn Racquet Sports and Penn Worldwide before becoming Chairman and CEO of Head’s U.S. businesses.

Prior to becoming the 51st President of the USTA, Haggerty served the association as First Vice President (2011-12), Vice President (2009-10) and Director-at-Large (2007-08). Before joining the USTA’s board of directors, Haggerty served for six years on the board of directors of the USTA Middle States Section. He also served a two-year term as president of the Tennis Industry Association from January 2007 to January 2009, and he served on the TIA’s Executive Committee for more than 20 years.

Haggerty began playing tennis at age 6 and was a nationally ranked junior. He received a tennis scholarship to George Washington University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration and was the No. 1 singles player on the varsity team, serving as captain for three of his four years at the school. Still a frequent player, Haggerty was nationally ranked in 2004-05 in singles and doubles in the 45-and-over age division.

As he began his term, Haggerty took time to discuss his priorities as USTA President and address the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the sport and the association.

Talk a little about your approach to your role as USTA president.
I’m approaching the job in a similar style to the way I’ve run businesses. Certainly the principles of leadership, management and partnership are the things that I see as the main elements to success in this role. I would call myself a “structure-and-process guy.” In my past lives in the tennis business, much of my time was spent building, introducing or reorganizing structure, and I’ve found that having processes and a well defined structure in place helps to create a foundation to provide vision and strategy.

Do you feel that the USTA’s vision is a clear one?
Certainly, our mission is a clear one—to promote and develop the growth of tennis in America. My role is to lead the association in the pursuit of that mission and to help focus our vision in that pursuit. I think we all can embrace a vision to grow tennis at all levels and make the face of our sport more closely resemble the face of our country. I believe we can realize that vision by focusing on three umbrella imperatives and five priorities that fall under those imperatives.

What are the three umbrella imperatives?
The three imperatives are leadership, management and partnership—and they are all essential for our success.

And what are the five priorities under those imperatives?
There are two priorities under the leadership imperative—to listen and communicate effectively and to embrace and lead change. Under the management imperative are to grow tennis participation, improve financial performance and focus on fewer things and do them well. Finally, partnership is the essential ingredient that leads to success.

You mention listening and communicating effectively. How does that translate into building and enhancing the USTA’s relationships with other entities in the sport?
Well, I referred to myself earlier as a structure-and-process guy, and that certainly is an important part of the process. Oftentimes, the USTA is thought of as the 800-pound gorilla and, unfortunately, people tend to think the worst about our intentions rather than give us any benefit of the doubt. Now, in my career in the tennis business, I’ve been on the other side of that fence, and I realize that we’ve earned some of that reputation, but I don’t see it as something we can’t overcome. I think that if we clearly state our intentions and demonstrate consistency, people might begin to believe that it’s a different place.

I see this as a cultural shift that we can experience by having big ears and small mouths. We need to be able to listen to people and have them genuinely believe that we’re listening and hearing their concerns. That doesn’t mean that we’re always going to agree, but I want people to know that the USTA is going to be more about dialogue than monologue. It’s important for everyone to know that if they’ve got a passion for this sport, they’ve got a partner in the USTA.

The recent controversy regarding the proposed changes in the junior competition structure has certainly provided a forum for exactly that sort of give and take.
You’re right, and that’s a great example of what I’m talking about. I’m not sure a lot of the people who have been so vocally opposed to those changes understand our reasoning in proposing them. It is also important to make sure you understand the customer’s needs and have an open two-way dialogue. So we’ve been conducting a series of “listening sessions” across the country with parents and coaches and junior players so that we can let them know where we’re coming from and we can hear their concerns. I will say that both sides have a lot of merit and we’re going to end up at the right place—wherever that is—because we’re going to listen and we’re going to learn. We’re determined to get this right so that we can have a junior competition structure that’s affordable, accessible, fair to all and—most important—in the best interest of American junior tennis.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the USTA at this time?
One of the most important things that we have to deal with is our strategic vision for the US Open, especially given the fact that the Open is our primary source of revenue. It’s our engine—and we’ve got to make sure that engine is finely tuned. That means we have to spend money to do the right things at the right time to make sure that the gem is brilliant and perfectly polished. But at the same time, we have to live within our means.

How do you balance all of that?
We need to be especially smart in our decision-making. We can order off the menu, but we can’t order three entrées. We can order an appetizer and an entrée and maybe if we’re good, we get dessert. Right now, we can’t afford everything that’s in the strategic vision—and bear in mind that the strategic vision currently doesn’t include a roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Maybe in the past that wasn’t such a big deal, but when you have five consecutive years of Monday finals, it suggests that a roof might be something we need to strongly consider.

Should a roof be a priority?
The roof is a priority. We will have a roof when we are able to figure it out from a technological standpoint and at a more affordable cost.

Outside of the US Open, what are some of the other challenges you see looming?
Well, you mentioned the proposed changes to the junior competition structure. We’ve had a good deal of push back externally on that—for some good reasons—so it’s critical that we focus on that to get it right. Also, obviously, it would be great to have more Americans in the second weeks of major events, so Player Development is something we need to examine to ensure that we’re doing the right thing there.

And do you feel as though the USTA is doing the right thing in that area?
I think we do a lot of things well, but it’s something you need to continually review because things are always changing. Especially in this area, you need to be constantly improving or you’re falling behind. And we’ve got to have open minds and an open slate to figure out how to do that.

The United States is fortunate to have great entrepreneurial coaches and academies, so we have great resources. We don’t have to do everything ourselves. We have to be inviting to these coaches and academies and not feel that the USTA is solely responsible for the development of American players. We need to get rid of the “us against them” mentality and focus on cooperation and what’s best for the sport and its players.

The aforementioned listening and communicating . . .
Exactly. We aren’t that far off on a lot of things, but we are really off in terms of communication. If we had more dialogue and were able to sit face-to-face more often, I think we would build a lot more trust and we could solve a lot of misunderstandings.

Will that be a priority for you, to get out there and engage in dialogue with the various constituencies in the sport?
Absolutely. Maybe it comes from my days in the tennis manufacturing business, but when you have customers, you don’t just visit the ones who tell you how great you are. You also visit the customers who say, “You’re an idiot,” and “I don’t like your product,” because you just might learn something from them.

Now, I don’t want to spend two years talking to people who just think we have our heads on backward, but I do want to hear those opposing views. In the long run, it will only make us stronger and allow us to do more things right as an association.

What are some of the things you feel that the USTA currently does right? What are its strengths?
There’s an awful lot we do well. I think we’ve shown good leadership at every level of the sport—and we continue to lead. We’ve got almost 30 million people now who play tennis, and that’s fantastic. Many of our ideas, our innovations and our programs have helped to get those people in the game and have helped to keep them in the sport. Our challenge now is to turn them into frequent players, and if we want to double the size of the frequent player base, we need to present them with more new play opportunities and formats that meet their time and social requirements. So our challenges are ever-evolving and truly exciting.

Without a doubt, the USTA’s greatest strength is its people. There is no other association in sports that’s as community-based as we are or that can boast the passionate volunteer corps that put a face on the USTA. I can tell you that we could never accomplish all that we have if it weren’t for our volunteers. When you think of the amount of advocates that our sport has in communities large and small throughout the country— these are the people who run programs and tournaments, give lessons and build tennis centers. They get their kids involved in the sport because they love it, have experienced the life lessons that tennis teaches and want to share those lessons with others. It’s just remarkable to see that level of passion. I do think tennis is probably a disease—but it’s a good disease.

You mentioned earlier the importance of getting kids involved in the game. Talk a little about the success of the USTA’s 10 and Under Tennis initiative—will that continue to be a point of emphasis?
Absolutely it will. When we stepped back a couple of years ago and took a look at how we introduced tennis to young players, we realized it was a wonder that we had any at all. Sizing the game appropriately to a child’s age seems so obvious now, and its success has been very exciting for us. The bottom line is that if it’s fun, kids will play; if it’s not, they’ll find some other activity. We want tennis to be fun—and it’s not about producing the next American champion as much as it is about getting more kids playing tennis, populating the player base and allowing them to have fun and be active so they can enjoy a healthier lifestyle.

In two years, what would you have liked to have accomplished in this job? What will spell success for you?
In a lot of ways I’d say it’s making the 800-pound gorilla into a 400-pound gorilla. What I mean by that is I want the USTA to be approachable, respected and viewed by all as a partner in progress. We’ve made great strides in all of those regards, but I think we can do better. And I think we can build trust. When we accomplish that and have our culture become more open, transparent and inviting, that will lead to greater growth in the sport and help it to be more inclusive and accessible to everybody. That would spell success for me.

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