Want to join a sports board? Leave your ego at the door, says Pony Club Australia Chair Heather Disher

July 2021 
Heather DisherThe last weekend in July saw the start of the equestrian competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Making her debut at the Games is 30-year-old dressage star and former Pony Club member, Simone Pearce - the Australian Equestrian team’s youngest member.

Someone who is watching Simone and all the Olympic equestrian action closely from her home in Victoria will be Pony Club Australia Chair, Heather Disher. Re-elected in May for a second term, Heather said being nominated to chair the board again was a “wonderful honour”.

It must be an exciting time for Pony Club now to have all this Olympic equestrian action going on?

Yes, anyone in equestrian at that level has been a Pony Club member. It’s a very exciting time for all the little kids that ride every day and have aspirations of representing their country.

While it’s all happening in the background, Pony Club continues to teach young riders the fundamentals of good horsemanship and sportsmanship. Pony Club is the pathway to high performance equestrian events like the Olympics.  We are all very excited to watch the Olympics then our focus will move to our Nationals in September (COVID permitting). The Olympic is still a very exciting time for Pony Club and indeed for sports across Australia.

You also head up the Pony Club International Alliance. Tell us a little about that.

Last November I was appointed Chair of the eight-nation Pony Club International Alliance, which Australia is hosting for the next few years. We have created a number of international opportunities through our co-operation including run international events virtually where competitors are filmed, the first time that this has been done anywhere within equestrian, it was very exciting.

This is partly fuelled by not just the opportunities that COVID has brought to us, but also by the delivering opportunity for those that aspire to the Olympics, and others wanting to step outside their state or national environment and into an international space. It’s a very exciting time for young riders and one of the recent winners was Australian 16-year-old who was awarded dual International Champion. We are so proud of the winner and all the entries. 

Are the board members generally open to these changes, in terms of doing things differently?

Pony Club, and sporting organisations in general, come from a space of tradition, of process, rules and grassroots functions and ‘this is how we do it’. That doesn't mean the board is not open to expanding and exploring opportunity: it's hard for some, and it's super easy for others. Pony Club is very lucky to have progress thinkers and experienced board members who care about the future of our sport and the safety of our members and the wider community.

As a board, it's our job to guide the organisation - to look at the direction the organisation is going, and if the organisation can go in a particular direction, does it serve our mission, our members and our stakeholders, then we absolutely explore options.

Both the PCA and PCIA board is incredibly open to new ideas, from our stakeholders, as well as from our members, but also from the wider community and what's going on in the world. So we have very little restriction from the board, in terms of thinking.

What is the challenge of Chairing a national sporting organisation within a federated structure?

Pony Club Australia is a national sporting organisation and our states are state sporting organisations. So our states are some of our key stakeholders as well as our members.

This federated structure within the sporting area is quite complex and difficult to manage, but it's also very rewarding when you get things right, and you have consensus. When that consensus becomes a national consensus it’s incredibly rewarding for everybody involved. 

What’s the secret to a successful sports board?

I work very closely with my fellow board members and the board is a really great mix based on a skills matrix. In my view this is essential for any sporting organisation. If you don't have the right skills, you get too much crossover of experience and not enough effective thinking. 

There are some who are involved at a grassroots level, those who are directly involved in high level events, coaching or judging others who don’t necessarily have any direct connection with Pony Club - you have diverse thinking. We all deliver something special and important to our decision-making. 

The other thing that makes us so successful is we have an incredible CEO. Dr Catherine Ainsworth is an amazing individual, very highly skilled, and we're very lucky to have her. The board also connects with key stakeholders, listening to their perspective and views is highly valuable to our planning and decision making.

As a board we rank very highly in our governance areas and deliverables in terms of a national sporting organisation.

What other boards are you involved with?

As well as taking on the Chair of Pony Club International Alliance, I also Chair the National Safety Committee for Pony Club Australia.

I’m heavily involved with many committees within Pony Club, they can take a great deal of time and commitment. But it is also a great honour to get to see all the different areas of the organisation. When you’re on a Board you’re often looking at everything from above, rather than what’s going on at ground level. I also get to hear all the different requirements from the different states.

I'm also on the Board of Geelong Animal Welfare Society (GAWS), am Chair of the GAWS Risk Committee. As you can see, my passion is animals!

What are the different challenges facing sporting and animal not-for-profit boards?

Animal welfare is very important in Pony Club and also within GAWS. But the main challenge is the different structures. Pony Club is a sporting organisation in a federated structure whereas GAWS is in a more traditional NFP structure. The way in which decisions need to be made and the way in which you need to engage with stakeholders is quite different.

In GAWS we can move forward with decisions at a faster rate than we can within Pony Club Australia.

For GAWS one of the challenges recently, of course, has been funding, in the wake of bushfires and then COVID which has affected fundraising for animals and local not-for-profits.

Many NPF’s didn’t survive thankfully GAWS has, and we’re working on different ways to engage with the community for our fundraising.  A national sporting organisation doesn't have those same funding challenges as much of what we do is based on grants and membership fees.

So do you have lots of animals at home?

Funnily enough, the answer used to be yes, and then I travelled for a number of years and lived overseas before coming back to Australia in August 2019.

In the meantime, animals have come and gone and passed away and I haven’t had the opportunity to fill up my house. 

So, when I get a chance to go to GAWS I head over to every pen, talk to each animal and give them pats, asking “who needs a hug?”. I just love it.  At Pony Club I’m the same. Any time I can get near a four-legged animal I’m all over it! I’m hands-on.

So what are your tips for anyone who wants to get involved with a sports board?

  • Sport can have a great amount of ego. There are a number of people that want to get in there and make changes, because they can see things at grassroots. But that's not what a board is about. A board is about the bigger picture. Can you leave your ego at the door? Reflective decision making has no ego attached to it. There are too many decisions made by people in sport where they have an ulterior motive, whether they really realize it or not. That's a big issue within sport.
  • While people are often coming from a space of knowledge and bringing that passion forward, which is great, it’s also about thinking, ‘How can I contribute to the bigger picture, and not just to my child or this particular area? Can I put all of that aside and think differently?’
  • On boards you also have to be part of a team. Can you connect and be a member of the team and work as one? That’s critical. And can you elevate your thinking outside your area of knowledge? You have to step away from action and be reflective. 
  • It’s also important to really understand what board you're going on. Is it the right cultural fit? The culture of your local club might be quite different from your zone, district, state or national board. You might find that you loved the game and you loved being on the field and loved being one of the parents. Then when you're looking at it from a state perspective you might realise ‘I don't like this. This is not the culture that I know, this doesn't feel right’. It's different than when you're out on the field or when you're in the paddock with your horse.
  • Another key thing to consider is time. Sports boards, like any board, can take up a considerable amount of time. 
  • I would say also look for boards that have a skills matrix. Because that shows commitment to governance and to being part of a cooperative and collaborative team.

About Heather

Heather Disher is an Integrator working with companies offering coaching and business support for SME’s and virtual assistants locally and globally.  She has also been COO, CEO, Director, and Advisor across multiple sectors from start-ups to corporates and everything in between. As well as having over 20 years running businesses with a focus on creating a sustainable platform for ongoing growth, Heather has over 14 years as a Director including experience as a NED, Board and Committee Member, Advisor and Chair.  She is currently Chair of Pony Club International Alliance, Pony Club Australia and NED of Geelong Animal Welfare Society.