17 Jan 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

Talent management agency Benchmark Talent has relaunched as thinkBeyond Talent, building on 20 years’ experience to provide a new and distinct service to the talent management and strategy marketplace. The relaunch sees a repositioning to focus on supporting athletes towards a career underpinned by social values within the context of the growing power of the athlete voice and rise in cause marketing. We caught up with track legend Michael Johnson, who has been working with thinkBeyond Talent since 2015 to create, implement and manage his sport for social change foundation, Michael Johnson Young Leaders. Here he shares his motivations for setting up the programme and the impact it has had.

You have been involved in sport for social change for many years now, both supporting other organisations and creating your own. Why do you think sport can play such an important role in changing our society for the better, and what role do you think athletes can play?
To me, sport is so much more than just playing, competing and being entertained. Sport is a valuable tool for sustainable social change and has proven to be more effective than anything else in breaking down barriers and producing positive results where change is necessary and difficult. Sport is extremely popular around the world and is universal in itself. It is familiar to everyone, everyone can connect through it, speak the same language and feel the same emotions and that is invaluable when it comes to communicating with hard to reach groups or dismantling community divides. As athletes we are privileged to have a platform and a voice that can help us connect with thousands of people around the world, and if we can use that access to help spread a positive message and to make our world a better place then it’s my belief that we should take that opportunity.


What were your motivations for setting up your own foundation?
While supporting many organizations using sports as a catalyst for change over the last 20 years, I met many inspirational young people working within their own communities with often very little resources or training but who were able to have an amazingly positive impact on others around them. I realised that there was an opportunity for a unique program, which would provide some of the most talented of young people with the tangible tools that would enable them not just to change their own lives, but to make a bigger impact – on their community and on society as a whole. The best role models and leaders are always those that have experienced the same upbringing and circumstances as you and have an in depth understanding of the challenges faced. By setting out to empower young leaders from within communities my hope was that I could not only change their own lives, but the lives of thousands of other young people around them that they could inspire and support. 


Did you have a clear vision for Michael Johnson Young Leaders and can you give us any insight into the process that you went through to decide its focus and structure?
I didn't initially set out to create a foundation and then figure a concept, since I was happy supporting organizations already doing fantastic work using sport as a catalyst for change.  As outlined above, I saw a need that wasn’t being filled so the idea was always clear from the beginning, to give these natural born leaders who’ve overcome adversity and who’ve shown an interest in leading others the self-belief, tools and resources to do so. 


You are now three years in to the programme, can you tell us a little more about how it has developed and who it is working with?
The program in a very short time has exceeded even my own goals. We have young leaders from over 20 different countries and they are working hard and making an impact in their communities and beyond. The success is in the number of people we are positively affecting through our young leaders. Our young leaders are not only helping people in their communities to overcome adversity, they are also passionate about helping to develop even more leaders, recognizing young people like themselves and banding together believing that there is strength in numbers. 


How important is it to be working with partners to help deliver the programme?
The success of MJYL to date is due to the tireless work of the board, our staff at Michael Johnson Performance and their passion for sport, and great supporters and partners like thinkBeyond Talent, social change consultancy thinkBeyond and Coaches Across Continents who have collaborated and contributed their experience and expertise. They have been fully responsible for the design and implementation of the programme, and through thinkbeyond and Coaches Across Continents we have been able to connect with a global network of NGOs who are doing great things to positively impact society through sport. They in turn have been able to personally nominate young leaders at the very grass roots of global communities who are showing potential and a passion for making a difference. Without this support we would never have been able to find the incredible Young Leaders we have been able to work with over the past three years.


What are you most proud of, and who has inspired you on your journey?
One young person who inspires me is not a name you know now, but you will. Fatma Said Ahmed. Fatma was chosen by my Foundation three years ago as a young leader and she has inspired me with her strong belief and desire to be the positive change in her community that she wants to see. She has already overcome barriers to succeed as a leader in her own community in Zanzibar and is well on her way to being a role model for many other young people who want to also be positive forces and who see sport as the key tool for achieving success in their community. Fatma has overcome barriers as a Muslim woman and started a center that provides books and resources to youth groups in the area and implemented a girls basketball club in schools. She is actually not an athlete, but long ago recognized the power of sport and believes strongly enough in it that she has developed programs exclusively using sport to address all sorts of issues in her community.


What does the future hold for Michael Johnson Young Leaders?
We are passionate about continuing our efforts to develop more leaders, creating a global MJYL alumni network of young people supporting each other to make a change in their own communities.  We will also seek to expand our reach through fund raising efforts and developing meaningful partnerships with organizations with similar values.