Ashley Howard’s Long Journey Home
Ah, the twists of fate.
If you’d told Ashley Howard 20 years ago that she would one day return to her home town to become UBC’s Managing Director of Athletics, she might have laughed. A career in sport administration was not something the Lord Byng High School graduate could have imagined back when she enrolled in the Faculty of Science at Queen’s University, rather than the forested campus down the street.
Such an idea was still out of scope when she graduated from Queen’s, as it was when she began an MBA in International Business at the University of Victoria. Not even a lifelong interest in competitive sport, including her experience as co-captain of Canada’s National Women’s Ultimate Team that won the 2000 World Championship in Germany, piqued any such thought or interest. And it certainly wasn’t within her field of vision when she became a product and special projects manager with an IT firm during the rise and fall of the dot com era.
Even when she moved to Scotland and put her business transformation skills to work in a high‑performance sport environment, she still hadn’t considered a career in university sport. But after 12 years as a senior leader in two of Scotland’s leading sport organizations, she began to think about a new challenge. As a mother of two toddlers with family in Vancouver, she began to think about “back home.” When she and her husband – a design engineer she met during an undergraduate exchange year at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde – contemplated bundling up the family to explore uncharted adventures in Vancouver, they got excited. And it was only after arriving back home that the opportunity she has today came into frame.
“The job was one of the first that caught my eye on my return to Vancouver. I was meeting with senior executives from a number of industries, and on many occasions, folk from my network independently flagged the UBC opportunity. I had already been working on my application.”
Not surprisingly, UBC isn’t an unfamiliar place to her. Why would it be to a perennial honours student who grew up just beyond its gates? She learned to swim at the UBC Aquatic Centre as a child, and as a teenager, she attended summer tennis and volleyball camps at UBC and “hung out a bit.” She later worked for three consecutive summers on Point Grey while studying at Queen’s. “I worked with a UBC professor of medical genetics on coding the number eight chromosome, and I also did a bit of research in the areas of philosophy and ethics,” she says with genuine modesty and just a hint of Scottish brogue.
Needless to say, a great deal has changed at UBC since those days. It looks different, feels different, and in almost every way, it is different than it was in the 1990s. After rigorous adherence to bold strategic plans implemented by the university’s leadership over the past decade, UBC has earned a reputation commensurate with many of the world’s most respected research universities. Its ongoing evolution now includes a process of reimagining Athletics and Recreation, with an eye to ensuring long-term financial sustainability and sharpening the focus upon certain teams to enhance competitive success. An external review conducted in the spring of 2012, followed by a series of “think-tank” sessions involving campus representatives and independent experts, has resulted in a framework for a new competitive sport model – one that Howard is mandated with refining in concert with a representative advisory team.
The process will continue to be highly consultative, but with the understanding that the overarching objectives are athletic excellence; greater connectivity to strategic partners; broader engagement of the university community than ever before; and enhanced student learning, together with professional development opportunities for coaches and staff wherever possible. The task of refining the UBC Athletics and Recreation program will involve change and all the attendant challenge and strain. But Howard stresses that the intention is to build upon UBC’s historical strengths to create a “Made in Canada” brand of university sport excellence, and one based on traditional values and principles.
“I am proud to say that I am captivated on an ethical and emotional level by the legend of the Thunderbird and the notion of ‘Victory through honour,’” she says. “We’ll never have to look for a guiding principle; we already have one, and it will be one of the key pillars for everything we do and every decision we make. My personal belief is that the creation of a cohesive and strategically focused culture is key to the success of any organization, and that an environment of integrity, fairness and inclusivity is the most essential element within that culture, especially one undergoing change and transformation.”
Fortunately for UBC, Howard brings substantial experience in leading sports organizations through periods of change and transformation. Most recently, she served as CEO of Scottish Swimming, where she helped lead the organization through a period of impressive growth and achievement. The staff went from eight to 40, including a three-fold increase in the number of paid coaches, certified teachers and trained volunteers. The payoff was huge in terms of grassroots participation and increased government investment (the organization’s budget tripled under her lead), not to mention an unprecedented increase in podium finishes, highlighted by a silver medal for Michael Jamieson at the 2012 Olympic Games, the first for a Scottish swimmer since 1996. Prior to joining Scottish Swimming, she held the position of director of Achieving Excellence for sportscotland, the national agency for sport. Here she was responsible for a $30m annual budget and developing a strategy to achieve ambitious medal targets on the world stage.
UBC’s new competitive sport model, she explains, is founded on the reorganization of current UBC varsity and club teams into five new strands ranging from intramural competition to the most competitive high-performance Thunderbird teams. She has already consulted with stakeholders and independent experts to arrive at appropriate criteria, weights and measures for determining how sports will be targeted for placement into one of the five strands. The next step is an evaluation of each sport against the criteria which she emphasizes will be a robust process that includes opportunities for feedback and is open to revision based on quality information and discussion. She will then present recommendations on the new structure to UBC vice-president Students, Louise Cowin, including the level of support provided within each strand.
While she rolls out the review process, another committee is exploring the potential to offer a comprehensive wellness program for the campus community. “That is something that is still in the developmental stages, but no matter how it takes shape, we know it will be a critical agenda going forward,” she says. “Winning, leadership, resilience, teamwork – these are all core sporting traits, and they are all embraced by a UBC vision to be the healthiest campus on earth.”
Those that opt to take part in the consultations will encounter an articulate leader of noticeable intelligence, and one whose success is, according to those who know her well, built on a collaborative spirit, superb communication skills and a natural empathy for what is important to others. She says she is a “softy” at heart, but extensive real-world experience within private and public sector environments has given her both the wisdom and the willingness to do what is necessary when change is imperative. A fierce competitive spirit that lays just one or two epidermal layers below doesn’t hurt either.