Never underestimate the power of personal relationships. Had Billy Payne’s wife or close friend pooh-poohed his vague notion to bring the Olympics to Atlanta, it likely never would have happened.
With the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, starting next week, Payne, 66, recently recalled his experiences with leading the 1996 Summer Olympics, including dealing with the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park.
Not a stranger to controversy, Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, also discusses the decision to admit its first women members in 2012, as well as other leadership issues.
Q: Who influenced you the most early in your life?
A: The first and, still to this day, the most important influence in my life was my dad. He had excelled at everything he had ever done — a successful businessman, wonderful father, great athlete.
I aspired to satisfy my father at every junction of my life — school, athletically, otherwise. That was the only thing that mattered to me.
He was the silent (type), never overly generous with words. Even though I thought I had performed well, he wanted me to know there was still a little bit in the reservoir that I had not yet extracted.
It was always the same: “You made some good plays today Billy, but did you do your best?”
I learned a valuable lesson that hard work and determination can take you to a level which exceeds an objective evaluation of your talents. I never learned, and to this day have not learned, to pace myself. I am all-out, full throttle.
Q: You learned an important leadership lesson from an iconic football coach who taught you how to tackle better at UGA. Please discuss.
A: Erk Russell was a great influence on my life — an unbelievable motivator. He would say, “Billy, you put your head right in this guy’s chest, you understand?”
Next play I didn’t do it well.
“Billy, let me show you how to do it.”
Full speed, he would come and tackle me, hitting me in the chest, knocking me on my ass, and then stand up with a bloody nose, cut in his eye, without a helmet. He would take that illustrative way every week or two in some different situation, with some different player, to make his point.
He taught me about enthusiasm, invested passion, and (having) a little bit different approach than a conservative, straight-line, always-the-same approach.
Q: After you became a real estate lawyer, you recognized it wasn’t enough for you. What did you do?
A: While it was supporting my family well, it was not supporting the emotional needs for a challenge.
I became very active in my church. The minister asked me if I would lead the campaign to raise money for our new sanctuary. That’s kind of a thankless job. I spent about two years doing that.
We raised the money and dedicated the church Feb, 8, 1987. Having been the chair of that process, I had about three minutes to thank everybody. And I remember specifically looking down – about 1,000 people were there – into this beautiful new sanctuary. The very people who had said, “Billy, when are going to stop coming (to ask us for money),” my God, the very people had these magnificent, radiating smiles.
My wife Martha and I were driving home from church and I said, “you know, that was a really special feeling. I never had that before. We’ve got to think of something else.”
Q: What happened next?
A: The next morning I go to my law practice. I got my legal pad. I’m writing down things that would motivate people. Something big. Driving home that night, I was still thinking. Then the Olympics jumped into my mind. I had no idea what the (selection) process was.
I walk in and said to my wife, “I’ve got it – we’re going to bring the Olympics to Atlanta.”
My wife is very smart. She knew that once I set on an idea, she needed to be delicate in her response. She told me to call one of my dearest friends, Peter Candler, which I did. Peter says, “That’s a great idea. How much money can I contribute?”
Q: What if your wife or Candler had said you were out of your mind?
A: That probably would have impacted me. I may not have done it. I couldn’t have taken the early crush. I had to have that first smile.
Q: How did you succeed?
A: We put together a team now known as the Atlanta Nine. As we were able to recruit converts to the idea, the idea geometrically became stronger. Anytime someone would shoot at us – which happened every week – they weren’t just shooting at me.
I am proposing to you that success in life is as simple as making friends.
The goal was to win — to win the right to host the Games. Now how do you do that? Unlimited outside opinions on how to do it coming at you from every possible direction? I basically said we don’t need any advice.
I’d call my Atlanta Nine together and say this is pretty simple. In a secret ballot, this group of about 100 (International Olympic Committee) people are going to vote for their friends. So during the next three years, the entirety of our campaign was built on shutting out the outside noise and focusing on the single thing that would cause us to win — making friends.
Q: After winning the right to host the Games, you had to quickly build a massive organization from scratch. What’s the most important lesson from that?
A: I’m not very good at the financial stuff and I knew we’d need someone immediately who was. And I’m not really good at the construction stuff, especially at that time.
We needed some talented folks. Don’t let your ego get in the way of hiring people who are more talented than you are. That’s very important.
Q: What did you do after the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park. What did you learn?
A: I would be the first to admit I had no idea about how to be prepared for what I had to do when that happened.
It came down to leadership, to having the courage to present and insist on my point of view in the face of very substantial contrarian points of view being articulated by some really powerful people. Four or five hours after it happened, we were on the phone — the president of the United States, the head of the FBI, the attorney general of the United States, the IOC, the governor, the mayor, all the people you would expect.
So early on in the conversation, the overwhelming majority, including some on my own staff in that conversation, were in favor of closing it down, certainly on a wait-and-see basis. I was aware of the consequences of shutting it down, if only for a brief period.
So I pleaded, insisted. I was mean. I was nasty in saying my point of view. We should at least open in the morning. Some felt the volunteers (who helped operate the venues) wouldn’t show up, and I said, “Well I’m not sure you’re right.” The president made the final decision (to continue the Games).
I go to the World Congress Center in the morning when the volunteers start signing in. Instead of the 400 to 500 people who were scheduled, there were 900 people there.
I was so stunned I could barely even talk. Sometimes it’s better to follow than to lead. Don’t ever underestimate the ability of people who embrace good and positive ideas.
Q: As chairman of Augusta National, you were on the hot seat before announcing the decision to admit two women members 17 months ago? Please discuss.
A: I have never been fixated or paranoid or even particularly annoyed at competing opinions, because at the end of the day I had to form my own opinion. And if I happened to be in the leadership role, then that’s exactly what people expected me to do. To take in all the noise and make the right decision.
First of all, Augusta National is very private. We don’t talk about our business. We make decisions at our own pace.
The position of chairman at Augusta is somewhat unique in that there is a lot of responsibility assigned to whomever the chairman is. I don’t like people telling me what to do before I’ve had an opportunity to respond to all of the influences and pressure, and make a decision myself.
(The decision to admit women) was nothing more than the manifestation of doing the right thing when we wanted to do it. That’s all that was, nothing more.
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Payne’s remarks were edited for length and clarity.