Marc Riker readies himself for a busy few months.
National Senior Games Association CEO Marc Riker doesn’t have to go far to find leadership inspiration.
He’s surrounded by it at Clearwater-based NSGA, a nonprofit that promotes fun, fitness and fellowship for the senior set and, in doing so, has fostered thousands of age-is-just-a-number athletes and lifelong competitors. There’s a 105-year-old woman running the 100-yard dash in one of the group’s events. Or a 90-year-old pole-vaulter. And then there’s the 50-something blind swimmer. “They are going out and living their life,” Riker says “They are going out and doing what they want to do.”
Riker’s core focus right now is to get the NSGA, which has seven full-time employees, three contractors and a strong event-based volunteer base, ready for the 2022 Senior Games. It’s scheduled for May 10-May 23 in Fort Lauderdale, and is the group’s first major event in the COVID-19 era. “How people interact with each other right now in the pandemic is a big challenge,” says Riker, adding some 10,000 competitors are currently signed up for the 2022 Games, with registration closing March 1. The event had 13,882 competitors in 2019, an all-time event record.
Spirit of competition
The NSGA was founded in 1985 in St. Louis and later moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It relocated its headquarters to Clearwater in 2018. Riker has been with the organization — it had $2.82 million in revenue and $1.8 million in expenses in its most recent fiscal year, according to the Florida nonprofit records — since 2011. He was named CEO in 2012.
Prior to joining the NSGA, Riker, 58, had a wealth of health and wellness leadership and coaching experience. He was a YMCA aquatic director and swim coach for a decade, in a highly competitive market in northern New Jersey. He’s also the former president of both the National Congress of State Games and the Southeast Sports Festival. With that background, and in his tenure with the NSGA, Riker has learned a lot about leading teams of all sizes to success.
On a recent Zoom call, Riker and I chatted about some of his greatest leadership hits — and misses. Examples include:
• The characteristics of a great leader, Riker has learned, is someone who stays focused and balanced; is trustworthy and loyal; and someone who can get “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
• When overseeing a wide-ranging group like the NSGA, with multiple boards and panels, look to place people in decision-centric positions who think of the organization first. “You have to try and assess who are the right people willing to not only share their opinions,” Riker says, “but also aren’t only doing this to simply better themselves.”
• Another tip? Ensure your committee heads and chairs are goal-setters and planners. If not Type A, maybe a Type A-. “You have to have the right committee heads, so you could super-focus on things and not get drawn out and distracted,” he says. “(Otherwise) you can get caught up on a tangent very quickly.”
• At the Lakeland Hills Family YMCA in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, Riker learned an important leadership, and life, lesson about group dynamics. It was the 1980s, and a group of parents came to him and said they wanted to host a state swim meet championship. Riker, bracing for difficult suburban parents, explained what they would need to do to make the event successful. That included raising significant money so the competition would have the latest gear and technology.
Then Riker left the room. He headed to the pool for practice. When he came back, the group of parents told Riker, to his genuine surprise, they were going to do it. They ultimately raised all the money and hosted a successful event. “I learned,” Riker says, “that when a group of people are passionate about something they can really work together and move mountains.”
In an email after our chat, Riker expanded on that, writing that one of his biggest lessons learned is that “the power of individuals/volunteers who have a similar desire to achieve the same end result can make a difference. You can create a positive paradigm shift.”