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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Taylor and the Gatekeepers

For those of us who love American Football, this weekend is like a second Christmas, as Super Bowl Sunday finally arrives! In the 58th incarnation of one of the biggest events in professional sports, the San Francisco 49ers will meet the Kansas City Chiefs in the desert of Nevada. It's a spectacle which always draws a lot of eyeballs, but this year more so than ever; unless you've been hiding under a rock, you're most likely aware that the biggest pop star in the world, Taylor Swift, is dating the Chief's Superstar Tight End Travis Kelce!

I've been involved in the sport since 2006 and been a fan since I was a child. My eight-year-old daughter has never known a world in which her dad was not fixated on the sport, and yet this year is the first time she'd ever be able to name a played from any team - and that player is, of course, Kelce!

Swift has appeared at numerous Chiefs games across the season, in support of her boyfriend, when her touring commitments allowed. Naturally, when she's there, the producers (who, in the stop-start world of NFL football, have a LOT of time to fill) train their cameras on her partying in an executive box with friends and this has been somewhat of a sore point for some fans who see her as a distraction from the sport. Of course, she's not asking to be filmed and she certainly isn't the first famous person to attend sporting events - presidents, athletes, business people, singers and actors are regularly seen in these high profile arenas - but that doesn't stop the comments.

Her presence and profile have brought new fans to the sport. The NFL love that - after all, they're running a business and the thing they care most about is the bottom line. But those fans who might consider themselves purists, often demean those who have found their way to the sport through Taylor Swift, deeming them as lesser fans. These critics, for reasons which are beyond me, feel it necessary to appoint themselves as gatekeepers, deciding who is and isn't worthy of being a true fan of a team or the sport as a whole.

This phenomenon isn't new. As someone who grew up listening to and playing music in a series of bands through my formative years, I saw the same thing happen in that sphere. You're not a real fan! A great example is when high street stores such as H&M have sold merchandise with the names and logos of famous bands, particularly those from metal and punk. Naturally, some people see a t-shirt they like, with a cool or eye-catching logo and decide to incorporate it into their wardrobe. Suddenly, without warming, they're being told 'I bet you can't name three songs by Megadeth' as though that's part of the cost of entry for wearing a piece of clothing.

Gatekeeping, however, isn't confined to the pop culture sphere. It happens everywhere in life, maybe nowhere with a greater impact than in business.

It can be a positive thing, certainly, if it's done in the right places and for the right reasons. a good EA of Chief of Staff (is there a worse job title? I'm not sure!) can be worth their weight in gold if they're able to act as gatekeeper for an executive, by filtering their messages and the requests for access to their time or energy. They allow the senior person to be absolutely focussed on what matters and protect them from distractions..

However those same gatekeepers can, should they wish, use their powers for evil! They can restrict access to the seat of power for people, ideas or initiatives that go against their own personal beliefs or tastes. They can pick favourites and skew the perception of their senior leader, by picking and choosing the information they're given access to. In essence, they can almost transfer the power from the leader to themselves if they're careful about what they do.

Another way in which gatekeeping shows up is when new ideas are needed or there are problems to solve. It's not uncommon for those with specific skills or experience to gatekeep the innovation process, squeezing out people who they don't deem as being worthy contributors, perhaps due to their relative inexperience in a certain field. These gatekeepers create a virtual hierarchy which, coincidentally, always places those with similar experience or knowledge to them at the top and can be incredibly damaging to organisational progress.

Accrediting bodies in fields of work (for example coaching, facilitation, HR) can often become gatekeepers; self-appointing to decide what's good and what's bad in their chosen field. Internal functions such as compliance and internal audit in large organisations who exist to protect the organisation from harm, can become gatekeepers if they're not careful. Stifling progress or growth into new areas, either because they don't understand or don't like them. The same goes for finance professionals. Deciding which projects are or aren't worthy of their funding, depending on personal tastes or arbitrary rules.

Stopping others from being gatekeepers is difficult, especially if those roles are institutionalised, but a good place to start with thinking about this can be holding up the mirror to ourselves. Where are you, deliberately or otherwise, acting as a gatekeeper? What are the impacts of your approach? When you make decisions, what biases might be at play? What assumptions are underpinning the process you have for deciding who or what gets through that gate? I'd love to hear your reflections!

Thanks for reading as always and if you stay up to watch it (or live somewhere with a more Super Bowl friendly timezone!) I hope you enjoy the game, whether you're a new fan who joined us as a Swifty or you've loved the game since Don Shula was a boy! My prediction: Chiefs win by a score. My hope: 49ers win by two scores!

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