SWFC’s new CEO – her in-tray

By chance, over Christmas I’ve been drafting this blog about how desperately Sheffield Wednesday needed a Chief Executive. So it is apt that perhaps the only piece of good news coming out of Hillsborough on New Year’s Day was the appointment of Katrien Meire. It’s long overdue. Although, I should add, that I had originally written this piece about the need for the Chairman’s Thai passion to be delivered with a Yorkshire accent.

After I left my own role at SWFC over 10 years ago, I made a conscious effort to focus on my developing career and not concern myself with goings on at Hillsborough. When you leave a place you’ve grown attached to, it’s too easy to become a hanger-on. But with the club now in my blood, not to mention at the bottom of my road, it’s hard not to have a view on what’s happening there.

So for what it’s worth, and not knowing whether Ms Meire has a Yorkshire accent in her repertoire, here is my view of the top five priorities that should be in the new CEO’s in-tray, aside from the obvious one of a new manager:

1. Sporting director

I agree with many who hold a view that the club badly needs Board level leadership on the football side – but it is neither the football committee that was previously in existence, nor the director of football role I have seen advocated by some commentators, that is required.

Most “big name” football directors are, to be blunt, vastly overpaid failed or wannabe managers, or both. In general, they don’t have the skills needed for this role, and they are not objective enough to carry it out effectively. Just look at the number of former team-mates they tend to appoint.

This should be a vital role overseeing not just manager recruitment but all football-related recruitment and needs to be someone who has been, and is, committed for the long-term. They need to have the organisational skills to manage a network that knows every player and coach in Europe and beyond; how old they are, how much they are paid, when their contract is up, whether they are a good influence in the dressing room. The Sporting Director will be used to dealing with agents and may speak a foreign language or two. Perhaps they will be an ex-pro whose career was ended early by injury or not being good enough and who has dedicated their 20s and 30s to learning the ropes of scouting, coaching and business.

They need to create the philosophy and culture running through the club, from under-7s to the first team; to know when a young player might be ready to break through and factor that into the senior transfer strategy; and to recruit first-team managers who will fit in with the club philosophy.

Plainly, this is a huge and important long-term job, and not one for a failed or wannabe manager looking for a short-term pay cheque.

2. Youth set-up

Linked to the above, fundamental questions need to be asked about whether the current Wednesday Academy set-up can halt the failures that go back decades. For a club that aspires to be in the Premier League, its record in producing Premier League players is pitiful, and embarrassing compared to our neighbours across the city and the production line that is Barnsley’s system.

Who was the last player to come right through the Owls’ youth set-up to have a good Premier League career? Jamie Vardy doesn’t count – he was bombed out at 16 and made his own way. Neither do Chris Brunt or Glenn Whelan, bought in as young pros. I can’t think of one who has come right through from Middlewood to have a consistent career in the top two divisions in recent years.

3. A slick back office

Hopefully this is one reason for the appointment of Ms Meire. I don’t think many football clubs are all that slick behind the scenes, and people who have dealt with Wednesday recently report a set-up that is hamstrung by the need to refer upwards for even the smallest decision to be made. There are also reports that the club that has let good staff go without replacing them, adequately or otherwise.

This season’s kit debacle was a telltale sign of a reported lack of capacity behind the scenes. Writing after the Burton horror show, sacking a manager on Christmas Eve without having someone else lined up for the busy holiday fixtures and, more importantly, the vital transfer window is looking another.

4. The right price

I was lucky enough to be invited into a executive box for a recent game at Hillsborough. But it was desperately sad to see the third floor almost empty for a game. Those suites used to be buzzing on a matchday in my time there.

The sky high prices are limiting regular attendances as well as corporate income. The policy of aiming for the sky, and charging prices to suit, is clear and, to some extent, plausible. But it fails a basic understanding of Sheffield people generally and their financial circumstances at present. The first rule of business is that a product is worth what people will pay for it, not necessarily what you might want to charge. Thousands, maybe millions of pounds of income is being lost because the price is wrong.

5. A full stadium

Linked to the above, it is far too simplistic to say it’s as easy as 40,000 people paying £20 being better than 20,000 people paying £40. But a fuller stadium has the knock on benefits of more programme, merchandise and food sales (perhaps through “bundle” tickets which include a pie and a drink). And, when times get tougher on the pitch, a little more goodwill. Creating a feelgood factor around the club, on and off the pitch, creates a virtuous circle and buys managers, and chairmen, time and greater understanding when results aren’t quite so good.

 

I wish Ms Meire well in her new job – for I feel the role is vital for the long-term health of the club. Since the very early days of Dejphon Chansiri’s ownership, I have been worried that what I experienced under Dave Allen’s chairmanship would be repeated. I got on very well with Dave and don’t have a bad word to say about how he treated me. But my concerns have always been that the tremendous personal commitment of Mr Chansiri to the club would only be appreciated whilst results went well. And when they started to dip, as inevitably happens in any football club at some time, the criticism he would face would prove difficult for such a generous chairman to take. What if Mr Chansiri ever decides he has had enough of bankrolling the club for no reward? Worse still, what if he becomes so disillusioned he becomes an absent owner, but one who cannot be bought out because of the extent of his investment? This isn’t just being wise after the events of the last few weeks. It’s a view I aired on Alan Biggs’ SheffieldLive show early on in the new chairman’s reign.

The success of Mr Chansiri is central to the success of the club. But, just as an English investor in a Thai business might have great ideas but not enough understanding of the local customs and context, so the same is true in reverse. Mr Chansiri could prove to be a great chairman for our club but it will only happen if he has someone with an intense understanding of Sheffield people and the club itself to guide his energy in the right direction.

Hopefully the appointment of Ms Meire is recognition that the chairman needs support around him to maximise the return on his investment, build a successful long-term future, strengthen the day-to-day operations of the club, and protect him and his family from the inevitable pressures of football club ownership.

Hopefully Ms Meire can provide all this. It remains to be seen whether she is the right person to add the Yorkshire accent that the club desperately needs at a senior level.

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Failing to learn

I’m very lucky to have had many more good days at work than bad ones in my career. But even on the best of days, I’ve always tried to learn something that would make me better on another day.

That’s why, as an Everton fan, I’m so frustrated with Roberto Martinez’s inability or unwillingness to learn, that I would end his tenure as Toffees manager now.

It might sound harsh on a man whose side was last weekend robbed of a win at Chelsea, to complete a league double over the champions; which is on the brink of the League Cup final; which sits just two wins off a Europa League spot; and plays, by all accounts, some of the most attractive football in England.

In a way, those plaudits make even worse the problem that John Terry’s late, late, offside leveler wasn’t an aberration. It was the third time in a matter of weeks that Everton have scored three goals in a game and failed to win it.

The perceived wisdom at the time of Roberto’s appointment was that, whilst he had relegated Wigan with an abominable defence, more money and better players would be the answer. But the reality has been that – just like at Wigan – he has inherited a solid defence and, slowly but surely, turned it into a shambles.

That is simply not learning from past mistakes and not working hard enough on the training ground, something that I as a leader could never accept. Neither should Evertonians accept that my reluctant prophecy that he would turn us into Wigan is coming true.

New Year, Old Resolutions

Over the holiday period, I read a stat that only 8 per cent of people keep their New Year’s resolutions. It didn’t strike me as being surprising. A lot of the resolutions I’ve heard of seem to be in the “very difficult to do” category. Everyone has different approaches to achieving success, but giving up smoking or significant weight loss require considerable determination and a long-term strategy to keep you on track.

For me, it’s more important to set that specific target in the context of a few basic beliefs about you and your life, because that long-term vision will help to achieve individual milestones. I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution. But, in looking ahead to the year, I’ve looked back on my Stone Of Life. They are a few short statements about my beliefs and priorities that I wrote down after reading the excellent “Chimp Paradox” by Steve Peters, the psychiatrist who has helped the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan and British cyclists to achieve their success.

I find that occasionally reflecting on my Stone of Life reminds me of what is important to me, and what I want to achieve. There are three parts to your Stone of Life, according to Dr Peters. I’ll briefly describe them below and give an example from my Stone of Life, and how they influence me as I head back to work in 2016.

Truths of life

These are our basic beliefs about the world we live in. Once we understand and accept these, it can help us to be more at peace with our existence. So, for example, if we believe and accept that life can be unfair, it helps us to deal better with unfairness that happens to us.

One of my truths of life is that only you can make things happen for yourself. You are the only person who genuinely puts you first, so if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen. Your family and friends may help you but also have themselves and their other responsibilities to think of; likewise your boss and workmates.

Understanding this truth helps me to take responsibility for my own actions, successes and failures, and know not to blame anyone else for things that don’t go my way.

Life values

These are what they say on the tin, things that are important to you, which should guide your decisions and behaviour. I’ve thought a lot about these, and one of mine is that I should always try to be a good person but acknowledge that I won’t always succeed.

The latter part of that value was an important realisation, which helps me every day. I tend to spend too much time dwelling on perceived mistakes I’ve made, particularly in my interactions with others; this value allows me not to beat myself up unnecessarily and forgive myself if I upset or offend someone by saying or doing the wrong thing occasionally. We can’t always be perfect.

Your life force

Dr Peters describes this as the single piece of advice the wise, old you would give to a young child who asks for one tip on how to live their life. Mine is “to proritise the things that are most important and do them to the best of my ability.” Both parts of the sentence are important for me. I can spend too much time trying to do too many different things, and not doing any of them as well as I’d like to. With a high-pressure job and a busy home and family life, this life force helps me to work out the things I need to stop doing so I can devote my energies to doing my best at the things that are really important to me.

So what has the Stone of Life got to do with achieving New Year’s resolutions? Well, just that understanding why you want to do something is often a catalyst to achieving it. Nowhere on my Stone of Life will you find the words “losing weight” or “exercising”.

But my “truth of life” that a healthy body is a prerequisite for a healthy mind gives me the motivation I need to eat less and keep fit. Maybe creating your Stone of Life can help achieve what you want to in 2016?

 

 

Tyson Fury and me

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the Tyson Fury situation; while spending not much time posting on social media. And now I realise these issues are linked. 
During over six years as a comms manager at a high profile football club, I came to the conclusion it’s unfair to expect sports stars to be role models. If they are, that’s great. But their job description is to win matches or, in Tyson Fury’s case, knock people out.

I haven’t yet seen anyone state the obvious – that the arrogance, aggression, and single-minded selfishness that are absolutely essential to be the best in the world (at anything) don’t exactly compliment the humility, balanced judgement, and reasoned thought that some people want to see in their sports stars. 

Journalists and the public say they want people to give honest answers to honest questions. But when people like Tyson Fury do, we don’t like it. Which is why the great sporting role models give such bland interviews – when, for all we know, the other Sports Personality of the Year contenders (and the best ‘role models’) could have beliefs which are equally unacceptable to us. It’s just we don’t know about them.

How does this relate to me spending less time posting on social media? Well, I guess it’s because now I hold a position of leadership, I’m more aware that the things I say and do will be much more open to scrutiny than they were before. So, like the great sports role models, if in doubt, or if it could be even mildly controversial, I’m now erring on the side of saying nothing. 

It’s a shame, and I guess for my Twitter followers it makes me appear even more boring than I really am. I’ll try to have more of a balance in the future, and would appreciate feedback on how I can achieve that balance without offending people with my real views on important issues!

A “Thank You”

Charities do a lot of pleading, for the funding that can help them to sustain the work they do.

But more important, perhaps, is taking the time to say “thank you”. Over the weekend we’ve had a great fundraising event at John Lewis in Sheffield. One customer donated her entire winter fuel payment, writing out a cheque for £100. Thank you doesn’t really seem enough in those circumstances. The generosity of customers over the weekend has been amazing.
I also have to thank Debbie and the staff at John Lewis who couldn’t do enough for us.
Most importantly, I thank my staff who volunteered to lead our fundraising effort over the weekend. Without them, we wouldn’t have raised a penny. 

We didn’t achieve everything we set out to (you never do!). But thousands more people now know a bit more about Age UK Sheffield and what we do. Hopefully it’s just the start of our drive to improve the awareness of our work across the city. 

Don’t pray for Paris – do something good instead

The good things that can come out of an appalling atrocity of the like that was visited on Paris last weekend are, almost, nil.

We must, though, try to clutch on to whatever good we can find out of any situation. One thing that has struck me over the last couple days, and does so on all occasions like these, is an incredible togetherness that develops, that is masked in normal circumstances. We go about our busy lives, focused almost entirely on ourselves, our families and our work, and other things are too easily pushed aside. I’ve spent much time over the past fortnight talking to my staff about donating and fundraising and, to be honest, have pushed at an open door. I guess those who choose to work for a charity have a more active caring gene than most. 

One of my team is organising a charity pub quiz. Another is rounding up a few of us to give blood, something I used to do but haven’t done for years. 

With just a few weeks to go until Christmas, I’ll be making an extra effort to think about small things I can do for others, to bring more people together. Many of these things, like giving blood, don’t cost anything.

I’d urge you not to pray for Paris (as one local rightly noted, the last thing they need is more religion!) but to use it as motivation to do something for someone. Maybe then we can continue to feel “together” for a little bit longer. 

John Lewis prove old people can be sexy

There’s only one possible subject for my blog this week. The John Lewis Christmas advert brought a rush of phone calls and e-mails into the Age UK Sheffield office on Friday, before it had even been on TV.

Now, almost nine million views later (as of Sunday evening) there can no longer be any doubt about it – old people can be sexy.

What do I mean by that? Well, in my seven weeks so far at Age UK Sheffield, I’ve spoken to numerous people about the need for us to increase our charity donations, and regularly been met with the response: “Yes, but you’re not sick children or cute animals, are you?”

The inference being that people care enough to give to some really great charities, but not enough to give to other really great charities that work with older people. Thanks to John Lewis, we now know people do care about older people. Hopefully you do too.

So, what can you do to help Age UK Sheffield? Well, here are a few small things that might not cost you anything except a few hours of your time:

  1. Pledge to join an army of people we’re trying to recruit to do a bit of fundraising for us during 2016. Whether it’s shaking a bucket or collection tin, or running a marathon for us, every penny of funding will go to our work in the city of Sheffield, helping its over-50s to live happy, independent lives, for longer. E-mail me (steve.chu@ageuksheffield.org.uk) or Tweet us (@ageuksheffield) using the hashtag #auksarmy
  2. Partly due to the John Lewis ad we’re getting enquiries from people who would like to befriend an older person in Sheffield this Christmas. Because all our work is about helping older people to be independent, we don’t have a waiting list of people who would like to receive this kind of support. But if this is something you would like to do, please tell us and we will arrange this.
  3. If you run a business, or if you arrange volunteering or charity activities where you work, and would like to give us some time or money, please contact me. We’re building up our links with local businesses – and if John Lewis think it’s great for their business to partner with Age UK (and they’ve had wall-to-wall goodwill this weekend), then I’m sure it would be good for yours.