Build Bridges Not Walls

In our latest blog post, Get on Board participant, Khilna Shah, reflects on her career to date and her experiences of getting onto a sports board.

You’ve heard the saying….‘it’s all about who you know’

Surrounding yourself with the right people can change everything. As I reflect upon my professional career and where I am today, the realisation has dawned that my network and relationships have been essential to my success. There are plenty of intelligent, hard-working individuals in the world. However, what I have come to realise is that it isn’t always about what you know, but about who you know and even more importantly who knows you. A strong network can open the door to new opportunities and success.

The early years

As I started working in the City, I was naive enough to think that a successful career, and even life, could purely be driven by meritocracy. I had excellent credentials; straight ‘A’ student, first-class degree from a top university, a professional qualification… surely, I was bound to succeed with this alone? I sort of did. I enjoyed a fantastic professional career in Financial Advisory, spanning over 10 years! However, it was my network which really enabled me to progress, differentiating myself from my peers and opening up doors for success.

I’ve always seen the value in building and maintaining relationships, and I was fortunate enough to be supported and trusted by leaders who created opportunities for me to do so. I know from first-hand experience, not everyone had the same chances, and whether I was lucky, in the right place at the right time, I was grateful for each.

Achieving my dream role  

It was who I knew, that created an opportunity to make my first job move after 10 years – a dream senior management role at one of the UK’s largest private companies. The role wasn’t advertised or even offered to a recruitment agency. If it had been, I may well have been overlooked. It was during this moment that I realised that the roles you most want are rarely advertised – people are recommended!

The life changing moment

In 2018, I almost died after having severe eclampsia, whilst pregnant with my first child. Out of nowhere my blood pressure sky rocketed resulting in two back-to-back life-threatening seizures – my husband found me fighting for survival and I was rushed to hospital. Luckily all ended well with baby and I – the NHS saved our lives for which it will always have the most special place in my heart.  The event made me realise that life is too short and we just don’t know what is around the corner. Therefore, it’s important to enjoy life to its fullest and make the most of each day.

Whilst I had thoroughly enjoyed my professional career, it was important not to forget to give back and do something fulfilling. I wanted to share what I had learnt throughout my professional career and help others.

Getting out of my comfort zone

I had no idea where to start. My husband, a fellow finance professional, works in the sport industry and speaking to him made me quickly think that many organisations in this industry could potentially benefit from financial knowledge and a breadth of ‘outside’ professional experience.

Growing up, I was passionate about sport – a regular participant in badminton, tennis and squash. However, ever since starting my career, this took often took a back seat due to the long and unsociable hours, travelling and general demands of the job. I strongly believe in the transformational impact that sport can have on communities, mental health and personal development and therefore extremely keen to ensure sport is, and remains, accessible for all.

I was introduced to Rimla by my husband, again highlighting the importance of networks! It was fascinating to understand from her that Sport England had an objective to increase diversity on boards. However, the sceptic in me think that whilst being female and BAME could make me a potential candidate, I certainly didn’t want to join an organisation to simply be part of a ‘tick box’ exercise.

Get on Board!

Rimla was working directly with Sport England with the key objective to optimally prepare female BAME candidates for boards of sport organisations. The ‘Get on Board’ programme was born!

As part of the process each applicant was interviewed. It was a strange feeling as, having not had an interview in over 10 years, I didn’t quite know what to expect. From the outside looking in, sport has always appeared to be a bit of a ‘closed sector’, whereby you only get in by knowing the right people. I experienced this first-hand when my husband and I were invited to watch a football game from the Directors Box at Wembley. It was a fantastic experience, but there was a part of it that left me feeling self-conscious as we stuck out a bit like sore thumbs for what I put down to two reasons – our youth and ethnicity.

Recruitment process

An external recruitment agency was assisting Rimla with the interview and shortlisting process. I have to say that this made me sceptical, as in my professional experience I have found that HR and recruitment consultants can often misunderstand or not fully appreciate the experience and skills candidates have to offer.

For example, when I applied for an internship at the company where I began my career, HR initially informed me that there were limited places, that I was unlikely to get a place due the number of applicants and that I should probably apply to another department. Fortunately, I was not put off by this and persevered. I then went on to work for the firm for over a decade!

Perfectly suitable candidates can be overlooked – they do not have the right buzzwords on their CV, they didn’t have the best interview or their experiences are just misunderstood.

Making a difference

I was excited to be part of the Get on Board programme, as it enabled me to interact with an amazing group of empowered, talented and inspiring women. I was confident in my own skillset and abilities, and quickly established a key focus for me would be to build relationships and a network in the sports industry. I needed to start making contact.

Once I could get in front of people in the sports industry, I found many were welcoming and very much appreciated and recognised the skills and experience I had to offer. Sport is always a great conversation starter so easy to avoid any awkward silences. I have always been very selective about what I apply for, only applying for roles and positions which interest me. Through this programme, given the networking events and being able to leverage Rimla’s professional network, I was successful in becoming a Board member and a Finance Committee member of two sport organisations within the year.

Reflection and final thoughts – build bridges not walls

Going through the process and programme highlighted that it was very much about who you know and the right people can be key to your success. People can often be protective of relationships and be drawn to work with the same people they have worked with before. I was fortunate enough that Rimla was willing to share and use her relationships to help others, which was admirable. Professionally, I had seen this (and benefitted from it), but how are you able to get your foot in the door and show what you are capable of if this mindset doesn’t change?

From what I have seen, much of the sports industry is cliquey – it lacks diversity, perhaps due to the way it has grown historically. Whilst I feel that sports organisations could hugely benefit from balanced, diversified boards, I feel there is still a real barrier for ‘outsiders’ with limited or no direct sport industry experience or contacts, to get in. I was lucky that my husband works in sport, but had he not, I may well have been another statistic overlooked and left out of the industry.

It is time for the industry to build bridges, and extend invitations to let people in…the historic closed walls need to be opened. Aside from just increasing outside participation, we should also proactively reach out and meet diverse candidates where there are, so that organisations reflect the communities they serve, particularly at leadership level. I hope we are at a turning point of change – it is programmes like Get on Board that should be celebrated and championed as it provides real hope that positive change can be delivered.

My final thought is that of six degrees of separation – even if you do not have a direct connection to where you want to go or work, I’m certain that if you build your network and persist you will get there.

Work hard, never give up on exploring new opportunities and have fun whilst doing so – we only live once 😊

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