As the world of sport comes to terms with the new reality posed by Covid-19, we’ve been discussing the impact of strong governance on sporting bodies when faced with adversity. Good governance, alongside solid leadership and representative stakeholder engagement, is increasingly seen as a valuable way to mitigate risk. So why is there such a disparity in the weight given to the topic when we are in the midst of a global pandemic that has brought the world to its knees?
Recently, we organised a lively online discussion entitled Sports Governance for the Future – are we ready? with panellists Colin Bridgford, CEO of Manchester FA, Lungi Macebo COO at Birmingham City Football Club and Director at Women In Football and Get On Board candidate Dana Abdulkarim. The debate was chaired by RimJhim Consulting Managing Director, Rimla Akhtar MBE.
When we asked the panellists what good governance looked like to them at this very moment, Colin said, “It’s a challenge to understand what good governance looks like. Some institutions are really struggling so we have to look at what individual governance structures look like. Previously at Manchester FA, there were no real governance infrastructures in place as a business. We had to look at the role of board directors and analyse what they are actually required to do.” It’s through these simple measures that Colin has been widely credited for driving institutional governance change and reform in Manchester and in doing so, connecting the grassroots game to the professional sport.
Lungi, who has worked in professional football for over 8 years commented that “football clubs are very different to national governing bodies (NGBs). They could benefit from learning from NGBs by looking for non-executive directors (NEDs) to help shape their thinking. At Birmingham City Football Club, we’ve learnt that having an honorary president is really helpful for governance. We still have a long way to go in terms of good governance.”
Outside of football, Dana who has represented England in rounders and holds 67 international caps shared her experiences too. “When I was at Rounders England, I’d say they were going through cycles of good governance. I had a good experience. They were open and welcoming about accommodating differences.”
As the discussion developed, we asked if sport could ever be fair on the field if governance is weak behind the scene. “When organisations are closed off, it is much harder to question them. There are many layers to an organisation – that makes it a lot harder. How do you remain integral and above the required standard? It’s harder if you are only accountable to yourself. External scrutiny and strong voices is the way forward. Having the right people on Boards is the way to get voices heard,” voiced Lungi who has served on the Women In Football board since 2018.
“There needs to be more transparency. Helping organisations to develop and move forward is vital and business people can play a part in sport too…the recruitment of people on boards is a big issue. How organisations put opportunities forward is also important. We really need to look at the values people can bring,” added Colin who is also the Independent Chair of Oldham Athletic Community Trust.
RimJhim Consulting runs an initiative called the Get on Board Programme which is a senior-level scheme to help prepare successful BAME women for board-level positions within the sports sector. The programme draws to a close at the end of April 2020. It is funded by Sport England and the team is working in partnership with Perrett Laver and other organisations as part of a consortium for change. The overriding goal is to ensure that sports organisations adhere to the Code for Sports Governance – the ‘gold standard of governance’ for sport in England.
We asked why Sport England’s leadership and recognition of inter-sectionality in leadership was important. An important point noted by Lungi as she commented that, “The Sports Governance Code and Get On Board is a game changer but we need a number of things. It will be a change of culture that will make the difference. We now have women in football – but it’s not just about their presence, but their progress. Women need more opportunities. If Joe Bloggs looks at his friend for a promotion because he looks just like him, nothing will change. We need to look in a year’s time to see what difference these initiatives have made… everyone needs to be able to see the change, but they need to open their eyes to see that.”
Colin felt that if “you get a balance of people that can really help. The Code allows you to do that. But candidates have to be board-ready. At Manchester FA, we now have more young people observing in the boardroom. Senior NEDs must be able to challenge all the other members.”
Coronavirus has already massively impacted sporting events around the globe. During the discussion, we asked if our governance structures were ready for such a crisis situation and about what we have learned so far to prevent organisations repeating mistakes. Whilst this specific pandemic may not have been anticipated, good governance involves business continuity and critical incident planning. Colin posed the question, “How many organisations have been set up to last long term? How many have business continuity plans, governance etc? You have to ask what governance looks like in the short term AND medium to long term…about how they can support their executive. In the short term, was your board clinically effective? If your governance doesn’t get you through next few weeks, it’s not going to get you through next few months.”
Dana is a teacher based in Sheffield and has delivered various training and development around EduTech, Literacy and Talk-less-Teaching. She pertinently pointed out, “The bottom line is we have to look after PEOPLE. That’s what sport is about. PEOPLE are the most important.”
Lungi candidly admitted, “We definitely didn’t have a global pandemic on our risk register. We’ve been caught out as an industry. No one could have possibly anticipated the impact that it’s going to have. Specifically in football – from footballers, Sports England, our foundations and community trusts….our reaction as an industry has not been great. We should have had a think about different reactions from different areas – good governance would have helped.”
As the debate drew to a close we asked about their visions for the future and the most pressing issues that need addressing. “We need to be more representative of the community that sport serves. We mustn’t let the pandemic slow down the progress towards more representation and openness. We must not move this priority to one side,” said Dana passionately who is the first ever Muslim Hijaab-wearing athlete to represent England in sport.
“You’ve got to change the right elements within articles and constitutions before you can get the right people,” added Colin who is a former Investment Accountant and has been a key member of the FA’s Governance Code Working Group which has now led to the first ever Code for Governance for County FA’s.
“A pandemic like this should make you realise why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is a time of retrospection so that we can pay homage to the values of the people and external stakeholders,” said Lungi on a reflective note.
Whilst we may not have anticipated a global pandemic, being clear on your purpose and that purpose being aligned to a fairer society and sports industry is certainly going to be the significant shift which will help define governance going forward. The future is one we get to shape.