Sporting Director role is that of a Catalyst

Tony Faulkner cofounder of VSI and the VSI Masters in Sporting Directorship is completing his PhD researching the organisational structure of high performing sports organisations with the primary focus being on the role of a sporting director.

In 2012 whilst in a performance role at Manchester City FC and consulting with sports teams in the US Tony looked into how a sporting director was perceived across sports both in the UK and around the world. His findings led to the content, design, recruitment of students and implementation that is now integral to the VSI Sporting Directors course.

“I’ve worked in professional sport, primarily football for twenty years. I remember all too well back in the 90’s when the manager of a Football club ran the club, they did the lot, not because they were equipped to do so more because they could. In those days Football clubs weren’t run like a business. In those days the manager commonly had a small team of direct reports and the level of infrastructure supporting the performance of the team was minimal compared to football of today. I’ve recently worked in a number of clubs where the manager could have upwards of fifty to sixty direct reports with the amount and complexity of information they are expected to consume on a daily basis being akin to running a business”

“From 2012 when I started my research through to today it has been a journey of discovery regarding the role of the Sporting Director. I recently did a TV interview with ITV based on ‘What is the role of the Sporting Director’ only to get asked the common questions such as ‘Managers fear a sporting director’ well this is changing”

So why is this the case? Our research has found

  • The sporting director is in vogue at present
  • Owners require a return on their investment
  • Howard Wilkinson’s report through the LMA back in 2014
  • Younger managers and managers from outside the UK better understand how to maximize their talents
  • Media outlets who are more educated as to what the role of the sporting director is
  • Courses to accredit and promote Sporting Directors

Critical to our findings is that as yet there is no definition of the role of the sporting director and often there is confusion due to the title. For example some sports organisations employ Technical Directors, Performance Directors and Operations Director, interestingly when you engage into understanding what the job description of such a role is it can be similar and also completely different leaving a common language to communicate the role all the more difficult.

“Through my PhD VSI have endeavoured through the Masters in Sporting Directorship and through the VSI summit to collaborate with global sport to define and communicate the role of the Sporting Director”.

What our research suggests

The Sporting Director:

  • Is the Guardian of the organisations vision and strategy aligned to the sporting department
  • Is a statutory Director of the organisation
  • Reports directly to the CEO

They should be primarily responsible and accountable for

  • Appointing the head coach
  • Setting the expectations for the coach to adhere to
  • Providing high support and high challenge to aid the coaches performance
  • Recruiting all staff across the sporting department
  • Culture building across the sporting department
  • Delivering a strategy
  • Manage the budget across the sporting department
  • Oversee academies and youth programmes that function within the organisation
  • Communications to external stakeholders and the media around agreed aspects of the organisations strategic vision
  • Apply governance where required

It’s essential that in order to impact this role positively the Sporting Director must be equipped with the correct skills and critically the emotional and mental capacity. The Sporting Director must:

  • Understand their innate leadership style and have the ability to flex their leadership style according to the situation
  • Understand when to manage as apposed to lead and have the management skills appropriate for working in a senior role
  • Have developed coaching skills which enable them to differentiate between leadership and management. There are many times when a Sporting Director will need to coach a member of staff in order to achieve greater performance

The Sporting Director Myth

There is a common misnomer that in order to operate as a Sporting Director within a specific sport you must have that sports specific knowledge. According to our research this is not the case and is exactly why VSI established the Sporting Directors course to encourage delegates from differing backgrounds to join the programme.

There are many examples of industry specialists moving from one sector to another because of the skills and capacities they posses. As stated before being a Sporting Director is akin to running a business.

It may help if you don’t have industry expertise

A view expressed by a number of current and ex head coaches and managers was:

 ‘If the Sporting Director did not hold their coaching badges then they could be no threat to my position’

The thinking behind this as Faulkner explains is “if a sporting director is not a qualified coach then in the mind of the manager he is less of a threat as he cannot take my position if results are poor – although this way of thinking does not lend positively to the impact a qualified sporting director can have. It does promote support around why a Sporting Director does not need to have sport specific knowledge or may in some instances be better placed to have arrived from a differing industry. With this in mind I have to stress what is most important is the Sporting Director is equipped with the skills and capacity already mentioned.

The Role of the Catalyst

Our research has also highlighted how the Sporting Directors role is that of a Catalyst. As with all catalysts the Sporting Directors role is to speed up the reaction time between two substances, thus creating the desired end product. Primarily the Sporting Director drives performance in each employee by speeding up the reaction between the employee’s talents and the sports organisations goals.

A great Sporting Director must be able to do four things well:

  • Select a person: Based on their talents
  • Define and set the expectations required for individual and organisational performance
  • Understand the individual motives of their employee’s
  • Create the right environment for development

Moving forward, understanding how Sporting Directors can continue to impact strategic performance in sporting organisations needs to be better understood. This will establish a credible and professionally accepted position that will drive the demand for individuals who possess the correct knowledge and skill set.

As VSI continue to research this role within sports clubs globally it’s clear what the sporting market requires from their strategic leaders. It’s also clear how educating the new breed of strategic leaders differs from traditional education and what this process will look like in the very near future.

The VSI Sporting Directors Summit 2017 will discuss the research findings in more detail

Tony Faulkner

VSI Sporting Director