More than just a game
HR magazine, February 01, 2004
<b>As HR director of the FA, Paul Nolan is behind everything from Svens contract to cultural change. Stefan Stern discovers that hes as passionate about commercial success as he is about football</b>The third floor of the sleek, modern offices of the Football Association (FA) is a picture of hushed activity. As Paul Nolan, the FAs human resources director, has been held up by a meeting that has run over time, its possible to sit back and engage in a traditional journalistic activity flagrant eavesdropping.
For most of the staff its nearly home time. But professionalism still holds sway. Phone calls are made and answered, emails sent and received, all with brisk efficiency. You could almost believe you are witnessing a more upmarket and better-looking version of The Office. Fortunately, the mood changes when a young FA staffer comes rushing back to her desk. Ive just seen Sven in the lift, she declares with undisguised excitement. The team share her pleasure. On the other side of the room, as if provoked by the Sven factor, a lively discussion of the previous nights match gets going. That was never a penalty, says one. Chelsea and Arsenal fans debate their respective teams chances of winning the title. Yes, dear readers, the FA really is football crazy, football mad.
Which of course is fairly reassuring, given the constant
newspaper headlines about money worries, drug scandals and
disciplinary angst, threatened walk-outs by England players, concern over the construction of a new national stadium at Wembley, the sudden departure of former chief executive Adam Crozier, and the host of other media sensations that have battered the games reputation over the past couple of years at the games HQ.
We get the second-largest amount of press coverage in the country, after the Government, Nolan explains once the interview starts, indicating an almost two-inch thick pile of press cuttings. Weve now overtaken the Royal Family. But surely, as Oscar Wilde said: There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. Nolan isnt convinced. Sometimes that is debatable, he says with a slightly weary smile.
The FAs HR director is warm and personable. Just turned 40, he was previously HR director at Express Dairies, having earlier spent 10 years at Rank Hovis McDougall. It was, he says, a chance meeting followed by a phone call that led him to the FA post that as a passionate Everton fan he regards as a dream job. Above his desk hangs a photo of loyal Evertonians, in jeans and trainers, queuing up to enter Goodison Park mostly sporting the authentic 1980s perm and tache combo. Today Nolan is smartly-dressed and shaven-haired but underneath the slick exterior lies a committed football fan.
The FA is a public institution almost public property. Just as all football fans think they know who should be playing for England, and which formation the team should be playing in, so anything the FA does is likely to be debated intensely by people who feel that the game somehow belongs to them.
Were footballs governing body, Nolan says. Weve always been there as the governing body [since 1863] and I hope well always be there. How well do we do that? Well, anyone who has ever been in government of any description will tell you its very difficult to be popular when youre governing something. One week the FA will be reprimanding one set of players for foul play or for over-reacting to a referees decision thereby delighting their opponents fans and the next week another club and another set of players will receive a fine and a dressing-down. Players and their agents bridle at being told what to do by the august administrators. The FA cannot please all of the people all of the time.
Until fairly recently the FA was failing to please just about everybody. Based in Lancaster Gate in London, it was famous for its dyed-in-the-wool image. Distinguished old gentlemen of the game and they always were men were famous for their stiff manner and haughty style. Controversy was never far away, and each crisis would be met by a kind of 1930s complacency. Matters came to a head at the end of the 1990s, when first former chairman Keith Wiseman, then chief executive Graham Kelly, and finally England manager Glenn Hoddle, all resigned within a six-month period. The FA was lurching from one crisis to the next.
The new FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, decided that radical change was needed. Focus groups were commissioned to establish where the FA stood in the publics opinion. Some harsh messages were delivered. The English FA, the public said, was out of touch, out of date, bureaucratic, full of old guys in blazers.
This was the environment that former CEO Adam Crozier marched into on his appointment in January 2000. As a then 35-year-old Scot, fresh from the fancy world of advertising (he had been running Saatchi and Saatchi), Crozier could not have been a more startling choice. Sometimes he didnt even wear a tie. But he was able to use the
evidence of the focus groups to push for radical change.
Nolan explains: The feedback was saying: We see you as a pillar of the English establishment. In fact its worse than that youre an entrenched pillar of the English establishment. The average age of staff was mid-50s. As far as cultural change stories go, Nolan adds, I think what we went through has been one of the most exciting stories of any sector in the UK.
Nolan joined the FA in September 2000, just before it left its Lancaster Gate home for the more fashionable surroundings of Soho Square. Six weeks after his appointment, the then England manager Kevin Keegan resigned. This created the opportunity to make the dramatic and symbolically important appointment of Sven-Gran Eriksson, the first foreigner to coach the English team. Things were clearly changing at the FA.
In the past four years the FA has been not so much transformed as re-invented. Two-thirds of the staff have been appointed since 2000. The average age is 36. As many as 62% are female, and 41% are graduates. Two-thirds of the leadership team has changed too. Nolan explains: We have repositioned ourselves in the employer market because weve changed the employer brand. Thats why weve attracted new people.
On his arrival Nolan was faced with what was almost a blank piece of paper in terms of HR policy and practice. We inherited a partly public-sector culture, he says, a fat A4 staff handbook, all very traditional. Nolan put a new recruitment policy together. Believe it or not, he says, we had a ruling that prevented us recruiting anybody from outside the South East. There was no relocation policy, he adds. The pay structure boasted 11 tiers, not including the executives. In total that meant there were 12 pay grades for 186 people. So we changed all of that and introduced broad-banding. We now have four levels top to bottom, covering just over 250 staff. We recruited several people who had been on operational boards of at least one FTSE 250 business.
Nolan found other problems on his arrival.There was no executive remuneration strategy. Contracts of employment were inadequate. The only under-spent line on the budget was training and development that investment has now been increased by a factor of 22. Now there is a performance management system, based on competencies. Everybody has an individual development plan, compiled annually, and everybody has a set of objectives that are measured annually. Performance is linked to pay throughout.
And weve identified two levels in the middle junior and senior executives, Nolan explains. We know in each group who our fast- trackers are. Weve arranged for the top 14 of our junior managers, as identified through an assessment centre process, to go to Henley to work on something just short of an MBA, and for our senior
managers to work on some technical MBA material at Cranfield.
Sustainability through succession is vital, he adds. Weve now got a great talent pool here weve got to invest in the talent. Identify the people at each level who are going to drive the business this is how most reputable blue-chip organisations would do it.
If this is beginning to sound a bit like a business presentation, it is no coincidence. The FA has become a more professional outfit. It had to. The football world has become vastly more commercial. In the mid- to late-1990s, the FA had revenues of around 13 million, with profits of 3 million. Today it has 189 million in
revenue, with a forecasted profit of just under 50 million.
Sales of TV rights to screen the FA Cup and England internationals have brought about this massive leap in revenue although they have tailed off again by as much as 30% in the wake of the global advertising and TV downturn. And then there is the small matter of the new Wembley stadium, a 757 million project, making the FA effectively one of the UKs 10 biggest construction companies. It has had its fair share of headaches over Wembley, and unfortunately the recent fatality at the site has added to its problems.
The FA has needed to become a vastly more sophisticated and commercially savvy operation. We have changed the capability here by changing the people, Nolan says. In the past we had people here who were football nuts. Now, weve still got people who are passionate about football, but they are a little bit more passionate about their careers, not just job-oriented, and we had to do that. I remember Adam [Crozier] once saying to me: God forbid that
this should ever become anything other than a game and a sport and all that that entails, but the numbers say youve got a real business here.
Nolan clearly has a great regard for Crozier and was disappointed when he left at the end of 2002. Crozier articulated a vision, driving the culture change which was: To use the power of football to build a better future. If that sounds a little grand, then Nolan is ready to explain what it means in practice. We are a not-for-profit organisation, but really what we are is for profit for football.
There are 43,000 football clubs affiliated to the FA. There are 2,500 leagues. There are 43 county football associations out in the country, also affiliated to the FA. They have 250,000 volunteers working for them. Footballs impact on society can be remarkable, says Nolan. It is inclusive. It brings communities together around clubs, not just the big clubs but the small clubs too. Clubs are part of the identity of communities.
Sadly, 90% of what we do gets 10% of the profile, and vice versa. Around 90% to 95% of what we do, in terms of resource allocation, goes towards the grass-roots end of the game. However, what gets the headlines is everything to do with Eriksson, David Beckham, the England team and the high-profile games around the FA Cup. He cites the work done at a lower level by way of an example: We have put 8 million pounds into primary schools in the past couple of years, to fund a learning vehicle. Nobody knows about that. But when we get a disciplinary issue, everyone knows about it. I suppose its inevitable.
Of course it hasnt been a smooth ride. Finances have been a big worry a 20% cut in operating costs has been achieved in the past year, and some jobs have gone. Over Wembley, political shenanigans and the demands of City lenders also put the FA under great pressure. This, and tensions with Premier League club chairmen, finally saw Crozier announcing his departure in October 2002.
Replacing Crozier proved difficult. It was not until July 2003 that Mark Palios, former professional footballer but more recently an insolvency expert from PricewaterhouseCoopers, arrived as the new CEO. Palios had to endure a testing first few months in the job, clashing both with the mighty Manchester United plc and the England squad, before the vital European championship qualifier in Turkey. Now that the England rugby union team has shown what can be done, dont expect the pressure on the FA to subside.
Nolan is an admirer of the English RFU. There is a correlation, I think, between the quality of the people behind the scenes and the quality of the performance on the pitch. Thats something we have been working on here too. However, there are significant differences between the FA and the RFU. For example, since Clive Woodward took over as rugby coach, Glenn Hoddle, Howard Wilkinson, Kevin Keegan and Peter Taylor have all come and gone in Englands managerial hot seat. In football, only Sir Alex Ferguson has achieved the same kind of continuity as the RFU.
Nolan describes the FA as the mother of all stakeholder organisations. It is all the more remarkable then that he and Crozier were able to drive so much change through, given the FAs preference for consensus and agreement by committee, with all stakeholders in the game getting a say. A Scottish chief executive of the English FA, appointing a Swede to manage the national team? Unthinkable. No wonder there were death threats and people dressed as Beefeaters protesting outside the Soho Square offices.
As HR director under Palios, Nolan remains at the heart of the operation and it is he who will draw up any new contract Eriksson may or may not sign to stay on as England coach. He had in fact worked with headhunters Russell Reynolds to find Palios the biggest appointment Ive ever had to work on and the new chief has essentially sustained the Crozier vision of a modern FA.
There is perhaps a rather important lesson in this story for HR professionals. In the shift from being simply a transactional service to being a change agent and business partner, Nolans team embodies the ideal HR role. He himself is clear about what his work involves. HR is often bad at delivering change in a meaningful way, he says, because we are unable to make a compelling case to our CEOs, boards and shareholders. We can end up, by and large, on the periphery of organisations. We respond to businesses, but we dont drive them. Here, I can honestly say that key to changing the numbers was changing the capabilities of our people. The big challenge for us going forward will be to convince our staff that they need to change again when they think theyve just changed in quite a radical way already.
We dont have the pressure of the City judging us on a daily or weekly basis, he adds, but its worse than that in a way, because weve got the pressure of the public. And its a bit hard at first, going home on the Tube, reading all about everything weve just done that day. Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinands missed drugs test tribunal was pending at the time of the interview and, although Nolan has no control over such cases, they all go towards making the job more difficult.
Nevertheless he remains optimistic. Leading the development of the game really is the key, he says. Thats what drives the sustainability the infrastructure. Participation matters. Building new facilities makes a difference to future generations. This game can be such a force for good if we get it right.