HR's coming home at the Football Association

Buoyed by the World Cup, HR at the Football Association is continuing to focus on diversity and getting the right fit for roles

What a summer. There was Trump’s visit, yet more Brexit turmoil, the never-ending heatwave… But what most of the British public will remember the Summer of 2018 for is England’s performance in the FIFA World Cup.

When HR magazine travels to Wembley Stadium, home of the Football Association (FA), to meet HRD Rachel Brace, it’s just two days after the World Cup final and less than a week after England’s knockout in what marked only the third time in history the team has reached the semi-finals.

“The way the team progressed through the tournament made the organisation and the country proud – people fell back in love with football,” enthuses Brace. “We now have a senior men’s team we can be really proud of and that’s our window shop product.”

But this “window shop product” is just the most visible tip of a body much more diverse and expansive than most people realise.

As English football’s governing body, the FA is responsible for governing and growing the game through a number of different roles: running the 24 national teams (men’s, women’s and disability), as well as the two major facilities Wembley Stadium and the national football centre at St George’s Park; overseeing the core governance of the game, including player discipline, anti-doping and safeguarding; and promoting and developing the game from grassroots level to elite, overseeing 23,000 grassroots clubs and millions of players, referees and volunteer workers.

The not-for-profit comprises around 900 employees, and hundreds more taken on during international tournaments (the actual football players are “workers not employees”).

But, as a national institution dating back to 1863, the FA hasn’t always run as smoothly and produced such fantastic results as today. When Brace joined in 2016 from England Rugby 2015 (responsible for mobilising a workforce of more than 6,500 paid and volunteer staff for the 2015 Rugby World Cup), the organisation “had come off the back of a bruising restructure” and Brace was handed the onerous task of rebuilding it as a world-class institution.

Top of the agenda was shifting the FA’s culture from “analogue to digital”. “Just after I started we lost to Iceland in the Euros, Roy [Hodgson] left, we hired Sam [Allardyce], there was a bit of a scandal [Allardyce was heard telling undercover reporters he could “get around” rules on player transfers], he left, and it was a difficult time for the organisation,” Brace explains. “Football needed to improve its standards and quite frankly it needed to grow up.”

Getting involved in recruitment for the technical division (the elite setup, which includes all national coaches) wasn’t “top of [Brace’s] list” of things to do. But it quickly shot up.

“The men’s senior team was a bit like an island; not many people were involved there,” she says, pointing to a lack of HR involvement at the elite end of the game. “The way England managers were appointed was about who you knew in the football network – there was no scientific hiring process or any assessment to understand how a candidate could perform.”

This was compounded by the home of the elite team being St George’s Park, separate to the rest of the FA at Wembley where HR did have influence. But Brace was adamant that HR should make its mark here and that people processes be put in place.

“I said to Dan [Ashworth, the technical director] ‘I can do a much better job in terms of finding the best talent and also we can do a better job of keeping and developing that talent’,” she says. “I said ‘give me six months while I get my HR team and processes in place and while you get to the other side of the Euros, and then let’s give it a try and see what happens’.”

Brace came out of that six months with a new HR team and a recruitment and assessment process for every single role in the technical division. And this began with the appointment of a certain nattily-waistcoated England manager.

“We started doing things differently with Gareth [Southgate] – we did a psychological assessment on him to understand the man behind the scenes; where he would be naturally strong and where he might need support,” Brace reports.

A competency framework was also introduced for the role. “You might think there’d be one in the cupboard but there wasn’t so we made one,” she says, adding that this marked her team’s “first real impact on the most elite end of the game”.

And what an impact it’s been. “I couldn’t ask for more as an HRD,” says Brace regarding Southgate. “My starting point with leaders is that they make a difference, they create the environment for people to be at their best and that’s what he’s done with that squad… What more could you ask for than for someone with strong values, integrity and who is a good student of the game?”

These new recruitment and assessment processes were then rolled out to “build the capabilities, infrastructure and support teams across the whole of the technical division” in the lead-up to the World Cup. Brace was also determined to open the technical division’s eyes to “the possibility of hiring from outside football”.

“Diversity means many different things,” she says. “You can talk about it in terms of demographics or race, but it’s also about hiring from different sports and being curious to learn from different industries and people.”

Another first for both the function and the FA has been a support structure for the elite teams. “One of the things openly described by football pundits as the Achilles heel of our elite teams is psychological resilience,” Brace says. “So what does that mean? It means not winning penalty shootouts because we weren’t strong enough.”

Now there’s a strong focus on psychological resilience, which involved “scouring the world to find the best capabilities” and subsequently hiring psychologist Pippa Grange – who’s “not from a football background” – as head of people and team development.

“She’s the most senior hire we’ve made to really lead the charge in everything we can do to support the teams in their physical, nutritional and psychological performance,” says Brace. Given the success of the senior men’s team in the World Cup penalty shootout against Colombia, HR again certainly seems to be making its mark on the pitch.

However, Brace’s time at the FA hasn’t been all penalty-shootout euphoria. In 2017 allegations of racism and bullying of a female player were levelled at then-women’s national team coach Mark Sampson. Brace and Ashworth conducted an internal review into the allegations, before bringing in a barrister to conduct a second independent inquiry. The situation quickly hit headlines and FA chairman Greg Clarke, CEO Martin Glenn and Ashworth were called to answer to a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in October 2017 around the FA’s conduct.

Though not subpoenaed, Brace was asked by Glenn to also attend. “I think only one other HRD has gone through a government select committee before, but there was no way I’d have said no,” she says. “This is what HR being a business partner means. You don’t get to offer advice from the sidelines and walk away when things get difficult.

“It was hard [though],” she admits. “I knew I’d done the best I could but the situation was hostile. On reflection I’m glad I went through it though, because I can say when things get difficult I can go through the fire and come out the other side.”

What made this more testing was that Brace herself faced criticism; the internal review she led with Ashworth was labelled a “sham” by the Professional Footballers’ Association.

“If it was a sham why would we have handed our entire investigation to an independent barrister and given her the remit to go even wider?” she says. “Also I think most people in HR who go through a difficult grievance don’t have their homework marked by one of the top barristers in the country.”

The historical absence of HR processes that Brace inherited made matters more difficult. There was no record of any previous player grievances, no policies on how to tackle them, and the added complication that some allegations were historical.

“The first thing to say is that this was unprecedented in that the FA had never had a formal grievance from one of its players – in the past things would be dealt with informally in their teams – so there were no policies in place,” Brace explains. And when she sought advice from colleagues in other sports she quickly found the FA wasn’t alone, so the “rules had to be written as [they] went along”.

Brace isn’t afraid to admit that she “would do things differently” in hindsight. “If I was faced with something like that again… I would take it outside the organisation to be investigated,” she says. “As much as you’re a trained HR person capable of solving the problem, you have to realise the best thing for everyone is for someone independent to look into it from the beginning.”

Brace has taken this as another opportunity to push the FA to “grow up”. In collaboration with UK Sport, she defined and introduced grievance and whistleblowing procedures for players and bespoke training programmes for national coaches. But she’s conscious that processes only go so far.

“If we really want to make things better for the future it’s about creating a culture where it doesn’t happen again,” she says. Which was the driver behind putting all national coaches through diversity and inclusion training earlier this year.

The aim is to “create an environment where diversity can thrive” not just at the elite end but across the whole of the FA. Because “there’s no point in hiring lots more women, for example, for them to come into an environment they don’t enjoy”.

Activity includes a three-year plan launched in January committing to gender and ethnicity targets, the appointment of three women onto the board, and more than half of the heads of function positions filled in the last two years by women. “We’re making good progress but we need to make more progress with ethnicity, which is harder partly because St George’s Park is based in an area where demographics aren’t in our favour,” comments Brace.

“So diversity is my team’s main focus over the next three years, and of course we will continue to focus on culture as you can never take your eyes off that.”

Clearly there are more goals to score on and off the pitch. But, as seen this Summer, HR is helping the national institution get on side. And Brace, who before England Rugby 2015 worked as head of HR operations for the London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, is no stranger to putting HR’s stamp on sports.

“One of the wonderful things about those [roles at England Rugby and the Olympics] was building something from scratch, running it and then closing it down all for very positive reasons, which is unusual,” says Brace (who credits her experience in retail at M&S with her passion for “really high standards in corporate governance”). “Another is there’s no history or baggage so you start with a blank canvas.”

Though the FA is a different challenge again, Brace is clearly loving pretty much every second of sporting-body HR.

“We might not have brought the trophy home [this Summer], but I think the sense of it was that we brought the game home,” she says. “And as much as the results on the pitch clearly count and from a competitive point of view they’re everything, we’re an organisation that stands for more than that.”