Inspiring Leaders – Steve Waggott – CEO – Blackburn Rovers

By August 9, 2019News

Linda Walmsley is a professional interviewer and business owner of UK recruitment search and selection firm, Walmsley Wilkinson Associates. During 2019 she is undertaking a series of interviews with Business Leaders who have innovated within their field of expertise and have warranted the description of being an inspiring leader.

Profile

Steve Waggott, who hails from the North East, has a wealth of football knowledge and experience having held a number of senior executive positions within the industry over the last 15 years.

Currently CEO at Blackburn Rovers, he has also acted as a consultant at Southend United, heading up operations at the Essex Club. He was also CEO at Gillingham (2016-2017) and Coventry City (2011-2015), where he worked closely with Rovers boss Tony Mowbray and assistant manager Mark Venus.

He also spent seven years at Charlton Athletic (2004-2010), where he was CEO for both the Community Trust and the Football Club. Before entering the world of football he was a Physical Education Lecturer and Director of the London Leisure College in Greenwich, London.

Interview

What were your career aspirations when you were younger?

I was very focused on wanting a career in sport. My father was keen on education so one thing he said was you can play as much sport as you want but you have to also commit to your education. This was a good bit of advice and I followed it and later passed it on to my kids. Sport and football in particular were my main passion; after all it’s the number one religion on Tyneside, but unfortunately, I couldn’t get a professional contract after playing for Newcastle Boys before signing schoolboy forms with Hull City. I retrained and went back to a PE specialist college and still stayed in the world of sport, lecturing and then eventually became a director of a further education college for leisure and sport in London. My whole life has really revolved around sport and it was an aspiration at the time to become professional. Sadly, it didn’t quite work out on the playing side but in other ways it’s actually worked out perfectly for me.

What your first job?

I had just completed A-Levels and Barclays Bank were recruiting in the North East and across the country for their branches in London. My first job was working for Barclays Bank in one of the oldest branches in Fleet Street which was great; a real eye opener coming down to London. I remember getting off the train at Charing Cross and walking down the Strand and at that time businessmen wearing bowler hats were coming in the bank. It was a completely different culture than anything I had experienced before in the past, but it was great and part of a learning curve. I have met some really inspirational people and it was from the character and integrity of these individuals that I learnt a lot and picked up best practice. I watched how they interacted with people and interfaced with stakeholders in companies. I found it really interesting and decided that if I ever progressed to a leadership position, I would like to be behaving in the same way. Along the way my life has been populated with interesting people and inspirational characters at all different levels. So, Barclays Bank was my first job working as a Bank Clerk and one of the highlights was also playing football for Barclays Bank in a Fleet Street derby against The Times. I think we easily beat and I scored a few goals on my debut. I must admit the football wasn’t the greatest of levels, but they were really good times.

Who / What has inspired you in your business career?

I think it’s a range of things. It started with a really inspirational history teacher at Rutherford Grammar School in Newcastle and there was also the Latin motto on the school crest which was “Nec Sorte Nec Fato” which means neither by chance nor fate in other words by hard work and diligence. Interestingly enough the words on the Blackburn crest are similar in meaning – “Arte et Labore” which is by skill and labour.  As I mentioned we did have an inspirational history teacher, Mr. Cole who came from a pit village in Northumberland. He was one of the first ever people from that ilk to get into Oxford. University. He came back to the North East and had a great common touch with the pupils, he was very grounded, a great individual and quite a character. There have also been lots of different people along the way, including an interesting principal of a college where I was working who was great networker and a good strategist, also the leader of a council who was an unbelievably hard working guy and very focused, through to a chief executive, who I took over from at Charlton Athletic, called Peter Varney. He had great skills in covering a myriad of issues. Previously I hadn’t fully understood the breadth of what a chief executive of a football club needed to undertake. One minute you’re off to see the manager about the players and then you’re off to the Academy about the pipeline of talent, you’re looking at the pitches, looking at commercial contracts, where we’re getting the money, dealing with the club ownership, dealing with supporters who say you are good one minute and bad the next etc,etc. However, that’s life in football and it keeps me busy. So all these interesting characters along the way have no doubt shaped me into the type of person I am. I enjoyed getting to a position where you can influence the direction of travel of the organisation and how you use your resources. It’s important that you have financial resources and the physical resources to work from, but the most important glue is people. It’s the people management side that really interests me; getting the best out of people. I enjoy turning around organisations that may have got into a bit of turbulence and may be experiencing negativity and then changing that perception. It needs to come from within and it’s important to get out there amongst the community to make sure the brand and the perception of the club becomes positive again. This was the challenge coming in here to Blackburn Rovers; but it’s a good challenge and I enjoy it.

What five words best describe you?

Focused, empathetic, hard-working, loyal, transparent

I think empathy is key, you need to understand people and their challenges. Hard work goes without saying, you don’t achieve anything without it. In order to drive a business and lead from the front, you’ve got to have that focus and hard work. I am transparent and honest. I tell people how it is. I don’t think, that in football you are ever really liked but you can earn respect. It’s such a dynamic industry based on results every time you play. If you’re winning, then positivity, if you are losing, its negativity and so you’ve got to handle both those aspects of life in football. As long as you can be honest and look at people and tell them the truth and say how it is, whether they like it or not, then you’ll get their respect.

Do you have a favourite saying or quote?

I think it’s more to do with words. There are two words that I use a lot. Smart – let’s operate smarter, let’s work within the resource we’ve got. It’s not “more means more” as sometimes “less can mean more”. It’s about how we creatively use the resources and look at things in a different way. I try to eradicate any blame culture from the companies I run. I like people to express themselves, have a go and maybe take some risk. If we fail on it, we evaluate and we learn, so I try to encourage that. My second word would be Unlock – I use it a lot

I remember delivering a speech in Australia a few years ago, down in Adelaide. It was all about the power of football and sport and at the time they were having issues with youngsters who were speeding in their cars and generally driving too fast; they call it “hoon driving” in Australia. I was there with a crown chief prosecutor and a good friend of mine from the Met Police. The crown prosecutor discussed his ability to lock you up, write laws, put you in prison; the Met Police advisor, Paul Dunn, who subsequently got an MBE for his work, discussed the acceptable behaviour contract around ASBO’s and then there was me promoting the fact that prevention is better than cure. I focused the speech on unlocking talent. If you’ve got all these young people, who are getting frustrated and acting out, can we not look at different ways to unlock their potential. I use that word a lot in business now. Unlocking the talent within an organisation is a big thing for me.

What technology are you passionate about?

I’m probably older than many, but I remember the invention of the old Amstrad computer, where you could just type away and word wrap. It then went to a printer, that printed it off rather than having to use a banda machine and everything else I used to use, including the golf ball typewriter. I just thought that the Amstrad was an unbelievable watershed moment.

But now when you think of how technology has changed our world and world of work. You can work remotely, on the move, on an aeroplane; in fact, wherever you are. It can be incessant though when you try to take a few days off. The digital footprint and social media are now huge in everybody’s lives. However, in the world of sport and football, I think we need to put a caveat in, in fact a health warning for football, that we’ve got to be careful it doesn’t eat our lunch. In the digital world of mobiles and tablets, you can pick up any bit of news instantaneously. So, would you want to go and watch a live game of football when you could stream it. It’s great having all these gizmos around you, but it’s got to be part of getting people to the event and watching live football, otherwise without the support, without a fan base, the product is diminished unbelievably. We’ve just got to keep an eye on it.

What is your approach to interviewing and hiring?

I believe in getting to know the individual to see if their DNA matches the DNA of the job, but also the organisation and that they can fit with the culture, the ethos and the dynamics of what they’re going to be doing. Individuals can come with a CV, a portfolio of work, a degree or other qualifications. Yet it’s what makes somebody slightly different from others, how they stand out and believing that they’re the one who can actually come in, be inspired, inspire others and go on to develop to another level. I love being surrounded by good people, talented staff who challenge you, want to be challenged and indeed want to be in your chair eventually. Providing it’s done in a structured way, it’s great having talented people around as it makes our job as heads of organisations and companies so much easier.

How should the Human Resources function operate within any business?

It’s just integral to everything. How you recruit people how you retain them, how you keep your attrition levels low, how you reward their performance, their loyalty etc. It’s just such an integral part of the business. People are the Polyfilla. They cover up cracks to make things work, when you know it shouldn’t work. When you have a good group of staff, like we have at Blackburn Rovers; long serving, love the club, love what it stands for and go the extra mile when you need them to – then that’s what drives the business on and enables achievement.

Do you think workplace diversity now become embedded or is there still much more to do?

I don’t think we can be complacent. I think that it’s progressed a lot in recent years and quite rightly so. We take diversity as a very important part of the whole structure of the club. In Blackburn, we have specific demographics, so we have focus groups in terms of the BAME community. We look at how we can attract the next generation of supporters, how do we get them interested in football when it’s not their first love and they may have other interests and pastimes. How do we make it an experience at Ewood Park and how do we create a culture and an ethos within the club that’s all welcoming and all embracing. I’m very much about a community integrated club. Blackburn Rovers is a big brand, from 25 years ago when it won the Premier League. People know Blackburn Rovers across the world because of that. It’s how we make sure we engage with the whole community around Blackburn and the region. It’s also obviously important that we have staff at the club, whose profiles also reflect the demographics of our community, whilst always ensuring that it’s all about talent.

In your opinion what elements are key to being a successful CEO?

Staying calm at all times. I call it the swan syndrome, where you glide across the water, but you paddle like hell underneath to keep on top of a multitude of issues that you’ve got to contend with every day. You’ve got to be very flexible and agile mentally. In football when I’m advising up and coming staff, I often tell them to make sure that they’re “Teflon coated”. What I mean by that, is that on a daily basis, you will have a huge amount of problems, but you’ve got to let it roll off you, at the end of the day. Do what you do for your hobbies, whether you swim, you run, you play music, listen to music, just prepare yourself for the next day and do it all over again. You need the stamina and resilience to keep doing it again and not be too sensitive. You need to use listening skills. I suppose in younger days you may be a little bit more abrasive and maybe a bit hastier in decision making, but you’ve got to learn to temper that, to slow down. Take a deep breath if there’s a big decision to be made, consider all the different points and let’s be absolutely sure that when we do it, then it’s from a really considered position that we take it on. I think flexibility, mentally agility, calmness, leadership by leading in the right way, having the right values as a person which infiltrates throughout the business and sets the standards – I think that’s key.

What is your biggest career achievement to date?

It’s hard to mention just one club, but I suppose it was navigating four very difficult years as chief executive at Coventry City Football Club. We had a whole range of different issues thrown at us, from the local council, to big local organisations distancing themselves from what was perceived as a toxic brand. This was due to us going into administration and the owner wasn’t particularly liked or understood by people within Coventry. Navigating through that for four years, keeping the business afloat and keeping staff on side when morale was low was a real achievement. There’s definitely a book to be written about it. It taught me so much, how as chief executive to run an organisation under trauma, under severe stress every single day. I remember going into challenging meetings with various stakeholders and organisations due to the turbulence in and around the Club. How you work through all of those problems whilst keeping the club running and fulfilling your fixtures to maintain your membership in the football league was a real challenge that I came through. I think I would put that down as one of the best successes in my footballing career to date..

What’s next for you and Blackburn Rovers?

The initial plan was to bring stability and steady growth to the organisation. When I came in, they had been relegated, so we needed to get out of League One. We have very supportive owners and we achieved promotion at the first attempt. We had a solid season in the Championship which was the aim of last season. This season we aim to move through the gears, but in a sensible way, not to slam it from first into overdrive and crunch the gearbox too much, just take it smoothly through and keep building up the players side and restructuring the club, keep building the club back to where it should be. The reality though is that we are a small mill town club and we are up against big city clubs from Nottingham, Birmingham and London. However, the legacy of the club, the people inside the club and many other things, give us a value-add which will help us to close the gap on others. We have a great manager in Tony Mowbray, a strong team, a decent training ground, a very good academy structure supported by good administrative and operational functions.

We are trying to build the platform for future success both on and off the pitch so that when my time at Blackburn Rovers comes to an end, I will have left the Club in a better place than I came in.