In Edition #175 of Industry Insider, we spoke to Dr. Sara Ward – CEO of Burnley in the Community all about her career so far…

 

Tell us about yourself, what is your current role and what roles have you done previously? 

Hello I’m Sara Ward. I graduated with a BA (Hons) in Business Administration in 1997 with my dissertation focusing on the commercialisation of football in the Premier League.

After I graduated, I worked at KPMG briefly before embarking on my first career move with Hays for 11 years.  During this time, I married and had my first child in 2002.  The birth of my second child in 2006 was the catalyst for more change in my career due to my son being very poorly as a baby.  I had a year off maternity and within 5 months of returning to work had to quit my job due to the challenges of having two children, one of which was in and out of hospital.

During this time, I re-evaluated my career and once my son became more stronger, I enrolled onto a part-time PGCE course with Huddersfield University to start a career in teaching. I started to gain some hours teaching at both Manchester Metropolitan University and Huddersfield University and was offered a temporary position teaching business at MMU in 2008.  To be considered to for a permanent position in higher education alongside your PGCE, you needed to study for a PhD.

I applied for the studentship exploring alternative business models in football, namely, supporter ownership and was successful in my application.  I was the first ever sport management application at the doctoral office and embarked on 4 years of study through the MRes stage through to the final PhD submission.

I studied supporter ownership of Exeter City FC, Stockport County FC, Brentford FC, Chester FC, FC United of Manchester, Hamburger SV.  I passed my viva in December 2013 and interestingly the call for an independent football regulator was one of my recommendations, which I am pleased to see might be coming into force following Tracey Crouch’s recent football governance inquiries.

Upon becoming a Doctor, I had the opportunity to launch the first ever Master of Sport Directorship at MMU, which was an MBA style course focusing on this new Board role becoming more prevalent in the industry. The MSD was launched in 2014 and welcomed several high-profile students from several sports over the various cohorts, and I was course director and unit leader for sport governance and best practice.  I am pleased to see it is still going strong in 2022.

I left MMU in April 2019 to open up University Academy 92 as the new institution’s Dean of Academic Studies, which opened its doors to their first ever students in September 2019. Today I am the CEO of Burnley FC in the Community overseeing the football club’s official charity.

 

What do you do in your current role? 

I am the CEO of Burnley FC in the Community (BFCitC).  BFCitC is a £3.5 million turnover charity employing 150 staff (90 permanent, 60 casual).

The charity has five thematic departments, namely, Community Welfare & Social Inclusion, Football Development, Education & Employability, Governance & Operations and Facilities. We are the only charity in the country to own two facilities – The Leisure Box and Whitehough Educational Outdoor Centre.  We are also the only Premier League club to run a foodbank.

I am responsible for setting strategic leadership and ensuring robust operational management. I also ensure the financial health and long-term sustainability of the charity is in place. H&S and safeguarding are also under my responsibility.

 

How did you end up where you are right now?  When did you end up where you are right now? 

I would say my career choices and paths have led me to my current role. I have always been interested in sport from an early age when my father took me to Goodison Park when I was 7 years old to watch his beloved Everton. I have been an Everton fan ever since (now clocking up 40 years) as well as Burnley!!!

When I was an undergraduate at MMU from 1993-1997 I secured a temporary job at Maine Road, Manchester City’s old ground as a Ladbrokes assistant. I took all the bets from the corporate hospitality suites and worked during Euro ’96 when the German FA hired out Maine Road before going to watch some of the games at Old Trafford.

I have been interested in the business of sport since my late teens and have always been involved in sport in some capacity or another – whether that be during my recruitment days or latterly when I started to teach sport management and marketing back at MMU.  Community trusts became known to me during my PhD research days. I always remember being massively impressed with Brentford’s Community Trust during my visit to the club in 2011.

Teaching all the wonderful array of students during my tenure with the Master of Sport Directorship course whetted my appetite to enter the industry one day and when the CEO role came up at BFCitC, I did not hesitate to apply.

 

What is your number one focus when it comes to work? 

Empowerment and instilling a creative and collaborative culture.  If staff do not feel they have the space to shine and feel trusted to do their job in the best way they can, results and progress will not be achieved.  Cross-pollination and a collaborative culture are also key in an organisation to become high achieving.  I want staff to feel happy and free to be creative.

 

Can you tell us about a time when you failed and what you learned from it? 

Making a wrong career move has helped me trust my instincts and believe in myself to have the strength to acknowledge this and move rather than staying with something that is making you unhappy and impacting your well-being.

Understanding your limitations and not trying to do too much to the point where you are spinning too many plates and doing lots of things badly rather than fewer well.

Finally, my younger self tended to try and solve everyone’s problems and I have learned over the years the importance of understanding emotional intelligence and knowing when to step back or leave certain difficult conversations for another day.

During my career the phrase ‘you can’t win every battle’ has really resonated with me especially whilst climbing up the career ladder into more senior leadership roles.  Understanding other people’s behaviour and feelings is also a great skill to have, coupled with reflective practice when things haven’t quite gone to plan.

 

What are you excited about in your industry at the moment? 

Within my role and the charity, we are all looking forward to hopefully remaining in the Premier League and driving the charity forward as a fully operational unit post covid.

Burnley never really came out of lockdown for a good year after the first lockdown in March 2020, which has meant many changing of plans, shutting and closing facilities and projects which has been very frustrating for us all.  The team have adapted so well for so many months and have come out of the pandemic strong and with lots of great and new ideas to implement for the benefit of the local community.

 
If you could change one thing about your industry, what would you change? 

Making access to funding pots less bureaucratic and restrictive for charities and non-profit organisations who are all balancing delivering vital services to the communities who need it most with the worry of financial sustainability and longevity.

 

Sports is a hectic industry, what do you do to switch off? 

I have learnt to be disciplined with my emails and social feeds outside of work and practice digital detox after working hours, weekends and switch off my work phone completely when on holiday.

I ensure I have regular short breaks and listen to my body and energy levels.  You are no use to your colleagues or family members tired or stressed.  I live in a rural area which keeps me busy outside when out of work together with my great Pyrenean mountain dog who keeps me busy walking on the hills.  Family and friends are also important to me outside of work with regular catch ups and visits to keep me grounded.

 

What is the one piece of advice you would give someone wanting to work in the sports industry? 

Go for it! Firm believer if you want something, knock on the door! It is a competitive industry to get into, but the sport industry is a global business now and there are plenty of jobs on and off the pitch which you can consider.  It is fast paced but wonderfully varied and never dull.

 

How to connect with Sara Ward…

You can connect with me on Twitter at @DrSWard and LinkedIn. The charity’s websites – theleisurebox.org, Whitehough.org and burnleyfccommunity.org

You can watch an interview with Sara Ward as part of Burnley’s International Women’s Day content.

 

Thanks for reading our Industry Insider with Sara Ward! If you want to read more from the series, you can do so by clicking here.