In our eigth of our UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 special, we sit down with Yvonne Harrison, CEO of Women in Football!
Tell us about yourself, what is your current role and what roles have you done previously?
My name is Yvonne Harrison and I am currently the CEO of Women in Football, a role I started in January 22. This comes on the back of a 20-year career in sport, much of which was within the grassroots sport and the charitable sector. In addition to my current role, I established my own sports consultancy, Stryve, was Managing Director of Project 92, working for the Class of 92, and CEO of GreaterSport in Manchester. Outside of the ‘day jobs’, I have also developed a lot of experience through my involvement with committees (earlier in my career) and boards (more latterly) in either Trustee or Non-Executive Director roles. I currently Chair Foundation 92, the Community Club Organisation for Salford City FC founded by the Class of 92.
What do you do in your current role?
Our remit as an organisation is to help make the football industry one where everyone can thrive and reach their potential, and within that, we are of course championing gender equality. We work with our members, and organisations in the industry to celebrate the success of women working in football, call out discrimination where it exists, and support people and organisations with the knowledge and expertise to thrive and create positive and lasting change. My role as CEO is to work with our board and team to create and deliver our strategy to help make the football industry more gender inclusive. It’s about running the business and driving our impact, visibility, and influence to achieve our purpose. Of course, football is a team sport, and we can’t do this alone, but our leadership in this field and collaboration with partners, such as Barclay’s and others, together with football stakeholders and engagement with our members is critical and a key part of my role.
“Normal” isn’t a thing in sport so what does an “average” week look like for you?
That’s so true! My weeks are so varied, but generally they comprise of some time with the team (either collectively or individually), and also with Directors, stakeholder meetings, engagement with the WIF community, media interviews, events (hopefully some football!), but also business admin, work on our strategy, what we do and how we do it, challenging ourselves to improve continuously. So time working in the business and time working on the business. The time on the business is so important, because that’s the time that impacts our future, our visibility, influence, impact, our future relationships.
How did you end up where you are right now? When did you know you wanted to work in sport?
I have for as long as I can remember wanted to work in sport. I always loved playing sport at school, and then I was involved outside with both netball and basketball. I helped set up a junior netball club in East Manchester as a volunteer, Dominoes Junior Netball Club, something I’m really proud of and who now boast 13 teams, in fact some of the girls I used to coach, are now coaches themselves!
I did Leisure & Tourism, plus English at college and then Leisure Management at Salford University, but I credit most of my early learning in the industry to my volunteering; giving back, learning new skills, being part of a team, a committee, building something from scratch, grafting, finding a way and not giving up! I volunteered following a 2nd year uni placement with a charity called GreaterSport, I saw how well connected they were and if I wanted a career in sport, I knew I could benefit from being part of their organisation, learning from them and building my network. Best decision ever, I was there for 15 years I was there, four of which were as CEO, starting as a volunteer! I actually cried the day I was successful in securing that role (and I don’t cry often!) but it meant so much, that journey. I left GreaterSport in 2018 to work for the Class of 92, reporting into Gary Neville. That was an incredible experience, and I worked across different aspects of their sport and education portfolio, with an early focus on University Academy 92, and recently watched the first cohort of pioneering students graduate, it was wonderful. During Covid I took a bold decision to leave and set up my own consultancy, Stryve, and what a learning curve that was. I’m so proud of what I achieved in a short space of time, writing strategies for Netball Scotland, Manchester Thunder (Super League Champions!) plus some other really interesting projects, advisory work and executive coaching/mentoring too! Fast forward and on the day Jane Purdon (previous CEO of WIF) announced she was leaving WIF, I received a number of messages from people, saying this was the perfect job for me. I wasn’t looking for a role at the time, because of Stryve, however it caught my interest. I’ve always championed gender equality in sport, I love football, making a difference and this is the perfect combination of that. So I did have a conversation with the Executives in Sport Group who were recruiting for the role and decided to submit an application. I went through a rigorous process and came out the other side being offered the role, and I haven’t looked back since! What a time to be involved in football!
What is your number one focus when it comes to your work?
Ooh, it’s hard to narrow down, but if I had to, I’d say it’s the people, internally and externally. Work with the people, motivate, support, develop and amazing things can happen. I’m a big believer in not what you do, but HOW you do it, and that all starts with people, a common goal and a clear understanding of what we want to be known for, what does it feel like to be part of the WIF community, how do we behave.
Can you tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from it?
There are a few! But one that always stands out to me, and particularly related to people, is when at GreaterSport we were offered some tickets for a concert by one of our partners, normally I’d have offered them out to the team and then drawn names out of a hat so it’s fair. However, I’d had a tough week, a relative was unwell, I was distracted, and I’d just been made aware of a fantastic piece of work by a member of the team who went above and beyond in their role, and so I just offered the tickets to them to say well done. Fair you might say, however, because this wasn’t the typical way I operated AND I didn’t explain why I’d taken that decision, someone in my team reacted quite badly to it and called me out on it (professionally of course). Now this wasn’t an epic failure, but was an important reminder about team dynamics, recognition and reward, communication and deviating from the norm without narrative. I acknowledged their feelings and reasonings, and also shared a little of the week I’d had, and there was no damage done, but I was grateful for their feedback and no matter how big or small, there’s always learning to take from those kinds of situations. In the grand scheme of things, this can be a little thing to you, but can be a big thing to someone else and it’s important to be open to that.
What excites you most about UEFA Women’s EURO 2022?
What doesn’t!?! The biggest thing for me is how this can inspire a generation to play and create new fans of the women’s game. The legacy plans across the host cities in particular are strong, the FA investment into grassroots etc. is significant and now, the young girls watching have genuine opportunities to follow their dream and have a career in professional football! Equally, I think we’ve moved on from the ‘oh it’s actually quite good’ comments about women’s football. This tournament is showcasing some of the most talented players in the world, so for anyone in doubt, I hope they see the standard and appreciate and embrace the game. I’ve been to watch a number of the games, there is such diversity in the crowd – it’s not just women watching. And so many people can watch it on the BBC too so the potential to grow audiences and retain into the domestic game is huge.
If you could change one thing about your Industry, what would you change?
Take out the biases, remove discrimination, can we just ensure people have an equal opportunity to succeed, the best people for the job but without the closed network that can exist and that makes it difficult for people to come into the industry.
Sport is a hectic industry, what do you do to switch off?
Time with my family, often taxi service for my three kids! Walking the dog and time with friends. A must for me is exercise – not as consistent and often as I’d like sometimes, but it’s so important to me, it’s like my therapy!
What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to work in the sports industry?
Be a good person, be true to yourself and invest in yourself and your network, as the famous saying goes, ‘your network is your net worth’. People do business with people they like, in good times and in bad. Develop yourself too, whether that’s through qualifications, mentoring, work shadowing, listening/watching/reading relevant material etc. I have done a mixture of this, including study Masters qualifications, in Community Development and Sports Directorship but learnt so much from observing others too. Learning should be a constant thread in any career, we can never know it all!
And if you’re a female working, or aspiring to work in the football industry, or a male or non-binary ally, please join us.
How to follow Yvonne Harrison and Women in Football…
- Our LinkedIn group (anyone can join)
- Our Twitter @WomeninFootball @yvonneh147
- Our Insta – womeninfootballofficial
Thanks for reading our chat with Yvonne Harrison! If you want to read more from our Industry Insider series, you can do so by clicking here.