David Slemen: Performance NED - asking questions no-one else can

In the final instalment of his series on the five key roles for high-performing teams, David Slemen, founder of Elite Performance Partners, discusses the position of Non-Executive Director.

SPECIALIST Non-Executive Directors are nothing new in sport.

The best boards have experts from far and wide who can help make decisions about finance, commercial growth, technology, marketing and more. Non-Executive Directors - or NEDs for short - can also bring the board closer to the players, with ex-athletes often stepping up to this role to advise their former clubs.

However, what is new is the idea of true performance experts - either from within your game or with experience of another sport - helping make key performance decisions.

What do they do?

The NED is not someone who’s out on the pitch, but rather a senior advisor who can take a step back and inform, challenge and support the decisions being made by the Executive.

They ask the right questions and are able to provide answers for those who don’t have hands-on experience of sport and are grappling with performance choices alongside the commercial agenda.

In a world where the ‘magpie effect’ remains strong and new skills and ideas are often valued above lived experience, the role of the NED is to bring gravitas, knowledge and difficult questions to the fore, hopefully stopping the recurrence of mistakes.

Why wouldn’t a club that’s serious about performance have someone with genuine insight and experience who is able to do this on their board?

Why are they so important?

Looking outside of sport to the corporate world, it is hard to find any board without some form of specialist in whatever product or service they are selling.

Looking inside sport, however, both in football and beyond, it is clear that most boards do not incorporate the expertise they are selling, which is the performance of their teams.

Often, decisions are left to people who may love the game, who might even have played it, but who have little or no real experience of making strategic decisions on the performance side of sport.

You only have to look at the composition of the boards of some of our governing bodies to see the brilliant collection of business heavyweights on one side and sport specialists on the other, yet no-one who can understand the finer detail of a coaching programme.

As teams and executives are inevitably slimmed down in response to a combination of tighter budgets, Covid-related governance and renewed priorities, I think sage advisors and mentors who understand club and culture will become more important than ever.

Add in the huge recent rise in home-working, the reduction in travel and our new-found video technology skills, and all the barriers to accessing a relatively cheap resource are suddenly removed.

It may well be the case that existing governance does not allow for an additional board member. However, I would argue that now is exactly the time for clubs and teams to be holding extraordinary reviews about structures to ensure they are fit for future purpose.

Who makes a good NED?

In a nutshell, someone senior enough to take a step back, see the long play and bring a wealth of experience to bear, while also having the performance understanding to remain relevant to the issues of today.

The NED is there to ensure accountability, education and performance discipline; to help decide what to analyse and what the strategy really is. They need to be passionate about high performance but never emotional; to understand that sport is unpredictable; and to ride alongside, rather than on, the rollercoaster.

This is someone who appreciates that the 'magic formula' of owners and other members of the board can only come to fruition with good planning, a strong vision and great coaches.

This vision should certainly be articulated by the owners and CEO, but in order for it to become reality, it needs the building blocks of performance to be at the front and centre of strategic decisions. It's the NED's job to ensure this is the case.

This is a role that’s important at any club, but even more so where there isn’t a Sporting Director responsible for teams running from the first team to the U15s. Ideally, there will be both, and I wrote about the role of the Sporting Director in the first instalment of this series.

Any good examples? 

One is Owen Eastwood, a lawyer and partner of ours who was recently on the board of the New Zealand Warriors rugby league team.

Owen's remit was to ensure that there was a detailed sporting vision and strategy at the club, that the board continually reviewed how this was being delivered and to assemble a Football Advisory Committee to meet monthly with the Head Coach.

He was also responsible for putting good structures in place for mid and post-season reviews against this strategy.

Another is Michael Gordon (below, right), who advises FSG, the owners of Premier League champions Liverpool. Michael ensures that they learn from mistakes, value the power of relationships (without being weighed down by emotion) and amplify the outcomes they are looking to achieve.

Owner John W Henry has said that Gordon is “by far FSG America’s most knowledgeable person with regard to soccer and is involved on the football side daily in constant communication with the members of our football committee and our manager.”

Manager Jurgen Klopp has simply said: “In FSG, he’s the LFC man.”

Eastwood and Gordon show that your High Performance Non-Exec should be a brilliant performance leader who understands the demands of the game.

They might still be working in an executive performance leadership role, they might be a consultant or even recently retired, but they will have a real knowledge of what good performance looks like, and the processes and structures required to achieve it.

They will understand the chain of causation, knowing what elements need to be revised or revisited, in order to get the best out of the team with the resources available.

They will ask probing questions and bring helpful suggestions. Staying one step removed from the Executive, they will act as a critical friend and mentor, voicing constructive criticism where necessary and providing an expert lens on matters of performance.

They will ensure that the debate around performance is as healthy as that concerning other areas of the business, helping create a safe environment where the overall vision of the group trumps any personal agenda.

  • David Slemen is a former professional sportsman and the founding partner of Elite Performance Partners, the high performance talent consultancy and search firm. EPP works with football clubs across the Premier League and was recently responsible for a number of high-profile placements within the FA’s leadership team.

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