The sports industry in general is known for being hugely male-dominated, however when it comes to key senior roles in organisations such as football clubs, the number of women is even fewer. Michelle Walder is one of Brighton and Hove Albion’s Non-Executive Directors and also the Chair of the Women’s and Girls’ clubs. I spoke to her about her interest in sport, career and Brighton’s commitment to women’s football.
Sport has always been a part of Michelle’s life, though she herself admits that playing it was not her forte. “I’ve always enjoyed watching sport, pretty much any sport, rather than playing it. Not my natural talent! Football has been a part of my life from my early childhood, mostly due to my Mum telling me stories about Gresty Road (Crewe Alexandra’s home ground) as we drove past the ground on the way to my Gran’s on Sundays,” she said. Although it was an interest, she had no plans to work in the industry. Over many years she got to know Brighton and Hove Albion’s Chairman Tony Bloom and through him, she began to learn about how establishments such as football clubs function. “I’m not even sure when I was starting out in the mid-90s that I was aware there were careers in sport, other than playing or coaching. I was fortunate enough to get to know Tony as part of my day job. This helped me understand what a professional sporting organisation looks like and so when I became a Non-executive Director, I had a clear sense of where I could add value,” Walder explained.
Her day job through which she met Bloom is as the co-founder of a company called TXG. “TXG provides leadership development, executive coaching, and team effectiveness support to a variety of corporate clients. The work that sport has been leading around performance psychology and elite performance development underpins our philosophy,” Michelle told me. “Having worked in HR in financial services for a few years I had a clear view that there was a missing service in the corporate sector to match great coaches and consultants with a particular client, in terms of culture fit as well as expertise. A bit like being a matchmaker! I realised quite early in my career that I don’t really like being told what to do!”
In 2016, Tony Bloom asked Walder to join Brighton’s board. As a Non-executive Director, her role is comprised of many different areas, including future strategy planning. “There are 3 main aspects for me – one is oversight to make sure we, as a club, are doing the right things the right way. The operational team at Brighton are fantastic professionals, so that is the easy bit! The second part is to help decide the Club’s future strategy. The third aspect is to support and encourage everyone at the Club. This part of the role is easy to underestimate, but in my view it’s a really core part of the Board’s role. Our Club is full of committed people and our job is to recognise how much they put in to their work and to support this wherever we can. Everything that goes on behind the scenes contributes to the on-pitch performance,” Michelle described.
Since joining the club, Walder has also become the Chair of the Women’s football team, overseeing an increase in investment. “Chairing BHAWFC is a fantastic role. Whilst the content is similar to my main board responsibilities, the feel is a little different as there is so much change in the women’s game right now. The timing is very exciting with the FA’s drive towards turning the game professional through the new league structure and the expected growth of the fanbase over the coming years,” Michelle told me. With the club achieving their main aim of gaining a Women’s Super League license, Brighton and Hove Albion are keen to commit more in terms of finances and general support to raising the profile of women’s football, something she has become passionate about through her role. “I have only really become involved with the women’s game, other than watching international games, since getting involved with the Club, and I’m delighted I am. It’s a great game to watch and the development of young players is very rewarding. Being able to offer younger girls a pathway to a professional football player career is wonderful,” she said.
With the 2018/19 season being their first in the WSL, the club are eager to continue this and their support for females in the game. “This is our first season in the Women’s Super League and we are keen to be there next season. We continue to invest in our training facilities for the women as well as developing younger players through the Regional Talent Club (the FA pathway for girls, similar to the boys’ Academy) and our development squad,” Walder explained. In her day-job, she also encourages others to consider roles in football, both male and female. “I spend a lot of time now that I am involved encouraging graduates to consider working in football, or another sporting environment. If you are interested in marketing or communications, or HR or legal, a sporting organisation is one of the most interesting places to build your career, in my view,” she said.
Michelle Walder is among a growing number of women taking up senior roles within sporting organisations. Despite the number of females being very small, organisations such as Women in Football are keen to encourage more to consider that such roles are not out of reach for them. Speaking of the advice she would give to those wanting to work in key decision-making roles, Michelle advised: “do good work, be respectful, challenge yourself by doing things you don’t know how to do, keep your standards high, and choose to have a good attitude every day. That way you are controlling the bit you are in control of – yourself. As for the system, and sexism, and anything else you may encounter that puts you off or discourages you – use your voice to raise awareness and try to change things. Whether that is politically, through focus and protest groups, or simply by discussing your perspective and experience with family and friends. We need more good women in senior roles, talent is evenly distributed through the population but opportunity unfortunately isn’t. The way we’ll encourage change is to be visible. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. So, by definition, if you can see it, you can be it!”
(photo credits: Paul Hazlewood, Brighton and Hove Albion)