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CEO Dr Dan Parnell reflects on three-years with the ASD

Dr Dan Parnell is currently the CEO of the Association of Sporting Directors and has been an advocate for the role over the past few years in research at the University of Liverpool and in practice. Parnell spoke to Colm Hand about his involvement with the Association and shared some exciting plans for the future.

It was Parnell’s research that initially led to relationships being formed and then his invitation to join the Associations team:

At the time I was leading some research activities around education for Sporting Directors. As part of that, my research interviews had allowed me to develop some positive relationships in the game. Football is a relatively small world and soon after that Mike Rigg had contacted me asking to catch up to discuss the Association of Sporting Directors. It was here when he invited me to join a small team to support the operations and events around the Association. During this period, Mike, Jordan Mornington (a Football Industries MBA graduate from the University of Liverpool), Alistair Milner and I worked to make small improvements to support the sustainability of the Association, around the outstanding events that we were organising.

“As things progressed, Jordan provided a period of leadership for the organisation and we worked with a number of experts, including Laura McCallum; Professor Ian McHale and others, in small cycles of changes to shift the organisation onto firmer ground, well, something more sustainable, rather than jumping from event-to-event with no resources to invest in better supporting members,” Parnell explained.

As the Association continued to grow, so did Parnell’s involvement as he took up the role of CEO in 2019.

“It was around 3-years ago, in the summer of 2019 that Jordan and Mike asked me to take over as CEO, due to Jordan needing to step back. The nature of the Association, especially during these ‘start-up’ years, is that those involved are fortunate to do so as they are already full-time paid employment. This means we can access good people without any financial burden being placed on the ASD. We do what we can when we are in the role and focus on being a genuine custodian of the Association. Preparing the place for the future, but sometimes we will need to drop out, step back, or take a break.

“To be honest everyone I work with knows I am 100% or not involved at all, so I had to do three things, which were; to ensure I had the support of the University of Liverpool, that I had the support of members and finally I had the right people around me to develop and deliver a plan to do something we would be proud of.

“I am very fortunate in the University of Liverpool, as within the management school we have a thriving Centre for Sport Business, an MSc in Sport Business and a range of courses, notably the Football Industries MBA. Alongside this, the management school and I have a passion for research and the opportunity to build relationships to engage in research and then disseminate research with leaders was too good an opportunity. I then spoke to around six key members who were leading sporting directors and asked them whether we really needed, and they really wanted the Association. And if they did, would they support me in leading the organisation. Finally, I spoke at length with Alistair and Haydn Roberts, who would make up our Board.

“I/we had the full-support from everyone we spoke to and this was the green light to begin work on a different future for the Association. For us, that future continued to place the ‘member’ at the heart of every decision we make and secondly to ensure the Association would be sustainable for the next custodians and future members,” added Parnell.

Parnell’s research and role in shaping his students meant many skills were transferrable as the Association focused on putting its members at the centre of what they do.

“My current role is in title, the CEO and Managing Director. In reality, my role is to serve the members and facilitate a group of football experts, leaders and our partners towards making effective decisions for our members, to serve our members and make the Association better year-on-year. This probably covers four stakeholders across the Association.

“Our members are 400+ strong and cover every continent globally. We need to support everyone in some way shape or form, under our aims of ‘support, connect, develop’. This happens in a number of ways from our online events to in-person events. We have to be realistic with our support and resources, so much of that is communicating well with members and managing expectations. This can be challenging as I would love us to be in a position to support members so much more than what we do, but we hope with slow and steady progress we will continue to make a difference for individual members.

“Our technical committee includes fifteen football leaders from a range of geographies globally. So myself and the board are responsible for exchanging ideas, sharing insights and making decisions with the technical committee. Their feedback formally and informally is fundamental and support is critical to any major decision we make within the organisation.

“The management committee includes Iffy Onoura, Colm Hand, Professor Barry Drust and Paul Musa. They provide ongoing and different levels of support for me, the board and the Association.

“Finally, our partners are part of the fabric of the Association. We engage in extensive due diligence to ensure we have the right people in the room for our members. At the same time, our partners ‘find us’, as they learn how we do things and want to be part of an organisation fully committed to serving its members, in our case Sporting Directors and technical football leaders. A lot of this is down to Hudl who have joined us and supported us extensively from the start. The have helped co-create what we have and set the bar of partners on how to work with us. The partners are represented typically by Ed Sulley and Austin Fuller (Hudl), Rich Buchanan and Tal Brown (Zone 7), Mel O’Connor and Paul Boanas (Okkulo), Joel Roberts and Nicola McCullough (Ahead in Sport), and Darren Simmons (Executives in Sport Group). We feed forward into events and reflect together to ensure the events are successful for our members and how they [the partners] can add value to the experience and content. We are very lucky to work with top people and the bar is high for future partners of the Association,” Parnell added.

Board member Alistair Milner recently spoke about the professionalisation of the Association in a piece (here) and Parnell echoed that sentiment when reflecting on the past three years.

“There are many highlights. Knowing the Association is enriched with quality people from the membership, to partners to the board is huge for me personally. Whatever happens, good people, with a purpose and passion generally produce good things, which we are experiencing within the Association right now.

“The structural stuff around developing and implementing governance structures, committees and standard operating procedures are important wins. That sounds rather boring, because it can be. But we are lucky that everyone involved in organising the Association are good people – you can bounce off them with and for ideas and you learn a lot, create a lot and have a lot of fun in the process. We work together in collaboration and that outlook, philosophy, the way we do things – under our vision of serving members – is an absolute pleasure,” said Parnell.

Putting members at the core, it is clear that Parnell is passionate about providing opportunities for those involved, under the headings of support, connect and develop.  

“From a personal perspective I am driven by helping others become successful, so there have been plenty of micro wins and successes that have been celebrated or acknowledged by members from an individual, club and league perspective. My involvement in the Association relies on accessing football leaders and members for my research. This is a huge part of what I take from the Association, but I work with my collaborators, to ensure the research is useful and something we can give back.

“It’s worth mentioning we get inundated with requests from students and researchers to access members for their own data collection and research. We protect this space and manage access very carefully (including my own ambitions). However, I would encourage people to get in contact with ideas that can add value and help our members.

“Finally, knowing members value what we do and how they play a huge part in making the Association a success is probably the most important thing. In our most recent report after our event at Aston Villa, I wrote this to members which sums up my sentiment here:

“Your feedback, ideas, suggestions, introductions, goodwill, recommendations and support are pivotal in the success of our association. We all ‘own a piece of the association, in that we co-create, develop, enjoy and reap the benefits where appropriate. Mostly, these acts are for the benefit of others and often go unrecognised and unrewarded, yet these small contributions make the overall sum and success of what we do and achieve so special.”

Given the membership of the Association continues to grow, Parnell was asked how he manages to maintain the relationships and awareness of those seeking to get involved.

“I try not to bother people and work hard to keep my communication focused with members, whether on email, calls, WhatsApp or club visits. I have made an effort over the past year to get out to clubs more frequently, which is really useful in learning more about respective club challenges, member aspirations and ultimately how we can support better in the future,” he said.

Looking to the next chapter for the Association, Parnell maintains the same drive and enthusiasm as he held back in 2019.

“I am excited and hopeful we continue to grow as a credible organisation that members value, find useful and respect. This drives the board, committees and partners. My drive and passion is to help deliver that. Besides this I am really excited about working with Nicola and the team at Ahead in Sport on our new educational offering – something that could be a game changer for stakeholders to learn more about the role and for our sustainability. Any other excitement will come from successful research projects and outputs that bring further insight to members and to inform what we do as an Association – that reminds me of how much we need to do, and much I need to do, to ensure I have strong research pipeline and positive impact on our industry”.

It is evident that with Dr Dan Parnell as the custodian of the Association of Sporting Directors, members will continue to be supported while challenges in the industry are identified and influenced. To read some of Parnell’s research, click here

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