Executives in Sport Group have global mindset as they continue to recruit across sports performance, business and technology
Executives in Sport Group (EISG) list Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, City Football Group and The FA amongst their clients whom they help find the best possible talent for. Central to their growth over the past ten years is Managing Director Darren Simmons who has worked to place some of football’s leading off-field stars into their current roles.
As clubs strive for every possible marginal gain, EISG has adapted to the ever-increasing need for an evidence-based approach to recruitment while roles such as sporting director, loans manager and data & analytics manager were unfamiliar during their early years.
Simmons spoke to the Association of Sporting Directors having joined as a partner in recent months. The Swindon Town fan discussed the changing landscape of the industry and how EISG differentiate themselves and continue to deliver global performance searches.
Looking back, Executives in Sport Group has expanded alongside the exponential rise of football in England and internationally.
‘We are ten years old this month (June) and in the early days we focused very much on sports business and the classic marketing, sales, operational and venue roles, helping sports teams, primarily football clubs, to hire at the entry to mid-level.
‘I had always loved sport and had worked in football for a period in scouting roles with my hometown club Swindon (Town), during quite an exciting period where Paulo Di Canio was our manager. To add to that, I gained my coaching badges quite early and I used to coach goalkeepers in Southampton’s community programme for a period too. So from the start we focussed on sports business, but I always had in my mind that I really loved the performance side and wanted to do transition into that space.’ Simmons said.
This interest in the performance side was to prove key as clubs began to aggressively recruit in the area.
‘Then two things happened. I think as a business we matured and became trusted by many of the big football teams and more broadly sports organisations globally to find their leadership talent at the chair, chief executive, commercial director, financial director level. But also to find emerging talent and rising stars coming through. So developing pathways and, really importantly, a diverse pool of talent so there’s a pathway to get people into those senior leadership roles in future.
‘What we have done over the last two years is go inch-wide, mile-deep in terms of the performance side. So drawing on that experience I had club side and having a good lens on how to structure high performance, plus drawing on the strong network we have. It allowed us to deliver sporting director, academy director, head of recruitment, head of data insights, loans managers – all of those sorts of roles.
‘For example today we have projects with Premier League clubs for a performance director, lead nutritionist, head of sports psychology too. That kind of broad church of roles that come under a sporting director position is very much now where we operate. Effectively we have sports business, sports performance and sports technology as our core threads.’ added Simmons.
The evolution of technology for decision-making has led EISG to incorporate it into their practices, with it also helping to challenge closed networks within the industry.
‘We’ve evolved to bring a far more data-led approach to the way we identify and present talent to clubs, especially for the Sporting Director / Director of Football role. We have this head and heart piece where we may say ‘this person is brilliant, here is why, and you really need to see them because…. But that ‘because’, needs to be underpinned with a really clear competency framework and evidence of success across all the key areas of the role, or an ability to step up in areas they perhaps haven’t yet had exposure to. There’s a series of data points we combine and that might cover, for example, player trading records and first team minutes for academy graduates. But if a club have a model where they sell their best academy talent at 16/17 that data set and assessment criteria has to flex.
‘We have a process that is primarily evidence-led but also has to assess high potential and those individuals who have a personal runway for growth. That’s why the deputy sporting director role is so exciting. It’s a progressive move by clubs who realise a succession plan is crucial, but also allows a new generation of future sporting directors to develop with ‘cover from above’ and a strong mentoring programme.
We work with trusted data partners, such as Tim Keech and MRKT Insights, to help provide that funnel of insight, so that we can mitigate risk and make it simpler and easier for clubs to make the right hiring decision. It’s also crucial that we can give a view on an individual’s character and leadership style so we run behavioural profiling on all candidates and lean on our influencer network to get genuine insight on an individual’s character and how they operate on a day-to-day basis. If we can’t be ‘up close’ with talent on a daily basis in their environment we have to make sure we’re connected with those who are.
‘It’s a similar evolution in scouting, in a way, where if you go back ten years, your chief scout says he has just seen a centre forward who is brilliant and we have to bring them in, probably led by an agent’s steer. Versus today where they also provide a 20-page PowerPoint with their XG, running stats, social media presence, ten references and twenty video clips of the good, bad and ugly!’ It’s a good example of where we have had to go to as a talent advisory firm as well, far more advisory and evidence-led which helps mitigate risk and help make the right decisions.’ added Simmons.
Having filled numerous sports business roles during their early years helped build a network of now c-suite executives with Simmons and his team there throughout the individuals and clubs growth paths.
‘We were really fortunate in our early days that we had three to four football clubs who relied on us quite significantly for a wide range of roles. Liverpool Football Club was one of those who we worked with through their significant growth period from mid-2017 through to 2020. We secured over 100 people into permanent jobs for the club across head office, training ground, everything and anything across sports business, performance, tech and they have grown rapidly.
‘If we were to go back five years, we would be debating what is a sporting director? What does it mean for each club? And what is the responsibility? And also you would not have had a data and insights team. You would not have a loans manager because that might just be the job of the chief scout or a recruitment person. You certainly wouldn’t have the advanced AI and that side of things as well. I think if you were to go into one of those big clubs now and look at those structures under a sporting director, you are going to have sports science, medicine, data analytics, loans manager, academy manager, recruitment and AI potentially.
‘It has just grown exponentially, which is really exciting and we have hopefully been a key resource supporting that growth in our client clubs.
The nature of EISG’s work has evolved and Simmons felt the need to up their game in order to remain the partner of choice for their clients while also attracting new business.
‘Our focus now is leadership searches, sports business, sports performance, and you cannot just walk into the industry and expect to win that work. You have to build trust, credibility, case studies and be able to show that you have got an understanding and appreciation of the industry, the game and that your network is both diverse, international and of high calibre so that you can put winning teams together. That could be winning on the pitch with the performance side or winning off the pitch commercially.
‘I’m lucky to have a wonderful, diverse, team who feel we have served our apprenticeship and now are at a point where we never rest on our laurels but get retained by some of the biggest football clubs in the world and on global projects. We are on a project at the moment for example with one of the top four teams in the Premier League to build out their global scouting networks. We have had somebody start in Sao Paolo Brazil this week as a senior scout and we have four other countries / regions in which we are identifying talented scouts. There is a global element which is quite exciting and makes every search different.’ said Simmons.
Technology became a theme of the conversation with roles opening up and clubs seeking guidance as they continued to evolve structurally in order to compete.
‘The sports tech side is fascinating and it was great to hear from the likes of Zone7, Okkulo and Hudl at the recent Association of Sporting Directors event. It is interesting seeing how that tech element is coming in more and more as everyone is wanting a more evidence-based approach to decision-making.
‘Clubs probably are still in this quandary around early adoption of technology – whether you are that classic magpie, see something shiny and you want it and that competitive advantage. When we are talking high performance and the marginal gains, those extra 1%’s. If a technology company comes to you and they seem to have the next big thing and it’s going to help you mitigate injuries or help you to identify the next young talent, for instance, the tendency is to jump on it quickly because if you don’t, someone else might.
‘I’m having conversations with clubs who are probably still not quite getting where data science and insights sit within their club and the role that people delivering that work do, but they know it’s essential. I have lots of conversations around how data has become really key, but we are not honestly sure why. I think what clubs are trying to work out is – do they build their own big data team internally? And is it better to have a data and development team of ten in a football club sat doing performance related data analysis in insights / AI. Or are you better off getting a tech stack externally when it is ready to go off the shelf? But actually five of your biggest rivals might also be using that same data program.
‘I think there is a really interesting journey clubs are on there in terms of speed to effectiveness. The question is if they bring it in from externally versus developing your own intellectual property that is unique to you. The latter is something that Southampton used to seem to be real pioneers of when Les Reed was in charge, in terms of their data room. They would have data coming in from four or five different sources but they just managed to pull it all together into one single-view dashboard that gave all the key metrics on a player. I know Les used to say how he can talk about it because actually, they were doing things now that will not talk about for two years. So it was a bit like ‘we’re ahead of the curve again.
With ten years’ experience, Executives in Sport Group remain leaders within the sports recruitment industry. Simmons highlighted their ability to challenge closed networks and challenge their partners has helped them stay ahead of the competition.
‘There is always a lot of conversation around closed networks and people hiring people that they know because they’ve worked with them before, affinity bias I suspect. So when I talked about how everyone wants to get to that evidence led approach position, if you have worked with somebody before in the past, and you’ve done it successfully, there is a recipe and model that you hope you can replicate – so why break that up?
‘We are brought in quite often to challenge that perception, and to be able to say for instance that we have an ownership group who have had two or three sporting directors recommended to them who all look good on paper. But we would not be doing our job right in terms of making such a key appointment, unless we did a proper global market map and made sure that we get introduced to people that aren’t within our network and our comfort zone. This allows us to challenge thinking and make sure that we have unearthed the best possible talent and not just the first three people that come to mind.
‘Breaking that sort of homophily / closed networks, is really important and being able to show that there are people from different backgrounds who can do that position. We have never had a better moment to be able to evidence all different routes you can take to become a sporting director for instance.’ Simmons noted.
Simmons has built strong relationships with partner clubs and uses this knowledge of their culture and vision to get to find the best talent for them.
‘When we are working with a club, we think about what they want, what type of person they want, and the industry often talks about the difference between say Kevin Thelwell (Everton), and Michael Edwards (Liverpool).
‘Kevin’s route, as I understand it, was through coaching, going into academy management and having that balance of everything that comes with running an academy but from being on the grass of it as well. Michael Edwards at Portsmouth, and then at Spurs was very much on the performance / analysis side and was probably head down in data, not tracksuit on and side of pitch necessarily.
‘Both of them have been really successful in the role of sporting director, but both coming from different paths. Nowadays, we’re much more confident in building out and showing clubs the market map of where people will come from. And also being able to say ‘this could be someone who comes from an academy pathway or they are an academy manager or director, and they are running that operation effectively and are essentially a sporting director of that academy.
‘There are also really good heads of recruitment who show broad leadership skills, who could step up and take broader responsibility. At the moment they might be managing a team of scouts on a global basis, who have really set KPIs and objectives. That person can step up and conduct the orchestra over medicine, sport science, training ground operations and all of the other areas.
‘You’ve got loans managers and I think Julian Ward is a great example there. If you look at Liverpool now, and you look at Brighton to a certain extent and at Norwich. You can see that they have got a development plan. In an ideal world a football club loses their sporting director, and they have got somebody that that’s ready to step up and you don’t have to go externally and take a risk on somebody.
‘Looking at Julian’s background as loans manager at Liverpool. Three years ago, if Julian was announced as Michael’s (Edwards) replacement people might be scratching their heads, and thinking, how is that move been made. But actually, if you look at what he’s done and you look at the fact that he’s managing a big group of very high-quality players who are out around Europe around the world on loan and he’s having to take care of all of those across all those key faces and areas. He has to do data and insights on their performance, medical, sports science, rehab, negotiate with other clubs etc. That skillset really sets him up to take Michael’s position now that he is moving on.’ What a great story for the club too, and their staff who can genuinely believe they will get opportunity if they excel.
Clubs are increasingly putting the structures in place to ensure easy transitions should key personal depart. In addition to Liverpool, Simmons highlighted similar instances at Norwich and Brighton.
‘Norwich have done it with Neil Adams becoming assistant sporting director to Stuart Webber, and you would assume and hope that if Stuart moves on in the future, Neil is in-house and ready to step up and take it on.
‘David Weir has just stepped up to replace Dan Ashworth at Brighton and we’re now working closely with him to secure his deputy. What it allows you to do is to protect the culture and the values of the football club. You know you have got somebody in there who gets it and knows it.
‘As long as you are not looking for say, an architect who needs to re-build or re-shape and develop something new, then you know at somewhere like Liverpool, Norwich and Brighton, they’ve got a really good structure and don’t need to go through a big change programme. I think a really important trait of good leadership is being comfortable enough as a leader to build succession plans and making a commitment to mentoring and developing internal talent.’
The role of sporting director remains relatively new in some clubs with the duties not set in stone across the game too. This is something Simmons acknowledges and collaborates with clubs to get the correct fit for their needs.
‘I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that we have to have a clear definition of what a sporting director is, I think it means something different for every club. On two of the big searches we are working on at the moment – one of those clubs is very focused around recruitment and, being at the end of the season, they’ve got a number of players out of contract, a number of loans that they’ve relied on going back to parent clubs, and they want someone who can hit the ground running and really impact recruitment. The argument is that they have a recruitment team in place and they should all effectively still be ticking over. So it should not need to be so focused around getting a head of operations or sporting director, that have to be recruitment centric.
‘Our other search is different as the club saying that they have a really settled squad, only two loan players, of which one they will buy this summer. So there is a longer runway to find that person, and it is a broader scope. We need someone who can lead and inspire across all of the key areas. Really help to drive improvements in the academy and pathways from youth football into the men’s team and it is a completely different focus.
‘I am now in a position to go to clubs and suggest that their route might be from brilliant loans managers or academy managers for instance, they are a lot more open to it. With the likes of Julian, Neil and David Weir as prime examples. David’s background a player, a coach and assistant manager, plus he has two degrees which shows that he is committed to his education alongside his playing career.
‘So you have Julian with the analysis / scouting / loans background, David with a player / coach / assistant manager background and Neil who was a player as well for Norwich. All three with different backgrounds but all equally able to deliver the sporting director role at their respective clubs.’ said Simmons.
Speaking on how to add value to clubs, EISG are looking to provide that evidence to facilitate decision making for club management and ownership.
‘I think we as a consultancy are really conscious that we need to add more value when we are delivering search processes and make sure that we are breaking down those barriers in terms of closed network and let us go to who we know, because they’ve been recommended. One of the key parts of that for us is building out that really strong but flexible competency matrix for the role of sporting director, which looks at the different potential responsibilities of the role and helps a club therefore to decide what are the really key important parts for their club and what aren’t so important. This allows us to generate a really strong job specification and brief. So we can work with that club to say, here are 20 things that are really key for your role within your club, as a sporting director.
‘These become the questions that we need to ask every single candidate and assess them against. And here is a one to five rating everyone is assessed on, while providing an example of what a one out of five and a five out of five answer looks like.
‘For me, the more embedded we are within the high-performance space, the more podcasts we’re listening to, scholarly articles we’re reading, events we’re going to, the more we build our understanding, learn and develop and the more we can speak to clubs confidently and challenge their thinking and expectations on what high performance looks like, and what the role of us sporting director looks like.’ Simmons noted.
This desire to further broaden his network led Simmons to get involved with the Association of Sporting Directors in order to better understand the challenges and trends in the industry.
‘Hugo Scheckter from The Player Care Group actually suggested that I have a conversation with Dan Parnell about the Association of Sporting Directors and the partnership snowballed from there. It is getting in the room with the biggest, brightest brains, and listening, learning and absorbing it all, and hopefully then being able to add some real value back moving forward.
‘My early conversations with Dan Parnell in particular, were really around how I need to develop, I need to continually further my understanding of this role, and if I am in an environment with the fantastic group like I was at the recent event, it allows me to whether it’s sitting listening to the Premier League presenting the new vision for EPP or Tony Scholes on his role and how it’s shaping football for the Premier League, or it’s the break-out chats where you can ask – can I pick your brain on something? Or how do you do it at your club? – that is just priceless.
‘It is so important that we as a consultancy are really under the skin of the challenges, opportunities so we can then help to identify emerging talent and rising stars, who can go on that journey to be a sporting director.
‘We have a really strong relationship with The FA and often recommend people that we feel would really benefit from joining the Level 4 of 5 Talent ID / Technical Director courses. They similarly keep my abreast of who really stand out on those courses.
‘It is just great to have that network and think-tank where everyone’s comfortable sharing, and it allows us to give a better service to the industry by better understanding the challenges and opportunities. We are then helping clubs to mitigate risk and find the very best sporting directors right through to deputy sporting directors, loans managers, heads of recruitment etc.’ Simmons added.
Executives in Sport Group are clearly developing to stay ahead of the game and continue to provide the best talent for their partners.
Article wrote by Colm Hand, student on the Football Industries MBA at the University of Liverpool
Feature image photo credit: Executives in Sport Group
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