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Getting Involved in the Business World? A View from a Rookie!


Expert analysis from David O'Connor, Chief Executive Officer, Shelbourne Football Club. This article has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.

In life, in sport and in business, the decisions we make impact the relationships we build, the medals we collect and the profits we earn. In January 2018, the Board of Management of Shelbourne Football Club (aka ‘Shels’) made an innovative strategic decision to reorganise the internal governance structures of the club by bringing in a new strategic investor and also in creating a new executive position at board level.

It was with this restructuring that I was provided with a once in a lifetime opportunity to assume the role of Chief Executive Officer at Shelbourne Football Club. Having previously plied my trade as a professional footballer for eight years, while also studying business at UCD, I was catapulted into a prominent decision-making role at one of the most successful football clubs in Irish domestic football. 

Transferring my football skills to the ‘real’ world  

I had to immediately question who I was and what I could offer off the field, in the ‘real’ world. Being a footballer, a captain and a teammate, gave my life purpose, drive and meaning. I now found myself in a boardroom environment surrounded by a group of stakeholders whom I had to lead, inspire and bring with me in the new direction that the club was about to embark. On paper, I may have lacked the business skillset and experience, and initially questioned how successful I could be in this new prominent decision-making role. I felt vulnerable.This, after all, was the first professional club in Dublin and a founding member of the League of Ireland, the winner of 13 top tier league titles and seven FAI Cups. Yet, for all that, it had been in the second tier for the previous six years and its passionate, loyal supporter and volunteer base were desperate for a turnaround and, still, dreaming of a return to the top flight, if not the glory days. 

It is only now, on reflection of the journey that Shelbourne FC has undertaken over the last two years, that I have been able to connect the dots and appreciate the most important traits of a successful decision-making organisation. They are not always the obvious ones that are regularly cited in business manuals and global conferences, but instead often come down to the skills of emotional intelligence and empathy. Fundamental human traits of life.

The importance of your key ‘players’ 

In any successful team, organisation or business, managing, understanding and getting the best out of teammates, employees or co-workers, be it on the pitch, or in the boardroom are the most important ingredients in making key decisions and ultimately achieving sustained success.
Being able to understand and appreciate different perspectives and make various stakeholders feel part of the process, is vital in making consistent, informed, successful and sustainable decisions.

Working with different personality types and knowing how to inspire and get the most out of each of my teammates were characteristics that I had developed as a player and as a captain in the dressing room. They are skills that are often associated with successful sports teams.But from my own personal experience in my new role at board level at Shelbourne FC, there is a direct correlation between the concepts of emotional intelligence, empathy and understanding and successful decision making, strategic alignment and business development. At Shelbourne FC, an organisation with multiple and diverse stakeholders, being able to appreciate and value the needs and wants of each of these stakeholders has enabled the club to begin a journey back to the top table of Irish football and regain a stable financial footing.

The halftime score

And I’m glad to say that a lot of the decisions we have taken in my short time here have been vindicated by securing promotion, strengthening the player base right across the club, building attendances at matches, securing new sponsors, increasing merchandising sales, upping our social media analytics on the back of better content, and a having values that see the club as a hub in the community, a force for positivity and inclusivity. 

Shels have embarked on a new adventure. As we move forward, all in the club now know, from the new owner through to the paying fan and the volunteer ticket seller, that sharing a common goal and rowing in the same direction is the key to overcoming obstacles that at first may have seemed insurmountable.
It has been a steep learning curve for this rookie CEO. Now, as the club faces its return to the Premier Division, more – and, I’m sure, bigger – decisions will have to be taken to ensure the sustainability of what we have been building. 

I’m learning as I go. And loving (almost!) every minute of it.