Carolyn Radford was nowhere near ready for the ferocity of football when she took over at Mansfield Town, but leant quickly and now shares her unique observations.
With hundreds of staff to manage, astronomical overhead costs and a revenue stream that can be as difficult to predict as your team’s next match day performance, one could easily forgive even the most experienced business manager from not wanting to take over a football club.
However, in 2011, at the tender age of 29 years-old, that’s exactly what Carolyn Radford did when she became CEO at Mansfield Town FC – at which point she made history as the youngest club chief executive in the English football league ever.
Now aged 35, Radford still holds the accolade of football’s youngest ever CEO and has been running things from a business perspective for “The Stags” for five years, boosting the club’s fortunes and supporting the team to its League Two title win in 2013.
As Mansfield Town are currently the bookies’ favourite for title contention again at the start of the 2017/18 football season, Business Advice spoke with Radford about her success with the club to date, the many challenges she’s faced as a young female football executive, and the management lessons the young CEO has been forced to learn in lightning quick time.
“The main thing I had to realise early on in the job was how to delegate,” Radford told Business Advice. “When you’re in charge of a football club, especially a lower league club, you can easily end up being responsible for everything.
“I was recruiting everyone, from the grounds staff to the first team players, when I started,” she added. “But soon I knew that wasn’t sustainable. As the boss, you have to give the people who work for you the opportunity to do their job.
“Sometimes, they’ll do things you don’t agree with, but with proper communication they’ll come around to your way of thinking, if you allow them to.”
Radford has come to realise the importance of having a good recruitment strategy. In the five years that she’s been heading up Mansfield Town, she’s been increasingly inclined to hire internally when director or management roles come up.
“I’ve been good at spotting the talented people around me,” she added. “Being able to manage people is often a natural ability – you either have it or you don’t.
“In football, you have to keep people’s egos in check, but it’s important also to learn how to bring them back up again.”
Her hiring philosophy – that someone you know you can work with may be a much better option than someone with a lot of experience, but who is essentially an unknown entity – may have been shaped by the level of flak Radford has received from some in the football community during her time at Mansfield Town.
Being young and female has undoubtedly made her role as a football chief executive more difficult. She explained: “I was not prepared for the amount of scrutiny I got, constantly at first, but still sometimes now. Getting on with the job has been far more challenging whilst having to defend myself most of the time.
“Having spoken with other chief executives, I’m by no means one of the most inexperienced or under-qualified, but I’m in the firing line more than anyone in a similar position.”
For Radford, it’s been just as challenging being a young person in an executive football role as it has been being a woman. In what continues to be a predominantly middle-aged, white and male-dominated industry, the Mansfield Town CEO urged more football clubs to consider the benefits of hiring younger people, who can bring new ideas and fresh thinking to top-level positions.
“Attitudes are slowly changing, but there’s still a long way to go for young football executives,” Radford told Business Advice.
“The sport needs more young talent in management and executive roles. You have to be tenacious and driven, and those interested should try to get as much management experience as possible early on.”
Radford admitted that as a young professional woman in football, she’s taken a lot of inspiration from Karren Brady. The incumbent CEO at West Ham United became chief executive at Birmingham City FC when she was only 23 years-old, and has talked openly in the past about the level of sexism she has encountered in the sport.
“She’s a hugely inspiring figure for women, in football and in business.” said Radford. “She has experienced similar scrutiny to me, with many people not really believing she was up to the job, but she’s also proof that having enough tenacity can lead to huge success.”
With football figureheads like Brady and Tottenham Hotspur executive director Donna-Marie Cullen leading the way, Radford has felt increasingly comfortable in her own skin as her tenure at Mansfield Town has gone on.
Assuming at first that she needed to act ruthlessly when faced with intense scrutiny, over time Radford realised that the more she relaxed into her role and was simply herself, the more respect she was able to earn from colleagues and football associates.
She added: “All business can be ruthless, but there are nicer ways to go about things. I was nowhere near prepared for the ferocity of football, but over time, I’ve softened. I’ve found that you can relate to co-workers a lot more when you’re just yourself.
Settling in to her chief executive shoes has allowed Radford to take some important commercial steps to move Mansfield Town forward, not least her most recent deal with Hilton Hotels that will see a 100-room luxury hotel built behind the Quarry Lane Stand of the club’s Field Mill ground.
On a personal level, Radford has gained confidence, and has set her sights on a governance role within football – she’s one of five executives currently applying for two spots to represent the English Football League (EFL) on the FA Council.
“The fact that I’m now able to run for this position with the FA shows how far attitudes in football towards young people and women have come in the last few years, but there’s still a long way to go for young executives.”
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