Michelle is a sport for development mastermind who has contributed towards life-changing impacts across charity and sport. She has a wealth of knowledge she’s shared in this interview surrounding the impact working in retail has had on her sports industry journey, the value of transferable skills, how she’s transformed challenges into opportunities for development and more!
Question 1: Michelle, it’s a pleasure to have you on Ash’s Sports Talk. Could you kick this off by sharing how your career in sport began?
I’ve always had a passion for sport. I grew up next door to Manchester United Football Club and was a mad football fan. My career started as a volunteer working in disability sport. I loved business as well, so I decided to mix the two. I spent over four years volunteering in disability sports development with Leeds Sports Development, then some time in the USA working with people with challenging behaviours and brain injuries. I came back to the UK and started working in the learning disability service before landing a role in Stockport developing sport for disabled people and young people from deprived areas.
I then headed off to Australia as a 23-year-old and managed a chain of Irish pubs. This gave me excellent management experience and commercial sector expertise. I loved it. After two and a half years, I returned to the UK as I wanted to get back into sport (& to stay in Australia, I would have had to stay in hospitality).
I spent the next ten years working as a complex multi-sector leader, multi-stakeholder partnerships in sport, and started specialising in turnarounds – leading major organisational transformation. I decided to back up my professional experience by completing an MSc in Leadership & Organisational Change.
After a period of ill health, I decided to re-evaluate my life and looked at what else was out there. It began the next stage of my career, where I enjoyed international development experiences, international sport for development and professional sport. Then I found this role at Special Olympics GB and finally landed where I was always meant to be. It brought my career full circle.
Question 2: You’ve evidently had a fantastic sports industry career, working at the Special Olympics, Kick4Life, Comic Relief and more! However, I also understand you worked at Bridie O’Reilly’s pub as a manager! I find this humbling and I’d love to hear about how this experienced had shaped up any skills, knowledge or competencies that you still apply to this day?
Travelling to Australia on your own at 23yrs of age teaches a lot about life, taking chances and being brave. I worked in hospitality from 16yrs of age as a waitress, bartender, and chambermaid in a local hotel. I’ve always loved working with people, and I believe all young people should experience working in the service sector. It teaches you about customer service, patience, problem-solving and relationship building.
I know my management experience in the pubs, brought me a level of business development & expertise that I wouldn’t have got if I continued through a traditional sports development route. When I coach people, I suggest that they spend time outside their sector or comfort zone, or be brave and take sideways steps to develop more expertise, making you a more rounded leader. It means you can look at things from a different perspective.
I loved my time in Australia, and still retain lifelong friendships with the people I met there.
Question 3: On the subject of management, working for a sports trusts, global organisations and sports clubs, what did the process look like for you when transferring your management skills into various organisations? Was it a smooth adaptation, or did it take longer to adjust?
Having transferable skills is really important. I found the challenge actually lay in demonstrating that to recruiters and decision-makers – who preferred a more traditional CV and career path – than my career journey suggested. That requires people to look outside their own comfort zone and give people a chance.
Working in a variety of different types & sizes of organisations helps you understand what makes you tick. What type of organisational culture suits your working style and whether you prefer to have a smaller, defined role in a huge organisation, or prefer to undertake many different levels of responsibility in a smaller organisation. For me, I learned a lot across my career journey. I know the organisational culture I want to be part of, and I know the organisational culture I want to create. I prefer being part of a smaller organisation with the potential to make a huge impact.
The key to organisational fit is an alignment of values and a fit to the organisation’s culture. Specific skills can be taught – being a values-led leader means that I appoint people based on values and fit. It’s about developing a team – and that cultural fit is crucial – as the team needs to trust each other and have complementary skills and expertise.
Question 4: Moving onto your work at the Special Olympics Great Britain. If there’s such thing, what does a CEO’s life look like, and what makes your role so great?
I make no secret of the fact that I believe that I have the best job in sport. Leading major organisational change and transformation means that no two days are the same. I enjoy the variety – which is a good job! One day I can be speaking with 10 Downing Street, and that evening I can be dancing in my living room with disco lights at an athlete fun night! I can be running payroll one day, looking through contracts and governance documents, speaking with a major corporate partner and then speaking with my athlete leader ‘buddy’.
My role is fantastic because I landed where I was always meant to be. I am deeply passionate about transforming lives through sport for people with an intellectual disability. This role means that I can help create fundamental societal change for those living with an intellectual disability, in the most fun and positive way.
Our athletes are a complete joy, and it is my mission to help break down stigma relating to the last ‘hidden’ disability and create platforms and environments where our athletes can share their stories. They have a lot to teach the rest of the world about inclusion, resilience, bravery, courage and belonging. I am privileged to have a number of our athlete leaders on speed dial. They inspire me, they challenge me, and most of all they make me laugh. Laughter, joy and kindness is something we can all do with more of!
Question 5: Working in the sports charity sector for a respectable amount of time, what further support do you feel the industry would significantly benefit from to ensure life-changing impacts are continuously produced?
The industry needs to be open to creativity, innovation and doing things differently. Charities need to be more commercial in their approach. The charity sector is very highly regulated, and it is also very competitive. Charities need to be built on good strong governance, a commercial and heart centred approach, and people led.
The industry needs to understand what inclusion and diversity actually mean and why it makes sense to be truly inclusive. Disability inclusion is not just about physical accessibility. We have hearts and minds to inspire, and with the right environments and platforms, our athletes are the best people to do this. They are the heart of our organisation, and our Athlete Leadership Team (ALT) is the heart of our wider leadership team. Every morning, we have a Team Huddle, and every Thursday morning our ALT join us. It’s the highlight of the week. Our ALT has helped advise us throughout the whole covid pandemic and have helped us make difficult decisions.
We need to raise the Special Olympics profile, so it is no longer the best-kept secret in Great Britain. We also need to protect the long-term future of SOGB. We currently don’t receive any central government funding, and it is the biggest challenge that keeps me awake at night. As a charity, we have to raise every penny, and this is a struggle. The majority of our income currently comes from our brilliant corporate partners – but this is hard-won – and the industry is experiencing its own challenges now due to the pandemic. We need a significant cash investment or fairy godmother to ensure we can survive and continue to make the most astonishing differences in people’s lives.
Question 6: On the subject of challenge, would you mind sharing some of the difficulties you’ve faced throughout your personal sports career? Plus, how have these challenges moulded you into a more resilient sports industry asset?
I have faced several challenges throughout my career and life. I am a leader who is driven by transparency, integrity & respect. I refuse to compromise on two key areas: 1) financial transparency (how the charity pound is utilised) and 2) safeguarding – ensuring the safety and protection of young people and vulnerable groups. I have learned throughout my career that many other people live by different values. Therefore I have faced some situations where I have refused to compromise my integrity and then lived with its consequences.
As a young Director/CEO (I was 27 when I landed my first Exec Director/CEO role), I faced several challenges – associated with being a young female leader. I have worked in male-dominated environments and also been in organisations where they have said they wanted significant change. Still, the reality was they actually didn’t want anything to change. I have been knocked down a lot on my journey, but I just got back up again. It has been incredibly tough at times, and there have been times I didn’t know if I would get through in one piece. But I wouldn’t change anything.
Every person on my journey, whether friend or foe, has shaped who I am. I’ve learned lessons from everyone and every situation I have found myself in. I have developed resilience, and I am calm in a crisis. I know who I am, I know what I am capable of, I know what environments I excel in, and I know the type of people I want to surround myself with.
I value people, and I value honesty and integrity. I don’t possess an ego and am actually quite a shy person – so being a CEO doesn’t define who I am – it’s a job title which states what I do. I am human, we all are. I think being authentic and having purpose and passion gets people much further in the long run. I prefer to judge people on what they do rather than what they say they will do. Actions speak louder than words.
Question 7: Michelle, reflecting on this discussion and your sports career, what is your killer piece of advice for someone wanting to break into the industry?
Find your passion and purpose. Challenge yourself in different environments. Find out what makes you tick and what you love doing. Stand up for what is right and stand against what is wrong. Do what is best for a whole team/organisation rather than just one person. Create listening environments. Listen more than you talk. Be humble, be open to learning and be adaptable. Change is something you have to embrace. Surround yourself with awesome people. Be kind, be authentic & find joy in everything.
If you want to break into the industry, you need to volunteer and stand out from the crowd. Generic and speculative emails don’t work. What difference can you make to an organisation? You need to be specific about what you can bring. It’s a crowded market. For me, I want people who want to work for Special Olympics – not people who just want a job. If you want a regular 9-5 job, then sport and charity are not for you. For organisations like Special Olympics GB, we are built on people who are driven to make a significant change. This is a vocation, and you have to live and breathe it. Our athletes deserve that.
My main advice is that people do business with people. The ability to develop meaningful relationships and develop emotional intelligence will take you far.
Be authentic, be honest and be kind.
Wow, this has indeed been one of the most insightful interviews I’ve ever had on Ash’s Sports Talk. I genuinely appreciate how Michelle has valued work in external environments to sport to be an opportunity to think differently to more conventional routes into the industry. Plus, she’s openly admitted to facing many challenges, but it hasn’t held her back from becoming who she is today. Plus, she’s made it crystal clear that being yourself ALWAYS wins.