Exclusive Interview with John Shiels MBE, Chief Executive Officer at Manchester United Foundation

Q1) John, thanks for joining Ash’s Sports Talk. Let’s kick this off regarding how your career in sport began.

John Shiels MBE

Like many young men, I aspired to become a professional footballer considering that football was integral to most boys’ lives in my generation. However, I quickly recognised that I wasn’t good enough to become one. Instead, I changed tactics to become a PE and drama teacher as I loved both subjects.

Fortuitously, when I was 19 years old, in my 2nd summer of college, The Sir Bobby Charlton Soccer School started. Now, I’ve been working with the school for 43 years.

So, my sports career began by coaching with Sir Bobby Charlton Soccer Schools, and I maintained this relationship for a long time. This bond then brought soccer schools into Manchester United under the Nike sponsorship for 4-5 years. The opportunity then came to marry my passions which consisted of the beautiful game, Manchester United, combined with children & young people.

When working with education and children, every day is an evolving door that comes with challenges, demands and rewards which keep you physically, mentally and socially fit as a badger, hence why I’m enjoying it.

Q2) You’ve illustrated how diverse your career has been; what key lessons have you taken away from your journey?

“You can’t teach unless you’re learning yourself”.

john shiels mbe

I wouldn’t say there’s one lesson. Deep down, I’m a teacher, and you can’t teach unless you’re learning yourself. For this reason, every day is a learning day. This is my personal philosophy, meaning I stay young and energised, which helps me continually develop the skills of listening, education, and communication.  

The skills I listed above are also fundamental to building leadership skills. It’s funny as you can identify these elements from various people. Such as from the youngest of kids to the most senior of people.

Q3) What would you describe as the biggest strength within Manchester United Foundation? Also, what analogy best describes your role?

Without any shadow of a doubt, the Foundation’s strength is its staff. We have 100 members, demonstrating how big of a charity we are. I feel blessed in the respect that our management team are all excellent at what they do.

My role focuses on how we can keep in front. On that note, I consider myself more of a leader than a manager, meaning my job is to try and navigate the ship through the perfect storm to allow us to be in a strong position when the sun comes back up.

Q4) What have been the biggest challenges you’ve experienced throughout building your sports industry legacy?

Because I love what I do, I recognise challenges as opportunities. But having said that, sub consequently, my job is a part of my life, and in some ways, it defines me.

For the 40 years I’ve spent working, I don’t feel I’ve worked a day in my life because of how passionate I am about what I do.

Although I feel like part of a generation that isn’t digitally illiterate, COVID became very hard work. For example, doing back-to-back virtual meetings 6-7 days a week was hard from the charity’s perspective. Despite it being functional, as I’m such a people person and a leader, I did feel outside my comfort zone.  

Q5) What’s the most rewarding feeling you experienced relating to your involvement with Manchester United Foundation?

I’m very lucky as in my role a day doesn’t go by where an outcome isn’t achieved. What I mean by that is every day, whether it’s my colleagues or me, we’ve done something that will affect someone positively in their life.

For example, during COVID, it was decided that as a foundation, we’d use £1m in our reserves to support those struggling.

One story that demonstrates it doesn’t take a lot to make a change was linked with a special school we work with. With our work at the Foundation, we regularly provide grants to best support families going through difficult times.

One of our schools has a college for people with disabilities. There was an older mum who was unfortunately diagnosed with COVID. We sent a creative arts pack to the mum, and her daughter spent days creating collages with a paper plate, glue, and some plastic; overall, this cost £2.50. The mum then shared that it was the best £2.50 she received as it helped her better manage through seeing her daughter engaged. It goes to show that’s the difference a small amount of money can make.

Q6) Who have been your most influential role models that have inspired you to get to the position you find yourself in today?

It starts with my dad, originally from Northern Ireland, who came to England as an immigrant in the 1950s, which I can imagine must’ve been a tough time. He didn’t have much formal education, but he was a very wise man, and he facilitated my growth up to the age of 18.

Another is a teacher called Mr Hannon, he was a fantastic role model.

Next up is Sir Bobby Charlton. He influenced me how to best represent myself, my family, and the organisation I work for. He was probably the most famous British person in the world and yet was able to maintain his humility alongside performing at the highest of levels.

During Sir Alex Ferguson’s era, I was here at the Foundation, and I became a great studier of leadership.

I was lucky enough 3-4 months ago to be awarded an MBE, and it was at that time I recognised that I’m the subject of 2,000 people who contributed to where I’m at the age of 63. I’m lucky that those people have all given me the right quality of direction.

I have four sons; even they are my role models as they influence how I conduct my actions.

Q7) What advice can you provide aspiring sports industry professionals reading this interview?

“Ask yourself, what have I done today that will make tomorrow better?”

John Shiels mbe

My first point is to find what you love and love what you do. From my perspective, that’s the only way you’ll fulfil your potential because it’s not a job; it’s a passion.

The most important commodity is time; you’re not going to get today back. Therefore, ask yourself “what have I done today that will make tomorrow better?”

Combine these two points, and you’ll be fantastic.

On another note, when beginning your career, money does not matter. Because you’ll get to a high enough level of performance, that your passions will become driven by happiness, reward, and health instead.

I’d always positively approach life and wear a smile as the world will smile back at you. Lastly, always try and be kind, whoever you’re with.

Published by Ash

I'm a First-Class Graduate in Sports Business Management who has worked across Local Government, Sport and the Third Sector. Throughout my career, I've developed a thriving passion to promote sport being used as a tool to bring positivity to the world we live in. This ethos has inspired me to create a website which champions this value through comprehensive online content for you to gain value from. Join me on this journey of discovering what sport can do to enhance society.

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