Ed Warner’s non-executive career straddles the sporting and financial services worlds. A former investment banker, Ed has served as chair of UK Athletics, Grant Thornton UK, and Panmure Gordon. He also led the bid for and staging of the 2017 World Championships in Athletics. Ed’s current chair roles include GB Wheelchair Rugby, the Palace for Life Foundation (Crystal Palace FC’s official charity), HarbourVest Global Private Equity, Air Partner, and LMAX.
Is chairing a sporting governing body different to a conventional PLC?
Stakeholder expectations are very different. You’re working with everyone from elite sports teams right down to grassroots sports clubs, so you need to be something of a chameleon. Someone who can talk comfortably to politicians one minute, and grassroots volunteers up and down the country the next.
Unlike a conventional chair role in which you’re serving investors, you’re more of a temporary steward of a sport with a great history, so you need more than good business skills: you need an affinity for the sport. I’ve seen people apply for sporting chair roles thinking it’ll be a good talking point at their next drinks party, which is the wrong motivation. And I’ve seen businesspeople switch to sport and fail because they don’t love the product. You need that passion to work with the stakeholders, because for them the sport often forms their livelihood, identity, or entire social life.
“Unlike a conventional chair role in which you’re serving investors, you’re more of a temporary steward of a sport with a great history.”
I talk about this from experience: I was interim chair of the British Equestrian Federation after leaving UK Athletics but I just couldn’t fall in love with equine sport. Athletics, however, was a different story. I was an avid sports follower and a member of a local running club so I could talk about it from both a fan and grassroots perspective. Likewise, I had an interest in paralympic sports and rugby way before becoming chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby.
Can too much passion for sport be a bad thing?
Absolutely — you need passion for the sport but too much can cloud judgement. As with any board, you have to make the good decisions and deliver on them, but when someone’s immersed in a sport it can be hard for them to step back and see the whole strategic picture; the proverbial wood for the trees.
When I was the UK Athletics chair, I had to deal with a lot of people — the “super fans” — who just couldn't let things go, mainly because they were too emotionally invested in the sport. It’s something you see less in the corporate world.
How do you manage those “super fans”?
Typically, through the power of talk. We attend a lot of social events, and minor issues that have escalated into big debates can often be resolved there in relaxing settings. It also gives me a chance to understand other people’s perspectives better and in a way that doesn’t absorb meeting time — because you get massively diminishing returns after so many hours in a board room together.
“You get massively diminishing returns after so many hours in a board room.”
How do you manage the media’s narrative?
I’ve seen people from the corporate world carry over into sport a level of control freakery that just doesn’t work. Public interest in sport will always dwarf that of business, and trying to control everything that’s said is futile.
The media will hang you if you deserve to be hanged so you may as well engage with it on friendly terms. My approach is to listen to what the media is saying, and to engage openly with journalists. I've often gained breathing space by investing my own time in talking to the media. It also helps me get more air time for the sport and its stars, which is really what the public want to hear about — rather than some dry story on sports governance.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve been given?
To be authentic and let people take you for who you are. Some boards will be right for you, some won’t, so don’t try and flex your style to fit — you'll soon get found out.
“Some boards will be right for you, some won’t, so don’t try and flex your style to fit.”
It can take time to find the right board, so don’t be discouraged by rejection. Ultimately, you want to be the round peg in the round hole; not the square peg that doesn’t belong.