Given the money and emotion that goes into football in the UK, the Football Association (FA) routinely finds itself under a public microscope. Rachel Brace, the FA’s HR director, speaks to HR magazine about the unique challenges this brings to her role.
Despite working for a FTSE 100 company, and in HR for other sports such as rugby and athletics, Brace said that nothing could have prepared her for working in the FA.
“One of the differences between HR in the FA and HR in corporate life is scrutiny,” she told HR magazine. “You have a choice as a HR director about how you tackle that.”
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There are two choices, she said: “You can either think that your processes, procedures, policy – everything you do – needs to be to an incredibly high standard and make sure that nobody gets caught out, draw your line there and hope you can stay in the background and not personally get caught up in the scrutiny. Or you can take the job to another level and position HR at the top table.
“You get to have a say in the big strategic challenges, the cultural and political challenges, but that means that personally you will be under scrutiny because you are one of the leaders who are making those decisions.”
Brace, like few other HRDs, routinely finds her name quoted in the newspaper, and that has been a disconcerting.
But, she added: “It really dawned on me that when you put yourself in that sort of position at the FA, if you want to be a senior leader and have that level of influence on how the organisation progresses, you have to take what goes with that.
“If you want to ensure that the people agenda has that level of influence over the org and is at the heart of what the org does, I don’t think you can do it any other way.”
Her advice to anyone that finds themselves in the same position is to remaining stoic in the face of media pressure.
She said: “There’s also a danger it can make you paranoid and risk averse. It can scare you a bit so you have to be careful to centre yourself and not being overly influenced by what you think a media or political position might be around what you’re doing.
“If you allow yourself to be too skewed by what you think the media might say about something, it will knock you off course and you might not make the right decision.”
Luckily, she has also been able to take a lead from others who found themselves thrust into the public eye.
Gareth Southgate, manager of the England men’s football team, came into the role after coaching the under 21 side, and Brace said she was happy to see his progression.
She said: “He’s a great role model in terms of that curiosity to learn, to continually better himself as a leader and as a coach, and to be humble. It’s great to have a sort of a pace setter like that in the organisation.”
In her time in the role, Brace has overseen a major transformation in the FA’s HR after a major restructure in 2015.
“HR had a mindset of, “let’s get the basics done well” – the policies, the processes to try and keep things under control. But it wasn’t a strategic partner, to the CEO and the board and the leadership team,” she said.
When she joined in 2016 therefore, she added: “It was about positioning HR in a way that meant we could best help leaders achieve their goals. That’s where I think we are today – and it makes the job much more interesting.
“Six years on, we are now a much more professional organisation with a much healthier culture, with more talented people and particularly more talented leaders who mean that you know, as a collective, we are in a much better position to be a much more effective source servant of the game.”
Part of the changing face of the FA has been developing women’s football. This, Brace added, has been treated like any other new business development project, asking questions about funding for the department and how it should be structured as part of the wider organisation.
Brace added: “As a HR team, we’ve been with Sue (Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football) on that journey from the beginning. We’ve helped to build the team, we’ve had to hire the talent. We’ve done it at the top level in terms of head coaches, but we’ve done it across grassroots football and built the support functions around it.”
Looking forward, Brace added that with discussions over a potential independent regulator, and MP Tracy Crouch’s fan-led football review, there’s much that will keep the FA busy.
She said: “From a strategic HR perspective, there’s a real opportunity to be involved in those discussions around how the future structure of the organisation could look, and what leadership it needs to be successful in that. There’s very interesting times ahead from that perspective, as well.”