World Football Summit speaks exclusively to Jordan Gardner, an American sports executive who is Chairman of the Board, Managing Partner, and Co-Owner at FC Helsingør.
Three years after his group acquired the Danish soccer club, he shares with us many valuable lessons around culture, leadership, and much more, which help prove why he was a worthy finalist of the Best Executive Award at World Football Summit 2021 and one of the top-tier members of our newest service, the WFS Speakers Bureau.
Before FC Helsingør, Gardner held minority stakes in Swansea City AFC in Wales and Dundalk FC in the Republic of Ireland. His approach, which is contrary to that of other North American investors, is to start small and learn the business from the base. The team, despite competing with less financial resources than other clubs in its category, was a few points shy of promoting to the Danish Superliga, Gardner shares with the World Football Summit community the lessons he has learned so far on culture, leadership, and change management which are also applicable to any business out there.
This interview is featured in the latest edition of WFS Digest, our insider’s guide to the latest and most relevant thoughts and practices from within the football industry. You can subscribe to WFS Digest HERE.
World Football Summit (WFS): Some industry experts are of the belief that football organizations lack adequate business skills. Do you agree with this statement, and if so, what are the business skills that you believe the football industry needs today?
Jordan Gardner: I absolutely agree with that. The problem is many people look at football as a vanity project, and they don’t treat it as a serious business; this is such a unique and challenging industry to be in…
Everything you do, whether you’re an owner, director or CEO, etc. it’s all very forward-facing, right? Everyone is going to know about when I make a certain decision, meaning the local community, the supporters, the newspapers, TV, etc.
The problem is the lack of value in what I call “human capital,” which is people, right?
Football is a people’s business.
Our success in Denmark isn’t just the act of smart things and making good decisions. I want to believe I was part of it, but I also brought on good people (a coach, a sporting director, a CEO, and so on) and the culture we’ve built.
It’s really driven by key people and a lot of football clubs do not value that.
Sometimes, very wealthy individuals buy a club and put their friends in charge but that is not necessarily the right way you should go about things. The industry lags significantly in terms of identifying talent in people but I do believe things are going to change as more savvy investors are entering the sport.
The last thing I will say is decision-making is also key for organizations. I could give you 100 different examples but just look at the way clubs identify talent and sign players. They rely on agents, or third parties to make decisions for them; it is a very inefficient and unprofessional industry.
WFS: Going back to what you were saying about “human capital”, in the past you have spoken of a framework with 3 pillars: Culture, stability, and leadership. Can you give more details or examples around that framework that executives can learn from?
Gardner: Culture in any organization or in any business is incredibly important. You want to have people that are excited, and in a positive frame of mind to come to work every day.
When we bought the club in Denmark, no one wanted to be there. You could just tell… I would go into training and the players, the staff, and everyone down to the kit man were just like, “I don’t want to be here.” Part of it was the negative momentum on the pitch but a lot of it was the leadership in the club as it was just not creating an environment where it was conducive to success.
I get asked this quite frequently, “How do I build a good culture?”
Culture is something that kind of must happen organically, and it’s built by people. So, for us to change the culture of the organization, we needed to bring in new people who were strong leaders and could build the culture. And again, that is about making sure that people who work for you respect you, that’s making sure you treat people the right way, you recognize when they do things well, and then when they do things not so well. And then you need to make sure you have a well-run organization.
Culture is something that must happen organically, and it’s built by people.
Then, stability, to me, is something that’s critically important. It is easy to see clubs that are not stable in football (hiring new managers almost every year, firing managers early…it happens all the time) It is important to have stability on and off the pitch.
Clubs that have ownership instability, issues paying their wages, or all those similar kinds of things, will surely see an impact on the on-field performance. That´s no different than the real business world.
Another element and I also get asked this frequently, “Why do you spend so much time at your club in Denmark?”
As the owner, Chairman, and Managing Partner it’s about showing leadership, it’s about being present so that employees understand where we are going with this organization. I’ve been involved in projects, or I’ve been a small investor in them, where the larger investors have not been present which then makes it easy for the culture and the stability to kind of crumble away if you don’t have leadership.
Leadership off the pitch starts from the CEO, and your directors, and then cascades to the sporting staff that’s making sure it then translates to leadership in the locker room where everyone needs to understand what their role is.
A good example of this comes from the NBA´s Golden State Warriors. They had poor ownership going back 10 or 15 years, and they were a very bad team that got new owners who came in with good new ideas. They hired a fantastic coach and leader, they hired a new CEO, and then those people hired great professionals’ underneath them and the culture just permeated from the top down.
It sounds easy and something every organization should do, but it’s a lot more difficult when it comes into practice.
WFS: There are other clubs that have more financial resources, and this usually translates to easier access to talent, but can “culture” be a competitive advantage versus other clubs that may have more resources, but not as good as a culture?
Gardner: Yes, absolutely. I use our example in Denmark; we were very close to being promoted. And there were half a dozen teams that were either competing with us or well below us on the table spending significant amounts of money more than us. Our culture, the type of players that we recruited, and the type of organization we built were an advantage.
We wanted players that were hungry, young, and that didn’t have a sense of entitlement.
We asked ourselves “What is the mentality of the organization, are we the kind of an organization that is looking upwards?” What’s interesting with the relegation system is that clubs that come down might be spending a lot of money, but it’s this culture of negativity of a lot of players that are saying, “I’m too good to be here in this division that I’m at.”
At the end of the day though, things like culture and being savvy in terms of the way you invest can only get you so far. I can’t compete with a team spending 10 times as much on players, but can I compete with teams spending 2,3,4 times as much based on the culture and organization we built?
Of course, we’ve proven that.
WFS: When you go into a locker room you have all these accomplished players at their craft. So how do you manage ego? Is a certain degree of ego necessary to get to the top? Or is it more about “ambition” rather than “ego”?
Gardner: It’s a very good question because I think it’s a delicate balance, right? You want players that believe in themselves, are hungry, and are saying to themselves, “I want to play in the Champions League, I want to play in the Premier League, etc.” But you also must have players that understand that well, for now, they are in the Danish first division where there are limitations on who you are and what you are.
You want players that have self-confidence, but not players that are too arrogant that they believe they’re too good for your organization.
A lot of that goes into the diligence we do before we bring players on board, and the same applies to coaches. We can go watch tape on players and scout them; they can look good on the data but if they don’t have the right mentality, and they’re not going to be a good fit for our locker room, then they are not the right player for us.
Of course, we don’t always do it perfectly. We do everything we can, from an off-field perspective, to bring the guys in with the right mentality, but then it kind of falls upon the coaching staff and the players themselves to make sure they’re all integrated together properly.
All it takes is one player with bad culture in that locker room to ruin the whole thing.
And so, to your point, the answer to getting it right is just to do your homework beforehand.
(In fact, Jordan hinted at this idea during his participation at WFS Live in 2021, speaking about how the multi ownership model enabled properties to onboard foreign players into a new playing philosophy and culture one step at a time)
WFS: Well, when you think about the locker room, there are star players, promising players, veterans…In essence, it is a mix of different profiles and this is also applicable to the business side. So how does a leader manage that situation?
Gardner: A good leader must be flexible and understand that, as you said, not every person is in the same life position.
For instance, we have a head of sponsorship, who is 60 years old and has been in the business for 25 years. And then we have a Head of Communications, who is 28 years old, just joined the business from Portugal, and she’s super hungry and super motivated. How do you balance those two people that are in different stages of their lives and have different outlooks on the world?
I don’t think there’s one skill other than being compassionate and understanding. In our case, what’s also even more interesting from a foreign ownership perspective, is balancing the fact that we need staff that understands the local market, the culture, and the language, but also people that understand our expectations around how we want to make sure the club is run efficiently, more professionally, etc.
The key is treating people with respect, giving the knowledge mints when they do good work, correcting them when they don’t, and building a good strong culture.
If you can do that, you’re going to maintain good talent off the pitch and on the pitch as well.
But there’s no one easy answer; everyone wants the easy route when it comes to these things and there is none. It just takes hard work, and dedication and certainly, it’s doing your homework ahead of time.
When we bought the club, we did a lot of evaluation of the current employees and we’ve made changes over the years and adjusted where we needed to adjust. The first thing is to identify the type of people you want to bring in but even then, it is not until they’re in your organization that 100% know their fit.
The key is treating people with respect, giving the knowledge mints when they do good work, correcting them when they don’t, and building a good strong culture. But there’s no easy answer; everyone wants the easy route when it comes to these things and there is none. It just takes hard work, and dedication and certainly, it’s doing your homework ahead of time.
WFS: Can you think about any choices that you’ve made in the past that made you the leader that you are today?
Gardner: Oh, that’s a good question. I think internally, while it might not seem that way, when we’ve had to make really difficult decisions to fire people, it may have looked like a negative thing, but ultimately people gained respect for us.
No one ever wants someone to lose their job or a coworker to lose their job. But after making a few of those decisions, some employees have come up to us and said, “I didn’t really want that personally, but they weren’t doing a great job, so I respect that you guys had the had the fortitude to make that decision.”
It’s probably a combination of that and just relationship building which goes back to being a leader. When we’re there, we’re present, we’re going out to lunch with the staff, and we are understanding what’s going on in their personal lives.
There is no one right answer, but it’s just about kind of completing the big picture. I’m sure there are things that our staff doesn’t always like, but often I think they respect the decisions we make.
WFS: You talked about the Golden State Warriors but is there another example from the football industry of a good leader or organization that’s doing a good job?
Gardner: The organization that I try to model is the Premier League´s Brentford. I sat down with those guys around five years ago before we got into Denmark. You could tell they were focused, and we were able to understand how they structured their organizations and culture.
What I found interesting is they had very strong leadership. The industry was used to seeing these clubs hire and fire managers, and sporting directors, and have players moving in and out, but they knew they wanted an organization that was stable and aligned with their philosophy.
They flipped the framework and decided to hire a goalkeeper coach, an assistant coach, a sporting director, and the last thing was to bring on the head coach, and maybe they would let him bring his assistant coach or whatnot. Most clubs bring in a coach, and that coach hires like, 15 different people.
They said, “Look, these coaches one day they’re here, and then they’re not. Even if they have success in a place like Brentford, they’re going to leave and go to a bigger club. So, we want to make sure that our organization six months, two years, five years from now is the same to the point we’re not worried about losing the assistant coach or the goalkeeper coach or anyone else because the majority there are our guys”
They built this whole hierarchy and organizational structure around the club, making it bigger than any one person.
Brentford has done a really good job of defining the philosophy and bringing in a guy that understands the culture. When you ask, “Is there one person that references the whole organizational culture that they built around the club and who they are?” The answer is no, and I would have said the same thing five years ago when they were mid-table in the championship, and you could feel that it was only a matter of time before they really broke through and had success.
The organization that I try to model is the Premier League´s Brentford. They built this whole hierarchy and organizational structure around the club, making it bigger than any one person.
WFS: These examples of smaller clubs that enjoy success are fantastic…
Gardner: Not to be critical of the biggest clubs but I think it’s more impressive what Brentford is doing, or even clubs like ours; when your resources are just limited, you must do things differently. Certainly, Brentford today has bigger resources now that they are in the Premier League, but you know, they must be smarter, they can’t just spend money for the sake of it and this has forced them to run a better organization.
WFS: This even translates to the business world as well, right? You have smaller businesses that compete with the “big guys.” But occasionally, you get a small brand or team like Leicester City who is able to win the Premier League…
Gardner: I’m not going to say that leaders at clubs are just football people. Some of them are, some of them aren’t. But when you have people that have experience in the real world, they understand the skills and how those skillsets need to translate into the sports world.
Clubs that are driven just by “football people” can run into many problems, in terms of not understanding how this really works.
We had that in mind when we hired our coach in Denmark three years ago. What really attracted us is that he was a football guy and a coach but he also had a background in the business world, specifically in human resources. He had also been a director at a smaller club, so he understood what it was like to run a club on a daily basis, and I think that having that perspective can be very valuable.
WFS: Out of curiosity, if you could bring in any player in history to play for FC Helsingør (assuming you have an unlimited budget or any type of restrictions)…who would it be?
Gardner: Well, Pelé would be the obvious answer, but I am not sure he could adjust to the climate.
It would be amazing to bring in Peter Schmeichel. He is a legend here in Denmark, an icon. He is a winner and knows the country and the culture. Yeah, it would be great to have him.
WFS: Finally, what are your expectations for World Football Summit this year? And, what specific value do you believe WFS brings to the table or to the industry?
Gardner: I have been to a lot of these kinds of events over the years and I believe that, for what I need, World Football Summit is the best out there.
Most of the content is focused on areas that I think are important (the investment space, the management space, the people space, etc.). Also, the people that are attending WFS, are the kind of people that are constantly helping me become better at my craft, it helps me build my network and identify people I can partner with, bounce ideas off, and so on.
WFS attracts the right kind of people and that’s why even if it’s not easy for me to get on a plane from California and necessarily go to Spain or fit it in with my schedule in Denmark, I make a point of going to it because I think it’s that important.
WFS: We appreciate the kind words. On behalf of the entire team, a big thank you and we appreciate the time you shared with us. We are confident our audience will take home a lot of the “nuggets” you shared today and that they will be able to approach company culture from a different lens and become even better leaders in their organization.
This interview features in the latest edition of WFS Digest, our insider’s guide to the latest and most relevant thoughts and practices from within the football industry. You can subscribe to WFS Digest HERE.