With a strong background in consultancy, Monique Choudhuri's work for statistical analysis company Smartodds, ultimately led her career pathway to Brentford FC. Now a board member for The Bees, Monique fulfils the roles of Board Champion for diversity and inclusion and Board Sponsor for leadership and organisational development. Her passion for achieving equality within the football industry (and beyond), coupled with her extensive knowledge as a leadership consultant, Monique's work is having a positive impact in driving significant change and development.
I started working in the football industry around seven years ago.
My background is as a leadership consultant and I work with organisations to look at their leadership, people and inclusion strategies. Through this consultancy work, I was invited to tender for a piece of work for a company called Smartodds, which is owned by Matthew Benham, who also owns Brentford FC. Smartodds is a statistical analysis business driving data insights. I conducted a Leadership Development Programme for them across several areas of the business. As part of this programme, I provided a range of consultancy services which consisted of cultural surveys, engagement surveys and 360° feedback; in fact, everything that sits underneath the banner of leadership and performance. The Chair of Brentford, who at the time was the CFO of Smartodds, said to me, “I would like to introduce you to Brentford because they are developing their business operations and could benefit from your services. Would you like to tender for a piece of work regarding an engagement survey we want to do?” This was back in 2014. I tendered for the piece of work, won it – I didn’t think I would considering football wasn’t my background – but the rest is history.
So, I started life with Brentford FC as an external consultant and I worked with them on all levels of leadership training, management, engagement surveys, values creation, etc. I continued with this work on and off whilst I was working on other projects too. Then in 2017, I was having a conversation with the Chair and he said, “I think we may have a Director opening. We have a gap of skills on our board for somebody with your leadership and organisational development experience, but also somebody who understands about the gender equality issues happening within organisations.” He knew about my equality knowledge because previously, while working with Smartodds, I also worked on a project at British Airways, developing programmes for their senior leadership team on cognitive diversity, unconscious bias and how to make better decisions. He knew I had an interest in neuroscience and the cognitive and behavioural side of development and he said, “I expect that your role will develop…” Little did I know!
I joined the Brentford board nearly four years ago and very quickly became Board Champion for diversity and inclusion and Board Sponsor for leadership and organisational development, which are my specialisms. Through my work with the Brentford board, I formed relationships with several partners: Kick it Out, FSA, Women in Football… and my network soon expanded further. I was introduced to Ebru Koksal, Chair of Women in Football, in 2019, and she asked me to be a guest speaker on the Women in Football leadership course. I then joined the Women in Football board in August 2019 and my specific remit is to help them to develop both their leadership and commercial leadership courses. I am now Chair of the Personal Development Committee and I sit on their Corporate Membership Committee too. I’m also involved with their Consultancy Committee, helping them to deliver their services.
Outside of these roles, I also work with Sporting Equals - they raise awareness and understanding of the needs of Ethnically Diverse Communities within the sports and health sector, in order to change attitudes and increase participation in sport and physical activity. I am on the Business Advisory Forum. This has been established to identify best business practice that can be replicated across the Sporting Equals company. This group provides advice on income generation, as well as communicating to outside of the third sector. It’s a hugely interesting role and an exceptional organisation.
And of course, I continue to work with my leadership and consultancy clients outside of football.
I’ve known people who work in football for a long time so I am not too surprised I have created a pathway in the industry. The Smartodds project I worked on was back in 2011 so really, I have now been in and around football for ten years in a professional capacity. But I have also been a football supporter all my life. In fact, since I was five-years-old. I have a love of football and while I do have a childhood club, I am completely immersed in Brentford FC and their DNA.
I would say I am in the middle of one right now; we are recruiting for a Non-Executive Director.
There have been so many projects though…
I love some of the events we have held. We put together a fabulous event two years ago for International Women’s Day, whereby we looked at how we could get more women involved in football. We had around ninety people show up for that event and it received very positive feedback.
Another event we held was around how to tackle racism and discrimination in both the community and more widely. Troy Townsend (Kick It Out) came to host the event for us. He is a great advocate and ally of the club; he is brilliant and he really challenges the issues.
I have also enjoyed the EDI regional forums with Michael Seeraj – Michael has become a great friend – and, more generally, I have enjoyed finding new ways to reach and develop underrepresented groups. We ran a project with a number of women who had bought premium season tickets at Brentford, where we looked at how to utilise their expertise and commercial awareness. How did or could they use the purchase of their ticket to socially mobilise in the community? That led to us creating a group called the Bees Club, which consists of leading women working in and around West London. When we get back to the stadium, we are going to utilise these amazing women and their skills to try and bring people into the club, as well as look at how they can work with groups or individuals who wouldn’t ordinarily have a chance to attend football matches. In addition, we want to look at how they can support our women’s team. It has been a fabulous project.
There have also been other projects which have been great and beneficial because they were very much needed but I wouldn’t say they were enjoyable because of the issues they were tackling; for example, social media abuse.
No, it’s not. It’s not pleasant but you have to hold on to the fact that you are trying to eradicate the behaviour. I think one of the great things Brentford have put together recently is a social media policy, which we have released online. A lot of people haven’t done that and we have actually been contacted by other clubs looking for advice and information on it. We have also been contacted about data driven investigations.
Overall, a lot of my journey has been about how we, as a club, spread the message; how we take on those issues which are difficult to tackle. I have grown passionate about a case for a diverse board and a diverse workforce. In the background – and this is something most people don’t know about me – I decided to go back to study in 2016 and I decided to do a Masters in leadership. I didn’t go to university, although I do have further qualifications: a Diploma in Supervisory and Management Science, Management Development Diploma, International Trainer qualification, Group Facilitation Diploma and I have Chartered CIPD level, so I have been a lifelong learner. I ended up studying a Masters in leadership at Henley Business School. In fact, now I supervise students with their dissertations and mark Masters’ assignments. Whilst I was studying, I got offered a great opportunity to follow my passion when it came to putting together my practice-based leadership project. I worked with a large investment bank around a business case for inclusion; they had a problem with diversity within their organisation. It was an interesting project and it showed them, with data, what they already suspected i.e., they weren’t particularly diverse, especially at the top of their management structure. They didn’t really understand diversity as a wider subject either.
Once I had presented the results to them, it was a natural follow-on to carry out my dissertation with them too, which was on the subject of factors that promote and prevent inclusive leadership in organisations. It was a single case study but I subsequently took the time to develop a model from this work; I looked at all of my learning and I developed a model on inclusive leadership. With that, I have now started a new business and I promote the model to organisations to help them assess their inclusive leadership, their EDI processes and their approach to business. It’s not about just ticking boxes and having policies, but what a leader does to make everybody feel included - what they do so that when employees show up to work, their whole self shows up to work. It’s about creating psychologically safe environments in the workplace so that people feel safe to turn up to work and be who they are. Evidence suggests that when people are motivated, engaged and their leader makes them feel as though they belong, they get greater innovation and an increased bottom line. It creates a better organisation. So doing this job, aligns with my professional and personal passions.
Yes. One of the interesting things I am doing is to start approaching organisations with the view to asking, “How important is inclusive leadership to you? Are you just ticking a box or do you truly want to make a difference and have different people sat around the table making decisions? If it’s the latter, we can come in and work with you to audit your processes; ask questions, carry out surveys and present you with the results.”
It doesn’t have to turn into anything more than that, although we would look to assist them with training, recommendations, recruitment, further audits etc., if required. However, we would just like to carry out a piece of initial consultancy to give organisations useful and interesting results, as well as soundbites of how employees within their organisations feel about their approach to inclusion.
It isn’t a sales pitch, it’s a passion.
I think the most marginalised and underrepresented group is disability, including mental health, so both visible and invisible disabilities. As a starting point, we don’t see enough disabled people within stadia because a lot of places don’t have the right facilities available.
I think sexuality is another big one; there are still so many people afraid to be who they are. There are gay football supporters who attend matches but still don’t feel as though they are able to say that they are gay.
In saying that, every club has a different demographic and therefore, a different demographic challenge. For me, women are nowhere near as included as they should be and women’s football is nowhere near where it should be either. I was watching the England versus Northern Ireland match a few days ago and it was fantastic. I don’t know why women’s football isn’t a regular fixture on television, or why we don’t hear about bigger sponsorship deals. I think clubs have a responsibility to do that; if they are securing sponsorship and corporate partners for their business, that deal must include their women’s team too. Everyone has to be treated equally. The women’s team should be prominent on the website, there should be multiple joint photo opportunities throughout the season… there are so many things that clubs should be doing. In regard to women working off the pitch, they are poorly represented. When I first started my role as an NED at Brentford, people used to ask me how I got the job! I would never ask a man that – it wouldn’t even come into my mind to ask that – I would just assume he got the job because it was merited. I feel like I’m sometimes seen as a box tick for positive discrimination because people wonder how I could possibly know as much about football as my male counterparts, including the business operations of football.
To summarise, I would say disabled people are the most marginalised and under-represented and I think the area of ‘understanding sexuality’ needs development to ensure people feel safe to attend football matches and to feel included. I also think there needs to be more support for women to ensure we close the gap on equality but equally, we have to keep the progress and discussion going with racism - continue to keep the inclusion of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds very high on all of our agendas. It has been at the forefront of football for the last couple of seasons now, however, it is imperative we keep that discussion going, for everyone involved in the game.
With all that said, I guess there isn’t a clear-cut answer because you can’t prioritise one protected characteristic over another. The most important factor is that clubs need to work to be more diverse and inclusive within their organisation, not just on the football pitch. If you want to attract your community, you’re not going to be representative of that community if you don’t have a diverse workforce. When people don’t see diversity inside an organisation, why would they be attracted to being involved with the club as a supporter?
To give a little background, we started talking about the case for a more diverse board a while ago and after the sad passing of George Floyd, the matter grew on our agenda. However, we were speaking about the matter around 18 months before that. I attended a board meeting and said, “I am becoming tired of being the only woman on the board and my fellow board member Nity Raj is fed up with being the only Asian man on the board.” I feel like I am on the journey of a long-distance runner, that I am always on my own and therefore, fighting disproportionately; I don’t want to be tokenistic or a statistic.
We started the process by looking at what we already have in place. We checked our governance principles and consulted the Institute of Directors and the Wates principles to check our own governance. We’ve also created new terms of reference so that as a board, we know we are all going in the same direction and we know what we stand for. We then carried out a board audit of all of the skills of the individuals who sit on the board. We looked at the top skills we have and then those that fall below the average. Identifying the skills below the median, led us to determine what we wanted to recruit for.
We also carried out another exercise to look at whether those skills we identified as being required by the board already existed at the executive level of the club. Why would we need to recruit if we already have those skills existing at that level? As a Non-Executive Director, your role is strategic oversight, it’s not to run the club but to ensure the CEO runs the club – you influence the strategic conversations. We eventually came out with three areas. The first is fan and community engagement i.e., attracting more fans to Brentford FC, as well as working out how we go into those areas of the community that, for some reason, we have not yet extended our reach. The second is CSR i.e., how is our brand having a societal impact and how is the club working as part of the community to make a positive influence. The third and final area is stakeholder engagement i.e., how do we create relationships so that all interested parties feel that they are a part of the club, regardless of whether they come to watch us play or not. So that was the trio - fan and community engagement, stakeholder engagement and CSR. We all know that our board has knowledge in those areas but equally, none of us are experts in those areas.
It is an exciting opportunity and process to be a part of and we would love to have another protected characteristic on the board who can offer their expertise and experience.
We hosted a panel event at Brentford FC, which was an interview about how we continue to ensure there is equal representation of women in football, both on and off the pitch, although we were mostly looking at off the pitch for this particular event. We gathered a panel of people from all walks of life, including Sanjay Bhandari, Chair of Kick it Out - he is an industry spokesperson and a great male ally. We also had Jane Purdon, CEO of Women in Football, to host the event, and then to speak, we had Lungi Macebo, COO of Birmingham City, Lorna Falconer, Head of Football Operations of Brentford FC and Chris Pauros, FA Inclusion Advisory Board member and Co-Chair of Proud Lilywhites. It was all recorded and is now available to watch on YouTube.
My only wish was that we had included a female Brentford fan on the panel to talk about their experience from the supporter perspective. One item we would like to work on is how we can use our current fans to engage with our ‘not yet’ fans.
I think I have been lucky in that the industries I have worked in, I have had good sponsors, allies and bosses. In saying that, I have to admit that the most negative experiences have happened through working in football. I think it’s harder to prove yourself and you find you have to argue your business case far more eloquently and articulately. When you’re a woman in this industry, it feels like there is no room for mistakes or even room for weaknesses either. Although, I would argue as to what weakness looks like because weakness can look completely different, depending on your gender.
I am a person who challenges and I believe I challenge eloquently, although I have been known to throw my toys out of the pram when I feel that things are unjust or disproportionately favoured in one direction! I do feel though, that I have had to work harder in football to feel as included and accepted than I perhaps would have done in another industry. I’m okay with that though and I’ve made a conscious choice to do that. I love all of my colleagues: on the board at Brentford, at Women in Football and on the Sporting Equals forum; we all mix really well.
I do think that everyone struggles in the football industry – both men and women – but women struggle more. I don’t know when that’s going to end but I don’t think it should be rare to see women representation in the football industry. When you’re a Non-Executive Director in a male dominated environment, you have to keep pushing the door open. I think progress is being made but it’s slow and there’s much more that still needs to be done.
Work out why you want to be in the industry. What is it that’s influencing you to want to work in the football industry?
Think about what skills you have and what you can bring to the table too. A lot of the time, people want to get into football but they don’t realise that it’s not easy so there has to be a real passion that you can bring with you.
There are many, many jobs in football though, both on and off the pitch, so look at where you want to be. Do you want to be supporting the on-field operations, or do you want to look at the behind-the-scenes operations of a club: commercial, marketing, accounting, HR, media etc.? The list is endless. Or do you want to work in the ‘give back’ capacity; work for the community or Trust and make a positive social impact. Knowing what specifically interests you is what is going to help you get into the right place in the industry.
I would like my business to be successful and for it to drive more organisations to be inclusive and diverse. I would also like to continue pursuing and growing my board roles, hopefully step back from the consultancy business in the next few years and focus on those roles, perhaps be a chair of a board too. I would love to be the first female chair of a board – I don’t think there are any in football at the moment. I would love that. Whether it will happen or not, who knows? Even if it’s deputy or vice-chair, I’d like that because I would like to influence the agenda. When you’re in such a position, you have the ability to influence and drive change, whereas when you’re following the agenda, you don’t have as much influence. My desire to do that is not for power reasons, it’s that I would love to shape the agenda of achieving equality in football.
In saying all of that, if I had to stop working in the football industry today, I would be happy with what I have achieved already.
Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown
Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.