CIO Spotlight: Craig Donald, The Football Association

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? “We are on a digital transformation journey that started three years ago and will become a way of life for The FA from now on.”

The Football Association

Name: Craig Donald

Company: The Football Association

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: July 2018

Location: London, UK

With degrees in Philosophy and Theology, Craig Donald started his career in IT support for a global software company, gaining his first management role less than eight months later. He has since worked in IT management across many industries including defence, software and hardware manufacturing, and global multi-channel distribution. Donald joined The FA from the aviation industry, firstly managing the application estate for Virgin Atlantic and subsequently leading operations and corporate systems for easyJet.

What was your first job? My first real technology job was being employed as a combination of a librarian and IT support person in a small market research company based in Covent Garden. I left after six months when they decided they didn’t want to do any more of “this IT stuff” and asked me to work as a researcher instead. I moved on to work for Seagate Software at which point my career really started to take shape.  

Did you always want to work in IT? Not really. I spent my formative years wanting to become a Roman Catholic priest, only leaving that path when I was a few months away from taking the first set of vows. That part of my life now seems a world away from being recognised as one of the Top 20 Digital Transformation Innovators in Europe in a recent report by transformation consultancy Contino and tech collective TLA.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I hold two degrees, in Philosophy and Theology, from the Gregorian University in Rome. I went to Rome knowing no Italian and then studied for five years in an Italian university. It was fun!

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My career has been one big detour really. From the age of about seven until 22, I wanted to become a Roman Catholic priest. When I realised, after five years studying in Rome and two degrees later, that that wasn’t my calling, I thought I would give technology a try as I was always a bit of a geek at heart. I started my career, unusually, doing IT support and my journey to CIO was initially built on the infrastructure rather than applications side of the industry.

I’ve moved sectors almost every time I’ve changed jobs – from working for a software developer, to hardware, to catalogue retail, to defence, to aviation and now to football. I even took an 18-month career break in my late-30s, something that seemed crazy at the time but was undoubtedly one of the best detours I have taken for my own mental health.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? As the governing body for football in England, the Football Association’s priorities are diverse. The one common business theme that applies across all of our technology initiatives, though, is that everything we do must focus on making life simpler and reducing the time spent to achieve results. Whether that’s making it easier for a grassroots player to register with us or presenting data to our Under 21s coaches to allow them to spot future talent, technology is about making everything easier, and doing more in less time.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? We’re focused on a large transformation of our technology estate – nothing is being left untouched. A key focus for our CEO is on improving the experience for our grassroots players, so we will continue enhancing Matchday, our key digital product, but also replacing our football administration systems. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the grassroots game and we need to serve them more effectively with better, time-saving solutions.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? You only need to look through all the organisations and individuals featured in Contino’s top transformation innovators report to see that one size does not fit all in the role of the CIO – the role must be designed to fit the needs of the organisation. The FA started with separate IT and Digital functions, but quickly realised that this was creating an imbalance and causing inefficiencies, and so the roles were combined. This works for us, but it might not work for an industry that is less “analogue” than football. Similarly, we have data and insights specialists embedded in our business divisions rather than as part of a data team within Technology. It’s all about what fits best within the organisation, and what best supports their mission.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? We are on a digital transformation journey that started three years ago and will become a way of life for The FA from now on. Because we support grassroots football across England and rely heavily on volunteers, customer experience and operational efficiency often go hand in hand. We also use technology to maximise the value of our assets such as the Emirates FA Cup, but never at the expense of improving the lives of our large volunteer workforce around the country.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Unlike many of the organisations profiled by Contino, our digital transformation has been far from structured and has many “organic” aspects to it. We are starting to implement a set of OKRs, but it’s a work in progress and will probably take us into the next football season to properly activate. Our transformation journey requires us to change not just our technology, but also our technology organisation and our internal customers and stakeholders, forcing us all to think and act differently from our previous, project-driven way of working.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Perhaps surprisingly, a good culture fit at The FA doesn’t necessarily require a passion for football. The FA has a set of values we are guided by, called PRIDE (Progressive, Respectful, Inclusive, Determined, Excellent). We communicate and reinforce those behaviours on a frequent basis through formal measures such as performance reviews, but also more informally through town hall events and our team meetings. Above and beyond these values, within my team I think we share an overall goal of delivering the highest level of service in everything that we do.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? We operate in a mixed model with a team of internal employees working in lockstep with two or three trusted partners. Both internally and externally we are finding many technology skills to be in high demand at the moment – we can often find strong candidates, but it’s definitely taking longer than we would like. Also, working for a governing body and being based in London means that often find ourselves being priced out of the market for top talent. I’m hopeful that the acceleration in location flexibility brought on by the changes in the past year will allow us to compete more effectively.

What's the best career advice you ever received? A former boss once told me “It’s amazing how much you can achieve if you don’t care who takes the credit for it”. While I don’t entirely agree with this, it does stick with me and reminds me to stay humble, to accept help where it’s offered and remember that not every good idea comes from you or from your team.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. I’m lucky enough to have a management team that could step up easily if the opportunity was given. We need to continue to offer development opportunities where we can, but in a small organisation that can be difficult. As a result, I think we need to resign ourselves that good people will inevitably move on and that we can’t find opportunities for everyone. If people in the Digital Technology team at The FA leave feeling that we’ve enriched their careers and allowed them to continue to make progress in their field, then that’s more than enough to be proud of.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Educate, communicate, stay humble. Help people understand what you’re trying to do, explain that passionately in ways that make sense and bring people on the journey with you, and remember that as a technology expert you’re not necessarily the expert in every business domain you might bring solutions to.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Any opportunity where my leadership can improve the performance and culture of a team, and allow those team members to move on to bigger and better things, are undoubtedly the highlights of my career.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I quite like who (and where) I am today, so it’s difficult to second-guess decisions I’ve made previously. One thing I would pay more attention to, though, is my cultural “fit” into an organisation. Recognising warning signs early on would definitely have made me behave differently in some of my assignments, and probably have improved my overall happiness!

What are you reading now? I read a lot, but not a lot of it is erudite enough to be mentioned here! Having said that, reading as an escape is a good thing, so I shouldn’t feel ashamed to admit that I enjoy a good crime fiction book. However, as more suitable content for this article let me mention that I’m currently trying to educate myself on the history of racism in western society, and as a result I’m reading Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. The football family needs to continue to work hard to eradicate racism, homophobia and all kinds of discrimination from the game.

Most people don't know that I… have met a couple of Popes in my life, and that I used to be a reasonably competent organist and choirmaster.

In my spare time, I like to…Build Lego and play computer games. But my greatest love is to spend time in one of London’s many theatres, enjoying anything from a Shakespearean tragedy to the latest Broadway import, or even a fun drag show.

Ask me to do anything but… step out on Wembley’s hallowed turf to play a game of football! That would be a nightmare (for my team).