Q&A with Ryan McKnight
By Amy Cutler
Former Stockport County Chief Executive Ryan McKnight gave an insightful lecture to UCFB Burnley students as part of our Executive Speaker Series.
At 30, Ryan McKnight was the youngest male chief executive in English football when he joined Stockport County Football Club, successfully manoeuvring them through a ‘very sticky financial period’. He has since left this ‘very privileged role’ to provide expertise to a number of football clubs and is now advising at Port Vale Football Club. McKnight is extremely passionate about anything related to the business, governance and philosophy of football, which he certainly demonstrated to our first year students when lecturing here at UCFB Burnley yesterday.
We caught up with Ryan for a quick chat after his lecture:
Could you please tell us about your background and how you got to your position in industry?
I come from a business and economics educational background, gaining my degree from the University of Central England. After graduating from university, I then went to play professional football in New Zealand. On returning to the UK, I was lucky enough to become the Editor-in-Chief at F.C Business Magazine – the only trade publication/group dedicated to the UK Football Industry – where I spent six amazing years. I owe so much to that business as I was able to build up an incredible network, which has probably propelled me to where I am today. I then became the CEO of the World Football Academy, before stepping into my role as the CEO of Stockport County FC. Since my departure from Stockport County, I have been providing consultancy services for a number of clubs across the UK, which I have to say, is much less stressful!
What advice have you got for those aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
Go out today and buy Simon Sinek’s book; ‘Start with why’. Once you have done this, go to as many games as you can and meet as many people associated with the game as possible. The key is networking and knowledge. You need to build up your network, gaining friends in the game and learn as much about football as you possibly can. Forget being ‘ready salted’. Too many people are shy and retiring and if you want to be successful in football, you must be aggressive in your approach! All that, along with always surrounding yourself with people that are better than you, is the best advice I can give to anyone aspiring to follow in my footsteps. Remember football does not ignore good, so if you’re good, you’re in!
What are your connections with UCFB?
I’m a veteran here at UCFB, as I have been speaking here since the institution opened. I have known your Chief Executive, Philip Wilson for years now, and I have to say, I have a massive amount of admiration for him. He recognised a gap in the market and after a lot of hard work something positive for the game has been created.
Can you tell us about some of the hardest challenges which you have faced throughout your career?
Without a doubt the hardest challenge for me was taking on the role of CEO at Stockport County. If you think about it, I had the sole responsibility of managing a club that had been around for 130 years yet was in arguably its weakest ever position, financially. The club would not have survived another administration so the fact it has come through that period is fantastic. The football industry is incredibly resistant. It has only lost around 10 clubs in the 150 years that it has existed; so there was no way that I was going to let Stockport go out of business on my watch. The knowledge that you are making some really unpopular decisions isn’t easy, but I can honestly say I am comfortable that everything I did was right for the club. Although it was challenging, I’m glad I had the opportunity as it was a great learning experience.
In your lecture, you showed the students a video that claimed “people don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it”. Is this a moto you live by? If so, do you think that’s why you have been so successful at such a young age?
I wouldn’t say I live by it per se, however I do think a lot of what Simon Sinek talks about in the video is so underutilised within the game. People aspiring to be involved in football can learn a lot from this guy, and that’s why I suggested to the students this afternoon, to go and buy his book. Nowadays, you don’t see enough individuality at the clubs and that’s probably because they are thinking about what they are doing, rather than why they are doing it. Some just have no identity or purpose, and I think, you really need to define your purpose in life if you want to be successful. As I said throughout the lecture, Athletic Bilbao are one of my favourite clubs because they are a club with true identity, and I genuinely think what they do is something to aspire to.
You’re very interactive with the students and you started lots of debates today. What do you think of the students here and their insights throughout the lecture?
The students that put their hands up and joined in with the debates made some great contributions throughout the lecture, and I was pleased with their efforts. The next CEO of the biggest club in the world could have been sat in there, you just don’t know.