FEATURE1 February 2010

Double Lives – Rob Sheldon

Life’s a game of two halves for Rob Sheldon, managing director of Accent, and also a football coach.

Tell us about your day job
I’m managing director of Accent, a £5m research business which I have been running since its inception over 20 years ago. We employ 40 full-time staff in offices in London, Edinburgh, Bristol and Madrid.

Tell us about your other life
I made the mistake in 1997 of taking my son and a couple of his friends to a local park with a football. A few months later Kew Park Rangers (KPR) was launched, and was subsequently in the first batch of clubs to be awarded ‘community charter club’ status. For two years KPR was voted best youth football club in Surrey and boasts a strong volunteer workforce of almost 100 local residents working alongside a team of professional coaches. We recently got a £600k Football Foundation grant for a new clubhouse. As club secretary I spend up to 20 hours a week running the club, coach every Thursday night and manage an under-18s team on a Sunday.

Which of your lives came first?
Accent was set up prior to Kew Park Rangers but I have been a football fan from a young age so that development was pretty much inevitable. It evolved from a love of football and a desire to see kids getting the chance to express themselves through sport.

How do you fit the two around each other?
Both organisations make continual demands but I am lucky to have tremendous support in both, and the ability to be totally flexible in the way that I weave the two together.

Are you tempted to coach footballers full time?
Not really. I like balancing the two worlds and I think my lack of playing experience would count against me. But I do look to build on the synergies between the two. I have just been invited to become vice chair of the largest youth league in Surrey, and have used my research skills to run workshops with managers, coaches and referees from across the county. This has led to initiatives such as Football Watch, the football equivalent of mystery shopping. It ensures high standards of behaviour are maintained with unannounced ‘watchers’ attending matches every week. On the other hand, Accent has picked up a number of contracts from contacts that I have made through football.

What does football offer you that research doesn’t?
It is great to be able to turn attention from one set of concerns to another – how are we going to beat the table-topping team on Sunday? How can I balance selection to ensure that players who are not necessarily strong but who are keen to play get a chance? How does the club maintain the interest of girls in football beyond the age of thirteen? I convince myself that the balance keeps me sharper than I would be otherwise. The world of sport has many things to teach the business profession but the key aspect is the need to motivate individuals to ensure group success, and the football pitch provides a place to see that very clearly in practice.

What does research offer you that football doesn’t?
With research, we tackle serious issues and contribute to highly topical projects. Our work can influence decision-making on major projects. And it keeps me warmer.

What do your research colleagues say when you tell them about your other life?
My colleagues have always been very supportive of my work with KPR, and they provide practical support in all sorts of areas.

What do your football trainees say when you tell them you’re really a market researcher?
I don’t tell them. They think that when they don’t see me I am working with Arsène.

If you had to give up one of your two lives, which would it be?
I genuinely can’t imagine having to give either of them up. I need the game of two halves.