Lancaster mindset helps Stuart play the game at the top table


Lancaster University Management School Alumnus Stuart Cain, CEO of Warwickshire CCC © Warwickshire CCC

From Glasgow Rangers to Wasps RFC, Wolverhampton Wanderers to Warwickshire County Cricket Club, Stuart Cain (MBA Business Administration (Bass), 2000), has worked for some of the biggest names in UK sport.

Now Chief Executive Officer at Warwickshire CCC – where his first duties included organising a Twenty20 Finals day that was eventually played behind closed doors after changes in Government regulations during the planning stages meant a crowd was not allowed – Stuart is a leader who needs to think on his feet.

He came to Lancaster for a two-year MBA as part of the executive leadership programme with Bass Plc. He was Head of Sponsorship at the time, overseeing sponsorship, marketing and supply deals within sport and entertainment for brands including Carling, Grolsch and Coors Light. This included the Carling Premiership, creation of the Carling Weekend – Leeds and Reading Festivals and deals with the NFL, British Lions and Academy Music Group, among others.

The Bass Plc programme was designed to prepare an identified cohort of middle management with the skills and experiences to step up to “Chairman’s List” – the senior executive team required to run companies within the group which included InterContinental Hotels, Holiday Inn, Gala Bingo, Britvic and Bass Brewers. As well as work experience and mentoring, the programme required completion of the Executive MBA which meant that he regularly travelled up from Burton-on-Trent to spend a couple of intense weeks every few months in Lancaster learning how to be a better leader.

It paid off – he returned to Bass Brewers, was soon promoted to European Marketing Services Director, and has gone on to work for big names in football, rugby union, and now cricket. Throughout all that time, the mindset he picked up on the Lancaster MBA, his new approach to problem-solving and decision-making, has been key.

“It taught me how to think and how to build frameworks, how to make decisions,” says Stuart. “It gave me a way of thinking that allowed me to make decisions; it broadened my mindset as to how to think about business; and it gave me an approach to problem-solving and framing strategy.

“Before I did it, I was probably a lot more tactically and operationally-minded, writing a to-do list and then checking through the tasks. Coming back from the MBA, it made you think a little bit differently, made you look at how you approach things a little bit differently, and I think I did come out of it as a much more strategic leader, rather than an operational manager.

“I remember someone saying to me ‘Don’t operate at the level you need to for the job you have, operate at the level you need to for the job you want’. I started to demonstrate a level that was slightly different to the one people were used to. It makes it easier for them to accept you at a higher level – in my case, getting that place on the Chairman’s List. Without that development and without that new mindset, I probably wouldn’t have been able to present myself and get results in such a way that got me to that point.

“That thinking and that mindset doesn’t leave you. It’s about how you analyse a situation to understand it, and then about what you do as a business to capitalise on that opportunity or mitigate the risks.”

Those skills have been especially valuable in sport.

At Bass, Stuart was essentially ‘marketing cans or pints of lager’. “A can of lager is a can of lager, you’re dealing with a static brand that you can manage and control,” he says. But he moved into a market where ‘you can’t control the product’.

“You can plan your product – your team – say Rangers, and say ‘we’ll win the Scottish Premier League, we’ll get out of the group phase of the Champions League, make £10m, then probably get knocked out, but that’s fine,” Stuart says. “Then, all of a sudden, you don’t win the Scottish Premier League, you get knocked out before the Champions League group phase, and you’re £15m away from where you thought you were going to be.

“The dynamic nature of sport as a product, and also the emotional nature of the consumer – the fans – means that having that mental flexibility and those frameworks and mindsets is crucial. What you think will happen on a Monday probably won’t happen on a Friday, and you have to have a way to manage that.

“That was the biggest change I found in moving from selling cans of lager into sport – you can’t control the product and you are dealing with a very emotive fan or consumer, so you can’t talk to them in a rational way. Trying to keep control of the product is really tough, so you do need those frameworks to be able to fall back on.

“You have to learn that no matter what you do in sport, you always do it wrong! If I make a decision to keep one half of the ground happy, it annoys the other half. You have to learn to live with that ambiguity.

“You keep going back to the same place to deal with all of that – you have to have the framework, and that’s what has stuck in my head from the MBA. It gave me a way of managing the fluidity and complexity of working in sport.

“You need to have a strategy and a plan and you need to be able to execute it as much as you can but then find ways of managing all of the complexities you encounter without losing sight of the goal. You can’t keep zigzagging from one path to another – that’s a quick way to insanity.”

Stuart’s MBA skills will continue to be important going forward.

As well as planning for a 2021 County Cricket season – and possible hosting of One-Day International Cricket at Edgbaston if circumstances allow – he is also a Non-Executive Director for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup and UK Athletics.

There are numerous scenarios involved in forward-planning for both roles and the flexibility to respond to wider events as they happen is crucial. Stuart’s MBA education at Lancaster will ensure he has that mindset to cope with whatever the world throws at him.

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