General Manager at Wembley Stadium
A highly experienced events and venue manager, Liam is an early bird whose guilty pleasure is Adidas trainers
Liam Boylan is the General Manager at Wembley Stadium. An Irish immigrant, he was born in Dublin and moved to Manchester at the grand old age of three. He grew up in a very large council estate in South Manchester called Wythenshawe, eventually fighting his way out by joining the RAF Police when he was 18.
He served 9 years in the RAF and returned back to Manchester in 1996. Not quite sure on his next career step he was offered the chance to work at Manchester Arena as a steward for Showsec. That was, as Liam puts it, “the left turn in life we are all looking for” and set him down this road.
He managed to get a full-time job in the arena in their control room, then moved over to Customer Services and eventually managed to become an Event Manager in the arena. He stayed there for five years before being offered the chance to switch sides and join the promoter ranks becoming a promoter’s rep for 3A with Dennis Arnold and was trained by the legend that is Jolyon Burnham.
He only stayed with 3A for a year as he was lured back to Manchester to work for SJM Concerts who he worked with for 13 years looking after arena stadium tours plus a few wonderful greenfield events and the V Festival.
In 2015 he was offered the chance to go back to a venue when Wembley Stadium came knocking…
Welcome to the Leadership Interview, Liam.
How do you start your day?
0545, the wonderful alarm clock signifies another day, the hardest bit is still getting my head around a 1 hour 45 minute commute from Surrey into Wembley. The worst thing is that I can see the arch from my bedroom window because I live near the Epsom downs and have a perfect view into North London. My assistant will always laugh when I suddenly propose a new idea as she knows I came up with the idea whilst commuting.
It’s a perfect time to run things through your head because nobody is bothering you. I always have headphones on when commuting listening to the most eclectic playlists from Ska to film scores with everything else in between. I have managed to make commuting productive and come up with my best ideas at that time.
What was your first job, and what is the worst job you’ve ever done?
My first job was working on a Market Stall at the age of 13. We were a typical working class family and didn’t have that much money but never wanted for anything, that is apart from Adidas Trainers. My Mum bought me Adidas lost a stripe which was heart-breaking at that age. The 1980s in Manchester was the time of the casuals and Trainers were integral. I decided I needed a job so I could buy my first pair of proper trainers, Adidas Samba, my god they were amazing. Unfortunately that has led to a trainer addiction and I currently have a ridiculous amount of Adidas trainers ! I have never done drugs or smoked anything, I just buy trainers .
My worst job was when I left the RAF, before I joined the arena full time whilst still working with Showsec, I became a TV Licence investigator. My area was Salford, Moss Side, Withington, Wythenshawe. For those who know Manchester, they are not Location, Location, Location. The Infamous Van does not detect TVs, it just carries paperwork and admin. It can’t detect because the aerial is a receiver. I had a gun pulled on me twice, knocked on the door of a drug den and watched a man throw his TV out of an 8th floor flat in Salford, happily telling me he no longer had a TV and I couldn’t do anything “Yep, you win pal”. Twelve of us started at the same time and by the time I left 6 months later there was only one other person of the original twelve left. Shocking job but very funny thinking back.
What advice would you give to others about furthering their careers?
Experience is vital, it doesn’t matter what part of our industry you are offered, take the job because you will learn so much from what is happening around you. Be prepared for long hours and don’t complain. It’s the nature of the beast. Ask lots and lots of questions. My first six months as an Event Manager was spent asking questions to all the other trades, “What is a bridle? What does a 63amp CEE Form connector look like? What is difference between 3 phase and single phase? What exactly is a monitor? And why the hell do we need a secondary barrier?” (I was in the pit for the crowd Tsunami at Oasis 2005 in Manchester). Never be afraid to ask, our industry is full of people who are very proud of what they do and are always willing to share their knowledge.
Who inspires you and why?
This question is the most difficult, I racked my brains to think of an individual and soon realised that I am constantly looking for inspiration and draw it from all walks of life. It keeps it current and constantly updates my thought process. From a member of my frontline staff who just “gets it” when I watch them dealing with the public to an article on LinkedIn (there are a few good ones).
I also enjoy watching documentaries that are ‘Behind the scenes’ such as the Amazon All or Nothing series. You see leaders in different walks of life and what works for them and I often find a few nuggets that I can use and just make sense to me. I love reading autobiographies, there is so much inspiration from people who have been through it and come out the other side, it really makes you realise that your current problem is easy to manage and cannot be anywhere near as stressful as what some people have to face in life.
Do you think a talent to lead is nature or nurture?
Definitely nature. Whilst you can develop learnt behaviours to help you be a better manager, Leaders are different. I know hundreds of managers but not that many true leaders. There are many psychology tests to find out what we are made of and they change throughout your career with different experiences but the Leadership gene will always stay the same. I know this is blunt and I hope not egotistical but for me, you either have it or you don’t.
How can a leader fail? Do you have a personal example?
Believing their own hype and thinking they have made it and cannot learn anymore. Whilst I have said above that I believe you are born with the leadership gene, it is like any muscle in your body, it needs exercise to help it develop. Don’t be a leader, be a great leader. Never think I cannot be any better, of course you can. Always look for a 360 review and don’t get upset when you hear something you do not like, that’s part of your development. I have worked with good leaders who have rested on their laurels and gone backwards very quickly.
What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
Feels like a job interview question, “I must turn a negative into a positive”. I think my greatest strength is my passion. When I speak to all the event day staff in the morning briefing, I believe everything I say and I would say I manage to get 90% of them caught up in my passion for what we should be delivering. I can cover difficult topics whilst still holding their attention and turning it into a positive request. It sounds corny but all of my teams work with me, not for me.
Weakness – spending time with my family, I am always preaching to my teams and managers to find a good work/life balance and yet I never practise what I preach. I think since my days of touring and being available at stupid hours, I have continued that and never switch off. As I get older I know I need to move away from all things digital in the evening and find time for my family and just bloody relax. I never feel stressed but I know it cannot be good for me. One day I might listen to my own advice!
What do you find most challenging about being a leader?
Empathy, I naturally have a lot of empathy but there are times I have to turn that down because I know there are some decisions that are going to upset some people. I evaluate everything, sometimes very quickly and I know the path I have to take but that empathy things nags me at the back of mind. I have learnt to deal with it in the moment but it still revisits me like some form of PTSD at quiet times.
What are you most proud of?
Changing the culture and event day delivery at Wembley Stadium. When I took the job, my old boss from SJM thought I was stark raving bonkers and said I could have gone anywhere, why the hell there. I had a romantic view of our national stadium and what it should stand for. The previous structure was led by a regime that could be quite negative. I had a watching brief for my first year and it took the next 2 – 3 years to run it around. Whilst the safety officer role is still integral and will always take primacy in any emergency situation, I brought in a new level of stadium management above that role. This allowed that person to see the bigger picture and understand what the team need to deliver a better product. We introduced new types of training, such as the modules that Chris and his team deliver at MOM. We changed the table top exercises so they could understand how we all help to deliver the event. The final talk at the end of the Safety Officer’s brief is from the duty stadium manager for that day, and it is always an inspiring speech to ensure they remember the 3 Ss, without Safety, Security and Service dovetailing their delivery, they will fail.
We increased reward and recognition, we increased the passion and the ownership of the name of the stadium. At every event day briefing, it is ended with a call to arms, the person giving the brief will say “We are” and I expect to hear a roar back shouting “Wembley” I ask them to understand what Wembley is, not just to rest on the laurels of an iconic stadium but the best bloody stadium in the world. We should be a shining light and people should come to see what is best in practise and that should be here at Wembley. I would hope people feel the same about their own venues as I believe we are the best but we can still be better!
What’s your biggest self-indulgence?
Adidas Trainers, pure and simple, this is a photo of my daily cupboard in my bedroom!
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