Developing a career in sports centres and leisure through the glass ceiling – Julie Bowers

I think I may have been the exception to the rule when way back in 1978 I told my careers teacher that I wanted to work in a leisure centre. To be fair there weren’t many around back then and he told me that I probably knew more than him about that! I had visited Billingham Forum and Crowtree, Sunderland was inspired seeing so many facilities together including an Ice rink!

After completing what was one of the first qualifications that specifically focused on leisure management I was ready to start. After a summer working at Lightwater Valley I got my first job as a leisure attendant at the brand-new Gateshead Leisure Centre. Brainchild of Brendan Foster and opened by the Queen herself it was a huge and exciting project. I remember my interview well and think that my willingness to clean toilets won them round. I do remember being one of the only ‘outsiders’ with most employees being local and not necessarily on a career path.

After almost 2 years there gaining experience in operational management, coaching and major events I was lucky enough to be offered the post of Trainee manager at another brand-new leisure facility; Littlehampton Swimming Centre. Though packing up my car and relocating to the other end of the country was a little daunting, the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business and be sponsored to complete a Diploma in Management Studies was worth it. As duty manager I had lots of experiences in operational management, staffing, marketing, programming and even the technical side though I’m not sure that Jeff Dobbelaar (centre manager then) felt this was my strength!! I did however feel a true member of the management team and helped develop aims objectives for the centres development. My career continued to develop in Arun District Council when I was appointed as the Recreation officer with responsibility for outdoor facilities.

My next move was again geographic when I moved to Hull City Council as Deputy District Manager, with an involvement in Costello Stadium and Sports Centre, Albert Avenue Swimming Pool and The Marina Centre. My role here I felt was not that well defined, or maybe it was just me, but it was only after a year that I came across another exciting role being advertised by a Tourism Development Action Programme in Northumberland. Car packed up again and I headed North to take up the role as Sports and Events Manager for Kielder Water and Forest. A fantastic move that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was my responsibility to promote the sports and develop events in the area to attract tourists and publicity. Well we created lots of buzz and I say we as although I was the only employee this was a partnership and I worked with people from a whole range of organisations. County and District Councils, Northumbrian Water, Forestry Commission, and local businesses to name but a few. We had great success with Mountain biking events, charity events, swim marathons and Husky Dog racing that managed to achieve national publicity thanks to the snow!! This was a great lesson in partnership working and I have to say, a fantastic experience of rural community living!

My next move related to a change in personal circumstances and this time I was moving as a married woman so needed to settle where we could both develop our careers. Nottingham became our home and has been ever since. My first role was as promotions officer for the new contacting organisation for Nottingham City Council. This was a major shift in term of infrastructure. Being part of a highly political, large organisation had its challenges and the client contract split was very new. I was part of the Nottingham ‘into the 90’s re-structuring’ and was promoted to service manager with a departmental marketing service responsibility. The dynamics of such a major department were interesting and challenging and at one stage I undertook the ‘Women’s Leadership Programme’ which claimed to help women break through the glass ceiling! After a day shadowing the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council I decided that leadership at that level was not for me. My interest in the links between health and activity and my efforts to work in partnership led me to undertake a secondment to the health authority, up to its demise, in the development of Primary Care Trusts. Having worked outside the Council it inspired me to continue to think outside the box. I guess that why I ended up as a performance specialist at the Audit Commission. Well the interesting part of this job was the on- site inspections; especially the cultural ones where I was required to assess how well councils were performing and what their prospects for improvement were. I have to say this wasn’t a job that I thrived in…. I was much more interested in helping how department could improve rather than making sweeping judgements on where they are and how they should be graded. I found the report writing in that format challenging. So, I saw voluntary redundancy as yet another opportunity for me to move on.

Move on I did, this time as Regional Director for Rural Communities in the East Midlands. It was my role to work with the counties rural community organisations to help them thrive, learn from each other, and deliver a regional strategy. It was only 3 weeks into my new role when the world changed for me. My husband, a fit 47-year-old, ex Manager of Carlton Forum and then Recreation Manager, died suddenly and left me shattered and with 3 bewildered children. This as well as a change of government that announced the regional no longer existed meant a real upheaval in my life. I am forever grateful for the support I received from both friends and at work and after some time I was able to make significant changes to my life.

I now am a franchisee with an organisation called Children inspired by Yoga with the Tatty Bumpkin programme. So, I spend my days going on yoga inspire adventures with children from age 2-7years. We use music, props and stories to engage the children in movement that supports their development. I laugh at their reactions and feel loved!!

As I write this I am about to launch into yet another adventure!! My house in Nottingham is up for sale and I am seeking a smallholding in Pembrokeshire Wales where I can set up a glamping business mixed with events and children’s activities.

So that is me! I think I was lucky in my career and in the people I met along the way. It started as there was a boom in new sports and leisure centres and I was able to develop quickly and gain a huge range of experiences. I think key for me was that it is important who you work with and the culture of the organisation. When this has been good I have thrived much more. I found the areas that interested me and those were where found my strengths. I intend to put those to good use in my next venture and look forward to welcoming people to my glamping site in Wales!!

Julie Bowers


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