A captivating article in a recent edition of the Financial Times Weekend Magazine drew out eleven valuable business and talent management lessons from top football (I refuse to say soccer) coaches. The piece, which describes examples around the world of footy, was co-authored by FT columnist Simon Kuper (a brilliant football writer) and talent management consultant Mike Forde (a good mate, and inspirational leader), who served as Chelsea’s director of football operations from 2007 to 2013 and currently consults the San Antonio Spurs basketball team.
I read the article with special interest, given my lifelong love of and involvement in sport. (From 1997-200 I was privileged to serve as the Director of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union; between 2006-2014 I chaired the USA Rugby Board; and in 2000 I co-authored Peak Performance: Business Lessons from the World’s Top Sports.)
I’m happy to report I don’t agree with all of Kuper and Forde’s extrapolations from a business perspective. In particular, I take exception with their first lesson: “Big talent usually comes with a big ego. Accept it.” The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team have a highly technical term to describe the counterargument: “No dickheads!” Similarly, at Saatchi & Saatchi, we’ve long touted the mantra “one team, one dream,” while our parent company Publicis Groupe holds firm to “no silos, no solos, no boxes.” Employers need large and luminous talents, to be sure, but no player is bigger than the club; and, no matter how bright the star, it’s the organization that keeps the lights on. Once-in-a-generation talents needs room to express themselves, but they also need to respect the culture, the purpose, and commit themselves to the collective good.
Several of the article’s lessons I couldn’t agree with more, including “single out and praise those who make sacrifices for the organization.” In return for those sacrifices, it is the organization’s job to deliver responsibility, learning, recognition, and joy. If you want a culture where ideas and innovation are generated, you need all four in equal measure all the time. Every conversation should be framed with those four delivered in a way that’s not top-down, but a way of life and a culture. Another learning from the pitch that’s well-applied to the conference room: “the manager shouldn’t aspire to dominate the talent.” In my years in business, the best leaders I’ve seen are in front of, rather than on top of, their organizations. They lead by example and inspire people to do their best work, rather than micromanage the process.
Asking the talent for advice, but reserving the final decision, is another takeway from the football field. The FT article relates a terrific anecdote in which Chelsea’s then-manager Carlo Ancelotti picked his team for the FA Cup final but then empowered the players by allowing them to devise the match strategy. “We all perform better if we have a degree of ownership of what we do,” David Brailsford, general manager of cycling’s Team Sky is quoted in the piece. “Generally we don’t like to be told what to do.”
Finally, there’s “improve the talent,” which I believe to be leadership and management’s killer app. In business the top role of the leader is to create other leaders. That self-perpetuating chain of leadership is good for the organization, good for its stakeholders, and perhaps the single most important thing one can do in terms of fashioning a personal legacy. Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger believes that greatness ensues only when talent meets someone who recognizes his abilities “taps him on the shoulder and says, ‘I believe in you!’”
Great article, FT—these talent management lessons from the sports field should help almost any kind of businesses keep focus on the ball.