I can’t claim to be the world’s biggest football fan but I can’t help returning to it in blogs, since it provides such a rich seam of lessons for teams and organisations, generally in how not to do things. Manchester United (Man Utd), a club with a rich history and outstanding performance record in recent years, is my latest source of material in leadership dysfunction.
In 2013, Alex Ferguson retired after an astonishing 27 years as manager. The hugely successful benevolent autocrat (‘my way or the high way’) was always going to be a difficult act to follow. Man Utd engaged in what appeared to be some well managed succession planning and focused on values and cultural fit as much as track record, hiring David Moyes from Everton. The focus on ‘fit’ has well served organisations as diverse as Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, the Red Arrows and the New Zealand rugby All Blacks. However, football is a game with a very short time horizon (last/next match) and Moyes failed to deliver. Unfortunately, the rest of the world knew about his departure before Moyes – his departure was a case study in undignified behaviour (by the club).
So next they went for track record. Louis van Gaal. Ex-manager of Holland. A proven winner at the highest levels. But not in the Premier League. Two seasons later, the rest of the world knew about his departure before van Gaal – his departure was a case study in undignified behaviour (by the club).
And now Mourinho. Arguably the most successful manager of his generation, a sceptic might say not the most obvious cultural fit. Mourinho appears to have an ego to match his salary and whilst Ferguson could hardly be argued to be low-profile humble leader of the Shankley/Paisley era at Liverpool, he did build an organisation and several iterations of teams in a similar mould to the values-driven approach of Liverpool in the seventies and eighties. Mourinho on the other hand, is a football superstar in his own right. Who employs superstars. And has never stayed anywhere long enough to test his ability to build resilience and long-term success.
But who cares? Mourinho is a winner. I appreciate that there is the minor blemish of sackings by Real Madrid and Chelsea (twice), but let’s not get too picky about the details. Winning is what counts. Time will tell…
What lessons might football have generously provided on this occasion?
- Succession planning is a tricky business, even more so in following success – just look at Tesco. In the Red Arrows and the All Blacks, best-in-class technical performance is a binary barrier to entry. The point of difference in selection is cultural fit. You can’t afford to compromise on either. Observation tends to indicate that internal promotion works in successful organisations whilst those requiring change tend to benefit from someone without the baggage of the previous regime. And when it doesn’t work, how you fire somebody says a lot more about you and your organisation than how you hire them. A dignified divorce demands a lot more of the participants than an exciting wedding.
- There are people around who can deliver under short-term pressure (Ranieiri at Leicester?). And there are people around who can build for the long-term (Wenger at Arsenal?). There are not many who can do both. Building is a long game. Ferguson spent many years in the doldrums, including at Man Utd, before finding the magic formula. You get what you reward. Fans want to win the next game. Whilst owners continue to take a similarly short-term view, then managers with a long-term perspective (Moyes?) will find themselves locked out at the highest levels and the one thing which fans can be certain of, is uncertainty.
So Man Utd for champions? Or Mourinho for another lucrative payoff? A marriage made in heaven, or a convenient meeting of an ego hungry for a stage and a club hungry for fast results? Time will tell…