The English Premier League has returned, and this season, more than any before, will be characterised by those in charge of the big clubs chasing the title.
Jose Mourinho is back, but now in red. Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte bring stellar pedigree from their time in Europe’s other top leagues and will now test their talents in England.
Maurichio Pochettino is aiming to take his young Tottenham squad to the next level, whereas Claudio Ranieri is embarking on the most unlikely title defence in history.
Jurgen Klopp is a players’ coach but knows he’s in a results-first business.
While, at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger is probably under the most pressure of all, fighting to secure his legacy in what could be his final season with “The Gunners.”
All seven actors bring very different styles and personalities to their roles. They create different public personas and relationships with their players, fans and peers. Yet, all are pursuing the same goal – to be the best.
There are undoubted overlaps between leadership in business and elite sport, especially with the increasing commercialisation of most sports competition.
The team manager buying players and coaching their team is no different from a business leader recruiting and developing the talent in their organisation. Both make important capital investment decisions – whether it be a new stadium or a new manufacturing plant (or a single player in the current transfer market). Both use state of the art technology and analytics to reach peak performance. Pre-season tours are advertising and promotion; sports science and nutrition are football’s R&D.
These football managers are akin to business CEOs, with the added burden of the media spotlight and the most demanding customers in the world – passionate fans.
So what can we, as business leaders, learn from these icons of world sport, how they manage elite talent and create winning teams in the toughest competitive environment in their business?
Desire To Win: It all starts with a burning desire and an unwavering commitment to win. This is taken for granted in a sports environment, but is too often underestimated in business. Businesses that struggle often fight from quarter to quarter against themselves, only looking to beat their previous year or their internal target. Great business leaders follow the example of sports leaders and their relentless pursuit of being better than everyone else. They’re obsessed with being ahead of the competition, not following them. They measure success as being better than the best, not just better than they were the year before.
Create A Winning Culture: Great sports leaders create a tangible (people say you can smell it) culture of winning in their organisations. In business – as in sports – strategy can only take you so far. The rest depends on the talent and strength of your people and the culture in which they operate (both are the responsibility of the leader to create). Great leaders in sport instill this culture of winning and they accept nothing less than everyone giving everything for the cause. The very best sports managers cultivate a spirit of togetherness and personal accountability for the total performance of the group (not just one’s own area). Here, business can be too fragmented or split into silos leading to a lack of accountability for the total results. Jose and Pep simply wouldn’t stand for that – just watch them scream at a striker when it’s time for the total team to defend as one. An interesting example of this being applied is the ‘Netflix Culture.’ Whilst many companies describe themselves as ‘a family,’ Netflix don’t agree: “We are not a family… We are a team… A pro sports team.”
Navigating A Rapidly Changing World: Technology has transformed the level of access the public has to any organisation. For sports and business organisations alike, ‘consumers’ now wield most (if not all) of the power. They have an influential voice and an array of new platforms to make themselves heard. Every decision is analysed and scrutinised like never before. Leaders in both fields have needed to adapt how they operate and communicate in this new world. Whilst both sets of leaders get it wrong, business leaders can learn a lot from the way the most high-profile sports leaders manage a 24/7, always-on news cycle and social media world, with a truly empowered consumer base.
Leave A Legacy: Here, I refer to my beloved Arsenal’s current leader, Arsene Wenger. He is a fantastic example for all business leaders to follow in terms of having a long-term vision and clear values that guide every decision made. I am constantly impressed by his determination to balance the ‘fierce urgency of now’ with the importance of long-term success and the legacy he leaves behind (in spite of the criticism he often receives for it). Wenger has led the transformation of Arsenal FC to becoming a global brand, in one of the finest stadiums in the world, with a physical infrastructure and operating culture that will produce great players, great teams and success for years to come. This is the sort of legacy that all business executives would be proud to leave for those who will follow in their footsteps.
In the spirit of these reflections, though, I think there are also areas where the sports industry could take inspiration from the world of business. This could be the subject of a whole other article, but one I will mention is gender diversity, equality and representation.
Whilst modern business is still far from perfect, the progress being made on gender diversity at all levels of (most) business organisations is something the world of sports would do well to emulate.
A number of female sports have seen an explosion in popularity. World class athletes like the Williams sisters, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Simone Biles and Alex Morgan are role models for a generation of young women who aspire to compete at the very highest levels of sport.
We have seen a number of women breaking down barriers and stereotypes to pursue careers in sports management, coaching, officiating and broadcasting, but there is a long way to go and Football in particular has a lot of work to do to catch up with progress being made in other industries. How long will we have to wait for the first female premier league manager?
So – as you enjoy the first weekend in what promises to be a captivating English Premier League season, take a moment to consider what you can learn from the bosses in the spotlight this year (and, perhaps, what they could learn from us). They aren’t just personalities or football managers – they’re leaders… and great leaders are always open and willing to learn from other great leaders around them.