As we gathered at the swish HQ of Cass Business School in central London last Tuesday night, we had a select audience of just over 100 business executives anticipating a lively and instructive debate on the Business of Football. They were not disappointed.
Our learned panel of experts, Richard Bevan (CEO of the LMA), Trevor Birch (currently leading the move out of administration of Portsmouth FC) and Professor Chris Brady (our resident academic) were in terrific form.
ILN is always a game of two halves, and in a tightly run first half the differing views and opinions on the future direction of the UK’s most popular spectator sport exercised and energised all present.
Sometime early last year I wrote a piece on André Villas Boas (AVB) and his travails whilst managing Chelsea FC. He was just like many first appointment CEO’s, where there is no real development or preparation for the toughest job in the organisation.
Something like 70% of all first appointment football managers never get a second chance after having been fired from their first appointment. We have searched far and high for similar statistics for first appointment CEO’s without any joy, but my guess is the figures might well be strikingly similar.
As so many have to learn the hard way, it’s not about never failing; it’s much more about what you do next. Most never recover after initial failure.
It reminds me of the famous Winston Churchill quote “success is the ability to go from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm.”
Tottenham Hotspur FC made a really brave and bold decision in giving AVB another chance, so soon after the debacle at Chelsea. It has been obvious that he has learnt some tough and poignant lessons:
- He has dropped the impenetrable technical jargon he used at pre and post-match interviews whilst at Chelsea
- He has stopped the ‘notice me’ histrionics and the incessant shouting of instructions from the side-line during matches
- He has made a habit of praising players by name after every Spurs match
- He appears far better prepared for the tenacious football media, and has found a compelling dry and self-deprecating humour
- He has demonstrated huge loyalty to a strong core of players who have reciprocated and given him their very best every game
- After making some foolish and sweeping decisions about players he had not given a chance (e.g. Dawson & Parker) he has apologised and brought them back into the fold, and consequently won their unqualified respect
- Even after defeat, he has remained charming and phlegmatic
He has learnt in a very hard and public way, but praise where it’s deserved, he has certainly bounced back and his recent Manager of the Month Award has been truly well deserved.
How about Arsène Wenger? The long standing manager of Spurs arch rivals Arsenal. This is a very different story indeed. It is unarguable that Wenger is a modern day great when it comes to football management.
He has been bold, innovative and a proven winner. But something’s not quite right any more.
After a flying introduction at Arsenal followed by years of sustained success, it looks like it’s all gone pear-shaped at the Emirates. Many have argued that perhaps he’s firmly stuck in his ways, far too stubborn and dogmatic, and it’s time for him to move on.
Others argue that it’s a much more competitive league now, and it was only a matter of time before others caught up.
There is a third view that Arsenal are playing the game by completely different rules to everyone else, they have an obsession with their profit and loss account. They view profit and a strong balance sheet way above trophies, with Wenger being a former economist and loathe to ever break his arbitrary budgets; this has a ring of truth.
Many say that good players and good leaders don’t become bad overnight, but this is mistaken. When the ‘rules of engagement’ change dramatically in any industry or discipline, yesterday’s thoroughbreds can appear amazingly out of touch, if they are unable to adapt.
Just look at Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, he was for a number of years the biggest beast in the technology jungle, but Google and Apple have left him looking like a dinosaur in a very short space of time.
Microsoft amazingly missed the importance of the internet, which sounds quite incredible today, but they deliberately dismissed it as irrelevant. Ballmer at 13 years as the leader and Wenger with 17 years; are they just both far too long in the tooth for today’s fast moving and unforgiving times?
Wenger might just well be having his internet moment. He has miscalculated the importance of trophies to his patient, but increasingly unsettled fan base. And he has misjudged the importance of spending money to keep his top players, and probably even more importantly, when they do leave for exorbitant amounts, that it will cost him that and more to replace them.
As with all CEO’s, the average length of service of all leaders in all fields has been reducing, and in some disciplines quite dramatically in recent years.
It would appear that in football that this increased churn has now become the standard, and whilst so many traditionalists scream for stability, the truth is that it just doesn’t exist anymore. Alex Ferguson’s 26 years at Manchester United really is a freak of nature. Every other successful club in Europe has gone through incredible churn before finding a manager/coach who has done a four/ five year stint and then they go back to churn again.
Wenger is still a really good manager, but Arsenal is screaming out for a change, but the Board doesn’t appear to have the ‘bottle’ to face him down.
The real issue is not at all the length of time served, but the strength of the Board of Directors. Challenge without support is bullying, support without challenge is sycophancy.
Wenger has not had the benefit of supportive challenge and has consequently become desperately single minded and stubborn.
Without strong regular feedback even the best leaders tend to outstay their welcome.
I’ve even heard the nonsense that Wenger has earned the right to name the time when he goes. This is utter rubbish, as just like Ferguson, he will never throw in the towel, this is the job of the Board and it’s high time he was asked to do an AVB and reinvent himself elsewhere.
The best leaders know when it’s time to move on, others have to be reminded.
Tweet René here with any comments or questions.
Another great evening, more great guests.
We were joined by Simon Jones of Chime Communications and Professor Chris Brady of Salford University at the magnificent Cass Business School in Central London.
With René asking the probing questions both our guests gave a masterclass in reputation management.