In my last blog I said there was precious little you could learn about business from a football club.
It’s not just Portsmouth FC that has problems – over half the Premiership clubs are in debt and losing money despite the vast sums flowing through them.
It’s the same at every level of the game; 53 Football League clubs having gone into administration since the Premier League started. However, there is plenty we can learn from the action on and around the pitch. There is no better place to learn about leadership, motivation and man management.
Teams can often go on a run of straight wins and then suddenly start losing games. The response is nearly always the same: the crowd gets on the players’ backs, groaning and then jeering. They cannot understand that the once selfish forward, who was shooting on sight before, now passes the ball to someone else as soon as a goal-scoring opportunity materialises.
Like an employer, the fans have paid their money and feel entitled to vent their frustration but they don’t seem to realise they are destroying the confidence of their own team. That forward will now do anything rather than take responsibility for shooting at goal because he’s scared of mis-hitting the ball and hearing more jeers.
Meanwhile the defenders play the ball sideways, nice and safely rather than trying the ambitious defence-splitting pass because they’re terrified of giving the ball away to the opposition.
Eventually they can become so paralysed by fear that they do even the simple, safe things too slowly and the other side snatch the ball away from them. The fans are acting like the worst sort of boss who castigates an employee in front of everyone else, humiliating them and destroying their confidence.
So how do you break out of this desperate, vicious circle? Again, it’s clear to see on the pitch. The crowd move from huge frustration and negativity to welcoming the tiniest improvement. They end up applauding someone who tries an ambitious but unsuccessful pass or the forward who shoots but the ball goes wide. And lo and behold, the team’s confidence comes creeping back! It happened in only 45 minutes at my club, Woking FC the other weekend, whereas in business it can take at least six months but the principle is the same.
Conversely, we know that over confidence in business can be highly dangerous – indeed, it’s why most companies eventually go into decline. Yet again you can observe this best in football when the top team plays a struggling one and thinks they only have to turn up in order to win. The reality is that if any team or company performs 10 per cent below its best, the majority of competitors are capable of turning them over. It’s the reason for nearly all the FA Cup upsets over the years.
Motivation is hugely important: make your team believe they are winners and that anything is possible and you can achieve things way beyond the sum of their individual capabilities. Brian Clough was a legendary manager who took a relatively ordinary group of players at Nottingham Forrest, then in Division Two, and turned them into the top team in Europe. A modern equivalent perhaps, is Jose Mourinho, once of Chelsea and now of Champions League finalists Inter Milan. His style is more like that of Napoleon: a strutting self-obsessed figure who pre-plans his campaigns (games) in huge detail. Under Mourinho, the players feel hugely confident as he creates a sense that success is inevitable.
At some stage in business, the going gets really tough – to the point where things are scary. Perhaps you’re losing a lot of business and whenever the phone rings, it’s bad news. Or you’re running a public company and your results are falling away and whatever you try you know will be vilified in the press, or there is a nasty lawsuit which you know you are very likely to lose with resulting humiliation.
I have been involved in two major cases like this and they can be very divisive within the company: many senior executives became scared and just melted away. You may think you know people well but you only really know them when the going gets tough.
Likewise, on the pitch, when the tackles are flying thick and fast, you want the guy who’s not scared to ‘put his foot in’. He goes into every 50/50 tackle looking to win, not pulling out at the last minute – even if he’s broken his leg twice in his career.
Coping with pressure is even more important in sport than it is in business. There is the pressure to perform well while dealing with a very heavy workload (for us in business, it’s measured in the number of hours we have to work and for footballers the number of games they have to play).
Then there is the pressure to deliver at a certain point in time when absolutely everything relies on your performance. It can be a sales pitch; a key negotiation; the moment when you’ve just heard you’ve lost a huge contract or uncovered a fraud. How will you cope?
Well, is there any better parallel than taking a penalty in the final minute of a game in front of 60,000 fans? Do you choke or do you bury it?
So throw away all your management books and get along to a football match where you’ll learn a lot more.