Howard Wilkinson, former manager of Leeds United, knows about pressure: “No offence to captains of industry but even a FTSE 100 chairman can postpone a board meeting. A manager can’t postpone a football match and every match is a shareholder meeting, [sometimes] in front of 88,000 people.”
Mr Wilkinson’s comment also underlines what plenty of corporate executives – dazzled by insights imparted by their sporting idols – tend to forget. Leading a business is not like leading a sports team. In fact, it is much harder.
It is certainly tough at the top of both worlds. Mr Wilkinson was speaking at the launch of The Manager, a book of management insights from top football coaches such as Chelsea’s José Mourinho. In England, professional managers last on average 16 months. More than half never get a second chance. Their short tenure is lived under a spotlight controlled by voracious media, obsessive fans, capricious owners and overpaid and sometimes unruly players.
But there is a purity and focus to the football manager’s role that is rare in business. Few jobs are (literally) as goal-oriented, as bounded by rules and as divorced from the profit motive. Companies built by the owners of football clubs often turn over far more money than the clubs themselves. Coaches sometimes win broader responsibility – Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United was one – but that is the exception in football, the rule at companies.
Anita Elberse, co-author of a Harvard Business School case study about Sir Alex, has written that his success and staying power “demand study” but that companies should not push the application of his approach to business too hard. Even football-mad consultant Mike Carson, author of The Manager, writes that lessons taught by Mr Mourinho and his peers are more about leadership than management.
Such lessons are valid only at the highest level, though, where they risk being mere truisms. Football and business leaders all need to handle human beings. All take up arms in a “war for talent”. All are repaid for hard work and determination.
More interesting is where the roles differ. Is leading a sports team really as complicated as consultants and academics believe? Football managers themselves often come back to the simplicity of the win-lose-or-draw outcomes of matches against single opponents.
Compare this to Apple’s critical decision last week on the launch of new iPhone models. Tim Cook, chief executive, had to align pricing, innovation, brand and design considerations in a shifting market crowded with rivals, some of which he cannot even identify yet. If he concentrated only on the threat posed by, say, Samsung, he would be quickly outflanked by others.
Football managers’ plans are more tactical and are tied more closely to the next short-term challenge. The thoughtful Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger tells Mr Carson how hard it is to “sack 14 people every Friday morning [when he selects a team for the weekend] and then re-employ them on a Monday”. Failure to get this team selection right can doom managers’ careers, while failing chief executives can sometimes cling on. But football’s short-term focus also allows its leaders to recover swiftly, whereas corporate leaders’ big strategic mistakes, on people or product, can blight a company for years. Intel admits it missed the smartphone chip revolution. Last week Brian Krzanich, the new chief executive, staked its future on leapfrogging the competition with tiny chips for wearable devices. That is a far bigger call than a preseason squad reshuffle.
Mr Carson reckons the vast majority of what keeps business and sporting leaders awake at night relates to people management. Football managers’ motivational skills, their genuine love of the job (which far offsets the pressures, as Mr Mourinho pointed out at last week’s book launch), and their surprising humility about what they do, are worth copying. But to assume the Mourinho or Ferguson way would work for your own team of copywriters or accountants could be misleading. To take their narrow, often tactical approach when you should be worrying about strategy might even be dangerous. And when seeking the right candidate to run a FTSE 100 company, you should look for leadership potential honed outside the stadium.
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