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What lessons can board directors learn from the high-stakes world of football management?

Esther An

This article was first published in the June 2014 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

The Brazilian World Cup winners of 1970, the Liverpool teams that won the European Cup in the 1970s and 80s, and the all-conquering Barcelona sides of recent years are among the greatest ever teams to have graced the game of football.

They played with style, were ruthless in achieving fantastic results and exceptionally efficient in their approach to the game. All three sides were also blessed with fantastic management – but what are the ingredients that help make such brilliance and what lessons can we take from these great teams into the boardroom?

It seems obvious to say, but these world-beating teams possessed world-beating players, such as Pelé, Kenny Dalglish or Lionel Messi; an average team is only likely to produce average results. Likewise, the best business plan in the world can’t execute itself. It needs a talented team of motivated people with the right skills and great leadership to carry it out.

What also makes a winning team is the right player in the right position, with the right focus, assisted and mentored by a talented manager who knows how to get the best out of their team.

A book called From Pitch to Boardroom, written by Stuart Blyth in conjunction with football coach Christian Damiano, explores the similarities between football and corporate management.

In the book, Blyth says: ‘Dream teams are created; they do not just happen. The dream team is, in today’s increasingly competitive and globally connected world, becoming a must-have for the success of any organisation. These days, having a good team isn’t enough to be successful – ‘settling’ is not good enough for winning organisations and it certainly isn’t good enough for teams in the sporting arena.’

Damiano adds: ‘When working on the strategy of the team it is important for each player to understand the task they are required to perform. To ensure the player understands what the requirement is, we practise their role daily on the training pitch.’

Team-building

Creating a functional, cohesive team is one of the few competitive advantages available to any organisation looking for a powerful point of differentiation. A leader’s job includes building an environment where the most talented people in the industry want to work and then doing whatever they can to clear the path for their achievement.

Blyth adds: ‘Functional teams get more accomplished in less time than other teams because they avoid wasting time on the wrong issues and revisiting the same topics again and again. They also make higher-quality decisions and stick to those decisions by eliminating politics and confusion among themselves and the people they lead.

‘Functional teams also tend to keep their best employees longer because “A” players rarely leave organisations that they feel they are a part of, or where they are being led as part of a cohesive team.

However, this functional team does have to be successful, because all “A” players will want to be part of success,’ cautions Blyth.

Intuition is an area where businesses can learn from football. Often it seems that top footballers play using instinct and gut feeling, allowing them to make the right decisions and to anticipate what is about to happen before it actually does. This is a skill that the boardroom may be best advised to encourage.

Communication is also a critical area. The cry of ‘man on’ or ‘clear the ball’ is a piece of immediate and effective communication within a match. The necessity to communicate in this fashion gives the player immediate feedback on what they should be doing within the current team task and if they were to fail to take those instructions then their team could lose a goal or match. Thus the player who is given the instruction does not feel that they are being picked on; they are simply receiving immediate and effective information in order that they may perform their task.

It is no secret that communication between team members, between team members and managers, and between team members and third parties is an essential element of any high-performing team. If we cannot communicate to our team members why we have chosen a particular team for a particular task, then we will not be able to transform our team.

The long game

Consultant Mike Carson, author of The Manager, a book sponsored by football rich-list authors Deloitte, references leadership lessons taught by top football managers, including Chelsea manager José Mourinho.

Carson draws parallels between the best CEOs and football managers in how they strive to introduce long-term structures and values to foster a culture of success. He says: ‘Football management is not unlike being a senior executive where you have to balance the needs of multiple parties: investors, shareholders, committees, customers, clients, consumers and stakeholders in general.’

Richard Bevan is chief executive of the League Managers Association (LMA), a body that represents football managers in England. He also believes stability is essential to encourage leadership in and out of sports. Bevan tells Accounting and Business: ‘Scrutiny and a thirst for results create a challenging working environment. Football – and the corporate world – needs to embrace knowledge and experience.

Better leadership and communication at the top will build the framework for the future and the next generation of managers.

‘Expectations and a desire for success continue to rise and, together with the need for good results, it all adds to the pressures on all personnel in a club. The market in which a manager operates is an increasingly global one, making it a more complex operating environment. As budgets continue to tighten at clubs in light of the financial climate and provisions of financial fair play begin to bite, the manager has to broaden his creative skills and abilities,’ says Bevan.

‘The financial impact of league position or of losing league status also requires managers to focus on the short term rather than installing structures for developing the club long term,’ he says. ‘Sadly there is no perfect system to deliver success. There needs to be a combination of many factors all working together in one direction, with stability and a framework which encourages continuity.’

Former Tottenham, Celtic and Cagliari defender, Ramon Vega founded his own asset management firm, Vega Swiss Asset Management, in 2009 after retiring as a player. His organisation looks after US$1bn of clients’ funds under advisory management, making him well placed to offer his thoughts. ‘There are similarities between the two [football and business] as you always have pressure to perform,’ he says. ‘On the football side this is something that you can really bring over into the business world, as you are trained from a very young age to cope with major pressure.’

Vega also highlights the ability to deal with people on an individual level as the major similarity between leadership roles in the two fields.

He believes those in business can glean much from football if they were to analyse the methods and behaviour of leading coaches.

‘People skills in any form of management are about 80% to 90% the most important part of the job,’ he adds. ‘Of course, you also have to have knowledge and know-how of a specific industry as well, but if you have these skills and effective communication, then people will do the job for you very well.

‘If managers take the time to think about it and see the positions of people, then they can only learn a lot from the sports world.’

Alex Miller, journalist

Last updated: 5 Jun 2014