Transformation – Learning from my football frustrations

Introduction / I have the unfortunate confession of being a lifelong Man United fan. Due to my age, this means that I knew nothing before the Sir Alex Ferguson era. I knew nothing of anything but winning trophies, beating rivals and setting records. 6 years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson retired from football management leaving Man United behind. The Man United he left behind was one of a title winning but aging, limping squad. The exit of 'Fergie' led to the recent turmoil at Man United… enter the transformation on Man United.

Now, this is a blog about change and about business so you're probably thinking, what's the point of this?

But, like many transformation strategies, the story of the leadership following Sir Alex's exit and the relationship of that leadership to how the transformation of this team has progressed, rings true for so many organisations around the World.

We can learn from how each of these different leadership styles led  to more heart ache for the team and for the fans… 4 managers, 4 different mistakes, 4 lessons that can be learnt. 

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Photo by Juan Salamanca from Pexels

 1. You cannot begin a transformation project with wholesale changes

David Moyes joined the club as the 'chosen one' following Sir Alex's exit. Having had success at developing teams in the past, Moyes was seen as the correct person to carry on in the ethos of Alex Ferguson; trust in youth and building a team over buying in big names.

This all seemed great but what people didn't foresee was the poor quality of the squad Sir Alex left behind. Above all that, though, was the overall pressure on David Moyes. A pressure to continue the success of the club.

The pressure to follow his hero into a dream role. The pressure to make his own mark on the club. It was that last point that was, ultimately his downfall.

 Moyes got rid of all of the backroom staff and replaced them with his own people. This isn't a problem but the timing of it was.

He did this as soon as he got into the role. Not just losing a title-winning group of staff but also a group of staff that knew the players and their capabilities more than the incoming staff.

Making a statement like this one sets a difficult tone for the club and it's evolving culture. Ok it's a statement of intent and change from the incoming leadership team, but it shows a lack of trust, understanding and respect for those that have achieved so much at the club.

What message does this send to the rest of the club?

 This form of leadership style continued with experienced players at the club. A famous situation that was reported was when he told Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic that they should defend like a defender at Moyes's old club.

These 2 are considered the best centre back partnership on the Premier League era in England and now they are being told to improve by watching someone they deem not as good as them?

Moyes used to get Man United to prepare for games by worrying and preparing for the other team's threats. This was unheard of under Sir Alex who trained and taught the players to play how they wanted and force their philosophy on the game, not worry about others.

 All of these elements led to a poor season for Man United and ultimately the downfall of David Moyes. All of the above examples highlight a common mistake made by leaders when approaching a transformation project.

They follow their ego and past experience rather than listening to the team and staff and taking time to understand the culture of the team. If Moyes had paused, reviewed what he had inherited and listened when he started at Old Trafford, maybe he would have lasted more than the 1 season.

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Photo by Fachry Zella Devandra on Unsplash

 2. One size fits all doesn't fit

Enter Louis Van Gaal (LVG). LVG has had lots of success at a number of high profile clubs across Europe so seemed like the ideal fit for Old Trafford. He brought in some big named players and let some other big names go from Old Trafford.

He brought with him a proven philosophy and a way of playing that had served him well at previous clubs and in the World Cup prior to his arrival at Man United where he guided his Netherlands team to the semi-finals. This all was set to a revival of the club in the 2014-15 season.

 It all started well with some free-flowing, exciting football but it didn't take long for things to unravel. A lot of people will say LVG's reign was a success having regained some stability at the club and having won the FA cup in his second season.

He also gave first team debuts to future England World Cup stars Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard so there was a focus on youth with LVG. That said, I want to focus on the signings he made, the style of football he believed in and the way he managed some major talents within the team. The stubbornness to change his philosophy is key to this. 

 LVG made a lot of signings, some of whom are still at the club and some of whom are still contributing in the shape of Luke Shaw, a player that won the player of the year award for the 2018/19 season. There can be a lot said for the signings LVG made but, for the point of this post, the 2 I want to discuss are Angel Di Maria and Memphis Depay.

Both Di Maia and Depay were incredibly positive signings for Man United. Both fast, attacking players that fit into the Man United philosophy of football. Di Maria was a proven talent and exciting. Depay was up and coming and talented.

Both players started their careers at Man United in a really positive way and the fans were loving what was on offer but, after a month or so, both players stopped attacking as much and went into their shells.

 This was widely reported as LVG forcing the players to pass rather than take on their opponents with pace and skill. This was LVG imposing his philosophy on the players. It is because of this trust in his own philosophy and way of playing that Man United didn't progress and transform as they should have done.

We see this a lot in business as well. We have leaders that are experienced and 'have done and seen it all before' come into a business or launch a transformation programme and they apply a tried and tested strategy from another business.

This is all well and good but it forgets all about the culture and talent of the people you are asking to transform. As we saw with LVG, he took players that wanted to play a certain way and were motivated by playing attacking football and demotivated by telling them not to play that way.

Leading people based on their motivations and what they love to do is a key factor to success. Hit the right cord and your most talented people will be motivated to fight for the cause and help you deliver on your strategy and transformation programme.

 LVG didn't get this right and his demotivated stars meant a poor style of football was seen leading to the frustration of the fans and the Man United board. This led to his dismissal after 2 years with another familiar face coming in in his place…

Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

3. Investment doesn't directly lead to success

 Jose Mourinho came in in 2016 with the title as one of the best managers in the 21st Century having had terrific success at every club he had managed.

For many fans, he was the right man, not just for the job at this time, but the right man to have taken over from Alex Ferguson straight after his retirement. 

Mourinho came in and invested heavily in talent and had some instant success winning 3 trophies in his first season and coming second in the Premiere League in his second.

Everything seemed rosy but things began to break down towards the end of his second season and they certainly came to a head when he was sacked at the start of his third season. So… he had success, made some good signings so what was the problem? The problem was his leadership style.

 Mourinho bought good players but also left new signings out of the squad. He seemed to make some signings that didn't make sense. Case in point Alexis Sanchez whose signing and salary caused major problems in the dressing room and beyond. Mourinho’s public criticism of some players wasn't well received.

His open arguments with the board of directors also left a bad taste in the mouth. All in all, Mourinho turned the culture of the club toxic and negative and that led to worse and worse performances from the team. And when someone didn't perform, he was out of the team and someone new was signed and came in to replace them.

 This happens all the time in business. Leaders invest massive sums of money in new systems, new training, new talent without realising what they already have. Without realising the impact of these changes.

Without asking the people, first, what it is that they want to transform about the business. This leads to a lack of support, a lack of motivation and, subsequently, a poor performance.

 Finally, the negativity of Mourinho was the worst thing about his tenure.

Not because of his personality but because of the way that was communicated in the press. Imagine having a leader in your organisation that was criticising you publicly to motivate you?

It may work for some but you need to know how to motivate your people. And the bad press brings bad vibes into the dressing room and training ground… it's infectious. Good communications from leaders, even if performance isn't as it should be, is so vital to the culture and performance of their business.

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Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

4. Fixing a culture with sticking plasters

Now we have a Man United legend at the wheel in the form of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Ole was no body's first choice and came as an option from left field. But his appointment brought instant success and an improvement in form at Old Trafford. How?

He reminded people that they were great, he told them to remember the culture of the club, he approached everything with a smile on his face and this positivity allowed everyone at the club to breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, something we can get behind!

The good results went though and the players reverted to type… stopped working for the team, lack of confidence, unsure of how to play in an attacking way.

This shows that bringing in positives and gimmicks will work for some time but you need to address the foundations of your culture.

Go back to the very start of the transformation, the reason why, the root cause, only then can you start to move forward.

What this long and personal example shows is that one size does not fit all when it comes to leadership and transformation but there are common mistakes we can all avoid:

  • Avoid wholesale layoffs when you haven't had chance to review what is infront of you
  • Don't assume those in your team don't know how to do their jobs. Listen to them and learn about the talents and ambitions of your people. (assume they ARE talented)
  • Don't blindly follow a process without considering how your people want to be led… what motivates them
  • Don't invest without thinking of cultural impact
  • Remember the importance of communication
  • Show positivity but don't paper over the cracks with gimmicks.

Above all else, it is the impact of the above on your people that will kill any transformation project.

Look after the people within your organisation by engaging with them, listening and discovering what it is they do and what they want to do.

Celebrate and champion the great things they do and recognise this. If you leave your people out of your transformation programme, you will never truly transform.