What can organisations like the NHS learn from success in the field of football management?
11 March 2019
What? Who? Why?
Three words across the football community that rang loud in December 2018 as Manchester United announced the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. There had been mounting speculation on the viability of Jose Mourinho’s continued tenure - and to fans it came as no surprise when it was announced Mourinho had left the club or that the likes of Zinedine Zidane or Mauricio Pochettino were being muted as high profile successors.
The first questions were already being asked; does he have the leadership skills, will he be able to stand up to the pressure, does he have the management and tactical capability to lead a club in decline back to a respectable level of expectation?
The performances on the pitch have been the main answer to his critics but these have been underlined by a positive narrative communicated via his media interactions. Solskjaer, here, has demonstrated the power of language. Sometimes within the working world we, as leaders and managers, can forget about the impact our language or certain communication may have on our staff. It can make the difference between a demotivated workforce and a high performing team.
We wondered what other lessons could be learned by organisations like the NHS, and organisational leadership?
1. All successful organisations have a defined set of principles, a common purpose and values. Solskjaer’s principles tap into the belief set of the organisation - a sense of winning, to play, and enthusing a sense of pride in playing for the club. By using a set of core principles within his style of management, he has allowed individuals the space to be themselves, demonstrate their talents and given them the freedom and responsibility to be creative. These translate across all forms of working environments.
2. His introduction of several younger players into the squad has also been a reminder of how important it is to ensure that you have succession planning in place with ‘home grown’ talent or junior team members at the heart of it. This can accelerate their understanding of intricacies, culture and relationships whilst maintaining the organisational values to drive the development of an organisation in the long term. One of the best examples of this can be seen in the sustainability of the NHS core values; that it meets the needs of everyone, that it be free at the point of delivery and that it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay. These are still in place after 70 years and endless successions of leadership.
3. Leadership: It’s always important to note that there is never one style that fits all and that there needs to be room to adapt to the situation you face. There has been a move towards team or collective responsibility for results, which drives the ethos of unity and cohesion to achieve common goals. For example, stories of Solskjaer taking time out to meet with staff in the canteen and administration departments to name a few echoes the much used management and leadership example of President John F. Kennedy speaking with a janitor at NASA about how he was helping to put a man on the moon. It demonstrates the need for leaders to value every member of staff, viewing them not only as a team but as ambassadors who live and breathe the common purpose and value of the organisation.
4. Each individual has a different style of personality and each individual responds differently to outside stimulus. However, it does mean that managers need to employ flexibility to manage the dynamics of staff to motivate them and maintain or improve overall productivity. From a performance management approach to more of a comforting arm around the member of staff, it’s obvious that one style does not fit all. Sadly, when an organisation is in crisis, all to often the former tends to be employed, whereas Solskjaer seems to have taken the latter approach but is capable of using either.
5. Flexibility should be extended into decision making. Following his first loss with the club after their tie against Paris Saint Germain (PSG), Solskjaer could easily have stuck to the existing game plan. Instead, he showed willingness to assess the failings and devise a different approach to meet the situation, much like we see with many successful organisations - the willingness and capacity to adapt to ever changing operating environments is essential.
6. Solskjaer’s trust and belief in young players demonstrates a willingness to give his team the opportunity to take responsibility and empower them to reach their potential. Rewarding hard work creates an environment where players and staff have the freedom and opportunity to develop and thrive through a clear progression route. When career paths aren’t clear or are dysfunctional, staff are more likely to become disgruntled, underperform or even leave the organisation.
7. Coaching and mentoring is increasingly becoming more of a focal point in staff development and career progression, ensuring staff generally feel supported. As one of the largest football clubs in the world, Manchester United has access to an array of coaching specialists. But the game against PSG, in particular, demonstrated the principles of individualised support and coaching, albeit from the sidelines, in amplifying productivity. The importance of placing time, effort and patience into the right coaching of employees can not only benefit each individual but the organisation as a whole.
The overall lesson might be that you can have the systems, processes and the overall mechanics of an organisation in place but it takes leadership, collaboration, commitment and belief to drive the success. The question now is how far can they go now? Who says nice guys finish last... Not if Ole has anything to say about it...
David Cockayne and Tom Mytton are part of PwC’s Forensic Services team specialising in public sector governance and leadership and are avid promoters of sports as a role model for other organisations.