What could new appointed CEO's learn from Premier League Managers?

By Andreas Frische Geir Lislerud

Premier League and other major leagues Clubs frequently fire their Managers in order to create short and long-term success. The new Managers are expected to quickly get results and change the course of the Club. So, what can CEOs learn from the basics we see new Managers do?

We have witnessed some recent Manager changes in big Clubs like Manchester United (Solskjaer), Chelsea (Sarri), Liverpool (Klopp), Tottenham (Pochettino ) and Arsenal (Emery).

Both CEOs and PL Managers face some of the same expectations set from the Board, the employees, the shareholders and the supporters:

  • High expectations to have impact quickly
  • Sense of urgency to generate changes and to improve results
  • Stand the pressure and take responsibility

Sure, the scale might be different, but PL Managers and CEOs face some of the same issues regarding the internal factors in their company/club:

  • Leading high performers
  • Strategy assessment
  • Assessment of team resources
  • Fire, hire & development of individuals
  • Implementation plan

In this five part blog series, Mercuri Urval will highlight the essential learning points you as a CEO could have a look at when you need to change the course for your company. Our insights is based upon the hundreds of CEOs we Search and Select to challenging positions around the world.

How to manage High-Performers?

February 24th, 2019. It is the EFL (English Football League) Cup final. FC Chelsea with the new coach Maurizio Sarri against Manchaster City coached by Pep Cuardiola. The match is a 0:0 draw and goes into the penalty shout-out. FC Chelsea's Coach Sarri decides to change the goal keeper from his no. 1 Kepa Arrizabalaga to the penalty killer, Willy Caballero. But, Kepa rejects to be changed. He stays on the field, ignores the order of his manager and keeps playing the penalty shout-out. Chelsea loses 3:4.

A serious breach of conduct by Kepa, and a proof of the limited authority of the manager Maurizio Sarri. Can Sarri stay as the manager? Is he seriously weakened by this event? Can Kepa stay in the Club after this enormous breach of conduct?

The management of high performers with their well develop self-confidence and highly trained capabilities in a specific area (such as world-class football players) is a similarity between Premier League Managers and CEOs in today's business.

How do you get impact on the people you highly depend on? How do you make sure that they trust your decisions? How do you deal with misbehaviour and disciplinary actions? Highly skilled managers and key employees can move to a competitor just like a football player to another club. The example of the change of Neymar from Barcelona to Paris St. Germain shows that neither high transfer fees nor existing contracts can prevent that.

Sarri and the club decided to punish Kepa for his misbehaviour. He apologised and accepted the penalty. In the next premier league game, Sarri changed the goal keeper and put Kepa on the bench.

The game after Kepa was the no. 1 goal keeper again and still is. Sarri is still the manager of Chelsea, so it looks like he managed to survive and rebuild his authority.

Authority is build on trust

The leadership of high performers is a critical task of every business manager and CEO. You need to find the right balance between a directive approach in some situations and an inspiring and appreciative approach in others. Highly skilled football players are like every other employee with capabilities difficult to replace. They have to be valued, developed and sometimes overruled. They have to trust in a manager with less skills than they have. They have to trust in a manager who makes them successful by their strategic, tactical and operational management abilities.

The authors of this article Geir Lislerud and Andreas Frische from Mercuri Urval, a worldwide operating Executive Search company, identified five key elements to lead high performers in organisations:

  1. Get to know them:
    The first approach and introduction is key. To win your high performers as followers is just like a sales meeting or a job interview. Be interested, show your own competence and respect the competence of your future team members. Approach the first contacts individually and structured.
  2. Listen to them:
    To become the authority whose decisions are respected by others, you need to listen to them first. Ask questions to value their past contribution. Do not question anything now. An analysis of the team performance and team composition comes later.
  3. Communicate a vision:
    In the beginning of the relationship you have to position yourself with a vison. Make your team members feel that they will achieve something special with you. You can think of Mourinhou however you like, but he is extremely good in that.
  4. Set expectations:
    To achieve the visionary goals you can start early to set expectations. Make clear statements of what you expect in terms of values, efforts and discipline. Do not set operational goals in the beginning. Plant a vision and set the frame how to achieve it.
  5. Introduce your leadership style:
    Do not sell yourself. Be authentic in the introduction of your leadership style. You have set your expectations, now you make clear what the team can expect from you. Be precise, honest, demanding and fair at the same time.

If Sarri would have followed the five key elements he most likely would have prevented the issue with his goalkeeper. High performers and highly skilled people do not follow you because you are the manager. They follow you because they trust your ability to make them better and to achieve your visionary goals. Whether you are introduced as the new manager of a football club or as a new CEO – the relationship with your key people is essential for your long-term success. It starts on day one – it never stops to be developed and it will be proven in critical situations like a penalty shout-out.

Read part two of the blog series on "Strategy assessment".