Six business management lessons from the English Premier League

Pristine grass fields, sweaty men and David Beckham’s chiselled physique are images that come to mind when asked to think about the English Premier League.

In contrast, pictures of boardrooms, suits and excel spread sheets are generally reserved for corporates, but Deloitte UK vice president Louis Jordan is setting out to make people think differently.

In a recently published book, The Manager: Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders,Jordan and his team, including author Mike Carson, interviewed 30 of the league’s best managers and believes the two worlds do crossover.

“We picked the Premier League because it’s one of the world’s most global sports,” Jordan says.

“If you walk on the streets in Alaska, Canada, Australia or Guatemala the chances are you’ll bump into someone wearing a Manchester United shirt.”

He set out to determine whether or not the business world has anything to learn from some of sports greatest managers, and believe it or not, it does.

SmartCompany spoke to Jordan about the top lessons business leaders can take away from soccer’s greatest, managing “outrageous talent” and the importance of purpose.

Managing prima donnas

In every field you will find people with truly exceptional talent. They could be astrophysicists, ballerinas, musicians and even soccer players, but genius brings challenge.

Young people in particular with an exceptional gift need guidance and leadership to make the most of their abilities, especially as ego sometimes comes with talent.

Jordan says recognising ‘prima donna’ talent is important.

“You must be honest about it and realise special talent does need to be accommodated, but the person also needs to understand that their talent won’t come through if the team doesn’t function around it.”

When a person whose ego needs controlling joins a team, it can raise questions such as, are they worth it? Or, are they taking too much of my time away from the rest of the team? For some, these questions make them hesitant to take on an “outrageous talent” in the first place, no matter how gifted they are.

As a manager of someone with outrageous talent, Jordan says five key issues must be dealt with either consciously or sub-consciously: Imbalance in the relationship, capacity to damage others in the team, capacity to damage themselves, living up to expectations and maintaining stability.

“Alex Ferguson (former Manchester United manager) has demonstrated the overall vision and the team are the most important things. If you have to sacrifice a player, regardless of ability, he will do so to maintain the collective,” he says.

“The collective must attract the most belief. All the managers generally agreed if they didn’t fit in and contribute to the collective, then the problem is unresolvable and the player must leave.”

Clarity of purpose

Jordan says the most common theme among the top managers was “clarity of purpose”.

“That purpose is well expressed and understood by the teams around them, the boardroom and their stakeholders,” he says.

“They get across the sense of purpose in a way that is accessible to all those avenues which is distinctive. On one level, one football club looks like another football club because they all play the same game; but that’s not true, they make their distinction special and this breeds loyalty and commitment among the players and fans.”

Each Premier League club has its own set of skills which are unique to that club, allowing each club to have its own management practices.

Like in a soccer club, clarity of purpose in a business sense motivates staff, helping them to feel part of a team and driving them to work toward key objectives.

Losing key talent

With the Premier League trade market being “highly active”, soccer teams are forever losing their best players – similar to when a business loses one of its best staff members.

“In the case where someone leaves the club, the club moves not just to replace the talent, but also to look at the short-term horizons, filling the gap which is left, while looking to accommodate the style and nature of the talent who is brought in,” Jordan says.

“When you have the shift of a major player, it shifts the game patterns. Teams have a set strategy and then tactics to execute that strategy. The two need to be aligned, but with players leaving or getting injured, a tactical shift needs to take place on an almost day-to-day basis.”

Jordan says when an important team member leaves, it’s an opportunity to pause and think about how the business, or soccer team, is functioning.

“Very successful firms are usually fantastic at executing tactics in the market with speed and strength, but can also adapt their tactics to changing situations to execute a new game plan.”

Avoiding setbacks

Companies and teams which position themselves for sustained, long-term success have something in common – they invest in their future.

“Teams that have sustained success beyond one season have characteristics worth considering in the corporate world. They invest in talent both ahead of winning and then more intensely when they are performing well,” he says.

“It creates a cycle of invest win, invest win, invest win which is seen at clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea. They also invest in youth academies to help nurture and shape players in a way which is consistent with the long-term strategy of the club.”

Jordan says organisations which can attract, nurture and bring through talent are best positioned for the future.

“It’s the future of many successful corporates. These companies have a strong presence on university campuses, their brand resonates with students and students have a clear idea of what it’s like to work in that environment,” he says.

“Two example of this are Google and Apple. They’re leading from a best-company position, invest an enormous amount of time in ensuring people know what it would be like to work for them and the consequence is these companies often get the first pick of the best talent.”

Leading upwards

To create the stability needed to lead a team of people, managers need to “inspire all-round”.

Jordan says one component of this is ensuring the people above you have confidence and trust in you as a manager and leader.

“Right from the beginning, passion for a football club (or a business) and where it’s going needs to be in complete alignment with the ownership or it breaks down,” he says.

“While managers can execute their passion and vision however they want, it’s not fruitful without the agreement of the owner… The owner and the manager need to have an explicit agreement on what they’ll achieve and how they’ll achieve it.”

Crisis management

Jordan says managers are going to need a “high level of personal resilience” going forward.

“Managers need to be extremely passionate, but also be able to maintain perspective and be objective at times. These managers can work at an incredibly intense level… maintaining and sustaining success requires commitment and personal investment and in the corporate world you see this,” he says.

“Managers live and breathe their firms, but must be able to see changes in the market in context. Both in the corporate and sporting world the best managers exhibit those traits.”

A good manager relishes making tough decisions in a crisis.

“Their job is to make the key decisions and they want to be accountable. They see that as the most important aspect of their job, to make the right calls and they happily anticipate this,” he says.

“However, there are two key things which conflicted when it came to crises. You need to be able to provide clarity of direction, assuring you have control of a difficult situation, but you also can’t rush into decisions.”

Jordan says while this is often difficult to do, a manager needs to take time and conduct research to ensure the correct decision is made.


“Knee-jerk reactions can make the crisis worse and get you into a lot of trouble.”


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