Building Teams in Business and in Sport

Posted by in HR, Jim Chaplin, Management

Roy Keane and Kevin Pietersen have new books out. You may have noticed! Unsurprisingly and true to form, both books are punchy, provocative and controversial with lots of discussion of cliques, bullying, arguments and fights! The role of coaches, captains and players within these teams is also debated extensively. For those of us working in executive search where we are working to create and build high performing teams, the lessons and learnings from these two stories are fascinating and instructive.

The first issue that emerges is the importance of the maverick, the “genius”, within a team environment. We get asked all the time by organisations to find them special talent. The kind of individual who can create opportunities others can’t, the one who can win when others would normally lose and the person who can inspire others through their brilliance. Inevitably, these individuals are often the hardest to manage, the most insecure and the most in need of sympathetic but strong management. They will, by their nature, often create envy amongst those who are less talented and they will often be better remunerated and have a higher profile. There will be fall outs, but the fall outs will be worth it for the value they are bringing. However, irrespective of the quality of the management, it is inevitable that the “genius” has a shelf life and there will be a time when it is decided that the benefits brought by the “genius” aren’t worth the trouble. In sport or in business, this can be through the declining performance of the “genius” or a shift in the behaviour of the genius (or indeed their team mates) to a level where the team’s performance as a whole is negatively impacted by their ongoing presence.

With both Pietersen and Keane, it is at the very least plausible to suggest that both the ECB and Manchester United managed both impressively to extend that shelf life for as long as they did and get as many years’ service out of them as they did. In Pietersen’s case, arguably particularly so, given the ‘text gate’ episode of 2012 which to many should have been the point of no return. Liverpool may make the same argument with Luis Suarez.

The second key issue to extract from these books is the importance of culture, respect and values within a team. In one of Mike Atherton’s many excellent articles on Pietersen, he made the point about the dressing room being a very different environment from a corporate, office culture: “if you want normal, be an accountant.” This is true but the parallels with business can still be drawn. Most organisations have invested considerable time over the years in establishing their core values and most of these sets of values will have “teamwork, respect for others and collaboration” at their core. Organisations require dynamism, debate and differences of opinion in order to flourish and high levels of emotional engagement and commitment is readily evident in all the best work environments. In addition, all organisations have clear rules and behavioural guidelines that have to be adhered to. In a sports dressing room, these may be less clearly defined but a captain, manager or a coach has to be able to lead and know that his troops will follow him over the top. Whilst some degree of license may be given to certain individuals, it can only extend so far. Both Keane and Pietersen appear to have reached the stage where their employers felt that a line had been crossed. As the ECB has found, the challenge for the employers is then explaining this decision to the general public in a way that doesn’t make it look puerile, petty, controlling or intolerant of those who are different.

A business manager will have to do likewise with customers or shareholders albeit usually away from the media glare. Managing such situations effectively in sport or business requires a clear communications strategy and good judgement but sometimes, irrespective of how much planning is done, things turn nasty. Human beings react emotionally and sometimes disproportionately, particularly when their competence, integrity or ability is called into question or when their financial situation is compromised. Dealing with the removal of the “genius” is often particularly difficult: often their brilliance stems from their self belief in their ability and for this to be questioned by removal from the team is often hard to take even if performances are waning.

The final issue to emerge is the sensitive one of bullying and cliques. In tough working environments where high standards are expected of employees, where you work long hours together and where you work in highly pressurised, target driven environments, people will from time to time behave poorly towards one another. They will hurt other people’s feelings deliberately or, far more often, accidentally. This is true in sport and business. My own experience is that normally the group moderates poor behaviour and a good team is particularly effective at integrating and uniting a disparate group behind their common purpose of winning. This is particularly true when you have a team that has characters within the team with high levels of integrity and strong core beliefs. It is also why team sport is such a valuable education for young people and why many of the best managers in business played team sports in their youth.

Where the group fails to moderate and when a robust environment becomes an unpleasant one, the manager has to be strong and decisive. It might be their decision is that the fault lies with an individual, a group or the whole but wherever it does lie, the cancer has to be removed before it spreads. When managers have to make this kind of judgement in either hiring or firing, I am a great believer that career history provides strong signposts. Behaviours tend to repeat over time and particularly under stress so whilst hiring decisions, in particular, must be based on potential, attitudes and feedback from previous employers will be a valuable guide. Someone who serially falls out with teams or organisations is either incredibly unlucky or extremely difficult to integrate into a team environment. In contrast, someone who puts his own and his family’s personal safety in jeopardy by standing up to Robert Mugabe, for example, is likely to possess the values and integrity that should run throughout a team.

From a recruitment perspective, the question when faced with whether to recruit the maverick who may impact negatively in team spirit into your organisation is a fascinating one. My view is that it depends on three key factors:

  1. How high can the rewards be and how long might we get the up side for?
  2. Can the risk of damage to the existing team spirit be mitigated by the support you can give to the maverick?
  3. Is the organisation or team able to integrate such an individual?

When Pietersen was brought into the England team in 2005, the answer to all three questions was clearly positive. Here was a batsman of immense talent coming into a settled team with a strong spirit, a winning track record and an excellent captain and experienced coach. Significantly, there was a core of senior players who were able to support his integration. The contrast can be drawn clearly with Roy Keane’s spell as manager of Ipswich Town. Here was a high profile figure coming into a relatively small club with an owner and a Chief Executive new to the club and to football. The fit was wrong and the outcome disastrous.

In business and in sport, there will be times when the grafter who does the unspectacular spectacularly well day in day out, is far more effective than the maverick but to reach the very top in any walk of life, a degree of flair is a vital ingredient. If in doubt when hiring, my advice is to be bold. Fortune favours the brave and the best managers will back themselves to manage the most difficult talent. By the same token, the best managers will also recognise when it is the right time to make a change and will be tough enough and back their judgement to move the maverick on. This was the genius of Ferguson but the same is true of many of the top business leaders. To survive and flourish in sport and business you have to develop new superstars, new teams and new team ethics.

About the Author: Jim Chaplin – European Managing Partner

Based in London and Lausanne, Jim has accountability for the successful performance and growth of the EMEA business. Jim works closely with clients to build and manage world-class executive search and senior management recruitment processes. As well as leading on a range of executive search assignments with particular focus on rights holders, clubs & teams, agencies and international federations, Jim works with clients in a consulting capacity to align the senior and executive management structure to overall business strategy.

He recently worked with the ECB on their search for on their appointment of Tom Harrison as new Chief Executive Officer.