How the best football managers attack people strategy

Greg Tadman, Regional Human Resources Director Asia Pacific at PageGroup, speaks a lot about people strategy and its varying facets in business. Drawing parallels from other parts of life, such as managing people in professional football, is often useful way to shed light on the key issues of talent management.

As a business driven solely by people, we spend a lot of our time discussing and refining our approach to people strategy. We of course stand firm to several key tenants – ensuring we drive high performance, and making certain that a vibrant and inclusive culture exists right across our business. We also know that it takes all corners of an organisation to bring a people strategy alive. A company today is even more aware that the way it conducts itself is often an expression of how positive the place is to work in.

I believe that when it comes to attracting and retaining talent, culture is starting to become as important (if not more) than brand. Many people that join us tell us they’ve “heard about the culture”. Our exit interviews, plus review sites such Glassdoor, confirm that our culture is a commodity many of our alumni say they miss when they leave. And it’s a reason that many of them later return to us as clients or returnees.

But what makes a people strategy impactful? Sometimes to look at the question, it pays to address how the best brands do it, and what can we learn from that. And what better place to pull inspiration from than the beautiful game itself: football. Each week, as we watch the fortunes of English Premier League (EPL) teams, or other similar leagues, the antics and tactics of their high-profile managers are a major part of the entertainment. So we wondered: what might the trials and tribulations of Klopp, Guardiola, Mourinho or Pochettino tell us about managing business teams? After a bit of head-scratching, we found six lessons. Game on.

1. Know the difference between policies and culture

First up – many mistakenly equate people strategy to HR policy. To use the sporting comparison, HR policies and regulations are rules by which sports are played by. Just as football teams plan around the offside trap or look at the impact of video-assisted refereeing, HR policies deal with the transactional and policy functions affecting your people. While important, they don’t help to describe how you win as a team. Your values, your team spirit, your behavioural x-factors unique to the brand, are the glue of a strong people strategy. They help to build a team-DNA that you might call the ‘Liverpool Way’, ‘Nike way’ or ‘PageGroup way’. It’s about the qualities of belonging to a culture that are instilled on arrival, reinforced through training – and that stay with people beyond their time with you. To me, these aspects are the bi-product of a sound people strategy.

2. Great leaders can see and articulate the big picture

When spelled out well, your people strategies help to set your individuals into motion as one entity. As People Development Magazine describes it, the challenge is “developing strategies to make sure the right people in the right roles deliver the right outcomes, in the right time”. Great people leaders gain an inbuilt ability to ‘see’ the full team in motion. In reality, this view is gained through a combination of training, data and a well-honed shop-floor sense. As with a football manager, it’s a powerful lens once it’s mastered: delivering you a means of knowing how even small tweaks in personnel, shape or behaviour will change how your team plays – and alter the results it can deliver.

3. People strategy stems from business goals

Most teams in the English Premier League have a style closely linked to its market position. Each season, we watch mid-table teams act as ‘challenger brands’, taking calculated risks on raw and unproven arrivals, who enjoy the “shop-window” opportunity to make a visible impact. Market leading teams, established brands in their own right, take fewer gambles. They instead play the ‘long-game’, investing in training, performance analytics and science-linked tools to help them scout, develop, protect and optimise their talent. Both approaches make sense in the right context: but in the best teams, day-to-day team behaviours will be closely linked to the immediate goals of the business.

4. Be wary of superstar side effects

Many fans recall when Manchester United parted first with Beckham then later Ronaldo. In each case, the overall team performance didn’t suffer long. This was a clear sign of ‘team-first’ strategies in action – and leaders willing to make tough talent decisions for the sake of harmony. If you’re driven by a belief that nobody is ‘bigger’ than your team, you will face times when certain behaviours (say cutting corners or letting in outside distractions) need to be addressed. In the worst case, an extremely effective individual may need to be sacrificed, if their success holds others back. Many leaders who’ve faced this scenario find that when the ‘star player’ leaves, the ‘star team’ replaces it – a perfect example of how team results are often closely linked to team cohesion.

5. Finding an external goal

Minutes after a setback, many football managers make a point of railing publicly against something adversely impacting the team. It might be the effects of games scheduled too closely together – or the impression that your team gets too many bad referee calls. Some managers even choose to take issue with the media itself. Whatever the case, this act of deflection is often deliberate, and if managed well, it can be a good way to temporarily shield your team from blaming one another. Whether it’s a team CSR effort to battle cancer, or a leader taking a stand against needless regulation, a galvanising message during tough times can help turn fear into resolve, and may increase bonds between your people.

6. How to find the motivator within

Motivation is tricky. Why are some leaders more effective at it than others? While it’s a huge subject, one thing that’s clear to me is that the leaders who manage to ‘be themselves’, and who channel their passions and personality into the role, are the ones that come across as the most genuine. Conviction is definitively a strong motivator. That said, leaders come in all types: and just like a team manager, often what counts isn’t the rousing half-time stump speech, but the ability to spot someone having a tough time – and taking them aside for a quiet chat. Coaching success in teams is not about being directive: but it’s more about encouraging self-assessment, and the ability to forgive your mistakes, then gain insight from them. Today, those like Klopp and Guardiola are successful because they understand the psychology of their players as well as they do their actual skillsets.

These are six ways that people strategies mirror sports managing. Any we’ve missed? The PageGroup team and I would love to hear your thoughts – tell us the type of football manager you’d most like to be in terms of running your own team.