Sarri seems to be the hardest word

In this blog, written in partnership with Mark Hendy, I’ll be discussing the recent situation involving the Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri and goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga (known for obvious reasons as Kepa).

This situation occurred on 24 February and you can read more about it HERE.

My friend Graham Wilson, leadership expert, managed to get interviewed by Sky News about it which you can watch HERE from 48:10.

Both Mark and I were astonished by Kepa’s behaviour and here’s our thoughts on it.

First we considered whether Kepa was right or wrong to react as he did. We both think, unquestionably, that Kepa was wrong. As Mark says, “tactical decisions belong to the manager…Kepa disregarded an instruction from someone who had the right to make that decision. It was a selfish call by Kepa.”

And I agree. This, in HR terms, was a failure to follow a reasonable instruction at one level however there’s another view that Kepa knew his own abilities and effectiveness best and may have been better placed to know what was the right call in the circumstances. We shouldn’t necessarily encourage a command and control culture and we do want to encourage employee voice – although this seems a questionable way to exercise it. Its fine to challenge decisions, but Kepa could have run to Sarri to explain his views and let Sarri make the final call. Doing this from a few hundred yards away made this the wrong decision by Kepa.

We considered how it leaves Sarri as manager, particularly after his acquiescence to Kepa and trying to brush it under the carpet to press afterwards.

Our view is that Sarri will find it incredibly difficult to command respect from his team now. But how important is a managers ability to see through a decision and course of action, versus how important is it that they operate a democracy and can change their mind? What do we value more?

In the workplace this would be failure to follow a reasonable instruction and possible gross misconduct but Mark points out that this isn’t really a straightforward comparison. As a minimum though Kepa should, and did, face sanctions but we would also question whether Sarri himself needs a bit of a talking to by more senior leaders about his own behaviour. It isn’t clear if Sarri was spoken to and in public at least, Chelsea have backed him – as to do otherwise would be seen to be giving in to player power.

However what if Sarri had resigned straight away? He didn’t, but if he had, would he have had any claim for Constructive Dismissal? I think he would, but Mark thinks not. I think this would be a justifiable resignation on the grounds of being undermined but Mark thinks the club could not be held responsible for that. This makes Chelsea’s backing of Sarri more important as if they had not done so, then surely Constructive Dismissal would have been able to be claimed?

Finally we’ve thought about Sarri’s immediate and later reactions and the difference between them. Instantly he had an emotional reaction which we both understand. Later he had calmed down and reflected and that was fine too, but he reversed course and took blame for the situation that was at odds with the way that Chelsea then acted and the punishment that was dished out to Kepa. Far better to retain some consistency in his responses and retain some semblance of respect too.

So there we have it. An interesting case study in leadership, culture and organisational behaviour that shows, again, how football sometimes mirrors the workplace but sometimes shows how different a world of inhabits.

Till next time…


Ps in other news, my wife has resigned from her role whilst on maternity leave and is searching for a new role. The situation is quite surreal and we have both learnt a lot from it.

Jumpers for Goalposts

In this blog I’ll be talking about the way in which the performance of football managers is judged, and trying to draw out some lessons, parallels and implications for how we judge performance in business.  I’m aided in these observations by both David D’Souza and Mark Hendy, who have kindly contributed some thoughts in response to my own.

Its prompted by looking at two Premier League managers who have recently had an HR-type experience in their roles – Mark Hughes, so recently sacked by Stoke City for leaving them in a relegation position, then hired by Southampton who are themselves in danger of relegation; and Alan Pardew, only hired by West Bromwich Albion in November but sacked by them just four months later.

It made me wonder, out loud on Twitter, why it seems to be a regular thing that so-called “failed” managers keep getting new jobs and why no-one appears to reach a conclusion that the manager in question may not be up to the task in question.

It prompted quite a few responses, and made me think there’s more to this, hence this blog.

Let’s go.

I should say I’ve probably unfairly picked on Hughes and Pardew, but they are the most recent examples of a particular trend, so I’m highlighting them here.

So why does it happen?  Is there anything unique about football, the position of football manager or indeed the managers themselves that creates this situation where managers who one organisation have deemed to have failed are appointed to new roles regularly?

I’m not sure it would happen in business – in an average 50 year old career, with 10 or more jobs, you’d expect perhaps to find one or two jobs that you didn’t fit with, where you were deemed to have “failed” and left quite quickly.  But would these failures be so public and follow you round like they do in football?

Both David and Mark have pointed out that the long term rewards for short term performance are so extreme, and football is kind of a unique culture as a result of this.  David suggests that this encourages football organisations to gamble on managers who have the relevant experience, and some degree of success within that experience, if not a solid track record of success.  Its also true to point out that there is a limited pool of managers and a limited stock of managerial jobs, and both of these have an impact too – so I guess we can say organisational and sector context plays a big part.

But why do football organisations repeatedly gamble in such ways?

Wouldn’t you rather have someone guaranteed to bring success?

I think this shows that football organisations have a very different ways of judging both performance and success, and are prepared to gamble on a short term fix of a new manager who they know is only likely to be successful over a matter of months rather than years.

And there’s research to back up the “bounce” that a new manager brings.  David reminded me that The Guardian posted this article a few years ago about the hire and fire phenomena, and rightly pointed out that other sectors wouldn’t go with it – that other sectors value the success brought by managers building long term visions, ways of working and positive cultures – rather than short term successes.  But football appears different.  As Mark points out, there is a statistic that often gets banded around when a club at risk of relegation makes a managerial change, that states that most clubs achieve an upturn in performance and often results in between 5 and 7 extra points in the next 10 games (so 5 to 7 out of 30 EXTRA points) than they would likely receive based on form prior to the dismissal. Therefore, he says, it’s worth making a change, because between 5 and 7 extra points is likely to be the difference between relegation and survival.  After all, as David adds, 7 Premier League clubs had changed their managers by Christmas (and more since) but only 3 of them will be relegated – so the chances of surviving with a managerial change appear greater than without one.

I wonder though whether in focusing on the failures of managers in wider business, we could learn a little from the football world who seem to either gloss over said failures or accept that they can be outweighed by other factors and are part of a natural cycle of things.

But how much poor behaviour can be stomached?  There’s plenty of managers who have had questionable conduct during their reigns – think Sam Allardyce at England, Sven Goran Erikson at England, Glenn Hoddle at England, Terry Venables at England (I think I’m making a point here that the FA seem more willing than others to overlook questionable traits and behaviour), even Jose Mourinho in his second spell at Chelsea – but that questionable behaviour has not prevented any of them getting more work and sometimes better jobs.  Why is this?

The football organisations who hire these people are certainly willing to overlook occasional or even regular lapses in judgement either in a current role or most usually in a previous role, and presumably the individuals in question promise that it was a one off and won’t happen again.  But would we do that in business?  I’m not sure we would, and it may be that football management is most akin to a high pressure sales environment, with high reward matched with high pressure and all the downsides that that might bring.  In such circumstances, says David, any organisation might be tempted to take a serial winner with some promise of short term success despite any flaws they may have.

I also wonder if football has a skewed perspective on success.  In football management, if judged on trophies, only a very limited number of managers can be judged as successful. But it only takes a trophyless season for one of the bigger name managers for them to be under scrutiny – both Manchester City and Chelsea have been guilty of sacking previously successful managers after an even slightly less successful season, but one that would be judged a success for other clubs.

Does that mean that football organisations need to revisit their definition of success and how they judge performance?  Perhaps.  A league season lasts 38 games or more, and luck plays a big part in that. But the different teams will want different things from their seasons – for some, survival is success.  For others, European qualification is success and for others, only the title will be classed as success – and yet these organisations, despite having different performance criteria, are in direct competition with each other, not only for income, but for the assets that are the players.

And so maybe, Mark points out, I am being unfair on Pardew and Hughes because in some seasons past, they have had success when judged by their own clubs’ criteria, albeit they have then failed at that criteria at the end of their reigns.  And this, points out both David and Mark, is why clubs will continue to hire them – because they come with a reputation of being able to apply short-term fixes, albeit almost guaranteed to fail over a period of 2-3 years.

A good example of this would be David Moyes, judged as very successful at Everton whose goals were different to Manchester United, where Moyes went and was judged to have failed quite quickly.  He didn’t come with that reputation of short term fixes, but that was probably what United needed at the time.  He came with a reputation of long term success and team building, but that wasn’t what his new football club wanted.

If we saw that kind of mentality in the business world, we’d see very little growth and evolution within those organisations, and a much more short-termist approach.  I’m not convinced that’s good, but as Mark points out, we might also see greater transparency of performance management, greater accountability by those responsible for performance, and quicker decision making.  We might also see business leaders being hired, says Mark, for their ability to communicate and get results from people quickly – but on the flipside, a short lifecycle for those business leaders and a revolving door of managers.

I think I agree with both David and Mark that football’s unique nature makes it difficult or even impossible to compare with the business world – but that doesn’t stop people (including me) from making such comparisons, even if they’re unfair – in HR we aim to make the world of work a better place, and more human – and we look at organisations, regardless of sector, through that lens.  It’s a natural thing to do in my view.

But football is unique, and we can’t necessarily apply the same rules.

Although in a coming blog I’m going to look at how we might learn from football’s regular, constant and overwhelming use of data to offer performance insights in the workplace.

Till next time…


Ps in other news, work on our bathroom has commenced – it’s the last thing to do before the house (and in fact our family) are ready for the arrival of Cookson #4.  Not long now…