FINALLY, AFTER YEARS OF DISAPPOINTMENT and false hope, Sheffield United, my hometown football team, are back. Only one loss in the last 22 league games has catapulted my beloved team to the top of the English First Division. At the risk of tempting fate, there is nothing to suggest that this form will not continue all the through the season. Saturday evenings in Beijing are now a delight. I listen, glued to the internet commentary of each match, assured of hearing news of goals and victory. The mighty Blades, (Sheffield United’s nickname) have scored more goals this season than Liverpool, Barcelona, Chelsea and Juventus. Home attendance numbers regularly figure in the top ten of all crowd figures across the UK. In short, the good times have returned!
The question is what, or who is responsible for this dramatic turnaround in fortune? The team has not ‘thrown money at the problem’. There have been changes in the playing staff, but the transfer fees were pocket change when compared to the amounts spent by Premier league teams. The entire squad is worth less than Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai Shenhua are willing to pay for a single player. No, this new found success cannot be attributed to money. Sheffield United fans are unanimous in their opinion that the reason for a revitalised Blades team is the new manager, Chris Wilder.
Chris Wilder joined Sheffield United as the new manager in May 2016 after yet another season of disappointment for the Blades. As well as being a lifelong fan and former Sheffield United player, Chris’ management credentials included successful spells at footballing minnows, Northampton Town and Oxford United. These qualifications hardly put him up there with the likes of Pep Guardiola or Zinedine Zidane, but Sheffield United fans simply do not care. He may not have a sparkling player pedigree, however he has instilled newfound passion, belief and drive into Sheffield United. His management career win rate of 43.4% is extremely high, and that number is climbing weekly.
Sheffield United has employed numerous managers over the years in their quest for success. The list of United managers with top flight playing experience is long and includes names such as Bryan Robson (Manchester United and England), Steve Bruce (Manchester United) and Nigel Clough (Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and England). Whilst these players had been able to perform at the highest level during their playing careers, they were all unable to bring trophies to Sheffield United as managers. In comparison, United’ three most successful managers in the last 30 years, Dave Basset, Neil Warnock and now Chris Wilder had very ordinary playing careers in the lower divisions of English football.
Examples of high performing players becoming under-performing managers are not limited to Sheffield United’s history. Footballing legends Alan Shearer, Marco Van Basten, Edgar Davids and Paul Gascoigne have all tried managing teams and fallen short of success. If we examine the current top teams in the English Premier League, we get further proof that being a high performing player is not a pre-requisite for being a successful manager. Pep Guardiola (Manchester City), Antonio Conte (Chelsea) and Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham Hotspur) are all former international players. However, Arsene Wenger (Arsenal), Jose Mourinho (Manchester United) and Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool) are all top flight managers whose management achievements far outshine their successes as players. Indeed, Arsene Wenger only ever played amateur football.
Despite strong evidence to suggest that top players do not always make top managers, football clubs demonstrate a tendency to name former stars as managers. This is often due to demands from fans who support names that they know, but does not excuse the mistake. The fact is that high profile, top performers cast a long shadow. It is easy to focus on these bright lights in a team and lose sight of less noticeable individuals who may sometimes be better suited to roles of greater responsibility.
We see similar mistakes being made in business. The top salesperson in a team will very often be promoted to a management position. More often than not, this decision is made based on either their sales performance alone, or even worse, through fear of them leaving if they are not moved upwards. The issue here is, in the same way that a top football player may not have all of the necessary skills to manage other players, high performers in a business unit may also lack some of the essential management skills needed to succeed.
Listing all of the qualities and skills needed to be a successful manager here would take far too long, and will also be covered in future articles. However, if we look at coaching, a skill necessary for both football and business managers, we can immediately one reason that individual contributors with a record of high performance often fail at management level.
It is important for all managers to understand the skill levels of team members and to see challenging situations from their point of view. Many high performers may find it difficult to patiently coach a team member when the skill they wish to improve is one which they are experts in.
Christiano Ronaldo is a magician with a football and may be able to control a ball in such a way that, on its way to the goal, it will stop off at his house, do the cleaning and cook a meal. There is evidence in his playing style though that suggests he has difficulty accepting the limitations of other mere mortals who wear the Real Madrid or Portugal shirt. We can contrast this with Arsene Wenger, a man whose playing career never rose above amateur level. Wenger is widely credited with inspiring a revolution in British football by introducing new coaching techniques, better diets and demanding intricate passing and movement from his highly diverse Arsenal team.
All this does not mean that high performers cannot be successful managers. It does however mean that we must be aware of the difference between being a high potential/ potential talent and being a high performer. High performers are doing a great job in their current position. Their results are not cause for promotion. That is what bonuses and awards are designed for. For a high performer to also be considered as a high potential, they must possess the skill sets or demonstrate evidence that they are suited to a more senior position in the not too distant future.
When identifying potential talent, we must have a clear idea of the skills needed for future positions. Clear qualification criteria must be agreed upon by managers and HR before selection begins. We must not behave like moths and become mesmerised by the shiny light of the high performer. We must be able to step back and examine all team members. The next Arsene Wenger in your company may well be hiding in the shade of your high performers.
The next article in this series will look at how identification criteria and development programs for high potentials can be designed. Until then, I shall continue to watch as my new hero, Chris Wilder, continues to drive Sheffield United out of the darkness and upwards towards the promised land of higher division football.