Leadership: why directors should not imitate Mr Mourhino and Mr Ferguson

Soccer players in action on sunset stadium background panorama

Jose Mourhino is the current manager at Manchester United Football Club and Alex Ferguson is a former manager of the same club. Both are famous. To some, that’s an embarrassing understatement.

But not everyone knows and loves football. I don’t love it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like it or understand it.

A client recently sent me a link to an article about these two managers because he felt that I would be interested in the story from a leadership perspective. He was also clearly assuming that I had no interest in it from a football perspective.

To be fair, he has grounds for this assumption: he knows from our sharing of respective life stories that I was not sporty at school, was always last pick in playground footie and my nick name was “four eyes”. You get the picture.

But in my advancing old age I’m now getting tired of the assumption by friends, colleagues and clients that I know nothing whatsoever about football, rugby and cricket. The reverse is the case.

I’m a veritable walking-encyclopaedia of sporting trivia. Why? Because I get invited to major sporting events where, because I’m not deaf, I have to listen to endless punditry and I pick things up.

I’ve also spent a lifetime in pubs with blokes, quietly nursing my pint, whilst they willy waggle about their sporting knowledge as in: “ …no mate, you’re wrong..t’was the Forwards wot won it”. Occasionally I would get a sideways pitying glance but never asked for my views.

I would quietly think things but not say them: a) t’was hardly the Backs that won it for them b) why the necessity to collapse into Estuary English? The speaker was posh and had a First from Oxford and c) the Forwards, er, need the Backs.

I know lots about sport, actually: I could bore for England on “the slope” at Lords; I know, because I’ve been told a million times, exactly why England won the Triple Crown a million years ago – t’was because they were made to watch dots move on a laptop.

And, because I’m a closet Arsenal fan – I can’t come out because you have to be following a club ”man and boy” to have any street cred – I know and indeed agree that their forwards have an irritating tendency to “fanny around” the goalmouth.

But I will never be taken seriously on sporting matters. Indeed one mate was so outraged with envy when he heard that I was invited to a major rugby international he said that “I had no right to be there; that I know nothing about the game and that I simply do not understand that sport is tribal”. Yeah, tribal. I let it pass.

I enjoyed the game but didn’t lie awake reliving each phase.

I also know a bit about leaders in sport. Enough to know that they are poor models for leadership in business.

I read Alex Ferguson’s first book and concluded that he was a genius at understanding and nurturing world-class football talent. But for me he was not a leader business people should emulate and for three reasons.

First, his context was exceptional. Most leaders are not dealing with uniformly world-class talent and in the public eye.

Second, and to state the obvious, managing a football team is not the same as running a business and Mr Ferguson did not run the business side of the club.

Third, and I may be wrong, but I got the impression that he used persuasion techniques that would not entitle him to membership of The World’s Top 20 Emotionally Intelligent Leaders.

I also know a few facts about Mr Mourinho. He too is a talented football manager but I won’t be sending any of my leadership clients to sit at his feet and learn how to lead. A resolutely unsmiling persona works well on the touchline, but not in the boardroom.

The link that my client sent to me was to reported comments by Jose Mourinho saying that the Club had not evolved since Alex Ferguson’s departure and was stuck in time. My client was making the point that organisations need to evolve too.

I agree with this and also agree that one personality can dominate an entire organisation, even after they leave. Culture is reflected in conduct which is observed behaviour over time. And it takes time for behaviour to change. And in that, football and business are alike.

But just as the rules of football don’t apply to business, neither do the rules of business apply to football. And this applies to the timings of the departure of leaders. In business they should serve short terms, develop and then make room for others.

Sport is different. And in this regard I believe that Arsene Wenger has been right to hang in there. He is the Obama of The Premiership. He believes in the supremacy of people being the best they can be over winning. And, despite what my mates say, winning isn’t everything. But what do I know?

http://www.ciaranfenton.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Directors: Why your conduct should go to the top of your Risk Register

Conduct risk is now a familiar term in the financial services sector, not by choice, but because the Regulator has regulated conduct heavily since the Global Financial Crash. Not that regulation seems to have made a huge difference.

At least the Regulator has put the term “conduct” on the business road map albeit the effect is like a speed camera which slows us down in high risk areas but after those tell tale markings on the road, we all put the boot down.

However, the regulators of the conduct of those in the financial services sector do not own exclusive intellectual property rights to the term nor would they want to claim such rights. You are free to use it in your business and especially on your board without fear (save that some on your board may fear it).

This raises an issue regarding a related term that has achieved widespread currency in all sectors and that is behaviour or, rant alert, “behaviours”.

My rant is not about semantics, although there is a grammatical point to be made here: behaviour is a mass noun with no plural. The more important reason the accurate use of the word matters is because: how someone behaves is unique to them. This means how we behave as a group, for example a board, is also unique. It is why we should resist the seemingly “codifying” trend of using the word “behaviours” as if they can be policed like a charge sheet from afar.

The word behaviour reflects the complexity of human nature. “Behaviours”, on the other hand, suggests uniformity. For example, the precise nature of Mr Trump’s bullying behaviour is different that of Kim Jong-un’s although you might rightly argue that both could result in a nuclear holocaust.

But what is the difference between conduct and behaviour? It depends on the context. Conduct refers to the result of continual observation as in “Lucy received a Good Conduct Award last year” or “The conduct of all parties in the election campaign was shocking” or “The conduct of the Banks has improved/not improved since the crash”. Delete to taste.

Behaviour is about immediate interactions as in “Billy’s behaviour in school yesterday was unacceptable” or “The CEO’s behaviour when challenged at the last board meeting was outrageously bullying, to say the least” or “The Chairman was quick to call out unacceptable behaviour by some directors at the AGM”.

If a company’s Risk Register is a list of top and emerging business, legal and reputation risks which could affect outcomes, it follows that conduct by directors should go right to the top of that list because most risks and opportunities are forged in the crucible of boardroom relationships.

So what language might directors use to describe these risks? I feel just one entry at the top of the Risk Register would capture most issues:

Conduct Risk: The risk of systemic weaknesses in board decision making and governance due to the failure of each director to change their worst behaviour and exploit their best.

And how can this risk be mitigated, realistically? It’s simple: each director should trade a change in their behaviour for a change in another’s.

The problem with traditional change programmes is that they lack the right soft incentives to attract directors who value only hard returns.

The feeling that the person who winds you up most on your board might change their behaviour if you change yours is often enough.

This approach might have prevented defeat software being included in cars; false accounts being created in banks or a myriad mis-selling scandals avoided.

But these are the big stories. What about the thousands of board meetings going on up and down the country today where poor conduct prevails because of unchecked behaviour? And what of the cost: real and opportunity cost?

These are the stories which lead to creating that great Yorkshire understatement: “trouble at t’mill”.

And how stressful, and damaging and awful to the individual director a troubled board can be. And worst are those who say: “That’s not us”. When I say, “How do you know?”

I propose every board appoints one director as official “Devil’s Advocate” at the beginning of every board meeting. Each director would get a turn. Their job at that board meeting with the agreement and full mandate of their colleagues would be to challenge everything, bar nothing.

This step would help reduce conduct risk and might even surface some opportunities which otherwise would have remained buried.

There’s nothing more positively cathartic on a board than the removal of fear.