Business needs to catch up with football in management standards

Over 40 percent of employees describe their manager as “totally incompetent”. Soccer shows the way, says David Bolchover.

Welcome to Chelsea. Now win some trophies.
David Bolchover
On 23 June 2011 09:55

In appointing André Villas-Boas as their manager, Chelsea are making a decision that would have been unthinkable a little more than a generation ago. But the selection of an individual with absolutely zero playing experience reaffirms football’s growing belief that there is no link between past exploits on the pitch and potential managerial ability. This is a lesson that the business world has been painfully slow to learn.

According to a global survey released last month by, the online recruitment service, seven out of 10 British workers said that they could do a better job than their manager. 41 percent described their manager as “totally incompetent”, with a mere one in ten stating that he or she was “brilliant”.

To those of us who follow such findings, this comes as little surprise. The effect of such poor management on employee motivation (or to use the jargon term  “employee engagement”) is also well documented. A 2010 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit revealed that for those outside the very top tier of the corporate world, “the motivational ability of one’s line manager” is the single most significant contributor to engagement.

Disengaged employees are poison for a company. Not only will they themselves be unproductive, but they are also likely to offer a surly face to customers and infect colleagues with their negativity.

But despite the damning evidence about the quality of management, and the resulting impact on performance, the organisational world persists in promoting good salespeople, good lawyers and good journalists in the naïve belief that they will therefore go on to become good managers of salespeople, lawyers and journalists.

Sport used to be just as sloppy and slapdash as many businesses in its choice of managers, but as it has become increasingly competitive and the pressure to succeed more intense, the significance attached to the manager has grown.

Consider rugby union.  It is no coincidence that England appointed their first full-time coach, Clive Woodward, only in 1997, two years after the game turned professional for the first time, but 126 years after England’s first game.  Likewise, the first full-time England cricket coach, David Lloyd, was only appointed in 1996, 120 years after England first took to a cricket field, as a direct result of the increasing commercialisation and competitiveness of international cricket.

Football has had to learn over time that good managers are key to organisational success. For a long while, professional teams didn’t even have managers. The chairman and board of directors would decide the make-up of the team. 

The potential positive effect of having a single individual at the helm with real managerial talent only became apparent with the emergence of the legendary Herbert Chapman, manager of Huddersfield Town and then Arsenal, in the 1920s.

Since that time, a growing consensus has emerged about the immense strategic significance of the manager. Managerial appointments are now more carefully considered, in the knowledge that a poor choice can wreak havoc. As Giovanni Trapattoni, the celebrated Italian coach currently managing the Republic of Ireland national team, put it:  ‘A good manager can make a team at best 10 percent better. A poor manager can make a team 50 percent worse.’

As a result of its acknowledgement of management’s importance, football has devoted a great deal of time thinking about what type of person suits the role. And as the years pass, and this thinking develops, it has eventually realised that just because an individual displays talent on the pitch, there is no reason to assume that he should be good at recruiting, organising and motivating others to be similarly effective.

Some of the greatest football players of the post-war era in England, the likes of Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Stanley Matthews, tried their hand at management and failed. 

Meanwhile, countless examples of great managers who were very average players have emerged in recent years.  Arrigo Sacchi, the Italian manager who built the all-conquering Milan team of the 1980s, never played professional football, and infamously said that he “never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first”. 

Jose Mourinho, the highly successful former Chelsea manager who is now at Real Madrid, was an interpreter before he was given his opportunity. Even ardent football fanatics will have little knowledge of Mulhouse and Mutzig, two of the French clubs graced by Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, during his unremarkable playing career.

Business continues to underrate people management, and as a consequence uses promotion to managerial positions as a reward for the individual rather than as an opportunity to strengthen team performance. This mindless strategy inevitably results in huge wasted potential, stagnation and personal misery.  Forward-thinking organisations searching for ways to compete effectively in an increasingly tough world should be grateful that sport has already done much of the thinking for them, and then commit to follow in its footsteps.

David Bolchover is the co-author of The 90-Minute Manager: Lessons from the Sharp End of Management

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