AVB and Chelsea FC – A case of managing change

Managing involves getting the best out of others. It also involves bringing about change, and managing multiple stakeholders — that is why it is stretching.             

It is not natural to expect people from different groups, different cultures, different functions to work collaboratively together.  That takes management and leadership. As one of my previous posts  (Only about 33% of employees say they trust their senior managers) says we require four elements if we are to follow others; they will not just do so just because you have the job.

Andre Villas-Boas was made manager of Chelsea on the back of his success at Porto. He is a hugely gifted tactician and analyst — he has proved that. He knows his stuff. He would undoubtedly be a high potential employee on most organisations talent maps — however he has now parted company with his club after a string of poor results despite the approximately €15m to recruit him and goodness knows how much to pay him off.

What was the problem? The results were not good but more fundamental was the fact that he could not get the best out of others and create a joint engaging vision. His job involved bringing about some change in the company – much like most of your jobs as managers in businesses. He had a crew of experienced, skilful operators he needed to mould into a fresh team, with a different style and some longevity. He had a core of players who are getting older yet had been the heartbeat of the club for the past few years. He also had a demanding boss. Tricky — of course. Unique — far from it. It is a situation I regularly see in my organisational work. Being a great tactician, bright guy and superb linguist is not enough. You need to be able to manage change and understand people to succeed. You also need to be influential and not just rely on position power.

By the end, if the press portrayals are correct, there was a split in the dressing room with the Portuguese speakers more in tune with AVB than the core Chelsea English speaking crew, who seemed to feel AVB showed them little respect or empathy. This came out in ‘clear the air talks’ where it seems those that expressed strong reservations and disagreements (the old guard) were then left out of the next match. For those of you we have worked with on leadership styles it is the classic misuse of the participative style — looking like things are open for discussion and ideas but (in reality) only if you say what the boss wants.

Just before AVB parted company with the club he said this about his relations with Frank Lampard — a club hero who had said his relationship with AVB was not ideal. This is from ‘The Guardian’ newspaper less than a week ago

Lampard last week admitted for the first time his relationship with Villas-Boas had “not been ideal” but, speaking on Friday afternoon, Villas-Boas described his relationship with the midfielder as “good, excellent”. The Chelsea manager also said that did not mean he and Lampard needed to hold clear-the-air talks on the matter, insisting they were still on speaking terms.

“It’s just a manager-player relationship in the end,” Villas-Boas said. “Frank’s words are genuine. They are genuine from a player that has a reflection of a relationship between us. For me, it’s fine, I have no problems with it.”

For me its fine! Its just a manager-player relationship! For the majority of people that relationship is so key – it decides whether they want to stay or not, it influences how much discretionary effort you contribute, it is the key to engagement. The idea, as a manager, is that you get the best from others and to do that you need to understand and empathise, not dismiss their concerns because you are okay. A sad mistake that is so often made by managers in businesses as well. Actually what he infers is that because he is the boss and that works for him Frank will need to get on with it — exactly what I see poor managers do in organisations.

Arsene Wenger is a great manager with a terrific record who changed the culture of Arsenal football club — and indeed of English football. Look at his task — he took over a team with an entrenched and notorious defence, not short of an opinion or two. Some really challenging characters — just like at Chelsea. The big difference though is that these aging players were given a new lease of life by Wenger and they idolise him even now. He completely won them over — rather than ditched them for new players who he knew or whose first language matched his own. He crucially kept the core of what was good at Arsenal, and used that to help make a radical change in culture, rather than dismissing and disrespecting them from the outset. I suspect AVB, who we believe will be a highly successful manager, will learn some of those useful lessons and we hope you can learn from him.

To round off here is our list of how not to prove your management capabilities during change

  1. caution epic failureDisrespect and marginalise the key people who have been doing a good job — and expect them to quietly accept this.
  2. Bolster yourself with colleagues who you worked with in your last job — and maybe the one before. Say it’s because the people you have joined are not up to it — everybody knows it really means you can’t manage.
  3. Stop people voicing different opinions. You can kid yourself these opinions go away — actually they become more quiet when you are around and louder in the ‘corridor talk’
  4. Where you have a difference which makes you easily identifiable with one group, gender, language, home nation, sexuality, spend most of your time with people the same as yourself — its more comfortable and who cares if it looks like favouritism.
  5. If in doubt, wield the big stick — see blog below

Otherwise if you want to really be successful keep the core of what is good, be aware of your own emotions and how these are driving your decision making, have the difficult conversations and expect and live with some criticism, understand the impact of key players discomfort and manage this, and keep focussing on the results now not three years down the line. Be aware of your Leadership footprint.

Your Leadership footprint continues to work with managers across the globe on becoming the best they can be and making the best of others.

1 thought on “AVB and Chelsea FC – A case of managing change”

  1. Colin – very thought-provoking piece. Here’s another football manager approach, quoting from the BBC article. I like the “let’s get down to business” approach from minute 1. Actions speak louder than words and Moyes is still leaving footprints! This is from the article:

    Unsworth got the Moyes reign off to a flying start with a goal 26 seconds into his first game at home to Fulham and he outlines why the Scot was the perfect man for Everton in 2002 – and should be for the next 10 years.

    He told BBC Sport: “I am a Preston lad so I’d heard all about what he’d done there before he got to us, having lost the Championship play-off final to Bolton the previous season. You have to remember he was a very young manager walking into what was a senior dressing room at that time with the thought of relegation suddenly rearing its ugly head again.

    “I’ll always remember it. I was usually one of the first into training because I would do the school run and go straight in. Of course we were all wondering what the new guy would be like.

    “It was a Friday and he’d been appointed on the Thursday night. I drove in and looked out of the window and there he was at 8.30am, standing out on the training ground on his own. All the training was set up, mannequins, poles and cones all out. He greeted us coming out on to the training pitch and told us what a great opportunity this was for him at a fantastic club.

    “He had come through the divisions alongside Fulham with Preston so there was no big speech, just an introduction and then information. He knew all about Fulham from their days under Kevin Keegan and Jean Tigana, gave us a thorough rundown about how we were going to play and how we would beat Fulham – which we then did.

    “It was very impressive and all the lads looked at each other in the changing rooms afterwards and agreed we’d got the real deal here. If you walk into a dressing room like that it can be hard to win respect but he did it right away.”

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