Leicester City’s management lessons
Leicester City's stunning Barclays Premier League triumph has brought joy to the hearts of football supporters everywhere — apart from certain Manchester, London and Merseyside postcodes. After all, everyone loves it when an underdog succeeds. It makes us believe we can too.
But Leicester's success did not happen by chance. It is a textbook example of good management. Emulating Leicester's approach does not mean that a tech start-up will overtake Google next week or a money-losing business will start churning out record profits. But much of what has worked for Leicester would help many other organisations create a better business and a more productive workplace.
Twelve months ago, Leicester had completed “the great escape”. Having been promoted to the Premier League in 2014, they had spent most of the next season at the bottom of the table, then won seven of their last nine games to avoid relegation and end up in the very English-sounding lower mid-table.
So naturally they immediately sacked their popular manager and hired the “Nearly Man” Claudio Ranieri, a fairly successful club manager who had never won a league title, and was coming off a disastrous tenure as manager of the Greek national team. Many felt he was well past his sell-by date.
On that basis, Leicester was a consensus pick to be relegated this season. Instead, a collection of supposed journeymen, has-beens and never-will-bes didn't just win the Premier League, they ran away with it.
How they did it is management 101:
Good is not necessarily good enough: it is still not entirely clear why Leicester parted ways with manager Nigel Pearson, but (and despite the pundits' misgivings) they clearly upgraded the position with Ranieri, seeing he was the right man at the right time. Although no one actually foresaw it, he turned out to have exactly the right temperament and experience to guide the Foxes to the top of English football.
Some continuity is good: Ranieri kept on many of the coaches and staff already at Leicester, including scouts who had proven to be excellent at finding and signing undervalued players and coaches with whom the squad were already comfortable after the successful end of the 2015 season. The team had momentum from the previous season and Ranieri saw there was no need for wholesale change.
Adapt to your circumstances: Ranieri inherited a dressing room culture where players had a voice, senior players' views were sought out and aspects of the previous training regime were popular. Although Ranieri's approach had previously been a little different, he changed, recognising the positive aspect and kept it.
Psychological safety: work environments where people feel safe to express their viewpoints and where good ideas are adopted, regardless of where they come from, tend to be more productive. Leicester seem to have this.
Change what isn't working: even in a collaborative environment, someone has to make decisions and be accountable. Ranieri changed the team's format early and was not afraid to drop starters and bring new players in after a poor early season performance. Ranieri was known as the “Tinkerman” when he managed Premier League giant Chelsea for constantly changing his line-ups. He fiddled less at Leicester and used just 20 players all season, in part because he did not have a huge squad or many additional players to call on. But he had obviously learnt from his mistakes as well.
Technology: Leicester use technology well to measure performance and has adopted many of the approaches of bigger clubs. The drop in the cost of technology has taken away wealth clubs' competitive advantage in this area. The same is true for small businesses everywhere.
Instil self-belief: Leicester proved to be superb at managing expectations, keeping the focus for much of the first part of the season on securing enough points to guarantee they would not be relegated and giving the players a week off after they were knocked out of the FA Cup early. “One game at a time” is a sports cliché, but there's a reason for that, and Leicester never got ahead of themselves.
Hunger: sales managers often lament the lack of “hunters” on their sales teams, the people who go out and make business happen rather than waiting for the phone to ring. Leicester's underrated players wanted to win where, perhaps, their higher paid and more celebrated opponents lacked desire.
Luck and timing: they matter. Before Leicester, just four clubs had won the Premier League over a period of 20 years. All were wealthy and most had stupendously rich owners willing to suffer mind-boggling financial losses as the price of a title. This season, an enormous new TV contract means no Premier League club is a pauper. All of the big clubs seemed also to be going through transitions this year, arguably underperformed amid crises of confidence. To be sure, team unity and mutual respect is easier when you are winning, but Leicester have bucketloads of both.
Leicester also had almost no serious injuries and the lack of Cup and European competitions let them focus on the Premier League exclusively. So it was not necessarily all skill and brilliant management. It never is and had Leicester stumbled, Ranieri and Co would be being criticised for not changing enough, for not having a deep enough squad and so on and so forth.
But keep this in mind: outside the Big Four, there were at least ten clubs in a similar (or better) position to Leicester at the beginning of the season. Almost everyone picked Leicester to be relegated. Almost no one picked Aston Villa to go down and they turned out to be woeful.
All Premier League clubs would benefit from examining how Leicester did it, and so would plenty of other managers and employers in businesses that might seem to have nothing to do with football.
Further reading: The Guardian's excellent “Inside Story” (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/may/03/leicester-city-title-inside-story-premier-league-champions-claudio-ranieri) and The Schumpeter Column in The Economist (http://www.economist.com/news/business-and-finance/21698059-leicester-city-management-lessons)
Bill Zuill is a director of Bermuda Executive Services Ltd, named Bermuda's leading employment agency for 2015 by The Bermudian Magazine. For more columns, go to www.bermudaemployment.com