posted 1 Mar 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 5
Four four two
Richard Cross derives inspiration from the leading lights in professional football management, highlighting the similarities between successful head coaches and CEOs
New Year, new challenges. But the more things change the more they stay the same. I was skimming through a KM report which brought it home. It concluded that after all these years, while the technology has matured, the biggest barriers to effective implementation remain cultural – such as organisational politics and the need to change working practices.
There’s a laundry list of reasons that we can all recognise. The ‘I’m too busy’ and ‘resistance to change’ syndromes prevail. There is little coverage of value to c-level executives. The ‘knowledge is power’ excuse is propagated once more.
The report chapter on who should be in charge of knowledge and content led to a flash of insight. It made me reflect on who I would charge with bringing optimism and order to complexity; to wake up the knowledge movement.
I’ve considered Gordon Ramsay1 in the past and what KM could learn from his celebrity chef style. This time I have a different perspective. It’s inspired by both the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, Kevin Roberts, and an outcome of my research on top talent. It was Roberts who came up with Saatchi’s ‘Lovemarks’ advertising model, based on the creation of an emotional bond between consumer and product. Roberts has an infectious enthusiasm, which transcends the internet. He’s also controversial and plain speaking. For him knowledge is a commodity, a table stake, just as information is. His view is that we live in the age of the idea. He’s got loads of ideas, which would be useful to help rebrand KM. We’ll save discussion of those for another thought leader.
My own big idea here is based on an observation he made some time ago. It’s what KM needs today. He observed that success in business, as on the rugby field (he’s like me, a rugby fan) is achievable only with a totally winning attitude. Roberts believes inspiration eclipses both management and leadership. “In business and in life it is inspiration that gets you to peak performance,” he says. “It is inspiration that keeps you there.”
And it’s what KM (not KR) needs today. My proposal is simple. KM should learn from some of the most inspirational people I have studied. They occupy the toughest jobs in the
Bringing out the big guns
Who are these super heroes? Individuals such as Manchester United football club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson; Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger; and former
Let’s start by saying head coaches ‘want it’ more than their colleagues. They have a 24x7 commitment to the role. You’ve seen it in some CEO – a never-ending, consuming interest in their business, which can wear out even the most dedicated subordinate. They have a driving ambition and an enterprising dynamism that places them in the top one or two per cent of the population in these characteristics. Accompanying this drive, there is less than average empathy. In a fairly male-dominated world, these men are not soft-hearted. They are not particularly attentive or receptive to others’ ideas and feedback. They are not that tolerant of those who don’t match up to their standards. They have a ?win at all costs’ mentality. In the industrial age, we would have called them task focused rather than people focused. This inner strength enables them to manage highly focused sports stars, who would walk all over weaker people. Like top entrepreneurs they also sail close to the wind. They have to test rules to the limit in search of that extra margin. If they don’t, their competitors will.
The question is not just about winning. These people dare to dream and inspire others in achieving their dreams. They have sufficient, not suffocating, self-belief and that is required to get to the top of most professions. So where do you stand on the optimism stakes? You can’t afford to be a cynic if you want to succeed.
The coaches are meticulous in certain areas – more so than most CEOs and certainly more than players. The lack of empathy should not be mistaken for a lack of emotional intelligence. Top coaches are highly persuasive and convincing. They are passionate. They really do create an environment in which people want to work hard, both for themselves and for their team. They are also challenging and expect to be challenged. They are prepared to ruffle feathers and don’t mind having theirs ruffled in return. They can be vocal because they care about what they do. What complements the drive, ambition and preparedness to challenge is a desire and expectation to be held accountable. The buck stops with the head coach. Like it or not, the above characteristics aren’t dramatically different from most talented CEO’s.
What are we accountable for in KM and to whom?
The head coaches are highly strategic, more so even than CEOs. They set the direction for their organisations and drive everyone towards it. This direction becomes shared and underpins all operations. Head coaches can maintain the bigger picture while focusing on the tactics to win a particular game. At the same time they are pragmatic and streetwise.
So what is your KM game plan and where are you from the c-level league’s perspective? Are you on their radar? What do you do that matters to them? How can you help them win and be a winner yourself? It helps to borrow a principle from Roberts: return on involvement not simply return on investment. Think about how you can get your managers and organisation to be emotionally involved in KM and share your passion.
Change is everywhere and living with uncertainty is part and parcel of a head coach’s role. For them ambiguity affords opportunity in their quest for excellence. These people take no prisoners when it comes to confronting change. Successful head coaches manage the pressure of today’s game, and do so without passing it onto the players. If players feel uncertain then the confidence they require to use their capabilities (competencies) drains away and even simple actions feel nigh on impossible to perform. To deal with this, head coaches are usually self-assured and self-determining. They are their own people.
I’m not saying you should take a leaf out of Sir Alex Ferguson’s book and adopt the infamous hairdryer approach to change. You can switch style, influencing teams through smart but tough questions about their practices.
Also remember that the most effective head coaches work with trusted colleagues, who they use to manage stress. They are only as good as their back-up team. Take a look at your own team. Do some need resting? Have you got the right blend of talent?
The head coaches who stay the course have something else in common, which is often neglected by KM professionals. That is the full trust and support of their bosses, who have realistic expectations about the time required to implement performance change and (re)build a performance culture. In other words, they manage upwards. Think about your own workplace. Who are those who count? Will your sponsors protect you when you go on a losing streak or your system implementation goes into extra time?
There’s another point. Head coaches are improvement oriented for themselves and their team. Sport is coach driven, so there is no room for a coach who believes they know it all or has seen it all before, Good coaches around the world have drive and continuously look for answers that point their team upwards as far as expectations of excellence.
Head coaches are renowned for having obsessive attention to detail, with some hailed as scientific in their approach and the best (well, those who last the longest) reaching Nobel Prize winning levels in dealing with uncertainty. What they have in common is a systematic management process; that is to coin an expression ‘meticulous when it matters.’ Most head coaches catch the key point, rather than getting caught up in the details and don’t appear to run on high-octane micro management. Some are control oriented, it has to be said. Wenger, for example, is addicted to statistics but he uses them to change minds and improve chances of success.
Head coaches think and act strategically but build on the basics. They make sure the fundamentals are done brilliantly as a starting point for success. In the short term, success is defined by victory; in the long, term by their legacy.
So what are the foundations of your success this year? What do you want your KM legacy to be?
In my experience, head coaches are outstanding people (never underestimate the fact that they have shouldered the weight of a nation) so living with and learning from these individuals is mutually challenging and enriching. As one, an international celebrity in his sport and a national hero highlighted the answer is straightforward: “To become a winner in high performance sport, it takes an all-consuming, relentless effort ? the real task being to be the best we can be.”
Head coaches don’t win all the time, just like KM doesn’t always succeed. Take a leaf out of their book. Learn from losing and doing something about it. You cannot win if you do not play. And if you do play, don’t get too carried away in blaming the referee! It can be costly these days.
“In our job, you need to be an animal, in that you need a certain physical power to convince a group of players that they can win. When that strength has gone, you have a handicap, but you can make up for it with experience. I never have days when I think I can live without football.”
Arsène Wenger, Arsenal Head Coach
‘“While you’re winning today, you’re planning how to win tomorrow”
National coach and chief executive officer
Richard Cross is director of Second Wave Solutions and a member of the Inside Knowledge editorial advisory board. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Professor Peter Saville and Tom Hopton of Saville Consulting, with whom I collaborated on their book Talent: Psychologists Personality Test Elite People, as well as Bob Wilson and the Willow Foundation for inspiring the research in support of their charity. Additionally I am grateful for the time and learning from the head coaches I have profiled as well as the virtual but very real inspiration and support from Kevin Roberts.
1. 'What Gordon Ramsay taught me about KM', Inside Knowledge, January 2007