The Great Manager and the … Not So Great!

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Well congratulations to the Divs for winning the English Premier League this season – as a long time United fan it grieves me to see it but Guardiola’s team have been exceptional  and illustrate the gulf in managerial class between the him and his noisy neighbour!

Don’t get me wrong – I was born just outside Manchester and am a lifelong United fan but some years ago I wrote a piece that illustrated the difference between Ferguson and Mourinho then but similar parallels can be drawn between Guardiola and Mourinho now – unfortunately it is Guardiola who is more Ferguson-like.  They are managers with  completely different approaches to football and man management.  Unfortunately, today Mourinho, the directive and controlling manager is in charge at United, who seems to make it more about himslef than the team, while Guardiola, like Ferguson, focuses on the team.

One of the  illustrations of difference is in Mourinho’s reaction after United’s loss to West Brom on Sunday, compared to Guardiola, after recent losses to Liverpool and United.  This week numerous newspapers and websites carried headlines along the lines of ‘Mourinho blasts players’.  In contrast, Guardiola, after losses to Liverpool in the Champions League and United in the Premier League, when interviewed talked about the joy of managing such a talented group of players,  He also described it as a learning experience for the team.  Ferguson, as United manager, never criticised his players in public – that was saved for the privacy of the dressing room.

There is a potentially critical impact on the psychology of the players – Gary Neville, former United captain under Ferguson, in a recent BBC interview, talked about how he’s found the world of business different to sport, while building his business empire.

“In both you have to have motivated people, and they have to enjoy what they do,” he says. “Also, in football and business you have to work the hardest you can every single day, and make sure you never give in.”

However, Neville says, in business – unlike in football – it can sometimes be difficult to achieve the “peer group analysis” he encountered in the high-pressure Old Trafford dressing room, where players would instantly acknowledge responsibility for mistakes.

“It can be difficult in an office for people to admit they didn’t do very well, or have fallen below standards,” observes Neville.

Ferguson, with his approach, bred an us against the world mentality, providing a bonding in which peer group feedback was the norm in the dressing room and players took accountability.  When the manager criticises the players in public it can lead to the players becoming defensive, feeling they may not have the complete backing of the manager and not readily accepting accountability for their performance when it is sub par.  Directive managerial behaviour exacerbates this.

When we see a lack of accountability in our teams we should look at the leaders or managers and how they behave, as well as ourselves.

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Are You Using Your Noggin?

 

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Jim Courier, in his post match interview with Grigor Dmitrov, after his win over Nick Kyrgios, said ‘you used your noggin’.  The context – a tight match, with a number of twists and turns, was Dmitrov’s ability to change his return of serve tactics during the match, stepping in to give Kyrgios less time on the next shot.

In the BBC radio commentary, Leon Smith, British Davis Cup Captain, was asked about the top players dealing with the mental pressures of competing at this level and dealing with the various twists and turns in a match.  Leon has been close to Andy Murray for many years and while not giving too much away, he stated that Andy, like all the players at the very top of the game, always has a plan.

We may often think about the plan in the context of the project plan that’s put together at the outset of a project, or the agenda for a meeting or presentation.  However, for the top players, like Murray, there are two types of plan.  As Leon articulated, Andy Murray loves doing the analysis of his opponents and working out a match plan ahead of time and all top players do this.  However, what happens when the flow of the match goes against you, or your level of play drops and the doubt creeps in?

For the top players they plan for this.  Sure, changing the game plan may be part of it when the opponent is getting the better of you.  But what if it is a drop in your own level of play and your confidence in your own ability to hit the shots you’re capable of dissipates, as it does to all at some point?  The reason the very best remain at the top so consistently is not only that they plan for these eventualities too but that they have processes to help them recognise and del with these moments.  They practice them and are very good at putting them in place.

It’s a challenge for us in the work context as well, for example in meetings or giving a presentation.  We may put an agenda together but how do we respond when a senior person in the room spends most of the allocated time on the first slide of our deck, or wants to take the agenda in a different direction to that we envisaged.

It’s often difficult to find the time in our busy schedules to prepare for a meeting or presentation in the first place and then we are most likely to plan for it going a particularly way.  However, in reality given meetings rarely go as expected we need to think through potential options and learn not to be de-railed by them.  There are a number of different ways of dealing with these types of moment – winging it is rarely successful.

An initial recommendation would be to learn to stay present – different strategies work for different people.  It’s also worth remembering, as one military strategist put it many years ago ‘no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy’. There are a number of other things we can do – many of which we can learn from elite athletes – more to come!

Fast Fail – We can’t learn from our failures if we don’t admit them!

MJ

Many of you will have heard or seen the famous Michael Jordan quote:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Of course, in sport judgment about success or failure is usually clear.  In tennis there are no draws.  In football (soccer) at the end of the season there is one team that wins the league.

In financial services, the industry where I have done much of my work, there has been an obsession with agility and innovation in recent years and the term ‘fast fail’ (or fail fast) has become overused!  Of course, there is immense value in proving that something doesn’t work quickly rather than wasting months on some application or initiative that ultimately would have failed to work effectively.  There is even greater value in the learning we can take from these exercises.

There is a significant cultural problem, however, which is how do we learn in environments that do not readily tolerate failure.  In fact the cultural norms of top down directive management, where bad news does not easily travel back up the line, often lead to organizational denial around failure.

I remember attending a steering committee for a major programme at a global bank, where it became clear that items on the plan that should have been complete hadn’t even been started!  There was a distinct reluctance by some of the senior people in the meeting to even acknowledge this, never mind the consideration of changing the plan to reflect reality!  It would have meant openly admitting the next major delivery would not be achieved on a previously agreed date.

Top athletes like Jordan and Federer strive for success but readily admit when they come up short and learn from it.  How often do we attend job interviews, either as interviewers or candidates and have honest conversations about how we screwed up and what we learnt from it?

This one of a number of cultural traits in the corporate world that needs to be addressed!  More to follow, including lessons from the history of financial markets.

Getting the best people on the pitch or the right environment?

 

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This week, under the excellent stewardship of Sean Dyche, Burnley crept into fourth place in the English Premier League, though they’ve since dropped back to sixth (4th-6th are all on 31 points).  Dyche has a limited budget, with no big names lining up as first choice (at least for most people outside Burnley) but, like Leicester two seasons ago, they continue to prove a challenge to the better funded teams in the league – punching above their weight.

There seems to be an obsession in both sporting and corporate worlds with getting the best people ‘on the pitch’, though this often equates to getting the team that the top person is comfortable with!  Some years ago I worked with a consulting firm whose regular advice to clients was to bring in the top talent from across the organisation when they wanted to get a key change programme delivered.

What comes first good leadership or the environment?  I’ve often struggled with this question.  After all a leader can screw up a successful environment quickly but turning an underperforming team into a successful team takes time.  Witness the experience at Manchester United over the past 30 years.  When Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed manager of Manchester United in 1986 he didn’t win his first trophy (the FA Cup) until 1990 and the first of 13 league titles came two years later.  Unusually, in British football Ferguson was given time and, of course, became the most successful manager in British football, retiring in 2013, to be succeeded by David Moyes.

Moyes did what many top managers do – replaced a successful management team with his own people – from Everton, a very different club to Manchester United. So Manchester United have become like so many other clubs – impatient with management, resulting in four managers since Ferguson.  How many times have we seen that in the corporate world – a firm brings in a new CXO from another firm and before long most of their top table are from the same firm! The connections with the wider organisation are lost or diluted, trust dissipates.

In the banking world it’s rare that the CXO is afforded the same patience that Ferguson had but building success and changing culture undoubtedly takes time – something that Sean Dyche at Burnley has been given by Burnley.  Dyche has even survived a relegation into the Championship, having been at Burnley now for five years.  Described last season by Martin Keown as one of the two best managers in the Premier League, he has taken Burnley to the threshold of Champions League football.  Of course, that may all change but Dyche is no short-term flash in the pan.

Some of Dyches quotes are revealing:

“We make the environment a good place to be and I think that’s important…Players are human and if you can make it an enjoyable but informative environment then I think that’s the right way to work.  The first thing really is to align your new group with what you can offer them – that’s certainly what I did. I thought there were things we could put in place to enhance their individual potential and collective potential.”

So, for Dyche, creating the right environment that is both enjoyable and helps players improve has been important to getting results.

“A lot of psychology goes into some of our planning.  I want the players to know that they can grow here, develop as players and get results.”

“I have worked very hard to make my life what it is. I Love Gary Player’s quote ‘the harder I work the luckier I become’. Fortune favours the prepared. I like that.”

Preparation and helping players achieve their potential are clearly key to Dyche’s approach but, while the mention of psychology might not be surprising, how often is it considered explicitly in the modern workplace.  Dyche has a clear vision of how to set his team up and communicates it effectively to his players.  He has provided an environment for growth and has a group of players that work as a cohesive team.

I once worked with a consulting firm whose advice to clients was regularly to bring in the top talent across a programme team to deliver change.  However, it’s the leadership that really counts.  Getting the right environment and culture and teams will flourish, the wrong environment and even the most talented can be set up to fail.

I was asked to take over a failing programme at a major bank some years ago and, while the major consulting firms were advocating sending in teams of people and replacement of a failing team, I was fortunate enough to be taken on by someone who believed in our approach of coaching the team.  We developed an environment where collaboration and support became the norm and the same team with only minor tweaks that had been seen as a basket case became a cohesive and highly effective delivery team.

To do this takes time and the results are not always evident in the early stages, however, with a clear vision and persistence the transformation can be profound.   The first few weeks are often challenging – particularly as senior management want to see quick results – quick results are often not sustainable results.  Getting teams to perform at their optimum needs giving them the space and time to do so.

Google Isn’t The Answer

Something of a departure from my norm, though it has some relevance in a strong relationship to a piece earlier in the year on the value and culture of the supporting entourage of tennis players.

Undoubtedly, the pressure has been on large corporations and the financial services sector, in which I do most of my work, particularly, as these firms struggle to attract the brightest technology talent in the face of competition from the large technology firms, as well as niche tech start-ups and nimbler hedge funds.

In the face of this challenge there has been an on-going temptation to want to be more like Google!  Their cool working environments have attracted a lot of attention over the past decade or so.  This seems to have gone hand in hand with a culture that has attracted fine tech and business talent.

In working in an innovation function in a bank over the last year or so and meeting with other people from large firms in innovation teams, it’s been interesting to see firms and teams ‘try’ and be ‘like Google’, or indeed create spaces that are ‘Google like’, as though this will address the challenge of talent attraction.

I was recently told by someone in HR at a large bank that they invited the CIO to present at an off-site for their team.  The thrust of his presentation was to hold up Laszlo Bock’s fine book ‘Work Rules!’ – described as ‘Insights from inside Google that will transform the way you live and lead’ – the CIO in question then instructed the HR team to read it, teeling them that this was how we need to be!

It’s insane for Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, HSBC or any other large bank to try and be like a large tech company.  Sorry Larry but Google isn’t the answer to everything, though I’m sure you’d agree in this case!

Of course, there are lessons that we can learn from Mr Bock and from Google but Google are Google and, although they may ultimately be competitors to the big banks in some areas they are not Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank or HSBC.  They are a relatively recently formed company with their own culture, just like Amazon, Faebook, Innocent, Steam and a host of others with ‘cool’ working cultures.  Their cultures and environments have been developed as part of their journey, which will continue to evolve. The firms that are truly agile and innovative are far more collaborative than the directive cultures that pervade large financial services firms.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of having a cool culture, after all it seems obvious to state that people will be far more productive if they actually enjoy coming to work. By the way, while some of you may yearn to be in professional sport, not every elite athlete enjoys what they do – witness the outburst from Bernard Tomic earlier in the year and plenty of stories of players struggling under the weight of expectation from domineering parents.  Undoubtedly, though, those at the peak of their sport work hard and enjoy what they do.

We stray though – research has shown that millennials want purpose in their work – though this is a little limiting, it’s not only millenials that benefit from having clear purpose – of course, it provides everyone with greater motivation.

So, in the context of thinking about cultures that attract talent, it is far easier to give techies purpose in their roles in an IT company. In contrast, my experience is that there’s a fundamental disconnect between purpose and activity for many techies in Financial Services.

All large banks have a challenge, which has existed for many years, which is more pronounced in investment banking.  As someone who spent the first ten years as a trader, I can personally witness to the cultural disconnect that continues to exist between the revenue generators (trading, sales, originiiation, etc) and the support services in banks – not just IT but Operations, Risk, Finance, Legal, etc.  Many of these are seen as business by IT – a sure sign of the lack of understanding of the bank’s purpose!

Historically, the business generating areas in investment banking have been relatively agile and innovative – I started writing bond options in 1982, also witness the growth of new products, from simple swaps to more complex structures, some of which have become commoditised and common place.

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The picture above was something put together for the CIO of a large bank a few years ago – this was to illustrate that the further away from the business functions (to the right and down the chart) you go the less likely people in the IT functions would understand the business drivers as to why they are there.  There are exceptions of course and size and type of organisation are also relevant. However, in general terms in my experience this holds true.

Together with on-going years of defensive behaviour and cost-cutting, driven by a number of factors, including increased regulation, this has heightened the low trust environments that persist in financial services.  Deeply ironic, when the whole industry is built on trust.

So, the lesson, which we used to use with our kids – is ‘be yourself, you can’t be anyone else’!

The Performance Comes First …. Or Does It?

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It certainly comes before the outcome.  In the semi finals of the ATP Tour Finals Federer did not perform sufficiently well against the improving David Goffin.  While he took the first set with ease, Goffin was increasingly aggressive in the second set and Federer started missing that usually reliable forehand, the one that normally has the attributes of an exocet missile!

One sports journalist argued some time ago that Federer’s beautiful game was a consequence of his assassin like approach to winning.  In contrast, the same journalist in another article described how Johan Cruyff wanted to play beautifully, for which he wanted to be remembered, both as player and manager. I believe it’s evident that incredible athletes like Cruyff in his prime and Federer worked incredibly hard to achieve a level of performance that has been awesome in it’s beauty (with Federer this is still the case). At the O2 over a week ago he may have lost but for much of the match the quality of tennis was outstanding, particularly given it was the end of a long season when players are undoubtedly a little tired.  The final the following day between Dimitrov and Goffin also proved to be a high level and close contest between two of the slightly younger generation of players.

In sports psychology there is a common ordering of process – performance – outcome.  For a particular outcome, or end result,  you need a certain level of performance and therefore you start with the process you need to go through to achieve the performance.  However, perhaps it should be prefaced by preparation, though some see this as part of the process.   Though in tennis terms the process usually describes what the player goes through prior to and during the match – this includes the vital routines that players go through between points that enable them to tune out of the previous point and re-focus on the next.  Then, of course, if the performance is better than your opponents the outcome is a victory.

Preparation includes ensuring an athlete is in peak shape to achieve the performance, as well as practice to develop the ability to execute shots consistently in a range of contexts.

Of course, in the world of work, we rarely give significant consideration to preparation, process, performance but all too often focus purely on outcomes.  While delivering the right outcome is critical by neglecting the steps to enable high levels of performance we are inviting mediocrity or even failure – a deep irony in the world I’ve spent much of my time on where failure is not tolerated.

Much of knowledge work is based around meetings and personal interaction, yet how often do we just wing it?  Most of the firms that I have worked in over the last two decades or more, senior managers often spend their time going from meeting to meeting, with little opportunity to prepare or reflect on the outcome.

This, in conjunction with the pervading culture (top down directive) in many large established corporations is an inhibitor to performance and of innovation.  This is in contrast to top athletes who will continually experiment to improve.

One of my more recent roles was establishing an innovation function at a large bank.  I’ve also been to a number of innovation events focused on financial services in the last year – one theme that consistently crops up is that of culture.  The pervading culture – hierarchical and top down directive – is seen as a barrier to innovation, quite rightly.

Lots of folks want to be involved in innovation or fintech – it’s cool – but getting folks who’ve spent their lives in these hierarchical cultures to change the way they think and behave is a major challenge.  There are good reasons and being like Google is not the answer!

 

Next time …. Why being like Google is not the answer!

Getting The Basics Right…

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I was hoping an end to this tennis year would result in a final at the ATP tour finals between the two outstanding players of the year and possibly of all time, Federer and Nadal.  Especially as I’ve got tickets for the final!

However, while Federer continues to show that at the grand old age of 36 that he can still outsmart the new kid on the block, Zverev, it was sad to see a Nadal, half a yard short on pace on Monday lose to David Goffin and end his season.

One of my rants this year has been to see top players, particularly amongst the women, playing drop shots and staying back. It’s not only the women but some of the men.  When you play a drop shot, good or bad, unless the other player has no hope of getting there, following it in to the net is the smart play.  It’s something that Federer and Nadal just about always do.  In doing so, if the other player only just gets to it you’re likely to have an easy put away and if it’s a poor drop shot at least by coming forward you reduce your opponents options.

Watching some of the matches at the US Open earlier in the year I was shocked at how many drop shots  were played and the player stayed at the back of the court, particularly in some of the later rounds in the women’s singles.

Of course, how we play is contextual, determined by the style of play of our opponents, our own capabilities, whether we are playing singles, doubles, etc.  It was great to see Melo and Kubot awarded the year end doubles number one trophy after their win on Monday night. It followed a routine but well executed win against Granollers and Dodig.

When next watching top doubles players, observe player positioning and serve placement. The vast majority of serves are played down the middle or into the body of the receiver.  Serving out wide in doubles, unless it’s an ace, gives the receiver too many options, particularly exposing your partner to being passed down the line. Top players will, most of the time, aim to control the play when serving by compressing play down the middle of the court.

I was asked on Monday why doubles players touched each other between points. It’s not congratulatory, as it happens whether the point has been won or lost but it’s a routine  and, like many that are now taught in tennis, it has a purpose.  In doubles it primarily emphasises the connection between the players and hence the team element, the players are in it together and the best doubles teams retain constant communication and contact.

While running a large programme team at a large investment bank a few years ago a young technical analyst asked me, referring to some of the senior management of the bank, why such seemingly bright people seemed to lack common sense! The programme had been a basket case and we subsequently turned it around despite the behaviour of some of the people round us.

There was a telling interaction between myself and the analyst not long afterwards that revealed something of the cockeyed culture of the environments we sometimes have to work in. I was on a rolling three month contract and, having restructured the programme and overseen successful deliveries, I informed the bank that I would not renew the next time.  The analyst in question indicated a certain amount of dismay at my imminent departure. When I pointed out that my replacement was highly capable and things were in much better shape he said he understood but that he was bothered because I cared! Now I consider myself a normal human being but not significantly more caring than the next individual, so I asked why he thought that.  He said that every time he saw me for the first time in the morning I said ‘good morning’ and asked how he was and also said good night when he or I left.  I was a little startled, as to me this is normal human behaviour but on questioning further it appeared that previously team members rarely spoke, communicated mostly by email and pleasantries were rare!

It’s not the only time I’ve encountered poor basic communication at all levels in a work context but without getting such simple basics right how can we ever expect to build cohesive teams?

Like players making brief contact with each other in doubles between points, these may seem trivial or minor points but they are an element that can make a significant difference to the functioning and cohesion of a team.