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



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.

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