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How to create a giant-killing team like Leicester City

In Leadership, Talent, Teams - 3 years ago - 7 min

How to create a giant-killing team like Leicester City

They beat the best to rise to the top, but can Leicester City's title winning triumph be a lesson for businesses?

Leicester City’s triumph in the Premiership was the football story of last season. Pundits have struggled to explain how a team given odds of 5,000-1 at the start of the season managed to outperform their biggest rivals to take English football’s biggest prize. The question is, will Leicester be able to sustain their form beyond the black swan season?

According to CIES Football Observatory, the Leicester squad – which was purchased for £52.8 million – was the fourth cheapest in the Premiership. The most expensive team, Manchester City, was assembled for £411 million.

You could be forgiven for thinking you can easily emulate the giant-killing success of Leicester. Indeed, both business leaders and academics say there is much for businesses to take on-board from this remarkable story. But what’s Leicester’s secret to success? Should we buy into the myth of the manager – where bringing in an experienced leader will turn an average set of players into a team of champions? Not according to research from Warwick Business School, which suggests that “leadership has little impact on organisational performance”. In fact, the research indicates that bringing in a new leader – as Leicester did when it sacked Nigel Pearson in June 2015 and brought in Claudio Ranieri for the 2015/16 season – brings disruption, which can have a negative effect on performance.

So, if the manager wasn’t the key to success and the team was largely unchanged from the one that avoided relegation in the 2014/15 season, what can businesses learn from Leicester’s success?

Happiness = more productivity

Dr. Hari Mann is a professor in strategy and innovation at Ashridge Executive Education, working as a consultant to businesses in the fintech and technology space. He says one of the key lessons to be learned from Leicester City is that enjoyment at work leads to better results.

“One of the key things that Leicester showed was that the squad was having a lot of fun at work on the pitch. This was different to some of the larger clubs, where the expectation was so high,” he says. “The Leicester City example shows how important it is to have a workforce that is motivated and that really enjoys what it’s doing. A workforce that is happy is more productive.”

Hari, an Arsenal fan, says high wages and expectations don’t always lead to top results for business. But a culture where staff are happy, relaxed and able to express themselves without fear can lead to tremendous results.

“When you’re relaxed and enjoying what you do, your productivity will be higher. You find the work easier to do and also you’re going to be more creative. This applies to business and to football, and Leicester showed that the football they played was very creative. They looked like they had lots of energy, right up to the final minutes of every game,” Hari says.

“With some of the larger clubs – like Chelsea and Arsenal – the expectation was so high and they didn’t get off to a great season. The players didn’t have the same energy and weren’t enjoying themselves.”

Be the leader your team needs

But in order to create this happy, motivated and, ultimately, winning culture, every business requires a leader capable of building that. Hari says Claudio Ranieri displays all the “classic characteristics” of a great leader – authenticity, honesty and an ability to see the broader picture. “Great business leaders are focused away from the noise. They aren’t concerned by what people are saying about the market. They are able to cut that out.

“They are very honest and open. You see [Sir Richard] Branson for all of his good and his bad, Terry Leahy (former Tesco CEO) was demanding, but he also gained respect because he said what he was going to do and did it – trust is important. Great leaders don’t renege on promises.”

Skills are things that can be learnt, to a great extent, but attitude and that cultural fit cannot.

Being able to create a winning team without a huge budget is something entrepreneurs need to do. Ian Naylor, serial entrepreneur and Liverpool fan, has built and sold three business and is now on his “fourth in 14 years”. His latest venture, App Institute, is a DIY platform for small businesses that want to create their own apps.

The business, which is backed by Foresight Group, now has 30,000 customers, but as an early-stage start-up it needed to bring in talented but inexperienced staff, many of whom were from nearby universities in Nottingham, where the business is based. Ian says attitude and “cultural fit” were high on his list when recruiting.

“Skills are things that can be learnt, to a great extent, but attitude and that cultural fit cannot. In our business, particularly in our early, boot-strapping days, we recruited a lot from universities where you are getting quite raw talent,” he says.

In order to mould his new team into an effective unit, Ian ensured the office was a fun place to be for his young recruits, with “ping pong and football tables and beers on a Friday”. When the business gained funding, he enabled all his staff to take equity in the business – designating 15% of the company shares for staff.

He says that having a genuine stake in the business means that staff feel that they are partners, rather than employees. “We want to enable people to have the freedom to succeed. We give them opportunities and have embedded it into our culture and incentivised people by giving them stock. These are the perfect ingredients for a successful team and we have virtually a 100% retention rate,” he says.

Finally, Ian says openness and transparency are very appealing to high achievers. “One of the key things we do here is that we are very transparent and open in terms of communication – there’s nothing that’s talked about behind closed doors. Every Friday, we have a company meeting, and we tell it, warts and all.”

The opportunity to perform

Andy Atalla is the founder of digital agency Atom42, which he has grown into a 50-strong business since starting nine years ago. He has hired many young people direct from university and says “bright, enthusiastic self-starters” can be trained to do a great job. The business has a range of perks and benefits, including a table tennis table, massages, yoga and meditation classes, a communal lunch area and a free bar, all designed to create “a real family atmosphere”.

But crucially, Andy recognises that talented people want to be challenged and given opportunities to perform. He therefore invests money in both internal and external training. “There’s an emphasis on learning and continual improvement, and a focus on results, both of which mean our best minds are continually challenged and engaged.”

Of course, talented people come to recognise their market worth and benefit to the business. Therefore Andy is not a fan of rigid pay structures. “Your pay structure should be there to serve you, not the other way around. It should always be a work in progress, so feel free to bend it,” he says.

As for Leicester City, where will they end up next season? Many are predicting a mid table finish. The pressure of being champions, coupled with the strain of competing with Europe’s elite in the Champions League, will stretch the team’s resources. And it wouldn’t be the first club to crumple after tasting success. Leeds, Wigan, Portsmouth – all clubs that peaked then plummeted in spectacular fashion.

The club’s performance in the 2016/17 could be where the true lesson for business leaders lies. Will we find out if Leicester City deserve black swan status? Or will we find out how an organisation can work collectively to sustain success?

If you want to be more Ranieri than Mourinho, find out how to tell if your employees don’t trust you. You can also learn from the habits of creative leaders.

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