Engagement – The 2018 World Cup

A couple of years ago, I was privileged enough to have the opportunity to interview Carlo Ancelotti in front of a live and expectant audience at the London School of Economics. Carlo is one of the world’s leading football coaches and a decent, approachable and calm gentleman.

Learning from Unrelenting Pressure

We instantly hit it off. It was the end of a long and drawn out media day for him and he was clearly tired but keen not to let anyone down.

He has a golden pedigree and had won everything there was to win in the most challenging environment of the top tier of European professional football.

He had first won the prestigious European Champions League whilst coaching AC Milan in Italy at the tender age of 42. He had gone on to coach my beloved Chelsea FC, here in England, Real Madrid in Spain and had just finished a successful stint as the coach of Paris Saint Germain in France. He had recently been appointed coach of Germany’s leading football club, Bayern Munich. He is coaching royalty.

As a taster, I enquired “when will you win the Champions League next?”. He raised his famous left eyebrow, and smiled, “I doubt whether I will be winning the Champions League again”. The audience drew a stunned collective gasp of breath.

How could one of the world’s leading coaches front up, on camera and with a live audience admit that he wasn’t good enough? This was an extraordinary admission. And perhaps just a little lack of ambition?

Surprisingly, he had no discernible ego. He was far more interested in the audience and giving them a positive experience. He was locked onto all the attendees and fully engaged with them.

He smiled and said in his very charming matter of fact way, “winning the Champions League is now a young’s man’s game”.

He now sat upright and explained “look at the recent winners, apart from Sir Alex Ferguson, all the rest are in their early 40’s. I won it when I was 42. Zinedine Zidane (the coach of Real Madrid) was 41 when he won it last season”.

“I am just too old at 57. I’ve become far too cautious and guarded now. Despite the fact that I know it, I just can’t mask feeling that I have become confronted by the fear of failure”.

He had all the audience leaning forward and nudging each other with disbelief. He was saying this in a heartfelt and hugely self-deprecating manner.

“At 42, you fear nothing, you have it all to prove and nothing to lose. Therefore, you throw all caution to the wind and just go for it”.

This was remarkable honesty, but wasn’t he selling himself a bit short? This appeared all too ageist both for me and our lively audience.

But maybe this was not about age per se? This might just be more about how our attitudes change with maturity.

Gareth Southgate, the current England manager is 47 years old and might just be proving Carlo’s point about his ‘desire to succeed’ versus any ‘fear of failure’. He has had an impressive start throughout the qualifying stages of the World Cup, not losing a match.

He is articulate, charming and proving to be his ‘own man’.

To Carlo’s point, he has already made some big calls, He ended Wayne Rooney’s (the star player) England career, way before the World Cup got seriously underway, and did it with good grace and was all gratitude and charm. None of the usual “bust up” headlines which could have unhelpfully coloured proceedings for weeks.

Football’s Coming Home

Russia was a very controversial winner of the heated competition to host the 2018 World Cup. Not just because of the political implications but also because of its dark reputation around football hooliganism and racism.

With England’s large contingent of black players in its squad and first team, there have been strong undercurrents of concern about how they might be received and treated by a loud group of notoriously violent and aggressive Russian football fans.

Many England fans were rethinking their travel plans when England qualified after some Russian gang members were filmed taunting and threatening what beastly things they might do to any England fans that dared to travel to Russia.

Before long, some black England players were sharing concerns and doubts about having their family and friends travel to Russia to support them.

Southgate took control of the situation by engaging both his players and the public at large. He was clear that whilst he completely understood and sympathised with black players wanting to walk off the pitch in the light of any racist chanting or racial abuse, that such a move would see them thrown out of the tournament.

“Some people, in an idealistic world, say we should do that, but the reality of that is you’d be thrown out of the tournament,” Southgate told the media. “People say we should do that, but I don’t think the players want that. They have worked all their life to get to a World Cup. It’s a very delicate balance to get right.”

Southgate went on to say “It is completely unacceptable. The players are clear on where I stand and the support they have from me … we don’t want to have to talk about it, but it is important that we do.”

“The biggest impact we can have is as one of the most diverse squads to have left England and the way that they all get on and hopefully that message will come through.”

Strong leaders go towards problems and don’t shy away from directly engaging with the big issues of the day.

The Chief Engagement Officer

Southgate has re-invented the role of the England manager to meet the needs of a much more demanding world. He’s not that track suited presence that is full of tactics and formations, that is left to his team of both inherited and hand-picked coaches who have clear responsibilities and are close to the day to day training and recovery activities.

This has enabled him to become a little elevated with a focus on the big picture, and vitally, with the space and time to engage with all the different (and demanding) stakeholders that he has to keep onside. He understands the power of engagement and has crafted a role that is more executive than ‘hands on’ coach.

He is articulate and contemporary, in both his thinking and attitude. He is clearly comfortable when the microphones and cameras are thrust in front of him. He’s not one for the stale clichés and insider language.

He always seems ultra-prepared and unruffled. He is smart, presentable and seemingly honest all the time.

The British sports media are a challenging bunch, hungry for scoops, be they juicily negative or delightfully mischievous stories of misbehaviour or unrest in the camp. They have never been trusted and historically held at ‘arm’s length’, and this has led to a sometimes challenging or at best frosty relationship with the England manager.

The harsh filmed sting from The Daily Telegraph’s strong investigative journalists effectively did for Southgate’s predecessor, Sam Allardyce. He was forced to resign under suspicion of injudicious behaviour.

This instructive episode made the England managers job feel like the most poisoned of chalices and not anything that an ‘up and coming’ manager should ever take on without years of experience. This led to the footballing establishment (the FA), appointing a series of 60 plus year olds as ‘safe and experienced’ hands that may not set the world alight but would avoid the major and embarrassing gaffes that have plagued the role in recent years.

These defensive and cautious appointments led to unsurprisingly defensive and cautious performances.

This takes us back to Carlo’s insights about being more risk embracing at a younger age and becoming so much more cautious as he has matured.

Southgate at a young and sprightly 47 years old, does not appear to be frozen with fear of what the media might be saying or wanting to please the ‘establishment’. He has definitely gone his own way, and it has been a master class to watch him take the different groups with him.

At First Reach Out

The big football guns in the media have commented that relationships have been healed by Southgate since the trauma of Allardyce’s shameful outing and departure. Many have mentioned that this has been helped by Southgate being of a similar generation to the football writers. They (have been made to) feel that they are on the “same wavelength” as him.

Southgate has made the time to engage with all of the media, and they feel respected and important. They are now starting to learn that despite the access and the openness, he is always ‘on message’ – his own message.

The football media pack in Russia for the World Cup have soon learned that he’s not ‘one of the lads’, or aloof and suspicious of the media, he is doing it ‘his way’, but with an eye for inclusivity and practicing what he preaches.

As soon as England lose, most would expect the usual angry and shocked behaviour when the fans blame the manager, the manager blames the FA and the media, and the players leave under a career dark cloud that many will never recover from.

It might just be different this time around. Let’s hope we don’t find out too soon!

The Young Ones

The FA have dabbled with younger managers who were recent great players like Kevin Keegan and Glenn Hoddle, but neither had the necessary support or experience of dealing with such a voracious media that the England managers job brings. They both ended up in meltdown on national TV.

Southgate has grabbed the opportunity to learn all through his life. He served a long and thorough apprenticeship being appointed the FA’s Head of Elite Development prior to being appointed head of the England Under 21s under Roy Hodgson in 2013 and continued under Allardyce.

He knew extremely well the ‘goldfish bowl’ of media scrutiny that he would be stepping into. He has understood the need for engagement and to be ‘always on’.

Under the Spotlight

Henry Winter, star football writer of The Times, concedes that “sometimes it’s hard to remember that managers have wives and children who are apt to be insulted at the supermarket or bullied at school.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Allardyce at a League Managers Association (LMA) event prior to his appointment as England manager. He was smart, generous and somewhat resigned to the inevitable painful sacking from any and all football managers roles.

He talked about having a job that every supporter feels they can do better, and every football journalist making it sound so obvious and easy with their hugely hurtful ‘20-20 hindsight’ reporting and pontificating.

He challenged the audience if they could cope with “a public performance appraisal every week and printed on the back pages of the national newspapers for his loved ones to read over breakfast at the weekend or first thing Monday morning.”

It was obvious that he had a huge issue with how the media were allowed to prey on all managers without any thought to the personal implications for whomever they were slaughtering that particular week.

When he resigned as England manager after 67 days he was quoted as saying “It’s not an impossible job, because people keep doing it”.

Making Space for Engagement

Southgate’s creation and development of the elevation of his role and pushing many day to day tasks to his trusted coaches has been a revelation in Russia.

He has worked with a senior coach from the New Zealand All Blacks all conquering rugby union team. This was to improve the culture and mental strength of the team. He has also consulted with the German FA with a view to learning from the current World Cup holders.

Even the wearing of his somewhat fashionable waistcoat whilst on the side lines has been effective and positive imagery. He looks smart, business like and importantly, in charge.

From Best Practice to Next Practice

  • Encourage employees to speak up
  • Help your employees to get to know each other better
  • Focus on collaboration and working together
  • Help employees move forward in their career and education
  • Create a unique working environment
  • Base hiring decisions on attitude and behaviour
  • Hold fun in high regard
  • Let your employees focus on what they do best
  • Don’t just use money as a reward
  • Celebrate your people – birthdays, accomplishments, etc.

He Wears it Well

Back in Russia, Southgate was pictured all over the media, with his arm in a sling. Southgate had dislocated his shoulder after a fall while running near the squad’s World Cup hotel outside St Petersburg. Pointedly, the hotel was described by one tabloid as “low key” and lacking the “glitz” that perhaps previous highly paid England footballers are used to.

Southgate said “I might not be celebrating any goals as athletically in future,” referring to the way he had leapt and punched the air after Harry Kane’s injury-time winner against Tunisia.

This soft and self-effacing comment was pure Southgate, as was his apology to the team’s medical staff for interrupting their day off.

After his appointment on a temporary basis after Allardyce left in September 2016, midfielder Jordan Henderson said “Southgate has made a big impression on the squad who want him to be their full-time boss.”

The Liverpool player captained England in their goalless draw in Slovenia following Southgate’s decision to drop talisman Wayne Rooney.

Henderson immediately picked up on Southgate’s engagement, “I think he’s been brilliant. He’s spoken to the players as a group and individually as well and I think that has helped … the players have got on really well with him this week. We’re close as a group and we’ve had meetings about what we want to do as a team.”

“The manager has been brilliant with us so we need to put in the performances, not just for ourselves, but the fans and him and the coaching staff as well to make sure we keep working together for a long time to come.”

What next

The power of engagement no less. Its no longer about appointing the best person for the job, its far more about choosing the best person for the team. At our next Inspired Leaders Network event, The Power of Recognition we will have a panel of unique engagement experts to help us crack this huge opportunity.

Click the link for more information;