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What CEOs can learn from football managers

By Chris Brady, Special to CNN
  • Football has been neglected as a model, probably as a result of its working class roots, Brady says
  • But even politicians no longer hide their allegiances -- they boast about them
  • Issues that confront modern organizations are precisely the ones confronting football teams
  • Immediacy of judgment, and the visibility of the managerial process make football an all-embracing model

Chris Brady is Dean of BPP Business School in London and Professor of Management Studies. He is also a UEFA "A" Licence Football Coach. His books include the best-selling "The 90-Minute Manager."

London, England (CNN) -- The important thing to understand about football is that it is a model for contemporary knowledge-based businesses, and not merely some clever management metaphor.

Football has, for too long, been neglected as a model, probably as a result of its working class roots and consequent inaccessibility for the usual business audience.

Well, football is sexy now, and in becoming so it has simultaneously become an accessible model for business.

Football has, as the world game, always been accessible to the vast majority of the world's population, but never in the rarefied atmosphere inhabited by senior business people.

But even politicians no longer hide their allegiances -- they boast about them. Tony Blair has spoken of taking advice from Sir Alex Ferguson, and Sir Richard Greenbury has referred to him as the best man-manager in British industry.

Video: Alex Ferguson answers your questions

Not only does football replicate business problems, it intensifies them and accelerates the process by compressing the time-scale. It is, therefore, easier to identify and analyze best (and worst) practice.

We cannot easily dissect the behavior of the top CEOs in real time because so much remains secret for so long. By contrast, in football, virtually everything is on view; what is not on immediate view is soon revealed by the omnipresent media.

Managing a football team at the highest level is about managing a core business on a daily basis, continually producing performance at a level which constitutes success.

It also requires managers who are able to reproduce their success with other teams when they either resign or are sacked by their current employers.

If that sounds familiar then it should do. It's the role played by modern CEOs.

The duality of being "the boss," and in the dressing room, provides great managerial strength.
--Chris Brady
  • Alex Ferguson
  • Football

They too are required to manage core business teams, composed of highly skilled and highly sought-after individuals. The CEOs are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the organization. Their "players" may be management consultants, sales people, computer whizzes, financial experts or product specialists, but they need managing to ensure that the organization (the team) succeeds.

The issues that confront modern organizations are precisely the issues which confront football teams.

Those issues include the debate concerning the separation of duties between CEOs and chairmen, the so-called "talent war," the development of a strategic direction, the creation of tactical plans, the continuity and succession of managers, the relationships between CEOs and their chairman, their shareholders, the media and the regulatory authorities -- these are all relationships which are central to both business and football.

Another important lesson football management has to offer business is that the manager does not sit, isolated, in a huge office, which removes him from close contact with all levels of his staff. He is literally on the sidelines.

However seldom he visits the training ground, his presence there changes the atmosphere and reinforces a level of contact. Most CEOs never attain such rapport.

On match days the manager's contact is immediate and intimate. The duality of being "the boss" and in the dressing room (workplace) provides great managerial strength.

But perhaps the greatest lesson football has for business is the value of coaching. Too often, in business, coaching is mistaken for counseling or mentoring, to the detriment of the organization.

While both functions are valuable, genuine coaching is only about performance.

In football, coaches are judged solely on performance. Nobody watches the process, only the results. If business adopted the same appraisal system, imagine the difference.

Insert into an organization's appraisal system the concept of judging departmental managers solely on the performance of their staff -- there would be no meetings between appraiser and appraisee, only observation of the performance of staff.

That is what happens on a daily basis with football teams. The entire management team is judged, each week, on what happens during each 90 minutes of competitive play.

It is the immediacy of such judgment, and the visibility of the managerial process that makes football the all-embracing model it is.

Where else are failures in personnel selection and man-management so totally visible? That visibility provides an access to the process denied in business at least until long after the event.

As a consequence, the lessons from the dugout are profound, not trivial.

Whatever you think about football, an analysis of its management gives us a profound understanding of the corporate managerial task.