Okay, here’s the admission up front. I am a Leicester City fan and I could not miss the (once in a lifetime) opportunity to write a blog that references my football team on the back of their biggest ever achievement!
In fact, let’s be clear. What Leicester City have done is possibly the biggest sporting achievement, in any sport, solo or team, EVER. If you don’t believe me, just wait for the Hollywood movie, because I guarantee it is coming.
For those of you not interested in football, I appreciate that your eyes could be already rolling into the back of your head. But whether or not you are a football fan, a partial observer or someone who thinks kicking a pig’s bladder ‘round a field is utterly pointless, there are lessons to be learnt from Leicester’s achievement.
For those of you who do not follow football, let me provide some background. The once great working class game of England has bloated into a money dominated entertainment franchise, with demands being on instant success.
Teams increasingly attempt to ‘buy’ their success, by pumping 100s of millions of pounds into new players each season, while fleecing the beleaguered supporters for more and more money to watch games.
In fact, I have a confession here. Leicester, like most teams, are owned by a bona fide billionaire. But in today’s game, this is standard. You need to be owned by a mega billionaire. This is quite simply why the Premier League has been won by so few teams. The league table is a predictable and regular procession of the same moneyed clubs.
In 2008, while these moneyed clubs were maintaining their dominance, Leicester were in the 3rd tier of English football (painful days!). I repeat, that is the 3rd tier!
By last season we had managed to get back to the Premier League, but were rooted to the bottom of the league before mounting the most incredible escape and ultimately avoiding relegation through a series of spectacular end of season results.
Leadership without ego
After an unsavoury summer altercation (Google it for more info) we lost our manager and hired a new boss, Claudio Ranieri, a man who was universally marked first for the sack by the UK’s bookmakers.
Ranieri knew he didn’t have much money to spend (Man Utd have spent more on players in the last 2 years than Leicester have in our entire 132 year history) and had to work with a team, once again favourite for relegation.
Unlike many bosses, in football, and as a parallel in business, he didn’t come into the club with preconceived ideas, an immediate reshuffle of his management team and a sharp change of direction. He arrived and he watched. For two weeks he just watched.
He realised that the team spirit was strong, that the old manager had built something effective, that the backroom staff and coaches were of a high quality. He resisted the urge to meddle and change things. He resisted the need to bring in ‘his own men’ and he instead decided to let the team continue to deliver while he simply helped with the direction of travel, and by motivating individuals to deliver more than they had done previously, looking to get that little bit ‘extra’ out of each of his players.
Then he instilled a work ethic, a bond, a team spirit and a togetherness not exhibited in any other team in the Premier League this season. You only need to watch one of the games to see the effort and commitment which this team puts into playing and to see their team spirit. Sure, the fans pay their wages, but first and foremost they play for one another.
There are no egos, there is no rivalry among star players. There was no dissension from the squad when the team’s star player had his contract doubled, and smashed the wage structure halfway through the season. No dissension! The team understood the contract was earned, and thought more about the team objective than about themselves and their own pay packet.
I have lost count of the times I have seen pundits talk about Leicester using words such as: “driven”, “work rate”, “commitment”, “team ethic”, “resilience”, “defiant”, “never give up” etc. - and the list goes on.
A little bit of magic
Of course, every team needs someone a little special and we have had a couple of those players this season who have stood up and provided the moments of magic that have turned games. Every team, be it in business or sport, needs a couple of technical specialists who can produce that little bit of extra quality.
But in Leicester’s case, our two main magicians were plucked from the lowest echelons of football. Jamie Vardy was playing non league football and Riyad Mahrez was in the 2nd tier of French football! We have found our superstars by focussing on potential, not on a costly quick fix.
How many times have we seen teams in business trying to buy in expertise at over and above the company salary bracket, rather than going out and finding a great Apprentice or Graduates? Radtac collaborates with HP Enterprise, which gave me the chance to see how they bring in apprentice developers and harness their enthusiasm and skills with on-the-job training and how this has created some superstars in their ranks.
In fact, when a company asks us to help them recruit a new person for their team, our first questions are always: “Is there not someone already in the team, who, with our support, could step up and do this job? Is there no potential ‘superstar’ we can help to develop internally first?”
Sometimes companies and football teams need to buy in proven quality, but Man City have this season shown how easily (and costly) this can backfire, while Leicester have shown another route.
Focus on the job in hand
Press conference after press conference, the manager kept his focus on the next game and the next deliverable. The focus at the start of the season was to avoid relegation. No matter how high we sat in the league, we focussed on avoiding relegation, until reaching the 40-point safety mark. Then, we moved our focus to a higher league position than the previous year. After that, it was the Europa League, then the Champions League, and finally the manager had to concede that we were fighting for the title.
But there was a mantra of “one game at a time”, and the focus was only on delivering results without not thinking too far ahead. This is a mantra which kept a laser-sharp team focus, kept the team’s feet on the ground, and ultimately delivered Leicester the league title. We can all learn a lot from taking things “one game at a time”.
Management does not know best
Great leaders know that they don’t have the best answers and they trust their team. A great article on the BBC shows how Claudio Ranieri deferred decisions on training schedules to his fitness team, who in turn deferred them to the players, who had the best sense of how they were holding up fitness-wise.
Imagine the scenario. The manager knows we are conceding goals from set pieces and he wants extra training time. But the fitness coaches tell him the players need to instead work on cardio, so he defers. Yet a player feels he may be at risk of injury, and thus wants to rest, so the fitness team defers.
By deferring the decision making to the player, Leicester has had the fewest injuries in the league this season, used the fewest players, and has been able to ensure the development of that incredible teamwork that has won them the league.
The obvious conclusion here? The team knows best.
So as far as I am concerned there is a lot we can all learn from seeing the bloated world of Premier League football being shocked by Leicester’s victory. The way Leicester has done it is something which everyone can identify with.
So as far as I am concerned there is a lot we can all learn from seeing the bloated world of Premier League football being shocked by Leicester’s victory. The way Leicester have won the league is something which everyone can identify with.
As I (drunkenly) watched them lift the trophy and as I rolled through the streets of Leicester watching the open top bus parade, there was a small tear shed and I will savour that moment for the rest of my life. Granted, non-Leicester and non-football fans may not share my emotional bond, but I hope people find some value in looking at how the Foxes achieved this greatest of all sporting upsets.
Personally I think our manager, Claudio Ranieri, would make the world's best ScrumMaster ever.
But even if you disagree and even if you think this entire blog has no relevance to the world of work, and is simply a fan’s attempt at making tenuous links between football and Agile, well, I don’t really care! I got to write a blog about Leicester winning the league, and that is something I will never again say in my lifetime!
Come on, anyone, can you think of a more Agile sports success ever? Share your thoughts with us in the comments box below.