Tag Archives: Management

Tackling The Absurd Ascent Of The Manager

Barney Ronay, The ManagerWith The Manager: The Absurd Ascent of the Most Important Man in Football, Barney Ronay has put together what should be a very interesting book on the evolution of the role of the manager in football. Well, English football anyway: Johnny Foreigner doesn’t really get a look-in unless he’s followed Arsene Wenger and washed up on England’s shores. However, because there is so much interesting material here, the monocultural perspective is disappointing, but ultimately forgivable.

Nor can one complain about the way the material has been stitched together. It’s structured in a vaguely chronological fashion, moving from the late 19th century when the earliest sideline characters appeared (having a very different demeanor and responsibilities to today’s bosses), through to the era of Jose Mourinho and company. But Ronay doesn’t let chronology shackle him; though he’s roughly moving forward in time, the real organizing principles of the book are aspects of the managerial persona, each receiving its own chapter. Thus we have chapters on Managers as Entertainers (Jimmy Hill, Terry Venables, Kevin Keegan), Managers as father figures (Matt Busby), and Managers as Scoundrels (Harry Redknapp), each of which is, in itself, organized in such a way as to see how this aspect has changed over time.

What gives the book its potential is that the author has a better-than-average sense of history, and a knack for relating sports to the zeitgeist of the times. Thus, according to Ronay, the loathing that Graham Taylor encountered as England manger wasn’t simply due to his crapness; rather it was because of the way that he and his style of play became a metaphor for the wave of national feelings of crapness and self-loathing that accompanied the arrival of John Major, the poll tax riots etc. The hysterical reaction to Hungary’s 1953 victory at Wembley needs to be seen not only in the context of the Cold War, but also in that of the early 1950s mania for UFO movies and stories – hence Bobby Robson’s comment that the Hungarian style of play was so incomprehensible that “they could have been Men from Mars”. You can take or leave these kinds of anecdotes as plausible explanations, but they do make for a more entertaining read.

So, there’s an awful lot of good stuff in this book, enough to make it a real contribution to the crowded field of football books.

There’s only one problem: the prose.

Some of you may know Barney Ronay from his occasional article in When Saturday Comes. Others may know him from the occasional article in the Guardian. But I would bet that most people, if they’ve heard of him at all, have done so through his occasional visit to the twice-weekly Football Weekly podcast, which has a large and fanatical following on both sides of the Atlantic.

Football Weekly has one host (the excellent James Richardson), and then a cast of dozens of support members who rotate in and out. The most frequent guests are La Liga guru Sid Lowe and professional curmudgeon/amateur stand-up comedian Barry Glendenning. Of the other two dozen or so irregulars, a few (Jonathan Wilson, Rafael Honigstein) are seriously insightful, but others have an unfortunate tendency to try to try to go toe-to-toe with Glendenning in aiming for the yuks. When this happens, the pod can get pretty juvenile, with guests trying to out-do each other with pop culture references and frequently dissolving into some fairly self-satisfied bouts of giggling.

I can’t specifically recall any episodes with Ronay; to me he fades into the pack of the not-especially interesting guests on the more irritating episodes. And this matters, because the prose style of The Manager resembles nothing so much as a really bad episode of Football Weekly.

First, there’s the endless and tedious pop-culture references. The fact that one of the earliest “colourful” managers, Wolves’ “Major” Frank Buckley, wore then-scandalous plus-fours instead of trousers is seen as a reasonable excuse to spend a half-page discussing the more recent appearance of plus four’s in rapper André 3000’s latest fashion collection. Similarly, Busby, Shankly and Stein get described as being “like Cream, if Eric Clapton had been joined not by some other excellent 60s musicians but by Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, and Liberace”. Cringe-worthy.

Then there’s the endless giggly sex bits. Ronay is not the first author to have noted the romantic aspects of the Clough-Taylor relationship, but he is, I believe, the first person to describe their mutual exploits as “manager-on-manager action”, for which he deserves a kick up the arse. Then there’s his discussion of the idea that managers are, in the mind of the fan, essentially sexless because the idea of their being in love makes them feel “like a litter of oedipally challenged children of divorce, goggling in silent revulsion as some heavy-bosomed step-mum comes shimmering into the paternal bedchamber stinking of middle-aged sex…” Besides suggesting that Ronay may have some issues with his own parents, it’s not entirely clear what the hell this passage means. But it’s indicative of a style into which he lapses all too frequently: overly-elaborate with no real point or biting edge. Like a bad Arsenal performance, in fact, only the frustration lasts considerably longer than 90 minutes.

What makes all of this perplexing is that Ronay is clearly capable of actually producing good writing. Even within this book, he occasionally manages to spend two or three chapters at a time out of the slough of sophmoricness he has dug for himself. His take on Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman and Geroge Allison are excellent and his chapters on Busby and Revie, focusing on their (arguably pathological) paternalistic desire to run their clubs as “family” are simply superb. On more modern ground, where the discussion turns to Wenger and Ferguson, who he considers the teleological apex of managerial evolution — a case more easily made for the Scot than the Frenchman — his analysis is solid though not especially unique. The arrival of Mourinho, however, sends him right back into ironic tabloid-ese, calling him a “Portuguese Man of PHWOOOAAARRR” (which is admittedly kind of funny, though the credit goes to the Daily Mail rather than to Ronay).

This book has to be marked down as a disappointment. There’s an awful lot of good material here — good enough even to shine through some of the most appalling writing I’ve seen in some time. But Ronay’s desire to seem clever simply ruins what could have been an intelligent book. Shame.

Hiring and Retaining a Good Front Office Team

The seven hard working former Chicago Fire executives pictured above averaged about seven years each with the organization. The institutional knowledge and relationships they took with them when they left was significant.

The seven hard working former Chicago Fire executives pictured above averaged about seven years each with the organization. The institutional knowledge and relationships they took with them when they left was significant.

A key for successful chief executives is to surround themselves with talented, hard working people with good character. Any success I’ve had is attributed to hiring experts at the department head level who can do their jobs better than I can. Early in my career, I performed just about every position in an organization, which helped me understand the challenges, opportunities and necessary resources for most positions in a sports team’s front office.

Due to a shallow pool of experienced soccer executives in the U.S. in the 20th century, it used to be difficult finding qualified front office candidates with a soccer background.  To supplement talented soccer experienced executives, I would hire those with impressive sports sales background from second tier or minor league sports where creativity and proactive salesmanship were critical to success.

When the Chicago Fire was originally staffed, we hired from minor league baseball, indoor soccer, MLS, USL, soccer retail, CFA (a Latin soccer and music promotion company), the Auditorium Theater and the White Sox (no minor league jokes please!).  We also emphasized knowledge of the local market to minimize the learning curve of the market.  Almost all of the department heads were previously known to me or recommended to me by people I trust.

As soccer has grown in participation and support, the pool of talented executives with soccer backgrounds has grown.  I now prefer hiring from this pool rather than non-soccer execs as those with a connection to soccer are more likely to stay in the sport and not use it as a stepping stone back into a sport in their comfort zone.  When we assembled the Chicago Red Stars staff last year, we drew almost exclusively from a pool of soccer experienced executives while keeping true to our goal of hiring talented, hard working people with good character.  That being said, I had no soccer background, short of supporting the early ’80s Chicago Sting, when I was hired by the indoor Milwaukee Wave from the minor league hockey Milwaukee Admirals in 1987 and I have stayed in soccer ever since.

I tend to hire people I have worked with personally or are recommended by people I know and respect. For those seeking positions in professional sports, this validates the axiom that “who you know” is important, but “what you know” and how you go about your job is also important or you won’t get the recommendation or the job.

Retaining a good staff is just as important as assembling the staff in the first place

Just like any job, there is a learning curve in sports administration and sales.  The first three years of any job generally have increasing awareness, knowledge and relationship building, whether it’s an entry level position in ticket sales or the President of the team.  The learning curve plateau’s a bit after the second year, but you never stop learning or building a network of contacts.  That experience and the relationships become more valuable and more difficult to replace over time, adding to the importance of retaining talented staff.

There are several ways to ensure retention of good staff:

  • Fair compensation. Few executives in sports make as much money as they would make performing comparable roles in the “real world” due to supply and demand for jobs in sports, so you are able to underpay relative to the real world, but good employees who are responsible for revenue can justify increased pay. Teams who reward those employees will earn their loyalty and keep them on board if the other parts are done right.
  • Annual reviews with career goal consultation. Plan career growth with staff members by discussing honestly their opportunities for growth both inside and outside the organization.  In my eight years with the Fire, I never fired an employee.  There were several who left the organization with mutual agreement when we agreed after open communication that they had gone as far as they could in the organization and would be best off working elsewhere.
  • Promotion from within (start with promotion of qualified interns and volunteers). You already know first hand their abilities, style and adaptability to the organizational culture.  At the time I left the Fire in 2005, I had ten direct reports.  The ten averaged more than six years apiece at the eight year old team.  Five of the ten were original members of the Fire’s inaugural season staff in 1998.  Six of the department heads had received at least one promotion within the organization and four of those six actually had two promotions.  Not only does internal promotion help build a team culture in the front office, it also sends a good message to the rest of the organization that good work will be rewarded.
  • Establish regular communication. Regular communication methods includes an open door policy in my office – not only to welcome staff in to talk things over, but also to prevent staff from feeling that there are secrets being discussed (I must admit that due to the close quarters in the Red Stars “world headquarters” doublewide trailer, I’m forced to close the door to the office I share with our GM during certain meetings out of courtesy to the rest of the staff, so they aren’t distracted by my meetings).  I manage by “walking around” (if you’ve gotten this far in the column, I encourage you to click on the previous link and read it).  As the Fire President and GM, when I had ten direct reports I relied greatly on email (100-200 incoming and outgoing/day) as well as phone communication (I believe in the efficiency of more calls of shorter length), weekly reports from department heads (not too detailed, include past and future week tasks and questions), weekly staff meetings (department reports and questions) and weekly department head meetings (issue discussions) to keep on top of all organizational issues.  While often difficult to maintain that level of communication, it was imperative to fostering loyalty and effective operations.
  • Respect all staff. For example, at staff meetings don’t just ask department heads for reports and ideas (ask account executives, interns and the receptionist for their feedback, too).  At the Fire we encouraged Maria Gabino, our receptionist, who was one of half a dozen bi-lingual staff members and lives in the Hispanic community, to sell tickets to her friends, neighbors and businesses around her.  She was successful and eventually built her clientele to a base of selling $100,000 in sales per year.  This earned her additional commission that afforded her the ability to stay on as the “face” of the Fire for people walking through the door for the next decade.  Stability in that position may not seem important, but in addition to the ticket sales she promotes, her network of relationships and positive demeanor reflects well on the Fire to this day.
  • Create a culture of transparency, trust, empowerment and sense of ownership with honest and open communication.  Let staff members know how their role fits into the bigger picture, praise them in public and when necessary, critique them in private.  Give staff responsibility for their departments and provide the necessary resources to succeed.  Allow department heads to create their own department budget and hold them accountable to it.
  • Current Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett and Peter Wilt getting away from it all on Lake Michigan

    Current Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett and Peter Wilt getting away from it all on Lake Michigan

    Have fun. On a daily basis we tried not to take ourselves too seriously.  Professional sports requires many hours of work in what can become a high pressure environment, so it’s important to keep things loose.  Chicago Fire staff meetings usually included staff trivia contests, stories about brushes with greatness and once even an Elvis karaoke performance to settle a wager.  Once a month the Fire staff would have a fun activity.  They included an annual sport fishing trip on Lake Michigan for half a dozen staff members, a mini-golf tournament in the empty office space across the hall from our offices in the One Mag Mile Building, a bus tour of Chicago’s gangland past, retreat to a suburban park district for a day of athletic events, outings to other Chicago sports teams, road trips to all of the Fire’s away championship games and many, many postwork happy hours.  After all home games we tried to keep the staff together to unwind and share stories of the day either at the stadium or a nearby pub.

All of the above points are examples of creating a culture that promotes mutual respect and encourages support for common goals that lead to success.  They certainly aren’t the only ways and my management style isn’t for everyone, but over the years it has worked well for me.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the unique challenge of assembling and retaining a good team on the field in MLS.

Peter Wilt writes weekly for Pitch Invasion