Like any large organisation, The Football Association (FA) is made up of many parts. Regardless of its focus on sport it is a ‘corporate’ entity and has the same constituents parts as Tesco or General Motors; the FA merely ‘produces’ something different. All of the operating divisions of the FA are regulated, formerly organised, have career structures and defined modus operandi. There is one exception to this – the world of Talent Identification (TID), or scouting in common parlance, has always done it’s own thing. No formal career structures here. No job specific qualifications required. No awards ceremonies and certainly no industry standardisation. A comparison is often drawn between the coaching world with its rigidity and the TID world with its cottage industry approach to what is perhaps the single most important function in any club. After all, the TID staff find the talent for the coaches to work with.
During the early part of 2014 new staff arrived at the FA. Key among them was Dan Ashworth. Having worked across the football world he knew that TID was the route to success for any club, including England. His aim was very straight forward, he wanted his department to put in place the means by which TID could be professionalised across the English football league. Their solution would need to work for all. From Chelsea to Torquay, all clubs would need to have access to the changes that were required. Dan Ashworth’s work was now complete, for his staff it was just beginning.
bridge][ability first became involved with the project during August 2014. Our consulting staff were employed to assist in scoping the problem. At this point we were merely tying down the exam question, we certainly weren’t answering it. So where to begin? The foundation was understanding what professionalising an industry looks like. Most sectors and industries have developed their own sets of rules, ways of working, discipline and vernacular – not so in the case of TID.
By understanding the skill set required of a TID staff member and the laws and codes of conduct in place to protect them, it quickly became apparent to us that the solution would need to be multi- faceted. What was lacking at the early stages of solution development was a clearly defined aim, something concrete that we could use as a point of reference and direction of travel to ensure that we did not become bogged-down in the minutiae in the early stages of the project. The solution needed an aim that stood above the detail of what we wanted people to ‘do’ – the aim needed to be about an approach, a philosophy rather than what would be done.
The program aim:
With bridge][ability’s assistance the focus of the program became leadership and its constituent parts. This made things clear for all of the development team – we were developing a solution that would allow people to lead; we were not in the business of telling/teaching people how to recruit football players.
After detailed examination and analysis of the daily requirement of a TID department leader/ member, the planning team arrived at 4 areas that would need to be part of the solution:
Leadership and management.
Whilst these were the building blocks, there were many other supporting skills that would also be required:
The solution which the FA and bridge][ability arrived at delivered all that was required above and, due to the method used, produced results far beyond the scope of the original problem. In short the path the FA chose delivered genuine synergy.
So a modular approach was adopted, which saw 4 modules, each of 3 days delivered over an 18 month period. The models were leadership and management, negotiation, ethics and financial fair play; bridge][ability were asked to deliver both leadership and management and negotiation.
Following extensive research and program development, all four modules were subject to a pilot program that ran during the Autumn of 2014. The program went live in February 2015.
Leadership and management.
The leadership and management module was delivered over a four day period (3+1). A block of 3 days was followed by a single feedback day. There was a 3 month gap between the 2 sessions to allow research and course work to be completed.
The foundation phase of the initial 3 day period introduced the concept of what leadership and management are; their similarities and, most importantly, where they differ. Leadership is one of those subjects that everyone has an opinion on; leaders are the go-to group when blame needs to be apportioned – “I blame the government”; “the parents should do something about it”; “if the teachers took this seriously things would be different”. You get the idea. Therefore the start point needed to be a thorough understanding of what leadership is and isn’t.
Although seen as contentious by some onlookers, we wanted to expose attendees to a number of so-called leaders and examine if they do in fact lead. We wanted to challenge pre-conceptions and get them to do likewise. We asked them to consider that we inhabit a world that is full of job titles and appointments that confer leadership on people, but do they really lead? The Queen is the head of the Commonwealth and is the senior member of the Church of England, Justin Bieber has over 80m followers on twitter, Katy Perry is copied by millions around the world, but are they leaders? The debates that followed allowed the delegates to understand that leadership and management are more than a title or position, they are about doing something.
Next we wanted to establish what leaders do. For bridge][ability’s leadership division this is really straight forward – leaders set an example, show the direction of travel (culturally and organisationally) and make decisions, they decide on a course of action, communicate it to their people and then put all of their energy into making it happen. These activities are underpinned by a solid understanding of their world, an ability to plan and the fundamental desire to do the right thing, both morally and ethically. At bridge][ability we use a philosophy known as Mission Leadership, this show delegates how best to lead their people and live by the maxim ‘do what you ought to do, not what you want to do’.
With this in mind we got the delegates doing something. We wanted them to be comfortable with ambiguity; this lies at the heart of what we wanted them to achieve…we wanted them to embrace ambiguity, to seek complex situations, the sort of situations that their competitors would run from.
It’s very simple. We wanted them to be able to approach a situation that was, at best, ill-defined and would require some intellectual horse-power to make sense of it. Further, we needed them to be able to deal with something that could be morally challenging. These sorts of problems usually scare people half to death and so they avoid them. At bridge][ability we see other’s avoidance of ambiguity and moral complexity as presenting an opportunity to us. To instil the confidence to deal with these problems we gave the delegates a number of scenarios to wrestle with that had no defined answer. Of course, problems with no solution generate the best conversations and this is exactly what happened; once comfortable with ambiguity, people quickly realise that these situations present opportunities rather than threats.
The final, and most important stage in developing leadership came next. In order to make decisions and act, a leader must be able to plan. So we set about giving the delegates the skills to make decisions and the confidence to communicate those decisions to their teams.
At bridge][ability we have developed a decision making tool known as The Mission Planner. This simple intellectual tool allows leaders at all levels to unravel complexity and use limited resources to achieve a desired effect. The bedrock of using this tool is a thorough understanding of one’s situation, resources and the ‘exam question’, i.e. what are you required to do and most importantly, why are you doing it. The Mission Planner does all of these things. For the TID team and department leaders it enabled them all to take their people further than they had previously gone, more quickly, whilst being more resource efficient and cohesive. In short, The Mission Planner gave them all the confidence to make decisions and act upon them, i.e. lead.
The leadership and management module included a piece of ‘homework’ that was to be conducted and delivered in teams of 5. Each team was given a case study based on a successful sporting leader. The chosen subjects were Sir Dave Brailsford, Jurgen Grobler, Lord Coe, Leon Smith, Bernie Ecclestone and Sir Clive Woodward. Each team was asked to examine their leadership skills, traits and levels of success. They had to consider what they could take from them and to look critically at their impact on the successful teams they produced. This proved to be one of the high points of the program.
Having been involved with planning the program from the outset, it was apparent to us that a perceived lack of commercial acumen needed addressing. For many, this lack of commercial expertise, knowledge and experience, manifested itself in the form of poor performance during negotiation. Anecdotal evidence suggested that negotiation in the football world was not something that had ever been formerly taught; it was learnt through osmosis, following the ‘gaffer’, seeing what he did then eventually being allowed to fly solo and conduct one’s own negotiations in a similar manner. This may seem a damning indictment of the commercial skills in the football world but, in their defence, they are similar to many of our clients in the commercial/non-sporting world.
We designed a program that would address all of the pre-conceptions that surround negotiation. In a competitive industry, such as football, it is easy for people to focus on winning i.e. beating the other party. We wanted to address the misconception that negotiation is all about winning and that success can be achieved without heavy handed tactics or a preoccupation with beating the other party. Interestingly, bridge][ability consultants often refer to ‘losing in order to win’. Success can be achieved through behaviours and unspoken communication without overly competitive tactics and ego.
The 3 day package that the delegates attended allowed them to learn, experience and practice the skills and behaviours required at the tactical level as well as being exposed to strategic negotiation planning. In short they would be fully prepared to influence at the lowest level, but also equipped to play a pivotal role within the commercial business of their clubs.
As a vehicle for learning we used the bridge][ability Negotiation Thermometer. This intellectual tool demonstrates 3 types of negotiation and the factors that influence where, on the thermometer, a negotiation might be. For example a transactional/distributive negotiation would typically be seen as ‘cold’. It is the knowledge of the type of negotiation one is entering that allows behaviours to be appropriate to that situation.
Through a series of exercises, delegates were exposed to the effect of power on negotiation. They quickly realised that there is only one thing more important than power…the perception of power. We exposed them to methods by which they could influence power in negotiation and the potential ramifications of so doing. In order to embed what they had been taught about cold negotiation, they conducted a series of one-on-one negotiations which were recorded and watched by all delegates. The benefits of watching oneself ‘in action’ cannot be overstated. In watching a their performance the subjects are able to see how they influence another person, how they communicate (verbally and non-verbally) and how what they do impacts the outcome. Importantly they were given detailed feedback in front of their colleagues. This meant that they could all learn from each other. The reality of video feedback is very much in the DNA of what bridge][ability does. Our consultants could observe and give verbal feedback, but it would not have the impact. From the program development phase we were adamant that video feedback had to be an integral part of whatever we delivered. As the FA are a forward looking organisation we found ourselves pushing on a open door.
Both bridge][ability and the FA were keen that attendees had the opportunity to practice their new found skills in a safe environment. To that end they were given a separate scenario and a second opportunity to negotiate a cold case in front of the camera. The improvements were impressive across the entire audience. They had all taken the opportunity to try something different, to see how it felt and the impact it had on the other party.
As the journey up the thermometer continued delegates were exposed to a combination of cool and warm negotiations, both individually and in teams. They developed their ability to analyse complex commercial problems and create solutions. They encountered the benefits of collaboration and the impact of not taking the opportunity to work creatively with the other party when the opportunity arises. As a group they remained enthusiastic and engaged throughout, thus the levels of assimilation were rapid and impressive. The negotiation module was capped with an introduction to strategic planning. At bridge][ability we use our strategic planning filter. This assists planners within a business in developing strategy to be used in a series of related negotiations. Once introduced to the theory that underpins the model, delegates were exposed to the online version of it. The electronic version, known as the bridge][builder app allows easy analysis of the most complex negotiation. It gives the user the opportunity to understand levels of power, the impact of collaborative vs competitive approaches and the steps that one might take in executing a given negotiation. Whilst very useful, the bridge][builder merely assists in ordering one’s thoughts and making useful suggestions. The user is able at all times to override the software and go with their own decision, wether based on science or intuition.
As with the leadership module, the attendees were given an piece of homework to complete. They were tasked with compiling their own strategy for either an ongoing or up-coming negotiation. The choice was their’s, we simply specified that it needed to be ‘real life’.
After a 3 month gap, which included a football transfer window, we reconvened for the negotiation feedback session. Delegates were given the opportunity to share their experiences of using the tool and, more importantly, what they had achieved. Given that they had spent the summer months doing deals this proved to be time spent very productively. Commercial confidence prevents us from giving too much detail, however a large number of this summer’s premiership deals were shaped by what the delegates had learnt from bridge][ability and put into practice. There were very strong results from those individuals who had been negotiating across international borders and those who had been in situations dealing with other parties that they had dealt with previously. In short they were doing better than they had done on previous occasions.
“four days of my life I wish had been 20 years ago!”
Talent ID department leader, Premier League Club
The finale of the entire program was a 3 day ‘exercise’, designed to test all that the delegates had been taught throughout the program. bridge][ability was employed to write the exercise and deliver it. The FA wanted to replicate the fast moving and often unpredictable nature of the football world; this was a real bonus for us. It meant that we could run the scenario continuously over the 3 day period and really test the delegates’ ability to work under pressure and make decisions in a fast moving environment whilst experiencing all of the pressures they might expect in their ‘day jobs’. The scenario placed them in a fictitious club as the TID department. They were required to plan for the department’s future in all resources areas – traditionally they would have focussed on the players, (possibly) the money and little else, but we wanted them to consider, more broadly, how they were going to deliver over the coming season and beyond. The exercise was made all the more demanding by the addition of last minute information and unpredictable changes in requirement and timings. Three long days of planning, negotiation, resource management and moral ambiguity were concluded with a formal presentation to the club’s new owners, which would test their ability to communicate their ideas and gain support for them. For most, these 3 days of ‘testing’ were the zenith of the program.
We are surprised on a weekly and sometimes daily basis just how impactful our work has been. Those members of club TID departments that have attended the program are always keen to share their experiences; particularly when they achieve something they had not anticipated. In their world success tends to mean spending less and getting more. All the evidence that we have received from our former delegates has confirmed that they are certainly achieving both of those things. We have also been reassured by the fact that those people and clubs who have worked with us are now more prepared to be ambitious in their decision making and negotiations as they feel well prepared for the sorts of challenges that many would avoid.
Of course self-praise is no praise, but allow us a single indulgence. One former delegate who secured a very favourable package with his employers was overheard saying:
“if I hadn’t met those guys from bridge][ability, I wouldn’t have got anything like this – they made me stop, think and consider what I was going to do before I did it – I’ve never done that before!”.