Lessons for executives and recruiters from Leicester?

Written by: James Dunne
Published on: 24 May 2016

    In her recent autobiography, Chrissie Hynde - founder, leader, songwriter and singer of the rock band the Pretenders and a native of Akron, Ohio - tells of how she came to live in England and adapted to the cultures of the British Isles. At one point, mindful of her American readers, she mentions peculiar British spellings, and cites Leicester as an example of a word that sounds completely different to the way it is written….

    Ms Hynde has been successful in the music business, albeit if you’ve read her book you might wonder how she survived the prodigious quantities of drugs she has taken. On the other hand, Leicester as a city is probably not so well known in her native land. Until now perhaps...

    When I began thinking about writing this blog, Leicester City were then the leaders of the English Premier League in what our American readers call soccer but the rest of the world calls football.  Two countries, divided, as Ms Hynde noted, by a common language, but interestingly, Leicester City have lessons for both, in fact for all of us (and no, I have no affiliation with them).

    Why does this matter to businessmen and women?  Some might say that football is irrelevant to ‘normal’ business, but I don’t agree.

    Football teams are interesting businesses.  As Limited companies, they operate in one of the most public of spaces, with customers who believe they not only have a right to criticise them vigorously, but also to call for the head of the boss the moment things go wrong.  Imagine this happening so publicly and vociferously with FTSE 100 companies.  I can’t really see hundreds of customers (not shareholders mark you) standing outside a firm’s HQ shouting for the head of the chairman because “results aren’t what they expect”.

    The English Premier League is a vast industry.  I checked online and a few years ago its income tax and national insurance contributions alone were apparently worth more than £1.3 billion to the UK government.  Extrapolate to the wage bills and do the maths (or math if you’re American). We’re talking Big Business.

    Into this elite division, where average employees get paid five figure salaries every week, came Leicester City, promoted from the Championship Division in 2014 and nearly relegated back there again in their first season.  This past season (2015-16), under a new, experienced manager, Claudio Ranieri (and at odds of 5,000-1), they have performed a seeming miracle.  Like a pace-setter who doesn’t do as expected but continues to run away from the field, Leicester City went to the top of the Premiership and stayed there. At the time of writing it was expected they would win it and, as the whole world seemingly knows, that’s just what happened. They have retained some of the players who got them promoted in previous years, found undiscovered (passive?) superstar talent, developed and improved players other clubs had given up on and, under Ranieri’s guidance, created a team-spirit and will to win that are second to none.

    The lessons from Leicester are that persistence pays, talent matters at both ‘shop-floor’ and managerial levels and the relationship between the two is absolutely vital if a business is going to succeed.  Moreover, like most businesses, the secret is to retain your really good people and foster a team ethic.  The sums involved may be different from engineering, IT or HR, but the principles are exactly the same. Recruitment is vital and after that the ability to blend disparate characters, all doing slightly different jobs in the different areas of the pitch, into a team are what transforms talent into winners. The ‘winning team mentality’ that has developed at Leicester is something that other businesses would give limbs for and the positive PR that has been generated has increased the value of the club’s assets (i.e. the players) in a way that other clubs/firms envy.

    However, and there is always a ‘but’, like businesses, Leicester do not operate in isolation.  Their competitors, much bigger and more wealthy businesses, don’t like being second and you can be sure they will try and invest in even better talent and therefore are likely to do better than Leicester in coming seasons.  Like football, winning is what business is about.  Firms expand, get noticed, competitors respond and fortunes wax, wane and, ultimately, the market decides.  With the European championships about to begin, we read in the British press of attempts by bigger clubs, notably Arsenal, to prise away Leicester's top scorer, Jamie Vardy.  As with all recruitment, the market will decide, but not until England are eliminated from the tournament.

    But (another but), the simple facts of business life are that you need talent, you need teamwork and spirit, you need great direction (directors/managers) and you need an identifiable goal. That’s why recruiters are so valuable to business, either in-house or as external agents and that’s why the costs involved should be seen as much as an investment as an expense.  In the final analysis, this investment will help you achieve your business’s goals.  Leicester’s next investment in talent and their attempts to retain their existing stars will show whether they can sustain their business – namely of winning trophies.  The European Champions League would be nice. I wonder what their odds are?

    James Dunne, exec-appointments.com