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The Secret FD: CFOs could do well to copy some of the traits of sports leaders

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THE enduring successful run of Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City to the Barclays Premier League title, together with the views expressed by Sir Clive Woodward on leadership, management and driving culture, are examples for business leaders to sit up and learn something from successful sports managers.

We all have our favourite heroes; eg Ferguson, Shankly, Wenger, Pellegrini and the world cup winning Alf Ramsey, and we can also learn from some of the comedians and failures, but I will desist from naming them, as we know who they are.

Leadership and management are two very different aspects that many people confuse, but each bears little similarity to the other. Management is an under-rated but structured professional discipline that can be taught, while leadership is an almost unteachable natural quality that can be developed and exploited.

Leaders are naturally adept at (employee) engagement, they create a ‘followship’ mentality in those whom they lead, and they rarely impose their own rules without recognising the ‘teamship’ rules (ie rules that come from the team, and not from the top, although these may actually be one and the same.

The armed forces are even more expert in all this than many sports managers and, where life and death decisions are the norm, they recognise the need to inspire a common purpose. I once knew a Red Arrows pilot who told me about a debriefing by his squadron leader after a particularly dodgy team display. Rather than criticising his pilots, he apologised to them for making a 5% trajectory error himself during a crucial manoeuvre, and he asked their advice and opinions about the whole display.

Sir Clive Woodward was famed for reforming a particular rugby squad’s poor timekeeping and mobile phone use in team briefings not by imposing any rules himself, but by encouraging the team to set their own standards. Subsequently, when one of them was late for a team meeting, the whole squad took the piss out of him and Sir Clive did not have to say anything.

We FDs should learn to listen, to ask ‘why’, to display our human side, not to interrupt, and to recognise that loyalty is a ‘given’ and can never be ‘taken’. One of our greatest and enduring leaders celebrated her 90th birthday and seven decades of loyal service recently and continues to set the highest standard of self-deprecation (eg she hates to sit whilst others stand). Her example is one to adopt.

We should each develop our own leadership brand and, in a business context, we could do well to copy some of the traits of sports leaders … but certainly not all.

Yes, David Beckham has become an expert in successful branding, but only by accident. Mauricio Pochettino was quoted recently saying ‘at Spurs, we know this is football, but it is a business as well’ ie business is an afterthought. I have not heard any sports leaders mentioning such everyday (but relevant to them) FD topics as; Basel III impact on business liquidity, service sector led growth, currency volatility, price and wage inflation etc, not even during the transfer window when they are making huge capital investment and disposal decisions. It falls to others to do the ‘business’, and this extends to the decision to change the Barclays Premier League business model towards allowing up to seven commercial sponsors. Who is leading this?

Churchill said that success is ‘tumbling from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm’, a lesson that the leadership at Aston Villa should have learnt before they were relegated. Their owner rarely turns up for games, and is known to be trying to offload the club. The resulting on and off pitch lacklustre performance became an inevitable tragicomedy. Compare that to Leicester City whose leadership embodies the belief that ‘the greater the odds against success, the greater the success story’ and they ignore all obstacles. Their starting odds were 5000:1 against, and they were tipped for relegation, and now they might win not only the title but they stand to benefit from a quarter of a billion pounds this year in prizemoney, broadcasting deals and brand value. Simon Capper, the Leicester City FD will surely be pleased with that.

Sports leaders recognise the value of engagement, and finance leaders should recognise that engagement delivers measurable business performance. Our KPIs should reflect that.

Last month the SFD encountered a fundraising six course ‘breakfast, lunch and dinner’ for a Lawrence Dallaglio Charity which started at 11 am with Champagne and Guinness, and lasted the whole day and evening with not much food.

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Theresa May 1