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Talent management – ‘Pursuit of happiness’ in sports and business

One of the competitive parameters in the football industry is ‘talent management’. Investing in scouting, talent academies and hence signing the ‘right talents’ may be WHAT takes a club to the next level and leads to a competitive edge – a scenario which can result in the club reaping financial benefits of the club’s operations. Though, investing in talents is not enough – it also requires ‘optimal management’. For any sports organization, competencies in terms of spotting talents and letting them grow is significant! In that regard, it proves a point to recognize that talent management requires an ‘individual-oriented’ management style. What stimulates a talent differs and thus one of the most important factors in dealing with talents is ‘one-on-one’ relationship management and a lot of positive feedback to continuously encourage talents to carry on their development.

In the modern football economy, there are several examples of huge talents displaying much vulnerability. Mario Balotelli is an example of a young talented and vulnerable footballer with lots of ‘star potential’, who requires intensive management and protection. In order for him to shine on a regular basis he must be integrated in the team’s performances and be taught to manage individual performances as a building stone to secure team success. In that sense, management has a huge role and that is where there are similarities between football management and business management. Management must set the right team. I recall the statement of Lawrie McMeneny, a former manager of Southampton Football Club in England and now president of the Lawrie McMenemy Centre for Football Research at Southampton Solent University, which notes that “In the ideal team you have what I call the road sweepers, who are grinding out the work, the violinists who perform acts of beauty and then a first violinist, who must be recognized as such by the whole team. But it is no good having 11 first violinists.”  Too many players ala Michael Laudrup would not work for a team but surrounding him with players not capable of matching his game intelligence was not good either.

Boosting the confidence levels of star players is vital in lifting a team’s performance while communicating and stressing the importance of all team members knowing their individual roles in fulfilling the team’s aspirations. ‘Confidence management’ and motivation is key around star players due to the fact that these players are often extremely critical and perfectionistic in their approach to assessing own performances. Cultivating talents at an early stage may prove to be central in adapting to the psychological challenges facing talents with the potential to break through at the highest level. These talents must learn to handle the spotlight and the expectations set by themselves and others. A ‘trial-and-error’ approach can be beneficial at an early stage. For young talents to learn, ‘it is ok to make mistakes’ and that mindset is part of building their confidence levels while showing the courage to risk something in pursuit of winning games. After all, football is a game – a premise that may be more difficult to stress when players are adults. Cultivating talents is also about protecting the talents from exploitation while having their individual development as a high priority and working with their emotional skills (to equip them with tools to cope with exposure and the cynicism characterizing many aspects of the professional sports industry or the business world). So the support systems of clubs or corporations must be well functioning in the broadest sense. A talent’s happiness usually has a positive spill-over effect on performances – just look at Balotelli’s move to back to Italy (now in AC Milan). It will be interesting to see if he can continue his impact there now that he has been off to such a good start.

Whether in football or in business, the manager must strive to get the most out of every individual in the organization. The risk of losing star players to injuries or other organizations is always present and in such instances it is imperative that the substitutes are ready to give 100 %. Therefore, every member of the organization must feel valued and must never feel as they are being rejected. No team member is strong enough to carry a team without the support of others no matter how talented they are. In business and in football, people move on so any organization must seek to recruit competitive people with the need for high achievements. So again, I stress that the manager must have the instinct of knowing what makes his players tick – there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Communication from management serves a critical purpose in teaching all team members to respect the skills and competencies of others and hence to learn from each other – the latter can be executed in producing or re-producing a culture where young talents learn from peers.

Here are some aspects, which are important for sports teams and businesses working with talents:


Find the focus in terms of ‘wanting to win’. Titles are important for football teams and for businesses that analogy can be used to become a market leader or to improve ROIs and profit margins. The focus must be centered on a strategic vision, i.e. a roadmap for success. Great leaders are innovative and creative and have a feeling of how that can be transformed into a system change, which turns mediocre performances into excellent performances.

*  Resources:

Money and competencies are resources, which make a difference in football and businesses. Though, money is often not enough. The best players do not go to ‘losing teams’ – they want more than money. They may identify with the culture and traditions of big clubs, e.g. Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Manchester United or Bayern Munich. The same can be said in business where the corporate brand of the corporation and thus the underlying cultural factors stimulate recruiting efforts.

* Team spirit:

Team spirit or ‘corporate spirit’ is an important factor of an organization’s culture and it serves as the extension of the roadmap for success, i.e. a support system to make sure that the strategic vision is achieved. All members of the organization must be committed to that vision and that is something that talents must be aware of when entering the organization, i.e. they must know what it takes to enter the team.

Long-term managers such as Alex Ferguson in Manchester United or Arsene Wenger in Arsenal have been with their clubs for a long period of time and they have been very good at cultivating talents to promote excellent performances.

“The best teams stand out because they are teams, because the individual members have been so truly integrated that the team functions with a single spirit,” states Alex Ferguson in his autobiography, ‘Managing My Life’. “There is a constant flow of mutual support among the players, enabling them to feed off strengths and compensate for weaknesses.”

* Don’t get starstruck:

The most expensive team does not necessarily equal a winning team (although it increases the probability for success). Businesses and sports teams risk ‘over-spending’ when recruiting talents or players, who do not necessarily add to the bottom line or to winning titles. Though, in professional football, this may lead to a clash in the sense that star players add to commercial revenues (merchandise and sponsorship sales). When star players come in, be direct in communicating their role on the team – also in terms of mentoring young talents. That way, you will get the most of these stars.

* Talent assessment:

Arsenal’s purchase of Robin van Persie from Feyenoord for less than £3 mio. in 2004 is a fine example of ‘investing in stars before they shine’. But it takes a good eye to find such talents and a good talent development system to turn a promising talent into a star – not all organizations have these assets. Dealing with talent management, it is also a good organizational capability to be able to spot talented individuals, who does not fit into their present culture, especially if the organization can make these individuals flourish when integrating them in its own organization. In the business world, we see that the biggest corporate brands collaborate with the best business schools in the world to find the best employees – these corporations also have talent management on the radar.

* Long horizon:

Some coaches, e.g. Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger have shown a history of being able to maintain a relative competitive performance rate over a long period of time. They have been able to create ‘winning cultures’ and to overcome obstacles and still stand out as high performers. Other clubs spending tons of money have not been capable of creating sustainable and successful cultures and whether in business or in football that leads to high employee turnover (players in football being bought and sold at high rates). Ferguson and Wenger are to very competent managers, who have proved that they can apply ‘strategic intuition’ and thus rely on their ‘flashes of insight’, which may help guide them to the right short-term but more importantly long-term results. That is a vital capability in business and in football where the ‘request for transparency’ puts increased pressure on the working environment for managers working with talents. In sports and business, fans/customers (or other stakeholders) demand success and the winners seem to be those with a perfect or at least sustainable plan.

More inspiration:

William Duggan’s bookStrategic Intuition’. 

McKinsey & Company’s state of the art research on talent management practices and beliefs. In that regard, the company coined the term ‘the war for talent’.



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