The Making of a Leader

The Making of a Leader: Building Your Staff Team

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In the final of three extracts we’re publishing from his new book, The Making of a Leader, Tom Young looks at how sports leaders can delicately balance the introduction of hand-picked backroom team with the legacy staff who are already in place. The Making of a Leader is published on 30th July and is available for pre-order now.

Due to the aggressive and fast-moving nature of elite sport, head-hunting and staff turnover are inevitable. While leaders will often insist on the appointment of some loyal lieutenants, they cannot replace an entire staff. Upon taking up a new leadership role, the inevitable inheritance of support staff brings its own set of challenges for a leader. Giving the ‘benefit of the doubt’ was a common part of the process, as Stuart Lancaster describes his experience of taking over as England Rugby head coach: ‘They were all pretty battered and bruised by that point but I knew they were good people and they just needed a bit of direction and support.’

Gary Kirsten, former head coach of the Indian and South African cricket teams, believes that a staff must reflect the leader’s own personal values. He recounted two contrasting experiences that he learnt from. ‘I have inherited guys that have been fantastic and we’ve just got on with it and they have done a fantastic job, you know their values system lines up with yours. I have also found that one or two guys who I have worked with really don’t line up with my values system. As the leader of the organisation, your support staff need to have similar values in terms of work ethic, managing players and the emotion of performance.’

Kirsten’s words hint at the steeliness of his approach and remind me of the work of Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, who Stuart Lancaster also spoke to during his time with England. In the book, Collins examines the characteristics of elite organisations that sustainably out-perform their competition. Collins’ well-known metaphor refers to an organisation as the ‘bus’ and the leader as the ‘driver’. The driver’s role is to ask ‘first who, then what’ and Collin’s linear process for this is straightforward, but not necessarily easy to implement:

  1. Get the right people on the bus.
  2. Get the right people in the right seats.
  3. Get the wrong people off the bus (with dignity). 
  4. Always put the ‘who’ before the ‘what’.

Roberto Martínez, head coach of the Belgian national football team, faced the unique challenge of fusing an existing collection of staff at the Royal Belgian Football Association with his own long-standing and loyal back-room team – a situation with the potential for internal conflict. Martínez believes that the ability of the players and the opportunity to support such a talented group was the most powerful factor in achieving an effective working relationship and ensuring goal harmony within the group:

Firstly we have people who are very good in their roles. We have role clarity, and we allow people to work. The aim, for us, is always to get better, to help this fantastic generation. I think having that at the forefront of your work allows the team dynamics to be very simple. The only thing that matters is to try to affect the players and help this super-talented generation to perform well.

During his time with Wigan Warriors, Michael Maguire, now head coach at Wests Tigers in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) retained most of his staff but was also allowed the freedom to make some crucial appointments: ‘I always had someone there that I could bring in and start fresh in a certain way, so I’ve never really inherited a full staff and had to say, “Righto, this is what we’ve got.”’ In England, Maguire worked closely with Shaun Wane, ‘an assistant coach that worked out extremely well. He has gone on and had some success there. I also brought a strength and conditioner who had very similar traits to myself. Once we came together, everyone else understood what was required.’

He goes on to describe the contrasting situation he encountered upon arriving at the South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2012. ‘I basically moved all the staff except one. I didn’t want the staff that were there because all they knew were the bad days, the losses. I didn’t want that. I wanted a fresh start. So, you know what, we are going to turn this around by changing the way we think and do things.’ Making well-informed decisions on existing members of staff is a vital part of the cultural assessment process that a leader goes through when arriving at a new organisation. Maguire provides two examples, from Wigan and Sydney, of cultural signposts that a leader might identify in their support team.

Maguire’s relationship with Shaun Wane, a legendary former player at Wigan, throws up a unique leadership scenario. Almost immediately, it became abundantly clear that Wane wanted Maguire’s job, another fitting example of an assistant’s individual career goals. Despite the potential for conflict between two assertive characters, they dovetailed to great effect, winning both the Super League Grand Final and the Challenge Cup together. When Maguire left the club, Wane was unsurprisingly named as his replacement. He had bided his time and earned his opportunity, as Maguire recalls:

I knew he wanted the job. He didn’t do it in a disrespectful way and I actually thought it was quite healthy. I hope that it inspired all my staff, I want them to aspire to be the best they can be because ultimately, I want to get the best out of them. When I was an assistant coach, I wanted to be a head coach. That’s a natural thing. So, it was actually a really good working relationship. Sometimes you have to pull them back a little bit, but again it is the communication that you have and the honesty between your staff members. There’s no better feeling than seeing him going on and being successful. I watch all the games, I see him stand up in exactly the same position I am, and I am just as proud to see him go about it as I am all my other staff.

Similar contexts can be found in teams across the globe – in politics, commerce and education – and it is easy for such issues to rumble on in the background, fuelled by gossip and hearsay. In this instance, it was somewhat inevitable that Maguire, a proud Australian, would return home, where rugby league is a bigger draw than it is in the UK. The certainty of the situation, combined with open and honest communication between the two coaches, neither being shy in speaking their mind, lent a sense of clarity to a potentially uncertain position.

Members of staff forge undeniably emotional ties with their clubs and teams. To them, these teams are more than a high-performing culture or organisation; they are a huge part of their lives, their identity and meaning. I have seen this first-hand in teams I have worked with, where staff members are also lifelong supporters of the club, sometimes even passing a role down through the generations of their family. This attachment adds a further layer of intense emotion to the potential issues a leader can face when starting out in a role or trying to impact a culture too quickly. They have to be careful to understand the emotional component to this situation, spending time getting to know the people and empathising with how long they might have been there and the service they have given.

Change can be difficult, especially for those with a deep-rooted affiliation to a club’s tradition and heritage. Some individuals will struggle to respond to dynamic changes in an organisation. They might be committed to an existing series of behaviours and beliefs that a new leader is trying to shift, or they could be individuals who naturally crave the feeling of stability and security. Some will come round in time, and become key architects within the new culture as relationships are built and trust established. Others will ultimately end up moving on – or getting off the bus – should they fail to buy in to the vision of the leader.

The Making of a Leader is published by Robinson and available to pre-order now.