Learning Lessons from Leicester City

Senior Consultant
Learnworks Ltd
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The underdogs did it. Despite starting the season at 5,000:1 outsiders, Leicester City secured the Premiership title last night amongst much merriment in the Midlands and a sense of benign disbelief in the football world. From Brazil to Bahrain, from Birmingham to Bangkok, everybody’s second favourite team has triumphed against the odds.

It’s an old learning and training trope that we can use sporting metaphors to shed some light on organisational issues and skills development in particular but there are four reasons why I think that the success of Leicester City may have some wider resonance.

Since the start of the Premiership, we have known that teams which average 2 points per game are competing for honours and those who manage 1 point per game or fewer will find themselves facing relegation.That simple data point leads us to our first lesson from Leicester City:

Data Matters:  It has been documented elsewhere that Manager Claudio Ranieri relies on a significant amount of data to help prepare the team for each match.  The sports science team at Leicester includes seven professionals who use a range of technology to analyse individual performance, fitness and conditioning to give each team member the best advice about how to prepare.  Rather like Sir Dave Brailsford’s focus on data as he prepared the phenomenally successful UK Olympic Cycling team, Claudio Ranieri and his players know exactly what good looks like.  By focusing on specific performance measures which indicate good performance, each individual builds a holistic picture of the factors which can direct their effort and convert that effort into performance.

If we think about the L&D team as Performance Science Consultants it would certainly change our relationship with the rest of the business.

Locus of Control: The data that Ranieri and his team have at their disposal enables the team to concentrate on doing the right things, right.  This means that you rarely hear the Leicester manager or players talking about good or bad refereeing, good or bad luck, the rub of the green or the run of the ball.  They know that external forces are outside their control – they can only do the things they can do and they concentrate on those, often quite small, things.  How often do you hear a football manager blame a poor result on the referee or opposition foul play?  Ranieri concentrates on the things that can be controlled and for which he and his players have specific responsibility. Each individual knows what they need to do and how their role impacts the team.  They take responsibility for their own performance – individually and as a team.

After our interventions, do people know exactly where their responsibility lies and what they need to do differently?

Focus on Performance: I’ve been impressed by listening to Ranieri in post-match interviews.  Win, lose or draw he talks about the team’s performance rather than the result.  After the recent loss to Arsenal, his most telling comment was: “We lost but we are satisfied.  We played the same level as against Manchester City.  Then we won, today we lost.  It is OK.”  This focus on performance rather than the blunt assessment which is the final result is interesting and ultimately at the heart of the team’s success. 

His embodiment of Kipling’s famous lines “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same” is instructive for leaders, trainers and learners. We know sometimes people perform well and don’t achieve the results their performance or efforts deserve, at other times people do not perform especially well and yet achieve exceptional results. Building skills is based on continuing to do the right things in the belief that positive results will follow. It takes confidence and an unswerving commitment.

In my experience, managers who don’t immediately see results improve may be quite eager to ditch the new ideas coming from L&D in favour of the tried and tested. No matter how many times we explain that the definition of stupidity is doing the same things and expecting different results, we are rarely given the time and commitment required to actually improve capability.

Building a Team: I have no special insight into the workings of the Leicester dressing room, but if Ranieri’s TV comments are matched by the tone he takes with his players, it would be difficult to imagine that the team weren’t dedicated to continuing to do the right things, right.  The overwhelmingly positive assessment of his player’s performance and their contribution – individual and as a team – is also a positive factor in building team spirit. When individuals such as Vardy, or Player of the Year Mahrez, are singled out for praise in interviews, Ranieri always acknowledges their contribution and then talks about the others who enabled them to achieve.

It is well known that Ranieri took over a team which had already started to turn the corner at the end of the previous season. In keeping with his belief in team integrity, Ranieri didn’t make wholesale changes but worked with the staff in place under the previous manager and maintained a healthy dialogue with the experienced members of his squad. He built on the green shoots of success rather than clearing the ground for his own ideas.

When other managers may make wholesale changes to ‘make their mark’ not only has Ranieri evolved the way the team works, he has stood by his team.Of the most familiar starting 11, the player who has played least has played 27 of the possible 36 Premiership games over the course of the season.

Work often involves change and the L&D team are often involved in helping change happen. Sometimes leaders need patience and perseverance to build, evolve and tirelessly implement proven approaches – despite occasional and inevitable setbacks.

Looking at these four factors in relation to our work, I can see direct parallels.I’m currently working with sales teams – teams which are even more results orientated than Premiership football clubs.

I can see how identifying the individual behaviours which work and then having data about the adoption of these behaviours will lead to those individuals being better prepared.

I can see how encouraging team members to take responsibility for completing their part of each task rather than concentrating on those factors over which they exercise little control would lead to people owning their role and having greater goal clarity.

I can see how focusing on the minutiae of performance today and in the future, rather than historical results, would build capability.

Finally, I can see how being part of a successful team is based on acknowledgement of everyone’s contribution and clarity about how we win together but lose when we are divided.

Some have attributed Leicester’s success to the discovery of Richard III’s grave in Leicester City Centre. Of course, it could conceivably be down to the discovery of a long deceased royal in a nearby car park, but given we are unlikely to have a king buried in the grounds of our corporate HQ, we might need to learn some more temporal lessons about how teams and individuals succeed.

Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development.  His is also a learning and technology consultant working with Huthwaite International.  Robin is the author of two books published by Kogan Page: Informal Learning in Organizations: how to create a continuous learning culture and Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement.

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