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Mourinho vs the All Blacks – lessons in legacy building

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Sport can always offer interesting parallels with business and how different personalities affect the direction a business can take. I have previously written a piece on cultural misfits in the wake of the Kevin Pietersen fall-out with the England Cricket set-up and it is gratifying to see their decision to axe him being vindicated in their Ashes series win and to see the embattled Cook lead that win as captain.

Recently, and despite being only a part-time rugby fan, I’ve become fascinated by the All Blacks and the methods and behaviour that have resulted in their extraordinary run of success in recent years, including back-to-back world cup wins. I’ve been equally intrigued by the developments at Chelsea FC and in particular Mourinho’s methods in leading football clubs. While the All Blacks team is an entity and Mourinho is an individual we can still draw comparisons in the context of the clubs he has managed. Here are a few areas to look at that are applicable to business growth:

The All Blacks brand is an iconic one and arguably has never been as strong as it is now. It has been fostered over many years and it all emanates from the culture they’ve created. It is not just their style of play that has created the most attractive brand in world rugby but their culture too, particularly their behaviour. Here is a humble group that assigns players to clean up the dressing room after each match, they will not ‘be looked after’ – they will look after themselves. Everyone in the group is empowered to take on responsibility and to set an example outside rugby. This all serves to inspire the next generation of All Blacks and to maintain high levels of team spirit, particularly important for those who are not making the first XV, or fighting to get into the squad. They have always had a strong identity but they appear to have really crystallised this with a clearly thought out focus on some underlying values – humility, respect and excellence.

Mourinho’s ability to develop a winning mentality is not in question, he is well-known for fostering quick bonds with his players and in generating exceptional levels of work-rate when he first takes over a club. But then comes the media-coined ‘third-season syndrome’ where the wheels fall off and relationships begin to deteriorate. To me, this seems in no small part due to the siege mentality strategy he employs at clubs, as he seeks to create a them-against-us mentality and a dogged win-at-all-costs playing style, and to almost revel in being disliked by all except Chelsea’s own fans. Of course, you need some competitive inspiration but it appears a negative way by which to set out your stall, rather than the way in which the All Blacks set out to inspire – and not just aspiring All Blacks – all those watching the game. Because this mentality is underpinned by negativity, it takes up more energy for the players. It must be exhausting to be fighting against that kind of tide and, furthermore, to see your leader continually show a complete lack of humility after defeats. Cracks start to appear in the third season of any club he has managed as the culture invites those cracks.

Mourinho himself is often the dominant story in any of the clubs he has managed, he is the one at the front, taking most of the glory when it comes and, as we have seen recently, a lot of flak too when things go wrong. The players have slipped to the background and the board are nowhere to be seen besides the odd media statement. In one sense, for Mourinho to take on such responsibility, is an admirable trait in a leader. In another it is hindering the development of a culture of responsibility throughout the club, which is vital for any company.

The All Blacks have never had such a focus on individuals and employ a strategy of promoting responsibility from the bottom up. Everyone in the group is empowered to take on responsibility and to set an example outside of rugby. This all serves to inspire the next generation of All Blacks and to maintain high levels of team spirit – for all members of the wider squad.

Mourinho’s ability to develop a winning mentality is not in question, he is well-known for fostering quick bonds with his players and in generating exceptional levels of work-rate when he first takes over a club. But then comes the media-coined ‘third-season syndrome’ where the wheels fall off and relationships begin to deteriorate. To me, this seems in no small part due to the siege mentality strategy he employs at clubs, as he seeks to create a them-against-us mentality and a dogged win-at-all-costs playing style, and to almost revel in being disliked by all except Chelsea’s own fans. Of course, you need some competitive inspiration but it appears a negative way by which to set out your stall, rather than the way in which the All Blacks set out to inspire – and not just aspiring All Blacks – all those watching the game. Because this mentality is underpinned by negativity, it takes up more energy for the players. It must be exhausting to be fighting against that kind of tide and, furthermore, to see your leader continually show a complete lack of humility after defeats. Cracks start to appear in the third season of any club he has managed as the culture invites those cracks.

The All Blacks, of course, only have a finite pool of players from which to choose, but they have the benefit of rugby being the national sport and played by most children across the country. There is no shortage of aspiring young All Blacks from which they can recruit. That is helped immeasurably by the culture and brand they have developed and the example being set in that regard by the current senior players – it has become one of the ultimate aspirations to become an All Black so there is a continual demand of players pushing for progression to get to each level before the ultimate one. The New Zealand coach, Steve Hansen, was offered a contract through to 2019 (when the next World Cup takes place) but he turned it down and instead is contracted through until 2017. The reason, he has said, is that he didn’t feel it would be in the best interests of the team, rather that the All Blacks would be best served by a fresh approach from a new manager, especially given the extreme pressure facing the manager of the world’s most famous rugby team. This shows excellent clarity of thought at the top level for the best succession planning strategy in the interests of the team.

Mourinho has always preferred a strategy involving a strong core of senior and experienced players who he knows he can trust and is not known for developing up and coming players or giving lots of chances to youth players. Indeed, Chelsea has invested a lot of money in its youth development set-up but has ended up sending their promising youth players out on loan to a variety of other clubs. This practice is unlikely to inspire young kids in the future to join Chelsea if there is another club that is shown to give better development and first-team chances to those progressing through the ranks. This, in turn, harms their chances of developing a stronger club identity and brand that will last long into the future. Also, given the leadership structure and focus on one man at the top, this creates significant issues if he suddenly leaves, whether voluntary or not.

Both have had plenty of success over the past 10 years, there is no question about that. Mourinho has been successful wherever he has managed a club, and he clearly has some exceptional leadership qualities. He is well on his way to creating a strong personal legacy of success. The question is what he sets up and leaves behind in terms of sustainable success in the future, and of the brand, culture and behaviour that creates the type of legacy that the All Blacks have created. It is the type of question facing businesses as they seek to marry together their leadership recruitment with their business goals.

Many companies have followed the Mourinho/Chelsea route because there will be periods of success that suit the decision-makers/major shareholders at the time but not necessarily what is best for the long-term interests of the business. I can think of many business leaders who have achieved successive periods of personal success at different companies but not laid the foundations for sustained success at those businesses. There is nothing wrong in seeking short term successes and indeed the business world has become (almost) as impatient as the sporting world in its expectations – note the increase in executive interim appointments and lack of effective succession planning strategy. But when analysing a person’s achievements it is vitally important to look at the underlying strategies by which they set out to build these components for sustainability as well as their experience in achieving short term goals and assessing this in the context of what the business truly wants to be.

Leo Meggitt, Partner, Forster Chase