April 27, 2018 Written by: Matthew Lewis

by Matthew Lewis, Business Manager at TS Grale

On Friday 20 April, some news broke that surprised me and I suspect many sports followers – Arsene Wenger was to step down as Arsenal manager at the end of the season.

Arsene has been in post for nearly 22 years and for many, Arsene is Arsenal itself. He was the man in charge when the club won three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups, including the Double in 1998 and 2002.

According to the BBC, Wenger was the first manager “since 1888-89 to lead a team through an English top-flight season unbeaten in 2003-04.” It was his triumphs that earned a move into the £390m Emirates Stadium in 2006 after leaving Highbury, and even won his seventh FA Cup only last season, beating Chelsea 2-1 at Wembley.

The legacy of Wenger is cemented a little further given his backstory. The little-known French figure was recruited from Japanese side Nagoya Grampus Eight in 1996, which at the time this was a big gamble by Arsenal management. It was a gamble that paid off massively.

I read another BBC report this week in which Arsenal majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, described Arsene’s announcement as “one of the most difficult days we have ever had in all our years in sport” and that his “longevity and consistency over such a sustained period at the highest level of the game will never be matched.” 

Former vice-chairman David Dein has also said it felt like “a star has dropped out of the sky”and that Wenger will“undoubtedly go down in history as the greatest Arsenal manager ever.”

It’s fair to say that Arsene is the embodiment of a senior leader who is intrinsically linked with one commercial brand and institution.

When a Leader Steps Down

At age 68, Arsene announcing his plans to step down could hardly be called a shock. Yet, some figures in business appear timeless and unshakable. How can someone like that contemplate retirement?!

Arsenal, like so many other organisations in the same situation, faces the dilemma of what to do next. Should the business opt for experience or potential? Should headhunters seek to appoint an internationally-renowned figure or a coach with potential? Should they promote from within – a safer bet to hit the ground running – or should board members seek fresh talent from outside the organisation?

This issue is something with which we are regularly faced in the field of executive recruitment. How can someone who is seen as an institution ever be replaced? Or more accurately, how can such a figure be replaced effectively?

Choosing a Successor

To use an interesting parallel, Manchester United faced the same problem back in 2013 when Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager after a phenomenal 27 years at the helm. The club has been on a turbulent journey ever since, perpetually striving to attain the success seen under Sir Alex.

When Ferguson retired, his successor – David Moyes – was appointed in essence on Sir Alex’s recommendation. As history has shown us, this was a complete disaster. In less than a year, Moyes went, and two managers have since followed. What this shows us is that being an exceptional leader does not automatically make you a good character judge!

Making a hasty or inappropriate appointment can have a significant long-term impact with real business implications; there can be years of fallout as a result of poor planning regardless of the scale or type of industry involved. So, what can sport teach business?

Sport and business have a lot of synergies. Both operate in a results-based environment with high financial, political, and emotional stakes involved. Trust and loyalty are essential factors in both industries, especially when appointing a new leader, for employees to adopt an unfaltering belief in the direction an organisation is going. So:

  • Start succession planning. As the recent article by my colleague Richard explained, succession planning is vital for any organisation. Likewise, the timing of decisions is equally important such as when new talent – from Directors to Chief Executives/CFOs – comes onto the market.
  • Plan some more! As someone who specialises in recruitment for Supply-Chain Management, I know the value in planning and process. This couldn’t be more pertinent than in recruitment – logistics and planning are vital.
  • Communicate change. This is a necessity in all organisations and yet so many perform unnecessarily poorly at it. In periods of change, a good communication strategy is essential to maintain balance with all stakeholders and employees.
  • Use a recruitment partner effectively. If utilised properly, an executive search firm can add greater value to the process and hopefully increase the chances of a successful outcome. Companies like TS Grale take time to understand a business and its industry, the different facets of a job role, deliverables, and undertake an in-depth analysis of what’s required.
  • Look at a role holistically. A realistic amount of time needs to be taken analysing business objectives in line with senior job roles. There is often a tendency for businesses to replace a senior leader with a lower-level post for a variety of reasons – not least as a cost saving – but this is not always a long-term solution.
  • Don’t always replace like for like. Just because a certain personality type fitted into a role before, it’s not always beneficial to try and find a carbon copy given the variety of other factors involved. Having said that, any replacement must be empathetic to organisational needs and have a desire to maintain continuity in order to steady the transition and assuage staff and stakeholder fears.
  • Culture is key.  An essential part of recruitment is culture fit. Using the example of Manchester United, the managers appointed since Sir Alex’s departure have not been wrong on paper. None have been inexperienced, and all have had varied backgrounds in the football industry. They were the wrong fit for the job. Not everyone is for every business.

So, the question is, will Arsenal learn from the mistakes of Manchester United?

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