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  • Writer's pictureChris Smith

Putting People First

Everton FC are an English association football club founded in Liverpool in 1878. And while we here in American have adopted the shorthand for “association football” or soccer, most people around the world call it football. To date, Everton have spent more seasons in the top flight of English football than any other club including some of their more famous neighbors in Liverpool and Manchester. Their success is due, in part, to their ability to consistently develop players. Everton develops their young players on a farm - Fitch Farm to be exact. While this particular farm may not have the conventional attributes of other farms, there is one clear parallel that holds firm… their objective is to pursue

the ideal conditions for growth. Everton’s product is young soccer talent. Despite a smaller budget than most of the other clubs who share positions on lists of “best academies in the world”, Everton continue to produce some of England’s best young talent.

AFC Ajax, or simply Ajax, are the most storied club in the Netherlands and among the most successful in Europe. Many of the most highly regarded Dutch players of all time including the likes of Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Rinus Michels, Edwin van der Saar, and of course, Johan Cruyff, for whom their impressive arena is named, have not only contributed to Ajax four European Cups, but grew up in Amsterdam’s famous Ajax. At Ajax, where the leadership ranks are replete with former stars who grew up in their culture, development is the singular priority. Even in their famous Greek-styled logo artfully constructed of 11 lines to represent the 11 players in a team, no detail has been spared from the message of development.

Ajax value-invests in itself and the majority of the annual budget is funded by sales of players whose transfer fees effectively pay for the next batch of highly touted youngsters. This is a place where each and every subtlety of player development is accounted for, and the best possible conditions for development are pursued relentlessly.

If you were to approach the front gate of Parkhead’s famous Celtic Park in Glasgow, you could be forgiven for missing the enormous white letters affixed over on the right side of the stadium. It seems to be out of place, at least from a branding or marketing perspective. But the reason might be there in the message itself. For Celtic FC, “Paradise” is a far more valuable destination than a location, and its message is positioned perfectly in the view of the Celtic academy training grounds situated a few short kilometers away. When the Celtic youngsters train there on the Glasgow nights that begin earlier than most, their view is dominated by the green and white message in the bright lights, which is calling them home. Recognizing the value of a shared purpose in development, Celtic quite literally lights the path to the destination - from their modest academy training fields to the Paradise of the famous Celtic Park. Where most of us have to dream about what we want to be when we grow up, in Glasgow, there kids have merely to look up… at least on the green side of town.

The best developmental academies in Europe leave very little to chance in creating their conditions for development. Players who arrive for training at unsatisfactory hydration levels are precluded from training. Players are ensured to have appropriate nourishment for high performance athletics because their food is prepared by cooks according to specific guidelines. Players who will compete physically against more physical, more mature players are taught judo to better understand how to leverage their weight and their bodies, particularly during puberty, and players who must maintain their academic lessons are taught and tutored by teachers provided by the club. These are only some examples where clubs invest in minimizing and mitigating any obstacles to development.

In each of these clubs, like so many of their prestigious peers, we find extraordinary examples of pure people development. So while so many of the players at these academies will ultimately ply their professional trades at other clubs, the metaphor of leading a horse to water applies. The most impactful development conditions ultimately rely on the players to choose to drink. Even the most successful directors, executives, managers, and coaches recognize that the best they can do is to craft, to influence, to educate, and to provide resources so that the players can have everything they need to develop. But they can not make them drink.

Having had the opportunity to visit each of these academies, meet their coaches and directors, and observe their young players in action, what I’ve come to appreciate most is the quality of the Organizational Health in these clubs. Don’t get me wrong - these clubs are big business. Top players who are developed by academies can produce transfer fees in the tens of millions of dollars. In an average year, even players who are determined not to be sufficiently ready to play for the first team in the same club can be sold to other clubs for fees which collectively exceed over one million dollars.

The healthiest academy programs recognize certain things: The club cannot produce the transfer fee - they can create conditions for a youngster to become a top player, and they cannot consistently identify at ages early enough to know which youngster will become a top player - so they must invest equally in each of them. The youngsters be trusted and must be encouraged to trust, they must feel safe, they must feel able to make mistakes that will help them to learn, and they must experience reward - financial yes, but more based on the social dynamics of the team and club - for meeting and exceeding expectations. In order for those dynamics to persist and to affect broadly players from all imaginable backgrounds and home scenarios, the system must be made to be healthy.

Can conventional businesses make this type of investment in people? Of course they can. But can a conventional business invest so centrally in people, thus creating a paradigm where the success of the business is depended upon the investment in the people? I'm not sure we’ve yet seen a pure example. Southwest comes pretty close as do Patagonia and Alan Mullaly’s Ford. I argue that we should see more - more leaders learning forward towards health as a strategy for long term growth and sustainability, and more leaders prioritizing people as a strategy for creating world class culture, where the best and brightest people will want to be.

Here are four thoughts about why we don’t see a more robust investment in strategies that are proven to produce desired outcomes when people become the priority:

  1. Patience - Too many leaders simply don’t have the patience to develop people as a means to sustainable achievement of organizational goals. In some cases, leaders in temporary roles focus on achieving their own advantages or quick wins, while in others, shareholders, board members, and other executives see people as simple assets rather than as the most central factor in performance.

  2. Measurement - In too many cases, leaders don’t measure the right things. Metrics like shareholder value and stock price, which rarely affect the day-to-day purpose of the rank and file individual contributors, are short-sighted and do very little to drive performance. With a next generation of workers disinterested in the brand allegiance that our drove our parents and unmotivated by a cracking whip, we need to measure different behaviors to find viable paths to sustainability.

  3. Investment - As in ‘…we’re not big enough to invest in Organizational Health.” You may notice that I didn’t not include the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich. The examples presented above are far from the wealthiest clubs in the world. In fact, it is precisely because of the strength of their organizational health that medium sized clubs are able to behave like bigger ones.

  4. Trust - A lack of trust will always negatively impact performance. While perhaps not as obvious in an office as it might be on the fields of Liverpool, Amsterdam, and Glasgow, employees who are constantly questioning their own instincts, who fear retribution from their leaders, and who struggle to find shadow paths to success in the absence of healthy expectations and norms, will always be limited in terms of the creativity, innovation, and collaboration upon which the best teams rely. I will never understand leaders who invest aggressively in process and technology, and then allow broken trust to ruin it all.

To illustrate these points, I ask each of you who has a child or has ever been a child to consider what it might have been like to have been a member of one of the top Academy programs in the world. Imagine being the focus of an organization which has been designed to create the very best conditions for your development. This is not to say that performance isn’t tracked or that performance isn’t important - you do after all need to understand whether the development strategies are working. But for the employee or team member, or in our analogy the player, think for a moment about the freedom based on implicit trust with which these athletes can leverage their conditioning and education to make bold contributions to the team.

Now if you are a business leader, give me one reason why you shouldn’t invest in your employees to contribute to your team with that same level of freedom.

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