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Chelsea FC: Lessons in how not to recruit leaders

Feb 16, 2009 Business Daily, Leadership

“Chelsea have sensationally sacked manager Luiz Felipe Scolari.
The club’s website revealed the dramatic move had been made “to maintain a challenge for the trophies we are still competing for”.
World Cup winner Scolari had only been in the job since June 2008, when he became Chelsea’s third boss in a year.
Chelsea are fourth in the Premier League but remain in the Champions League and FA Cup, with Ray Wilkins in charge until a successor is appointed.
Scolari signed a lucrative three-year deal when he joined Chelsea and the London club could face a hefty compensation pay-out to their former manager.
Scolari’s spokesman Acaz Felleger said it was Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich who had run out of patience with the Brazilian coach.”

BBC Sport (9 February 2009)

The football world was left stunned last week when Chelsea, one of the globe’s leading clubs, sacked its manager – after just 7 months in charge. And this was no ordinary manager: Felipe (‘Big Phil’) Scolari is one of the game’s most accomplished and most popular figures, having taken his native Brazil to World Cup victory in 2002. After Brazil he coached the more modest Portuguese national team, taking them to the finals of the European Championship and the semi-finals of the World Cup.

So Big Phil was no midget, yet he was unceremoniously bundled out by Chelsea after just 36 games in charge (of which his team won 20). So what, exactly, did he do wrong? The club cited the need to keep competing for major trophies this season as the overwhelming reason Scolari had to go. There is no doubt that the club is not the force it was a couple of years ago, when it won back-to-back English league titles. But 36 games? Is that really enough time to measure the impact of a top-level manager?

The problem lies elsewhere. Chelsea is owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who runs the club like a personal fiefdom. What Roman says, goes, and what Roman wants, happens. Note that Chelsea is now looking for its fifth manager since Abramovich bought the club in 2003. Abramovich is obsessed with winning the European Champions League, a trophy that has thus far eluded the club. Any signs of a faltering campaign with regard to that cup are not tolerated.

Abramovich is willing to throw any amount of money, and deploy the world’s top managers, to get him that trophy in his cabinet. The problem? This approach doesn’t work. A football team is a complex organisation, one that is wholly dependent on key people. Merely assembling the best players under a top manager isn’t enough: a team of talents must click under a leader who can get the best out of them. This takes time, and time is what Abramovich doesn’t allow.

The most successful team in recent times is Manchester United, whose long-standing manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, has won no fewer than 30 trophies. But here’s the thing: Ferguson has been in charge for 22 years, and the first seven of those were barren. If Manchester United had been as impatient then as Chelsea is now, there would have been no success story.

The fact is, it takes time for a winning combination to click in any organisation. You don’t just throw in a new leader, watch what he does for 6 months, and then throw him out. That is infantile thinking. Studies of modern organisations suggest that CEOs are given five years to prove themselves. Unless, of course, your recruit is an obvious dud. But Scolari was no dud. Abramovich and his board (such as it is) should be looking at themselves. Where there is such a high turnover of managers, the fault lies with those who do the recruiting.

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