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So you sacked a manager. So what?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Last December, José Mourinho was sacked as manager of Manchester United, one of the world’s richest and most trophy-laden football clubs. His firing was almost universally welcomed by United’s faithful fans. A caretaker replacement, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, was appointed in his place quickly. He has since gone on to land a permanent contract.

This club has been in a downward spiral ever since the retirement of its legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, after decades at the helm. The board of the football club hired and fired Mourinho – but before him, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

My problem: managers are hired and fired whimsically. They carry the can when results falter. But why are those who do the hiring immune from consequences?

Consider these facts. When Ferguson stepped down, the board hired the nondescript Moyes in this place – a man who had never won a major trophy in his career. On top of that, it offered Moyes a bizarre 6-year contract. He lasted 9 months. Van Gaal, a spent force before he arrived, killed off any remaining elements of positive, exciting football in his two seasons. Mourinho was then drafted in and given a whopper contract. It was even extended before he was fired halfway through a lamentable final season. All the departing managers received handsome payoffs.

Through all this, the United board and senior executives have survived unscathed. They have hired weirdly, managed their hires badly, and then repeated the exercise. But they’re just fine.

So it is with so many football teams, and so many organisations in general. There are always managers to blame whenever a fiasco or failure occurs. Heads will always roll. But not usually the heads of those who make the key decisions.

If there is one decision above all that a board of directors must get right, it is the hiring of its chief executive and senior management team. If you get that one badly wrong, you can tick all the other good-governance boxes you like – there’s trouble coming. It’s the same lower down. If you can’t get the right people on your bus, you won’t go far. When those who run the enterprise are misfits, nothing else really matters.

That selection is not easy to do. Knowing in advance who is likely to prove a good fit in your business is a tricky undertaking. We all make recruitment mistakes (I know I have) and will continue to do so. But if you are making serial errors in choosing your top people, and repeating the exact same mistakes, surely you have to share the consequences.

If the c-suite of an organization has become a merry-go-round, with some seat-holders flung off and new ones jumping on board repeatedly while the organisation goes round in circles, then shareholders, fans, customers have to say enough is enough. Surely there’s something wrong with the way we do this.

What’s the real problem: bad hires, or a bad system?

It is never enough to just find a scapegoat to behead when there’s trouble. At some point, the question must be asked: are we doing this selection and promotion thing wrong? Are we choosing and managing talent badly? Are we creating the conditions in which results can be achieved, or are we propagating systemic – and predictable – failure?

Those at the top of the tree are not known for such introspection, however. They are very good at pointing the finger of blame downwards, and very poor at asking questions of themselves. And yet, if we wish to build remarkable organisations that stand the test of time, searching questions are very necessary, at all levels. Every major error should lead to an exacting postmortem; every senior departure should lead to some far-reaching lessons.

And what about you, voters? How many failed leaders will you put in office before it occurs to you that you may be doing something wrong? How much ineptitude, how much plunder of public funds, how much tomfoolery is enough for you to look in the mirror? Or will you also go to the polls to remove the old failures and elect their replicas in their place, so that the game of retarded development continues ad infinitum? At what point will you think afresh about the nature of the candidates you actually need to support, and what is in your own interest?

(Sunday Nation, 21 April 2019)

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