Did Fabio Capello build a team or a legacy of dependency?

Posted 02 March 2012 by
Did Fabio Capello build a team or a legacy of dependency?

So, one England football team manager has resigned and it may only be a short time before another one replaces him.

Will it be a case of 'The King is dead – long live the King'? One interesting discovery has emerged from recent events. Although managers of football teams at this level are paid millions of pounds, their roles are fundamentally similar to those of most other managers employed in any medium or large organisation. They act as shields, protectors and motivators of team members, as well as tacticians, but they have remarkably little 'position power'. They have some say in key decisions, such as who is team captain or who is bought and sold (hired and fired), but the only decisions they have full control over are who plays on a particular day and who sits on the subs' bench.

Both football team managers and other managers are hired to make the whole (the team) greater than the sum of its parts. To do this, tactical or logistical knowledge is required in order to get the job done (the task element), but there is a limited amount that can be achieved through such interventions. Teams are primarily emotional and personal structures, and their performance depends heavily on bonds between individual team members (the emotional element).

This was well illustrated in the World Cup in 2010 when the England football team demonstrated how brittle its confidence was. Most likely, this was caused by weak bonds between the players themselves. Supporters were dismayed to witness individuals who reliably achieve above-average performance in the context of their club teams failing to bring a similar level of performance to the national team.

Managers are responsible for creating these bonds between team members, just as much as they are responsible for building the bonds between themselves and the team. I would even argue that building the bonds between team members is the more important. High cohesion creates resilience and this gives a team confidence, productivity and longevity and reduces the impact when a manager leaves. Resilience begins to be achieved when the team members are at least as dependent on each other as they are on the leader.

What underpins resilience and what should team leaders do to develop it? The main ingredients are trust and support, communication, conflict management and alignment. The sign that it is being achieved is an increased commitment to improvement. Deliberate fostering of trust and support are best achieved over a long period of time and away from the main task. This is why national football teams seek to get together at an isolated venue for weeks before a major tournament. There they spend much less time kicking a football around and doing press-ups than they do just getting to know each other.

In all teams, issues of communication and getting to know the other person can be greatly facilitated by the use of expert intervention. The whole atmosphere of sharing all this information can remove barriers to directness between individuals. However, candour can also result in conflict and identifying individual conflict-management styles and discussing ways of dealing constructively with conflict is an essential component of any team-building event.

When trust is built and barriers to open and candid communication are swept away, then the path to team alignment is clear. For most teams, alignment does not mean a common commitment to the outcome, but to methods of achieving the outcome. In a well-functioning team, tactics are discussed, suggestions made and roles are assigned collectively. As soon as a successful task outcome is achieved, commitment to continuous improvement surely follows.

This is the cycle of winning that all teams aspire to, but it can only be achieved if an environment can be created for open and honest conversations to take place.

The collective needs of a well-functioning team can be met through leadership. But while a team requires leadership, this does not mean that they necessarily need to have a single leader... In well-functioning teams, individual team members themselves can supply many of the requirements of leadership. There is a flaw in the idea that every team needs or should become dependent on a charismatic leader. Great team managers make themselves dispensable, and are more interested in meeting the team's needs through the relationship talents of the team members themselves than they are in making the team dependent on them.

So what will be Fabio Capello's legacy? Did he follow the requirements for building a good team? We will only know if the England squad continues to win without him. If he did not, his successor will have to take the steps necessary to build confidence and resilience and make him or herself dispensable. And when that successor resigns, we may truly be able to say, 'The King is dead - long live the King'.

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