Often, business likes to identify learning from the world of sport. The emotional peaks and troughs are rich pickings. Sometimes people dismiss sport as too different from business and the world of work. The analogies don’t work, they say. It seems to me that the England football manager, Gareth Southgate, is reversing the trend and embracing many features of modern workplace learning. We can all take something from this because the common denominator of all experience is people. Who isn’t inspired by the tales of how others overcome the odds to succeed in every walk of life? Let’s look at his process.
A personal affinity
Firstly, what a dramatic tale of karma and redemption! From shouldering the mighty weight of the unmet expectations of a whole nation in 1990 when a German goalkeeper saves his semi-final penalty kick, Gareth Southgate manages an England football team that wins its first ever World Cup penalty shootout 28 years later. So, it didn’t come home, but we made it to a World Cup semi-final for only the third time in nearly a century.
I watched Southgate play many times in his youth for the team I’ve supported my whole life. Solid, dependable, unflashy. I’ve even bumped into him several times by pure coincidence. Once walking around a reservoir in Yorkshire when out for a run with his dog (he nearly knocked me over). A couple of other times in hotels where he was staying between clubs (he politely gave me his autograph) and where he was speaking in a classroom to some England youth players. So, I feel a loose affinity by association.
In 2003, while still a player, Southgate wrote an award-winning memoir with his best friend, Andy Woodman, called Woody and Nord. (Nord was his nickname because his way of speaking reminded a coach of TV presenter, Denis Norden). What stands out is someone who is articulate, thoughtful, humble, and intensely loyal. As he himself says, he’s not one for following the crowd. These qualities still shine through today.
When Woody and I sit down as fortysomethings to have that drink, what will we remember? I know for sure it will be … more about friends than achievements. Laughter will outweigh regret by a long, long way. Gareth Southgate, then 32 (now 47).
Learning to lead
Geoff Thomas, Southgate’s captain early in his career, remembers him as grounded, level-headed, and a natural sponge soaking up the learning. So, it’s fascinating to see him now seemingly embracing modern learning approaches from business. Learning to lead involves being curious, experimenting, accumulating knowledge, generating wisdom and what works for you. There isn’t a manual.
Southgate encourages the players to write their own stories, straight out of the personal branding playbook. He draws upon psychology and his own experience to focus the players’ minds on the present. He doesn’t want them to be weighed down by the past – living up to the 1966 World Cup pinnacle, dwelling on the penalty shootout failures, and the nadir of losing to Iceland at the Euros. As several sports performance consultants say in a media article, changing the language and reframing shifts mindsets. No longer are penalties seen as a threat, but an opportunity. An exciting adventure, not trepidation. Freedom, not fear.
Open to learning
Also, Southgate could not achieve this without the players being open to learning. That doesn’t happen by chance or overnight. He sets the example and primed his players over a period of time. For example, he exposes them to other environments like the SAS to open minds. Coaching in the business world is a process. You are ready for coaching when you see and accept the need, are aware of the consequences of doing nothing and have a genuine desire to do something about it.
Emotional Intelligence guru, Daniel Goleman, would probably describe Southgate’s initial leadership style as affiliative – developing a feeling of connection within the team and resolving a conflict. His task was to rebuild a broken team and reconnect with the fans following the ignominy of Iceland. That means supporting half the players in today’s squad who experienced it to prevent it from defining them. It also involves managing expectations through the media and how he sets the tone in person when meeting the fans.
His humility shines through in talking about the wider team (backroom and players) before himself. Also, in the empathy and compassion he shows when commiserating with opposition players who miss a penalty. He maintains calm when things go wrong (letting in a goal) and that’s how the players respond too so they can still perform under pressure.
Clear ethos, flexible style
What I like most about Gareth Southgate is that his words and actions align. Many in business don’t live up to that in my experience. Leaders who get it right stand up for what they believe in (he had a plan) and are not afraid to make tough decisions. Hence, he flexes his style appropriately – leaving out previously undroppable players, recognising the reslience and mental toughness work to rebuild confidence after the Euros and allowing talent to express itself when it matters.
A team is a reflection of its leader… Simon Hartley, Be World Class
Also, Southgate communicates his ideas clearly – simplifying complexity to avoid cognitive overload which allows the players to think clearly when under pressure.
Owning the process
Memorably, Southgate talks about the players owning the process when it comes to taking penalties. What does he mean? I read it as:
- Doing your homework – watching the videos and knowing the stats on where this goalkeeper tends to dive.
- Practicing, practicing, and practicing again – sticking to your routine, honing your delivery, keeping a focus.
- Controlling what you can – positive mental rehearsing, visualising yourself performing at your best step by step.
- Removing the interferences – getting in in the zone to block out the crowd, acknowledging negative thoughts that appear and letting them drift away, capturing your own attention.
- Encouraging teammates – linking arms around each other’s shoulders in the centre circle, going over to your goalkeeper after taking your penalty to hug or fist pump; in it together, in the present.
Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard. Thai Navy Seal
British tennis player, Johanna Konta, also talks about the importance of process in her success. What she means is that, if you focus on your technique for each point of each game, the outcome will take care of itself. She has a system of playing that works for her.
Southgate owns his process too, the overarching strategic one. He knows the way he wants his teams to play, even if the final version only became apparent just before the World Cup. His preparation is excellent – scenario planning, clear roles and responsibilities, working on mindset and behaviours as well as footballing skills. He chooses people for their character as well as their ability. People still young enough to forge good habits (the youngest squad at the World Cup). Whether by luck or judgement, the FA deserves a pat on the back here because they got the recruitment right for once. He worked with many of the players at U21 level. Continuity helps in shaping talent, identifying and realising potential.
Southgate also brought in a psychologist with expertise in developing group cultures in a sports setting. The work of Pippa Grange helped create the group’s identity and build high trust between the players themselves as well as with the manager.
The culture is now one of solidarity and sociability. Players describe each other as brothers, not divisive cliques. Southgate thinks about the collective (whole squad, not just team). Deliberately, he gives squad players the opportunity to play in a dead rubber game against Belgium in the Group Stage. Now they can tell their grandchildren they played in a World Cup.
Players are open with the media and the fans. Southgate encourages them to drop the mask of monied superstardom.Even though Harry Kane is the media’s star player, he never acts like that. Many of this group of players come from humble backgrounds, mixed heritage, playing in the lower leagues, fans themselves (Harry Maguire was on the terraces at the Euros), making it easier to build a connection. The unifying power of diversity in its widest sense.
A role model for unity
In these divisive times for the UK, Gareth Southgate reminds us how the fundamental values that have stood us well for decades can be a unifying force for good. Many have forgotten what a statesman with integrity looks like. They would do well to open their hearts and minds again.
Do you own your process? What can you take from Gareth Southgate to apply in your world?