English Football (soccer) and Executive Development

Note:  This was written and posted in 2014 but is still very appropriate, especially with the UEFA European Championships under way.


For the past 20 years  I have been living in London and to say that the English are football crazy would be an understatement.  There are multiple football leagues, as well as club teams in almost every village.  The latest statistics show there are more than 140 individual leagues, containing more than 480 divisions, with an estimated average of 15 clubs per division, giving this tiny country more than 7,000 teams in the English men’s football league system.

The leagues are structured in a hierarchical format, with the Premier League being the top 20 clubs, which include such globally recognised names as Manchester United, 170px-England_crest_2009.svgChelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City, among others. And then there is the English National Football Team, The Three Lions, made up of the best English national players, including such global superstars as Wayne Rooney and David Beckham (now retired).

England compete in the FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship, which alternate biennially. England won the World Cup in 1966. Their best performance since has been a semi-final appearance in 1990. England have never won the UEFA European Football Championship – their best performances being semi-final appearances in  1968 and 1996.

What’s interesting is that England league football attracts many of the very best players wayne-rooneyfrom around the world, often for huge salaries (upwards of £40M). In the 2013 Top 10 Premier league players, only 2 (Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge) are English, the others are from Uruguay (Luis Suarez), Holland (Robin van Persie), Germany (Mesut Ozil), the Ivory Coast (Yaya Toure), Belgium (Vincent Kompany), Argentina (Sergio Aguer0),  Spain (Juan Mata), and Denmark (Christian Eriksen).  Polls may differ as to who are the top 10, but the small ratio of English to other world players remains about the same.

So here is what is interesting to me.  The best place to play serious league football is England, who also pay the highest salaries, and who tend to have great fan support, but the English National team routinely shows up extremely poorly in the World Cup and the European Championships. This year’s 2014 world Cup performance is no exception, despite all the marketing hype and social media frenzy. England lost 2 games, tied one, finished last in Group D, and was sent home early.

Why the perennial poor showing by England?

Simple really, rather than spend millions on youth soccer and developing the next generation of superstars, they go out and pay millions for players from outside of England, because they have neglected to focus on developing local talent. So when it comes time for the World Cup, these foreign players go back to play for their home countries, leaving a weak England national team.

Executive Development

There is a similar trend happening in most large global businesses today.

Rather than build world-class management training and executive development programs internally to train and develop the next generation of leaders, most Board of Directors hire one of the large global executive search firms (Korn-Ferry, Russell Reynolds, Spencer Stuart, Heidrick and Struggles, Egon Zehnder) and pay for expensive searches to find expensive talent from outside the company.  And there are a very large number of middle market search firms who are hired by HR to find new managers and mid-level executives for their companies. The global executive search industry is estimated at over $10 billion. But do these outsiders really perform? Many have a hard time fitting in to the culture of the new company and the executive failure rate after 18 months is about 40% and has held steady for the past 15 years.

A rare exception to the “go outside for talent” mantra was General Electric under the jackwelchreign of CEO Jack Welch.  GE spent millions of dollars and hundreds of top executive man-hours training and developing leaders to deploy into key roles in their global organisation. Many great CEOs came up through the GE Executive Development system. They even had their own global training campus at Crotonville in upstate New York.

“My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too.”  ~Jack Welch

In my view the only real approach to sustainable business success is an internal “grow your own” management and leadership program.

Why don’t more organisations focus on grow your own?  Two reasons probably. The first being the habitual focus on reducing costs in order to post good Quarterly figures for the Wall Street Analysts.  Training is a current cost with a long-term payback.

The second reason is because overall the management development and leadership training industry (HR and Training Consultants) does a lousy job.  Most training programs are long on platitudes and generalities and short on real-world business issues, hard-hitting case studies and extremely lacking in honest feedback, confronting lazy attendees and weak on effective coaching. And most executives don’t really support internal training and development, being “too busy” with their day jobs.

No wonder executive search is a multi-billion dollar industry. No wonder English national football fails to show on the world stage.

You can either spend money on outside people and tick the box, or solve the problem for the long term.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Website: www.johnrchildress.com

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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1 Response to English Football (soccer) and Executive Development

  1. Dave Hillyard says:

    Interesting post John. You are dead right. Add to that the fact that hiring new staff is hard to get right and has its own failure rate, and developing your internal talent who you know well makes even more sense.


    Dave Hillyard
    Head of Major Partnerships

    +44 (0) 207 793 4480
    + 44 (0) 7826 532 587


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