What can HR learn from football management?

With football’s European Championships just around the corner, organisations can gain a lot of insight from managers working in “the beautiful game”.

A few heads have rolled recently in the cut-throat world of Premier League football, and this is not unusual. In fact, dismissals are so commonplace that bookies provide odds on the next manager to be sacked.

Much like working in the City, success is all about achieving results, achieving them quickly and then achieving them again and again. There is little room for mistakes or off-colour performances. “It’s high stakes, high reward, high demand and high expectations,” says Perry Timms, head of HR, talent and organisational development at the Big Lottery Fund. “There is some similarity with the City in that people are hired on a certain degree of performance already displayed and if they don’t come up to expectation, they might be unceremoniously booted out.”

Fortunately for football managers, being sacked does not necessarily mean an end to their careers. Take Roy Hodgson, sacked from his position as Liverpool manager at the start of last year only to land the top job in British football – manager of the England team – 18 months later.

Management styles

What is your football manager style?

  • Autocratic – Alex Ferguson, Manchester United. Prefers a high level of power over the team.
  • Relationship – Ian Holloway, Blackpool. Leads people through encouragement and enthusiasm.
  • Cognitive – Arsene Wenger, Arsenal. Leads by a purely logical, methodical approach.
  • Collaborative – Roy Hodgson, England. Deliberates with team members and uses their contributions to make decisions.
  • Shadow – Carlo Ancelotti, Paris St Germain. Provides adequate authority to the team members to reach decisions and do the right things.
  • Co-achievement – Harry Redknapp, Tottenham Hotspur. Works with all the team members to inspire them to reach decisions and do the right things.
  • Results-focused – Sam Allardyce, West Ham. Only interested in making sure the result happens, whatever it takes.
  • Transactional – Roberto Mancini, Manchester City. Rewards are measured and offered by performance.
  • High-flex – David Moyes, Everton. Will change their style to suit the circumstances or needs at the appropriate time.

Hodgson features in a report by talent development company Results International. The report, “Is your management style Premier League?”, looked at the management styles of 10 football managers and surveyed more than 100 HR professionals for their opinions on the football managers discussed, their own management style and that of their managers. Hodgson was perceived to have a “collaborative” management style, cited in the report as someone who deliberates with his team members and uses their contributions to make decisions.

The other styles were: autocratic; relationship; cognitive; shadow; co-achievement; results-focused; transactional; high-flex; and delegator. When asked to say which football managers they would most like as their own manager, 28% of the HR professionals surveyed in the report plumped for Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp (co-achievement style) and 23% for Blackpool manager Ian Holloway (relationship style). Perhaps surprisingly, given his success, only 4% opted for Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson’s autocratic style.


Occupational psychologist Nigel Wood is a big fan of the collaborative and co-achievement approaches to leadership. He thinks that this is increasingly what organisations and individuals want from their managers. If they don’t get it, he says, many employees will move somewhere else, where their input is valued. “I think people have different expectations of managers now and most are looking for the consensual, collaborative style,” he adds. “The importance of that collaborative style in engaging people cannot be underestimated as most people respond well to being asked their opinions.”

This is the stuff of successful employee engagement programmes. Successful employee engagement efforts hinge on good, collaborative management – without it, these programmes don’t really work and can actually disengage employees.


While his preference is for collaborative management, Wood thinks that there are some sectors and organisational cultures where the autocratic style is more accepted.

“It’s a stereotype, but some City firms and blue-chip companies can have that kind of management,” he says. “Some employees will prefer it as they like the clarity and purpose and want to be given drive and direction.”

However, Wood says it definitely doesn’t work for him: “I had a manager years ago who was very autocratic. He was respected by a number of people in the business but a lot of people didn’t respond well to his style at all and the best that people could say about him was that at least you knew where you stood with him. It was very disempowering. I think this approach constrains people from doing their jobs properly.”

Alex Ferguson was highlighted in the report as an autocratic leader. “Everyone knows where they stand with him,” says Paul Stephenson, managing director at Results International. Ferguson makes it clear what he expects from his players, what they can expect from him and where he is in the pecking order. In a television interview last year, Ferguson said: “What you have to understand is that the most important person at Manchester United is the manager.”

Being such a successful manager, Ferguson garners a lot of respect and has held his post for a long time, presiding over some of the best players in the field. Occupational psychologist Kim Stephenson agrees that this style works well for Ferguson and seems to work well for his club.

“In some situations, you don’t have time for the time-consuming collaborative approach – you just have to get results,” he says. “Autocratic leadership can be very useful when people need to get on with something quickly and get a decision made,” he adds. “A lot of management is based on the military model of ‘command and control’. In these cases, people often say it doesn’t matter if the decision is right or wrong, it just needs to be made.”

While Stephenson thinks the autocratic style works well in certain situations and for certain people, he thinks it doesn’t usually achieve long-term success: “It doesn’t build loyalty or resources, nor does it help people to realise their potential.”

Ultimately, there is no single particular style of management that will suit all employees, all organisations or all football teams. The best that a manager can do is be aware of their own particular form of management, their strengths and their weaknesses, and how they affect their team.

For additional football-related content on Personnel Today, see European Championships 2012: issues for employees.

Comments are closed.