Two Lessons from Arsenal's New Hire: The best managers may not have been the best players and the best managers have their players' backs.
Unai Emery Photo Credit: Aleksander Osipov, Creative Commons license
Arsenal’s new coach offers good lessons for organizations and managers both in, and out, of soccer.
Arsenal FC, one of the most popular soccer teams in the world, recently parted ways with its legendary manager after 22 years. Arsene Wenger coached some of the best players and teams of the past several decades, and changed the way soccer in England’s Premier League is played. But time and several years of mediocre results (by Arsenal standards) caught up with him and he stepped down at the end of this season. To the surprise of many observers, the owners replaced Wenger with Unai Emery. In 2016 the respected soccer magazine Four Four Two (a traditional soccer formation) named Emery the fifth best manager in the world. Reviews about his appointment at Arsenal are inevitably mixed and loudly expressed on social media. As Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl gently put it, “Not getting the sense that many Arsenal fans are excited by Unai Emery.”
Soccer aside, Emery’s success prior to moving to Arsenal provides an important lesson to those who hire managers and to managers once they are hired.
The Best Performers Don’t Always Make the Best Managers
Emery was never a great player – he ended his career playing for a team then in Spain’s third division (the team no longer even exists). Both Wenger and the self-described “special one” Jose Mourinho never played more than semi-professional soccer. The best coaches America has produced, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, have a combined one year of semi-professional soccer. Arena spent a year as backup goalkeeper for the Takoma Tides and a total of 45 minutes with the US National Team as a second half substitute in goal in a 2-0 loss to Israel. Bradley’s playing career ended when he graduated from Princeton University.
Similarly, some of the best players make some of the worst managers. Among the obvious examples of this is Diego Maradona. Maradona is one of the best soccer players of all time. Yet he coached Argentina to the worst losses in the team’s history and was fired after getting routed 4-0 by Germany in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. The challenge for the Maradona’s of the world is that they have internalized playing so much that they don’t think about soccer – they are soccer. They simply know what to do and how to do it and assume everyone else does as well. As Maradona put it when asked about coaching Messi, “Nobody ever told me where to play. So I shouldn’t have to tell [Lionel] Messi where to play, either.”
The problem of course is that most of us are not the Messi’s or Maradona’s of our fields. We are the Wengers, Emerys, Bradleys, and Arenas, doing the best we can with the skills we’ve got. Players who were only pretty good, or not good at all, often had to put more thought into their games in order to succeed. They had to figure out what the component parts of “better” are –where to look, where to strike the ball, where to move, and when to run. They had to work to solve the complex problems of a simple game. As such, they can be both more patient and more specific when coaching others. They know the frustration of trying to get something right, and know what the elements of “right” look like. Because they had to work to be good players, they can help others work to be good players as well. While there are of course notable exceptions to this rule (Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff come to mind), it is generally true that past performance as a player is no guarantee of future success as a coach.
The same is true in organizations. Being good at something is not the same as managing others who do that thing. Management is a skill that requires knowledge of the field – it is difficult to imagine a baseball manager being a good soccer coach, or a good soccer coach being a good VP of HR – but the real skill needed to manage is management skills. Political and advocacy organizations, law firms, and others are notoriously poorly managed places. This is in part because they are led by successful advocates, policy analysts, and attorneys. These are usually smart, hardworking, highly trained professionals who have spent their careers getting good at advocacy, policy, and law. As a result they have spent little, if any, time getting good at getting other people good at things. Management is a skill, just like defending and litigating. The best organizations hire the best managers to manage – regardless of how well or poorly they did the things they are managing.
The best managers have their player’s backs
In their profile of Emery, Four Four Two wrote that “As Valencia [the team Emery was managing] were being thrashed by Real Madrid at Mestalla in 2011, the manager came out to the touchline so that supporters could whistle him. “I couldn’t leave the players alone,” he explained. “I had to take responsibility.” (Whistling is synonymous with booing in Europe).
As I write in Soccer Thinking for Management Success:
A good coach also takes responsibility for the team’s failures. The coach tells the press that he did not prepare the team well enough, that he put players in positions that they should not have been in, or that he had the wrong plan. Even if these things are not true – the best coach in the world still sits on the sideline, if a player misses an open goal or loses the guy he was supposed to be defending it is not the fault of the person watching the game from the bench – the coach owns the mistakes of the team. A player who makes the mistake that costs the game knows it was his or her fault, but by publicly owning the mistake the coach tells the player, “I’ve got your back” which makes the player work that much harder next time.
This, of course, is all in public. In the locker room or in the coach’s office, the coach absolutely holds players accountable for their mistakes (as do the other players). And if the coach is any good he also owns his own mistakes to the players. Everyone on the team, players and coaches, hold each other accountable.
Good managers in organizations do the same. When you meet with your reports, either in a group or individually, you should hold each other accountable. You should call out their mistakes and take responsibility for your own mistakes. As a group you need to then learn from those mistakes and minimize the chance of them happening again. As a group, you and your staff are responsible to each other as you all are responsible to the organization and its mission.
When you meet with your fellow managers, part of your responsibility is to defend your staff. If they made mistakes, own them. Acknowledge the problem, say that you and your staff have discussed it and are making the appropriate adjustments, and that your staff will continue to succeed. If there is blame to be placed, you should assume it. Shuffling blame to your staff – even if it is obviously deserved – does nothing to correct the mistake, makes you look weak and ineffectual, and will ultimately get back to your staff which will undermine your efforts to excel. There is no upside to throwing your staff under the bus. Praise your staff for what they do well, take responsibility for their mistakes.
You should not throw your fellow managers under the bus either. As a group of managers you need to work together and for each other. You need to promote your boss’s decisions to your team, and your direct reports should promote your decisions to their staff. Behind closed doors be frank, in public be supportive.
As an Arsenal fan I was a bit surprised by the choice of Emery to lead the team, but have high hopes. As a sometime who thinks about management I am reminded of important lessons from his selection.