Lessons for Managers and Staff from Wayne Rooney's Move to DC United

Lessons for Managers and Staff from Wayne Rooney's Move to DC United

One of the biggest non-World Cup soccer stories of the past few weeks is Wayne Rooney’s move to DC United. Most of the punditry has focused on whether or not this is just a public relations stunt and whether or not the aging English star can help turn around a team that has seen better days. Rooney is Major League Soccer’s Joe Biden; brilliant in his time, flashes of why supporters love him, and maybe he can deliver one last time. But with Biden as it is with Rooney, maybe it’s time to go with someone new who can help the organization grow into an uncertain future.

A month or so ago I drew on Taylor Twellman’s analysis of Rooney’s potential transfer to DC to highlight lessons for managers and organizations. Before making a bold move an organization should ask:

  • What is the plan to build on success if the move works?
  • What are the indirect and hidden costs associated with the move?
  • What are the opportunity costs associated with the move?
  • How else could limited resources be used?

The move has now been made. On June 28 Wayne Rooney arrived at Dulles International Airport with a lot of fans, media, and luggage in tow. Chris Warshaw’s take on what it will take to make the move successful offers more lessons for managers and staff.

Few of us will ever be the Wayne Rooney of our professions, but we have all either been the senior outsider dropped in to help right a situation, or had that person dropped on us. This person usually has an impressive resume, is highly paid, has direct access to decision makers, and is given a certain amount of leeway when it comes to office expectations. Consultants play this role for a living. We all have had to work with someone playing the Rooney role, or have played that role ourselves. With that:

Advice for managers:

Make the new person part of your system. Rooney will be one of 11 players, all of whom have to work together to succeed. And all but Rooney have been working together for at least the past six months.  As Warshaw wrote, “Rooney isn’t joining the D.C. United team solely on paper or in vacuum; he’s entering a locker room that is a living culture and ecosystem.” Similarly, consultants and new senior staff join organizations that have typically been around for a while. The new person is entering an existing ecosystem and needs be made part of that system for the organization to succeed.

Make sure everyone knows the system and knows their roles.

“Each player should know precisely what’s expected of him and what he can expect from his teammates.”  - Hubert Vogelsinger, How to Star in Soccer (published in 1968, the first soccer book I ever owned)

Rooney is a player in a system. If he does not know that system, and what is expected of him and everyone else, he and the system will fail.  The same is true in organizations. It is up to the manager to make sure that everyone knows their roles, and is held accountable for fulfilling those roles. In researching Soccer Thinking for Management Success I interviewed Sonia Ruiz-Bolanos, a Councilmember at the Gerson Lehrman Group and former Managing Director of Johns Hopkins Medicine International as well as a former intramural and rec league player. She told me that “In an operating room, everyone needs to work together to ensure the patient’s safety. Everyone needs to know why their task is important, what everyone else is doing and why what others are doing is important, and how to adjust if necessary. This is a universal metaphor … You have to explain the system to make sure everyone is invested, that everyone has an important role.” This means everyone from the world famous surgeon rushed in for a special procedure to the surgical technician needs to know the system and their role in it.  

But the star needs to be allowed to create.

“… great coaches and great business leaders know how to adapt their ‘system’ (the dynamics of the players you have) to get the most out of the individuals and accomplish the goals of the [organization] … this also pertains to their knowledge of individuals’ strengths and weaknesses and adapting the system to exploit the strengths and cover the weaknesses.” - Alan Dietrich, Chief Operating Officer Sporting KC in Soccer Thinking for Management Success

Rooney is not being brought into DC United because he is a better version of an existing cog. It’s not a matter of “the same only better.” Rooney is being brought in because he holds the goal scoring records for both Manchester United and England. Rooney is special. He doesn’t just have to adjust to the existing system – the system has to adjust to him. The same is true of consultants and new senior staff. High priced consultants and senior staff typically have long and impressive resumes. They are brought in because they are not like anyone else at the organization – they are not just one more body. Managers need to give these business Rooneys room.

This is a tough balance to strike. Warshaw wrote, “In sum, [DC United head coach Ben] Olsen needs to insert Rooney into a system that provides clear instructions for the player to execute, and he also needs to leave room within the system for Rooney to produce game-changing moments.” Managers outside of soccer face the same challenge.

Lessons for consultants and staff.

“You need to know what skill you bring to the team and how that fits in the system. The same is true in a company: what do skill do you bring? How does it fit?”  - Lori Lindsey, human rights advocate and former US National Team star in Soccer Thinking for Management Success

If Rooney wants to win – and no one gets to his level as an athlete without an intense will to win – he will need to embrace head coach Ben Olsen’s structure and do his part in that structure. He will have to work to integrate himself into the larger system, even as the system adjusts to accommodate him. Consultants and new senior staff need to do the same. No matter how impressive your resume or big your paycheck, you cannot create organizational success alone. You need to work with those around you for all of you to succeed as a unit. Remember: you’re entering an existing ecosystem that was there before you, and will likely be there after you’re gone. You can show up for work in a helicopter, just don’t be a jerk about it (to steal from Warshaw again). Do your job. Help other people succeed. Prove you’re worth the money and attention.

The last piece of advice to pull from Warshaw’s analysis is for everyone else at the organization: Do your job and help the new person do hers. Know the system, play your role. Don’t try to game it, pout because you’re not the star, work to undermine the new person, or simply ignore her.  You have a new person on your team, a new person in your system. Work with that person in that system to help the organization succeed.

For more lessons for managers and staff from soccer pick up Soccer Thinking for Management Success – due out July 27 and available for  pre-order now on Amazon.

Highlights from Soccer Thinking for Management Success

Highlights from Soccer Thinking for Management Success

A Reminder from Saturday Morning Pick Up: Set your teammates up to succeed

A Reminder from Saturday Morning Pick Up: Set your teammates up to succeed