6 Management Lessons from Gareth Southgate

This blog was written on the eve of England’s 2018 World Cup semi-final a month after they entered the competition with the lowest public expectations in memory. Regardless of your sporting allegiances, and opinions about what’s happened, most people can agree that Gareth Southgate has done a good job so far. We look at some of the things he has done well and reflect on them from a Financial Services management perspective.

1. Preparation

Gareth does his homework. Like sporting knights Sir Clive Woodward and Sir David Brailsford, whose ranks he’ll surely join, Gareth gets into the detail. Strategically, tactically and operationally he knows what he is trying to achieve from a position of evidence-based authority. He makes sure that all his key stakeholders inside and outside of the England camp are equipped with the level of insight and instruction they require. From the training ground, to the press conference, to match day he is never winging it, going on a gut feeling or relying purely on passion and personality. This approach underpins everything else on our list.

We live in the information age and with ample data at hand, there is no excuse not to use it. There is certainly some fabulous quants work done within Financial Services but we have all come across managers who haven’t ensured they have the data, rely too much on a single source or fall back on what used to be true. “Be Prepared” is simple guidance that we should all follow.

2. Strategic Thinking

Being strategic means using your resources to achieve a specific aim, normally to outdo the opposition. By exploiting your strengths and overcoming your weaknesses you empower yourself to seize external opportunities and negate the threats that your competitors pose. One of the threats that has been coped with so well in World Cup 2018 is other teams’ attempts to needle England players to a point where they get themselves sent off. A notorious weakness, the penalty taking routine, had very clearly been worked on at every conceivable level. The hard work and “trust the process” mantra led to a famously successful outcome and not just in the shoot-out.

Strategy is not about passion or trying harder. Southgate has bemoaned previous “failures to learn” but has demonstrated the benefits of strategic thinking and creating a learning environment quicker than even he expected. He has stated his aim to win the 2022 World Cup and instigated a core strategy of how to do it – “this is how we want to play”. His focus on player development has helped him build for the future while instilling a clarity of thought that allows opportunities to be taken when they present themselves early.

3. Emotional Intelligence

Preparation and strategic focus have provided the foundation for a management style characterised by integrity, emotional intelligence and the ability to create a high-performance environment in what has previously been a delinquent organisation. The settled playing style means that formations are not open to debate and player selections are justified in terms of the wider plan that everyone, including the playing personnel, can accept, thus removing conflict. Gareth naturally grasps different perspectives and makes himself available for one to one discussions, famously providing emotional support for Danny Rose. The ability of a leader to listen and support where others would broadcast and reject is notable. England has a stronger, more committed team as a result.

4. Team Building

Gareth has recruited wisely. On the pitch he wants ability and character, with neither being enough on its own. A squad selection is akin to building a project team from a wider group of resources. In Harry Kane, he has installed a leader who shares his values. Everybody else is selected for a specific role and is committed to improving in a collaborative environment. No role has been over-recruited meaning that the squad has balance. Cliques formed along club lines are no longer in evidence. There is experience but not for experience’s sake, nobody was picked based on distant past glories and virtually everyone has remained fit.

From a recruitment perspective, we think Gareth has nailed it. He has prioritised team cohesion, preparedness and cultural fit to try and achieve his strategic goals. He has also gathered talented support staff without overlooking or devaluing their contributions. Organisations that treat talent and team building as integral elements of corporate strategy will have an advantage over their rivals.

5. Communications

Like the best leaders, Gareth has inspired the whole group to share his vision and challenged each member to take personal responsibility, not only for achieving the shared goal but also for communicating coherently about it. He has removed barriers inside and outside the camp. Without seeming rehearsed or defensive, themes of unity, inclusivity, respect and courage are communicated with humour, humility and honesty by Gareth and his players. Events like the discovery of Raheem Sterling’s tattoo, that may previously have snowballed, have been defused and even turned to positives with impeccable PR. The pre-tournament press conference was conducted like a speed dating event that gave the press access to each player and the press have been made to feel like an extended part of the team. Even the opposition have been treated with far greater respect than some managers achieved, disarming his counterparts and setting an example to players, the press and the supporters.

The consistency of Gareth’s demeanour, phraseology, sartorial choices and some notable success has rapidly developed into a strong personal brand that culminated in Waistcoat Wednesday.

The walls of modern organisations are porous, information drifts out through them and external stakeholders have greater influence. That means that leadership needs to stay informed, all staff must stay on message and the stakeholders must be engaged. That Gareth and his entire team have achieved this consistently is testament to the authenticity of the approach and the preparation that has gone into it. Financial Services is a far more heavily regulated environment but many of the concepts hold true. When we think about the still unresolved IT chaos at TSB and Paul Pester’s unfortunate efforts to put a brave face on it, it only makes the England team’s efforts seem more impressive.

6. Wellness

Gareth picked physically healthy players and largely kept them that way. He also adopted initiatives to strengthen them psychologically and support their mental well-being. Players were trained to simplify situations through repetition and enable themselves to think clearly under pressure. Set plays were planned and reviewed to be delivered calmly in the heat of battle and yes, techniques favoured by the military were used in places to achieve that. A relaxed, open atmosphere meant that Gareth could draw on experiences both negative and positive to inspire his players, develop their psychological resilience and unload their own emotional baggage. He removed the pressure of the siege mentality at the team and individual level.

Although wellness and mental health are ubiquitous areas of focus, especially in HR circles, there remain many places in Financial Services where you follow the rules and adopt the 24/7 culture until it breaks you. Sir Hector Sants of Barclays and Lloyds chief António Horta Osório have been notable casualties of anxiety and depression in recent years. The problem has also become more public in sport. Danny Rose’s story is a clear demonstration of what England have done well in this regard and The City still has a lot to learn.

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