Leicester City’s Premier League title clinched on Monday was described by Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker as “the biggest shock in team sport history ever”. In a season of surprises and drama, Leicester kept their nerve to win their first title against the odds (literally, as they were ranked 5000-1 outsiders at the start of the season). With natural parallels between team sport and business, what can we learn from Leicester’s successes that can help businesses gain that elusive competitive advantage?
A different attitude to hiring
What makes Leicester’s success so surprising is that their squad was assembled for just £57m, compared to over £300m spend by the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez cost a measly £400,000, whilst striker sensation Jamie Vardy cost just £1m.
How did Leicester manage to build a title winning team at the fraction of the price of previous winners? By looking beyond reputations, Leicester identified the core characteristics of the players they wanted and hired to build a team that had the same values and qualities. Rather than chasing big names, Leicester identified players with a high work ethic, abundant pace and tenacity. Combined with a strong emphasis on teamwork, these characteristics laid the foundations for victories in many tight games. Fundamentally, Leicester would outwork teams and run them off the park.
In business, hiring is often based on qualifications and previous experience. The ‘Leicester’ way of hiring would focus on the attributes of work ethic, passion and ability to work on a team. This capability hiring could unearth some hidden gems who have not had the same success to date, but have high potential for future achievement. By looking for these attributes, the ability to find some ‘bargain’ employees who can do a great job without the high price tag attached to prestige education and experience could help businesses succeed.
Succession evolution not revolution
At the end of the 2014/15 season after a run of seven wins in nine games to save Leicester from the jaws of relegation, manager Nigel Pearson was fired to great consternation from many fans and pundits. Claudio Ranieri was placed in his place, a manager who had just been fired from his role with the Greece national team.
Ranieri’s masterstroke was to not try and revolutionise the team, but to build on the successes at the end of the previous season and simply improve the team further. He helped them become fitter, better organised and more tactically aware without changing the DNA of the team developed under Pearson. This differed from the approach of many new managers who want to overhaul the club and stamp their blueprint. It helped a smooth transition to the start of the 2015/16 season and continued the momentum already developed.
When senior leadership changes within a company, often the impulse is for the new C-suite to try and leave their mark by overhauling the company to drag it in a new direction. But attempting to instead provide a steady evolution that builds on the blocks already laid, identifying current successes and improving upon them, is a tactic shown by Leicester that may lead to greater success.
The celebrations on Monday amongst the Leicester players showed the togetherness and spirit that has been an ever-present within the squad this season. Just a handful of games away from the end of the season, in a crucial game against West Ham, star man Jamie Vardy was sent off with Leicester winning 1-0. West Ham replied with two goals in the last 10 minutes, and it looked as if Leicester may finally falter. In the final minute of added time substitute striker Leonardo Ulloa buried a penalty to grab a crucial point that kept the momentum alive. It was typical of Leicester’s culture to deal with such a vital moment in the season with a replacement coming in and keeping the dream alive.
The strong culture at Leicester was as important as any factor to their success. This intangible component extended beyond the players to the fans, the owners and the staff. The feeling of togetherness generated by chasing the impossible dream of a league title helped Leicester navigate many moments where it was assumed by pundits that they would falter.
It becomes clear that organisations can prepare themselves for success by creating a strong culture that extends throughout the entire structure of the business. What can be learnt from Leicester is that the feeling of doing something monumental and working towards a higher goal is vital to creating this togetherness. The Premier League seemed like an impossible dream for Leicester, and businesses need to create their own dream for employees to strive for.
Leicester’s season will go down in history for its uniqueness in the style, method and leadership used to win the Premier League title. It has never been achieved in this way before, and Ranieri himself believes it may never happen again. But what businesses can learn is that even against the odds, with a high work ethic and strong teamwork, the possibilities can be beyond even their own expectations.