With defeat at Manchester United yesterday, Aston Villa Football Club’s relegation from the Premier League was finally confirmed. Villa have enjoyed 104 seasons in the top flight of English football with only Everton spending longer and both had made up an elite core of just 7 clubs that had played in every FA Premier League season since its inception in 1992-3.
In witnessing one of the grandest football names in English football fall from grace, I can see a whole range of lessons for people running all kinds of businesses. Here are a few that stand out for me as a long-suffering fan of the claret and blues:
Create the Right Leadership Team
Former manager Martin O’Neill joined Villa in 2006 at the same time American billionaire Randy Lerner bought the football club. The genial Northern Irishman wielded almost total control of football matters with Lerner happy to back O’Neill – especially financially – as the club sought unsuccessfully to win UEFA Champions League football. This period seemed to cast a die. There was a lack of football nous at board level and an owner seeking to run the club in US sports style, rather than with a board as is traditional in UK football.
When O’Neill quit the club at the eve of the 2010-11 season, he left a seeming football management vacuum. Since that time Villa fans have seen series of inexperienced appointments at the sharp end of the club leadership and it is only in recent months that Mr Lerner has seen fit to bring in known football leaders such as former FA and Manchester City Chairman David Bernstein, ex-Villa player and manager Brian Little and former FA communications Executive Adrian Bevington. These hires have been great to see but all-too long coming and late to save the club this season. Hopefully recent moves to seek football professionals now put in place the building blocks that will see Villa make a swift return to the top flight.
For business leaders everywhere, unless you want to learn the hard way, make sure you get the right senior team in, right from the start. Or if not, develop the team and strengthen it when you can – but don’t leave it too long.
Update 16:30 18th April: Despite only weeks into the job, both David Bernstein and another new Director, Mervyn King (or Baron King of Rothbury to afford him his proper title) have resigned with immediate effect stating both of their positions were “untenable”.
This looks like a bit of a mess…
Leadership Comes Right From the Very Top
Villa owner Randy Lerner is not a man who craves the limelight. His reticence to engage the media is longstanding and in some senses understandable and fair enough. You don’t see the Glazer family at Manchester United getting involved in the day-to-day running of their club very often. But the lack of attendance at matches and limited statements to the supporter base have weakened his support amongst fans to a point where the ‘Lerner Out’ banners are now a frequent sight at Villa matches. They want to see their owner going through the mill just as they are, not holed up in the Hamptons, looking detached, unfeeling and uncaring. The on-off saga of Lerner putting the club up for sale publicly has not endeared him either or created a sense of stablility within the club.
If you are going to take on ownership of an entity like a football club – or any other business with significant stakeholders internal or external – you have to be prepared to put in the hard yards on communication or have a proper PR and communications strategy at the very least.
Get Your Talent Management Right
Here’s a contrasting tale of two professional footballers both of whom profess to support Aston Villa.
Joleon Lescott is a former England international, Premier League, League Cup and FA Cup winner. Expensively recruited to Villa in September 2015, and more recently appointed captain, Lescott has not exactly hit it off with the Villa faithful. Weeks after verbally clashing with Villa fans after a lacklustre performance in the FA Cup at Wycombe Wanderers, he managed to ire Villa fans further by ‘pocket-tweeting’ a picture of a luxury Mercedes just 15 minutes after a 6-0 humiliation at home to Liverpool. Minutes after the final whistle blew at Old Trafford and Villa’s relegation was confirmed he claimed that relegation was “a weight off the shoulders” to almost universal derision from Villa fans. His seeming lack of commitment to the cause for some seems to symbolise all that is wrong with professional football.
Compare Lescott to fellow Villa fan Marc Albrighton who from signing for the club at age 8 came up through the youth ranks to taste first team football before finding himself released from the club in 2014 at the tender age of 24. His crossing was somewhat erratic but for a player still learning his trade, he really seemed to give his all for his club whenever I saw him play so his release was disappointing at the time. The Tamworth winger signed for Leicester City on a 4-year contract. He now finds himself a key member of the team that has taken this season by storm and is about to win the FA Premier League. Good luck to him.
In recent years, Villa have become a ‘selling club’ with their best players – Ashley Young, James Milner, Gareth Barry, Christian Benteke and more – off-loaded to balance the books at the risk of long term team performance. Their player recruitment strategy has veered between trying to unearth cheap, young and hungry players from the lower divisions to plundering the depths of France’s uncompetitive Ligue 1 for ‘talent’. It has been erratic to say the least.
There’s an HR goldmine here: ensure your senior people are fully bought in an performing; don’t reward failure or lack of commitment; nurture and retain your best talent; recruit carefully and above all, stick with a plan…
If You’re Going to Fail, Fail When it Least Matters
Villa’s relegation has been coming for a while. The last few seasons have been struggles to get the club over the line and beat the threat of relegation. But this season is one of the worst to be going down. The new £5.14bn Pemier League TV deal comes on stream at the start of the 2016-17 season and Villa have contrived to go down right at that time. Completely the wrong time. They have had time to get this right but with the absence of proper plan, investment and leadership they have really lost out at a crucial time.
Failure can drive future success. No-one should be afraid to fail and some of you may well have read Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz’s ‘Fail Fast, Fail Often’. But there has been ample time for Villa to do plenty of failing and they have failed in the ultimate sense at completely the wrong time. Don’t emulate them.
Get Your Rebrand Right – Or at Least Time it Right
Villa have recently been pilloried by the media and their own fans for releasing a revision to their club crest. There is a time and a place for a rebrand. In the teeth of a relegation ‘battle’ is not one of them.
The story given in the PR material was all well and good too. Take on stakeholder views as part of the process. In this case, engage the fans. They wanted sharper claws on the lion on the crest. Done, tick. Make the crest simpler and clearer for all to behold, check.
Announce it just as relegation is all but confirmed, wrong. Allow media debate about costs to get out of hand when cost cutting is starting to bite at the club and staff are fearful about their jobs, wrong. Remove the word ‘prepared’ from the badge as all and sundry take a look at how the club is run, a bit silly.
A rebrand is an opportunity to start things afresh. It should be exciting and galvanising – not a stick to beat you with. You need to get everyone on board if it is going to be a success and timing it right is crucial.