How can a professional football coach who has won only one game in eight, and lose all three World Cup group matches, be overwhelmingly celebrated as a success?
Socceroos coach, Ange Postecoglou, has earned this praise. After inheriting a side that lost 6-0 to both France and Brazil in international friendlies, Postecoglou has changed the perception of the Socceroos. This is an incredible accomplishment after failing to get results where is matters most – on the pitch.
This makes for an interesting management case study, because Postecoglou’s short reign as national coach is a great example of management theory being put into practice. His innate skills in being able to set out a vision and plan, sell it to all stakeholders, and the implementation process, is pure textbook management. It would make any Harvard MBA professor’s bow tie spin a full 360-degrees in delight, and the list of buzzwords to describe Postecoglou’s management skills would send Don Watson into convulsions.
The transition process can be a somewhat difficult exercise even for the most experienced of managers. Michael Watkins, author of First 90 Days, provides a reference guide for newly appointed or promoted managers within the corporate world on how to navigate this critical period. A corporate manager’s actions can be measured on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. A national team football manager has large gaps of time between when the fruits of their labour can be judged. So whilst the difference in time between 90 days and eight months might seem significant, considering the context of the situation that a national team coach operates in, they are probably about the same.
People accept there is a problem, the fixes are more technical than cultural or political, and people are hungry for a solution.
After Holger Osieck was removed as national team coach after two humiliating 6-0 losses, a turnaround strategy was prescribed for the Socceroos. Enter new coach, Postecoglou, who analysed the entire operations of the national team and decided that wholesale changes needed to be made.
The process that Postecoglou followed was very similar to Watkins’ ‘plan-then-implement approach to change’, which works well for turnaround situations when “people accept there is a problem, the fixes are more technical than cultural or political, and people are hungry for a solution.”
Postecoglou entered into the role at the right time and circumstances which gave him the mandate for change. It still requires a great deal of skill as a manager to implement the strategies, to sell the message of hope and keep the majority on side, even when the results are not positive. This is what makes this case study so interesting.
Awareness: A critical mass of people are aware of the need for change
Prior to, during, and after the 6-0 losses to Brazil and France, majority of the Australian football community were calling for a change of direction. Although Osieck was successful in leading Australia to its fourth World Cup, the general consensus was that the side was in need of rejuvenation and a positive style of play. FFA bosses acted on the calls of the masses and Osieck was removed. The replacement was given a mandate for change.
Whilst the footballing public and Postecoglou’s superiors knew there was need for a new direction, the new coach needed to ensure that his players also believed that change was required for the turnaround to work. Fortunately for Postecoglou the general feeling within the squad that change was needed. In an interview with Goal Australia, senior player Mark Bresciano, provided insight into the general thinking amongst the players. “We weren’t playing the football that we used to play or that we were capable of playing. Some of the results weren’t going our way. And that’s when you start asking questions.”
The standards at training had eroded under Osieck and the intensity of the sessions dropped due to the lack of competition for places. “Me personally, I could have told you the team the first day at training. Not by him (Osieck) telling you, but just through his actions. Or through certain things he did at training,” said Bresciano.
Diagnosis: The manager knows what needs to be changed and why
Once the assessment of the situation is completed by the manager, he or she should know what needs to be changed – personnel, systems, processes, etc. – and the reasons for why these changes are required
It was clear that Postecoglou knew what the main problems were. In an interview with Australian Financial Review’s, John Stensholt, the national coach’s diagnosis was explained in a couple of lines:
“It was always a team that represented our country in a manner that excited people and I think we lost a bit of that. It had become a bit of a grind.”
In hiring Postecoglou, FFA Chairman Frank Lowy and CEO David Gallop, knew they were getting a coach who believed in an attacking style of football and had shown much resolve when it came to restructuring his football teams.
The style of play – the system – is one key component of developing a side that ‘excited people’. The processes implemented by coach and the backroom staff another. The remedy was changing the personnel within the squad.
‘‘For a long time, we’ve leant on the same players,’’ Postecoglou said an interview with Sydney Morning Herald’s, Andrew Webster. ‘‘It’s a privilege, not a right. I want our national players to be excited or disappointed if they miss out, not to expect it. That’s why I’ve been closed about who I select. Even if you’re Mile Jedinak playing in the Premier League, I want you asking, ‘Am I going to be in it or not?’
Vision: The manager has a compelling vision and a solid strategy
‘‘[Ange] knows how to get off the dancefloor and stand on the balcony to see the bigger picture for Australian football. He’s the right man for the job because he sees the total picture.’’
A vision is an aspirational description used to provide a clear guide for all courses of action. Postecoglou began selling his vision to the entire Australian football community prior to, upon, and after his appointment. This sales job is what has inspired the fans, FFA administrators, players, and even the media to get behind the cause. People felt at last there was a change agent to believe in.
“The Socceroos have always reflected what it means to be an Australian. We represent the diversity of our nation. We fight for each other. We punch above our weight. We strive to reach global heights. We do it with spirit and purpose.”
Trawl through various interviews over the last eight to nine months and Postecoglou has been continuously selling the same message:
- Postecoglou’s column for Fairfaix prior to appointment: “The national team is there to sell hope, not to dampen dreams.”
- Open letter for fans on FFA website upon appointment: “My aim is to be successful and it will be the aim of everyone in the National team set up.”
- Interview with Australian Financial Review: “We are growing the game. That’s the biggest driver…If you want to do that, you have to take an interest in what is happening beyond the field.”
- Interview with Sydney Morning Herald: ‘‘I want the game to be stronger in 30 years’ time”
Plan: The manager has the expertise to put together a detailed plan
One of the greatest challenges for a newly appointed manager is to prove their value – that they have the ability to carry out the role and move the organisation forward. Previous achievements and what others have to say about the manager are examples of social proof about their ability. However, it is vital for a manager to secure early wins so that they can build credibility early on and lay the foundations for the future.
“Your early actions, good and bad, will shape perceptions. Once opinion about you has begun to harden, it is difficult to change. And the opinion-forming process happens remarkably quickly.”
Michael Watkins – First 90 Days
Perception is everything. The difference between Postecoglou’s management role and those within the corporate sector is the need to please a nation-wide collective of stakeholders – the bulk of them fans. People rapidly begin to assess the newly appointed manager as a person and their capabilities. This is why securing early wins is important. Words mean nothing unless they are backed up by actions. A resume only purchases more grace in the ‘honeymoon’ period.
Postecoglou had to be seen to be regenerating the personnel. This process has been well documented. Some jumped, or retired early, before being pushed. Others were not selected and replaced with a younger, and less experienced player of lesser pedigree. The coach wanted players who were hungry, who would fit into his attacking system, and help set the foundation for the future.
“There is a need to balance a long term strategy with short term goals. We are preparing for a World Cup next year and an Asian Cup on home soil, but we must keep one eye on the next World Cup cycle.”
Support: The manager has a sufficiently powerful coalition to support implementation
“I think it was [ex-Manchester United manager] Sir Alex Ferguson who said in a leadership position you shouldn’t initiate confrontation because it will usually come to you. I buy into that. I didn’t go out and say to people ‘you have to go’. I went out and changed the culture and environment and they came to me [wanting to leave].”
An intangible component of Postecoglou’s role is to build a coalition of supporters within the inner sanctum of the national team set up and FFA administration, as well as, the media.
A manager is only as good as the people who put them on a pedestal. Doing a good job, producing positive results, winning over most of all of the direct reports and superiors, is not always enough to ensure job security.
Managing perceptions is a key skill requisite for all successful managers and the best managers have the innate ability to influence what the majority think of them. They also build a group of supporters (the cynical would say cheerleaders) who ensure the manager’s image is maintained at any sign of opposition or negativity.
Postecoglou would have encountered various degrees of acceptance, caution and resistance. For the players whom had played under the Postecoglou they knew the manager’s man-management skills and coaching ability. For some of the players his coaching CV, and what others had to say about him as a manager, would have carried a large amount of weight. For others whom never played under the national coach, nor convinced of his coaching pedigree, would have taken a ‘wait and see’ approach. No different to any other working environment.
For a manager to build a coalition, they need to be able to identify the people who they feel believe in what they are trying to achieve. Watkins provides an outline on how to determine whom the manager should target.
Supporters are people who share the manager’s vision for the future, those who have been quietly working for change on a small scale, or are new who have not yet become accultured.
“I don’t really want to give him a target, he has to achieve the target he sets for the team and I will be expecting to do that and be satisfied with that.”
Postecoglou has the support of two people who directly effect whether he keeps his job or not – FFA Chairman Frank Lowy and CEO David Gallop. Words of support to the media are one thing, but five-year contract reinforces their commitment. Having Lowy and Gallop’s provides Postecoglou with the ammunition to carry out his mandate. How long this invaluable support lasts will depend on results.
Opponents are those that are comfortable with the status quo, in fear of looking incompetent, are a threat to the organisation’s values or a threat to the manager’s power (or authority).
Rebuilding a team during a turnaround requires keeping or employing people who believe in what the manager wants to achieve, that their values are aligned and also to have the required skill set to carry out the job or propel the organisation forward.
There are many common traps in which managers get caught in when it comes to human resources. They are keeping an employee for too long and not holding onto good people. A major issue can be not restructuring the team to be in line with what the organisation wants to achieve.
Andrew Webster reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, that the reason for Luke Wilkshire’s omission from the final 23-man World Cup squad, was his failure to follow management’s orders. Postecoglou was widely criticised at the time for cutting an experienced international. The criticism continued once the preferred option, Ivan Franjic, got injured in the first game, and the defence conceded nine goals in three games.
These are crucial decisions that a manager needs to make. Do you keep in place an individual who is performing the job well, but doesn’t believe in what the manager is trying to achieve? Do you give the individual more time so that they can be convinced? Or would keeping them destabilise the team?
Postecoglou’s decision may have cost him in the short-term in regards to results. However, the criticism about the decision to drop Wilkshire has been drowned out by the applause for the new positive approach on the pitch. If Wilkshire is still not part of the squad in the future – the 2015 Asian Cup – then the results will determine whether coach has made the right decision. Time will tell.
Convincables are people who are undecided or indifferent to change, but could be persuaded once the manager understands their motivations and appeal to their interests.
“He always said, regardless of what happens out there, he’ll carry the can. It takes a brave man to do that. There’s not many managers I’ve played under who would take full responsibility on his belief on the way to play football.”
Postecoglou has told the story to numerous media outlets about the how he ‘challenged’ senior Socceroo Tim Cahill, to make this World Cup his ‘best one’. Whilst the captain, Mile Jedinak, was appointed with one eye towards the future, the coach ensured the senior players, Cahill and Bresciano, played a part in helping to set the standards for the ‘new’ or ‘inexperienced’ players within the squad. Postecoglou framed a compelling argument to the senior players about how he wanted them to be participants in shaping the future.
“I believe in this team and I believe in the boss’s vision.’’
“Ultimately we’ve come here and we we’ve lost all three games – we haven’t got the results we wanted. We haven’t been as efficient or ruthless as the opposition – we need to improve that, we need to improve our depth as well.”
Ange Postecoglou has been able to manage the perceptions of the general football public, media and his superiors. Even after three World Cup loses in the group stage, the messages coming from the Socceroos camp is one of overwhelming belief in the coach’s vision and positive reports on his ability as a manager.
The Socceroos coach has used words that inspire hope, a vision that is backed up by actions, and the ability to manage people’s expectations throughout the process.
However, the conditions were right for Postecoglou to implement change. A critical mass of people wanted a new direction and he had the support where it mattered most to carry out his mandate.
As the honeymoon period comes to a close, Postecoglou’s skills to be able to frame the public’s references for the next phase has already begun.
“The one objective we did have was to measure ourselves against the very best and I think we have done that. We know exactly where we’re at.”
The coach’s message during and post World Cup, has been one of continuously selling the vision, and making regular public assessments of his squad’s performance. Whilst proud of the player’s ability for most part to play the system and execute the tactics, Postecoglou’s rapid regeneration exposed the weaknesses within Australian football structures. He has identified that the lack of depth in the immediate playing squad needs to be rectified with better player scouting and alignment of all the men’s national teams.
Postecoglou has used to World Cup as a stress test. The Socceroos strengths have been highlighted and their weakness exposed. It will be interesting to see how he manages the next phase – the 2015 Asian Cup – where the expectations of the Australian football public and his bosses will be a lot higher.