01 Mar 2015
MARK HUGHES: LEVEL BEST
Since stepping from a successful playing career straight into international management, Mark Hughes has taken the helm at five Barclays Premier League clubs. Now manager of Stoke City, Hughes reflects on what he has learned about himself and his approach over his 15-year career.
Management is an all-consuming and often frustrating 24/7 profession. What's the attraction?
It is also invigorating and addictive. The key thing for me as a former player is that you get to experience a similar range of emotions that you felt on the pitch, and often even more intensely than when you were a player. The experience of competing, winning, losing and drawing, the highs and the lows are all still there for the manager and produce emotions that you recognise and understand. The big difference is that when you are a player and you get beaten 3-1 you might find consolation in the fact that you played well and scored a goal. As the manager, the only emotion is disappointment at the loss, irrespective of how well you might have prepared the team. Also, as the manager you are never able to enjoy the wins as much as you could when you were a player. You still feel the incredible thrill on hearing the final whistle blow when you're in the lead - it's right up there with scoring a goal as a player – but the feeling doesn’t last as long, because as the manager you are always looking ahead to the next game.
How much planning do you do – are you a strategist?
Wherever I have managed, I have always set clear goals before and, importantly, during the season. Each season in the Barclays Premier League is a big body of work, so I have always found it better to divide it up into more manageable pieces. It can be difficult to maintain the same focus that you have at the beginning of the season right through to the end, but setting goals to aim for periodically can help. For example, at Stoke we'll identify a group of six or seven games leading up to a natural break in the season, such as a week of international games, and treat that as a bite-sized section on which to focus our strategy and objectives. I think that my experience of managing Wales was very helpful in developing my ability to plan and organise myself and set targets ahead of specific matches. Most people think that management at international level is something that should come towards the end of your career, but I don't agree. While it isn't an opportunity that presents itself to many young managers, when it does they should take it. The role gives you the chance to be right at the heart of football, while being able to manage your time and continue to improve your skills and learn. For me, being appointed Wales manager at such a young age was the best possible way to accelerate my development as a manager.
Have you developed a distinct style of leadership over the years?
I think all managers have an individual style, but the most important element of my approach is consistency. It's an ethos that permeates right through my style of leadership; I am consistent in my values, in how I behave and in how I act in front of people. When I set standards, they are also consistently high; as a management and coaching group we aim to ensure that we never let our standards drop. To me, that kind of consistency is crucial, because you can't expect the players to perform constantly at a high level if you give them different messages from one day to the next. Every day is focused on achieving quality in what we do. I believe very much in quality, not quantity, both in training and during matches. The build up to match day is very important, so I’m not a big advocate of running players into the ground on the training pitch. More important is the quality of those training sessions.
How important is it to be authentic with the players and how well do you think your personality fits the job?
Many people assume you have to be an extrovert and the loudest person in the room in order to lead, but I disagree with that view. I lean much closer to introversion than extroversion, but I am still close enough to the middle of the spectrum to have an edge when I need it. That edge will come through when I'm not happy with what I've seen in training or on the pitch and I need to communicate my thoughts, messages and instructions. I can get my point across when I need to, irrespective of the fact that I am usually quietly spoken. What's more, when I'm loud it has real impact, because people know I am not normally like that. I think if you are always loud with people they are more likely to switch off. It is also part of my personality to think things through carefully. I'm not impulsive. It's part of the manager's job to make difficult decisions and that often means disappointing people. You have to be completely comfortable with each decision you make and know that you thought the situation through, because it will affect not just you but the whole team.
How conscious are you of the need to innovate as a leader? Do you subscribe to the idea that ‘if it isn’t broke, consider breaking it’?
You have to embrace change and I have always been open to new innovations and developments in sports science. It's an interesting field and one that can give you an important competitive edge. I've always believed, as a player and manager, that success in football comes down to small margins, so it's important to understand what is available to you. However, you also have to realise that you can’t embrace everything; some things will resonate with the players and others might seem exciting at first but will be disregarded quickly once they no longer bring results. You need to be able to sieve through what's available and choose what best meets your and your players' needs. During my career as a manager, I think I've become good at identifying which elements of a football club you need to invest in.
What do you look for in your players? Is there one thing that all new signings must have?
I always look for people with the right character. I knew, for example, when I signed Vincent Kompany to Manchester City that he had what I wanted in the side. I could see that he was driven, that he was determined to be the best he could be and that he would put in the hard work and do whatever it took to achieve that. Working with players like that is great for a manager, because they tend to motivate the other players and you know that your messages will be embraced.
How much satisfaction do you derive from seeing individual players thrive and develop – is it one of the appealing paybacks of leadership?
It is, but developing a team is also one of the biggest challenges for a football manager. You have to bring a group of individuals together and try to unite them with one purpose, but everybody is different. While some players embrace the group mentality totally, others find it more difficult and will always be thinking about their personal motivations above the team's. To be successful, the manager needs to keep the group from fragmenting. I do that by providing clear structure and instruction and being consistent in my approach.
What are the biggest changes you've seen in yourself over the past 15 years?
When I first embarked on a career in management I encountered many situations that were new to me. Now, 15 years on, I have had to deal with these things so many times they are second nature. Experience certainly makes you more comfortable and confident in the role and it also enables you to be more preemptive. I'm always trying to look ahead and predict what might happen in the next game, next month or at the end of the season. Instinct plays a big part. There may be periods in a season when you realise that you've been in a similar situation before and you know you have the tools to negotiate or navigate your way through. It’s difficult to quantify just how valuable experience is, but importantly it enables you to do a better job, more consistently. You also learn over time about the importance of a great support team and the need to delegate to it. I have had the same group of coaches around me throughout my management career and I have complete trust in them and their ability to communicate my values and standards. There are now so many responsibilities in modern management that great support is essential.
If you could go back to the start and give yourself some advice what would it be?
Stick at it. It's not an easy job and it's easy for a young novice manager to think it's all just too much. When you make the transition to manager, you have to quickly stop thinking like a player or coach and start thinking like a manager. You have to pre-empt things and anticipate what people are likely to ask you. Suddenly you need to have answers for everything. That’s a big shock to the system at first, because as a player the only thing you need to think about when you arrive for training is where your kit is. I found that improving my skills and knowledge early on – in particular, through courses such as the LMA Diploma in Leadership and Management – was very important. Understanding how to problem solve, manage upwards, read a balance sheet, deal with cash flow, and attend board meetings were all skills that I couldn't have done without when I started.