01 Apr 2011


Being promoted to the ranks of management internally is a transition made by many, but it can be fraught with difficulties as working relationships change. The Manager looks at the challenges that lie in wait

 The rise from rank and file to senior management is a worthy and admirable one. Promotions from within are signs that a company has good people in situ and that it rewards the talent and endeavour of existing employees rather than parachuting in ‘outsiders’.

 But it can also be a minefield – both professionally and personally. So, while the day you finally reach the top spot might feel like the happy culmination of a long, hard slog, it could just as easily be the start of something soul-destroying.

 In football, the big step is from player to manager, and for some it comes young – quite possibly through injury. Suddenly, maybe only just into their 30s, someone who has been ‘one of the lads’ since they were a teenager is managing players who used to be team-mates. And not just managing them in terms of tactics and training, but managing them as people; gaining their respect, getting them to acknowledge the new hierarchy and act accordingly.

 It’s the end of the peer show, and the beginning of a potentially lonely readjustment to life in the hot seat.

 The perils and pitfalls of such a scenario are recognised throughout the business world, not just in football. Paul Winter, CEO of Copra, one of the UK’s leading management consultancies, says: “Once that change happens, the dynamic between them and the group is changed deeply, and they don’t realise it. They convince themselves they have the same relationships as always, but they don’t, and everyone else knows it. Their employees start double-speaking to them. They behave one way when they’re with them and then say something else when they’re not around. A negative subculture sets in.”

 Kelly Sumner, who now runs football training technology company Soccer Matrix, cut his teeth at Commodore when the firm was the leading supplier of home computers in the UK. He joined the company as an apprentice engineer, switched to sales, became head of the department and then, aged 29, was appointed UK managing director. He recalls: “When you’re catapulted into the top job at a young age as I was, the important thing is not to become ‘Billy Big Boots’. No one’s going to buy that. You have to keep your feet on the ground. You don’t become knowledgeable about all aspects of the job or the company overnight. Make big decisions, sure, but bring your team into the process. Remember that the people who have been doing their jobs really well for 10 or 20 years probably still know more about their jobs and their departments than you do.”

 Sumner was a success, but Winter believes that in most cases the odds are stacked against young managers plucked from the workforce – and that the reason is lack of specific management training.

 “In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he talks about how you need 10,000 hours to really succeed at something. In football, players train from the ages of nine or 10 to 17 or 18 before they really launch their careers. They put the hours in and they succeed. The same is not true of a player’s ascent to management, where they’re basically thrown in at the deep end. The same is true in any business. Someone can know the company inside out, and know the people at the company, but they don’t know how to manage. “At any serious level that requires intense, specialist training. They need to understand the psychology of their employees – and themselves – at a pretty deep level in order to be effective, and that can only come from a great deal of training from real experts.

 “Becoming the boss moves people into a new level of complexity that they sometimes don’t appreciate. They’re also learning skills as they’re putting them into practice, which means they can make mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, in front of people who they were having trouble convincing anyway.”

 Winter says that some might make it under the force of their own character “if they’re a very special type of person”, but that, generally speaking, sudden promotion from the team, if done in isolation, without training, is a risky strategy.

 “They might be able to manage a team, but now they have to manage an entire environment,” he says. “They need to be able to self-reflect and be aware of their presence and the impact that has on those around them, because suddenly it’s having more impact in different ways than it did before, and they’re very unlikely to take that into account if they’re just thrown in at the deep end. We talk about people having a ‘management reach’, as in ‘he’s good, but he’s only got a management reach of about 20 people.’

 “A good mate of mine is a League manager and we’ve worked out his management reach. There is a certain size of club where, if he messes up, it’s down to him.

“But there are other clubs, bigger clubs, of such a size that managing them is fundamentally beyond him. If he’d been trained as a professional manager, those clubs may well not be beyond him, but he was trained as a professional footballer, and that’s a very different thing.”

Stepping up, then, remains a worthy goal – and there are enough examples in both business and football to prove that it can work.

 But the key would seem to be not just in selecting the right candidates, but also giving them the sort of specialised and intense training and support they need to become fully rounded managers – of clubs, businesses, people, situations and environments, not just the team that plays on a Saturday.

 “it’s a gradual process , not a sudden jump”

 Dougie Freedman spent 10 of his 16 years as a player at Crystal Palace. Since January, however, he has been the boss. He recognises that his demeanour and outlook have changed along with his job title, but not as dramatically and not overnight.

 “My core philosophy is to treat players as human beings and I think my former team-mates respected and responded to that. It didn’t stop me talking openly with them and hearing their views – I just took more responsibility after those discussions.”

Freedman believes that consistency is key. “You can’t talk with one voice one minute and a different voice the next,” he says. “You can’t just be the boss when it suits you. I think that’s a natural progression anyway for a senior pro. As you get older you sit closer and closer to the front of the bus, you get involved in talk about the game rather than stuff outside the game, so it’s a gradual process, rather than a sudden jump.

 “I also accept that the lads are going to have their own banter and that I’ll be excluded on certain occasions. But the age gap takes care of that anyway. It doesn’t matter if I’m around to listen in or not, I wouldn’t know what they’re talking about.

 “One thing I’ve learned from life is that it’s not you that changes, it’s the people around you. What I try to do is put them at their ease, to assure them that I’m still the same person and I’m still completely approachable in whatever way they like. If they feel odd about sitting down in my office, that’s fine, we can have a chat over a cup of tea at the canteen, or they can phone me at 10 o’clock in the evening.

“My advice would be to be yourself. I have to be... I’m not an actor. Be honest, be yourself, work hard and hope that that’s good enough.”