Over the last week the sports media has been awash with comments about footballer Kevin de Bruyne’s revelation that Pep Guardiola, his God-like Manchester City coach who wears coats with too many zips, spent 15 minutes instructing his team on how to beat their cross-town rivals Manchester United.
The punditocracy has unanimously interpreted this as it only taking City 15 minutes to beat United and there being no better illustration of the latter’s decline.
This reaction is misguided. It’s also enlightening in relation to decision making and communication not just in sports, but in the boardroom.
Why? Because it plays upon two misconceptions: Firstly, that because the stakes are high, you must re-tell the entire topic. Secondly, that important messages must be complicated.
Here’s a couple of things football might be able to teach the boardroom.
Tell them what they need to know
Guardiola didn’t spend just 15 minutes planning to beat United. He spent years.
As well as his own genius, he has at his disposal legions of coaching staff, opposition scouts, data analytics, and technology the likes of which Brian Clough or Bill Shankly could never have imagined. He also has wonderful footballers. Over the years Guardiola has been at City, he has, daily, imparted his strategic thinking and the tactics that go with it, to those players. He didn’t have to labour the point close to the game. He just had to give limited, focused, and specific instructions.
A business with a clear strategy, world-class people, good relations between management and the board, and a clear briefing process for reporting should be the same. Great board papers should concentrate on the specific things the reader is being asked to do with the information presented. They don’t need to be a comprehensive re-telling of every in and out of the topic. But they will link back to the big picture, reminding the reader of why the information is important.
Neither a well-tuned footballer or clued-up board member needs the kitchen sink throwing at them if they know the bigger picture and direction of travel. Tell them what they need to know and what you want them to do with that information.
Keep it simple
If you were a football manager at half-time, with five minutes to deliver your message (the other ten given over to refuelling and refocusing the players) you would have to focus on a limited number of things:
- Get the players’ attention;
- Point out two or three things that are affecting their performance;
- Point out two or three things they need to keep doing or stop doing.
I recently spoke with a governance professional at a well-known sporting body who told me that 15 minutes is the most he can give management in board meetings. They often complain it’s not enough. But if they followed the approach set out above, both in their written pre-reading and in presenting, it’s more than enough time. Put simply:
- Tell the board why what you’re telling them is important;
- Address the two or three questions on the topic that have the biggest impact on performance;
- Be specific about what you want the board to do with the information.
“Lads, it’s Tottenham!”
Still need some convincing that good managers only need a few words to convey important messages?
When Alf Ramsey had to rally his England players for extra time at the end of a gruelling 90 minutes in the 1966 World Cup Final against West Germany, where they had been winning until the 78th minute, his words were simple:
“You’ve won it once, now go and win it again”
When Sir Alex Ferguson was preparing his Manchester United team to play Tottenham Hotspur during his imperial phase at Old Trafford, his team talk consisted of three words:
“Lads, it’s Tottenham!”