What almost kills you makes you stronger

Posted on January 16, 2015

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BHAFC ACADEMY

I spend my work life helping organisations get a bit of clarity around their vision, values and strategy and then bring this to life for their people. It’s what I do.

When I’m not doing that, then my time is split between being with my wonderful family and then after that my other two passions – cycling and football. When it comes to football, I have one particular love: Brighton & Hove Albion.

For those not in the know, the ‘Albion’ are a professional football team in the second tier of English football. Furthermore, they’ve had a torrid recent history having had their stadium sold from under them 18 years ago; been homeless for 3 years and then had to fight tooth and nail whilst housed at a temporary and dilapidated athletics stadium for a new home. A new home that they were eventually given permission to build and which they moved into 4 years ago.

To say that this was a club on the brink of existence is an understatement. As well as the hardships aforementioned, the club also battled relegation at the very bottom of the football pyramid.

So, how has it learned from this experience? Aside from the supporters, how has the leadership and management structure responded and what sort of culture has now emerged?

This week I was fortunate enough to get a tour of the club’s new training academy with their CEO, Paul Barber. It’s an impressive facility set up to train all the club’s teams from under 11’s right through to the first team, and cover’s the men’s and the women’s teams. All of this is about getting all the playing and management staff under one roof and exposed to one culture and one philosophy.

As a result of working with the club’s marketing partner, Nike, the line ‘One Club, One Ambition.’ is emblazoned across all things Albion. I don’t think this line does justice to what the club is trying to do, because behind the Albion sits an ethos: to treat people well, exceed expectations, aim high and make it special. Words, words, words. But they are evident in everything the club does, from the padded seats in the stadium to the way the club interacts with fans via open Q&A’s on a regular basis to the speed with which senior staff communicate directly with supporters. You’ll find it in the operating principles for each team that are pasted in each dressing room. You’ll find it in the way teams progress throughout the academy, each time seeing their personal facilities improve step by step as they move up the ranks. You see it in the personal data plans for each and every player – if you are supposed to be training at 60% then monitoring can call a player off the training ground at precisely the time that they meet that level. This club really is living its ethos.

It helps if I explain how my meeting came about. In December of 2014 I had become disgruntled with my team’s performance. Nearing the bottom of our league, it was time for our manager to go. So, I cheekily emailed the CEO. I had a response within 6 minutes. Too good to be true I thought, this must be automated somehow, so I responded again. Again a full response from Paul Barber that was clearly personalised and thought through. Over the course of 48 hours we exchanged 3 long emails debating issues like fan involvement, safe standing and attitude towards performance. This was an adult and personal response. I felt like my views were being treated seriously, and whilst Paul Barber put his view across strongly he still recognised a point of view different to his own.

And so, the whole exercise ended with his invitation to me to visit the training academy to see for myself how far the club had come. Did I really need to go? No. The email experience alone demonstrated how far the club had come, and in subsequent conversations with other fans it transpires that our CEO responds to all supporter enquiries – personally. Something he confirmed when I met him. To him, the opportunity to debate with fans and listen to fans is not to be missed. My impression was that whilst he was a strong character that can set a strategy and stick to it, he learns everyday by listening. In fact, he freely admitted that listen and creating a culture where you can make mistakes and learn from them was essential to the success of the team. And CEO’s today are responsible for culture. In the successful businesses, it’s the CEO taking an active role in being the change that he or she wants to see across the business.

Everything I witnessed at the club was down to two things: attitude and data. Data? The club is in the main owned by Tony Bloom, a celebrated and successful gambler. And my guess is that he is successful because he plays the numbers. He assesses the data and plays according to those rules. So, the data in December 2014 suggested our coach should be sacked. No, says Paul Barber, and that is why the club refused to do so. The data collected by the coaches on the performances on the pitch suggested the team were playing better than ever. It suggested that the team were the 4th least fortunate team in Europe. The stats said we should be higher in the league and this was a club following a formula.

To have the strength of character not to fire the coach when the fans are baying for blood is extraordinary. It suggests a team with a very long-term view. A team that will not make short-term decisions in the interests of a quick win. That is showing that the club has learned from what nearly killed it. No other football club in the UK would be so patient. Hell, not even Morrison’s has been that patient.

That attitude is something that gets lived from the top. The fact that I was in the room, a fan afforded the opportunity to quiz the CEO because I had raised some specific concerns via email, was extraordinary. How many businesses do you know of where the senior leadership make such efforts to connect and communicate with their customers in such a manner? I can think of precisely none.

Who would have thought that Britain’s business leaders might have so much to learn from little old Brighton & Hove Albion, the team that nearly went bust. I’m a fan. I was impressed just on that level. But looking beyond that, I saw and attitude and a disciplined plan that would be the envy of many a corporation worldwide. This isn’t little old Brighton anymore. It’s an organisation with purpose and it is living it. Ultimately, that is the secret to success. It’s the stuff that academics like HBR write about, and it is being put into practice by the Albion team.

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