The success of the England football team in beating Denmark 2:1 in the Euro 2020 semi-final at Wembley was remarkable. Whatever the outcome of the final against Italy (a formidable team), England can be proud to have reached the final. So what can Gareth Southgate teach us all? After decades of fairly poor performance of the England team in international football, what has changed our fortunes? The answer seems to be one man – Gareth Southgate, the England manager. But how has he done it?

Gary Neville, the former England captain, praising Southgate at the Denmark/England Euro semi-final told tens of millions of television. “The standard of leaders in this country over the past couple of years has been poor – but looking at that man, he is everything a leader should be. Respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine. He is fantastic, Gareth Southgate.”

Secret No 1 – Chatting to the team

Southgate’s players have enormous respect for him and his style. So what’s his secret? Is it the training regime? Is it making sure that the players are getting an early night before a match? It’s actually very simple: he’ll just be having a chat.

“One thing that stood out for me was, before every game, he would come around and check up on every single player,” said Brendan Galloway, the Plymouth Argyle player who was managed by Southgate in the England Under-21 squad, from 2015 to 2017. “He would ask players how they’re feeling and that was quite special to me because you could tell that he was a very busy man, but he always wanted them to be in the best state possible before a game. The focus isn’t just on playing football but creating a fun environment. It’s unique and the fun helps the squad to take their mind off the pressure sometimes.”

Southgate gives time to each and every member of his team, to sit alongside them and show genuine interest in each person. What a fantastic foundation stone on which to build success. A former chief exec of Marks & Spencer spent every Saturday visiting one of his stores with his wife and daughter talking to staff and customers. It provided him with a much-needed wider perspective in the Monday morning management meeting if one of his senior staff tried to fob him off!

Secret No 2  – Relevant diversity in strategic thinking

Another part of Gareth Southgate’s success is his willingness to turn to those outside the game of football for advice and help. One of these advisers, former Olympian Matthew Syed, argues there’s a lot the rest of the world can learn about this approach.

Matthew argues that if there is one universal truth about human psychology, it is that we love being surrounded by people who think just like us. The Ancient Greeks called it “homophily” which means “love of the same”. It was Plato who warned “birds of a feather flock together”.

This is pretty much the story of the England football over last thirty years. The England squad was run by a true “footballing man” advised by other “footballing men”. The idea is that if you get enough knowledgeable football chaps in a room, you will maximise the amount of knowledge – and thereby find a way to win matches.

This explains why when Sir Clive Woodward – a world-class rugby coach – was appointed as an assistant coach at Southampton FC a few years ago, there was uproar. “But he’s a rugby person”, football insiders said in horror. “If Harry Redknapp – the coach of Southampton at the time – needs advice, what is wrong with, say, Tony Pulis or David Pleat (both English based football coaches)? They are experts on football!”

Matthew Syed goes on to say that the curious thing about these arguments is that they are, on the surface, persuasive. It is true that Pulis knows more about football than Woodward. But do you see the problem? Redknapp already knows what Pulis knows. They were each socialised into the assumptions of English football: a way of setting up tactically, diet, recovery, you name it. They are, if you like, intellectual “clones”.

If you put Redknapp, Pulis and Pleat in a room – all good footballing men – you would have high individual knowledge, but you would also have collective uniformity. You would have an echo chamber. They would reflect each other’s assumptions back to each other. It would be comfortable, chummy and consensual. It would also be monolithic and non-creative.

This tendency is a problem that extends beyond English football. When the CIA was founded in 1947, it hired brilliant analysts, but they also happened to look similar – white, middle-class, Anglo Saxon, Protestant males.

The recruiters, doubtless subconsciously, were influenced by homophily. As the academics Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn put it: “The first consistent attribute of the CIA’s identity from 1947 to 2001 is homogeneity in terms of race, sex, ethnicity and class background.”

The same can be said historically for Members of Parliament (no longer true of course) and Bishops in the Church of England (now much less true).

The same is true of many of the big tech firms such as Google which, a decade or so ago, wondered why innovation had dried up, despite hiring so many brilliant software engineers. They then realised that they were hiring people from similar universities who had learned under similar professors and had absorbed a similar range of concepts, heuristics and models. They were “clones” of each other. Only when they started looking beyond their usual horizons, reaching out to different universities and social networks, did things change.

Gareth Southgate, the England head coach, has followed a different approach, opening himself up to new ideas from the outset. One source of these ideas is the FA Technical Advisory Board, an eclectic group that has been advising on performance in regular meetings since 2016.

Members (all unpaid volunteers) include Sir Dave Brailsford, a cycling coach, Colonel Lucy Giles, a college commander at the Sandhurst Military Academy, the Olympic rower Dame Kath Grainger, Manoj Badale, a tech entrepreneur, the rugby coach Stuart Lancaster and David Sheepshanks, mastermind behind the St George’s Park national football centre.

At first, football insiders were horrified by this group, with negative articles appearing in the press. They were not “footballing men”. But this is exactly why the group is capable of offering fresh insights on preparation, diet, data, mental fortitude and more. This is sometimes called “divergent” thinking to contrast it with the “convergence” of echo chambers.

Interestingly, the experienced footballing pundits have consistently criticised Southgate for many of his decisions – saying that he has got things wrong and made bad decisions. Many such pundits must now eat their proverbial hat.

“I like listening to people who know things that I don’t,” Southgate has said. “That’s how you learn.”

Southgate also got together a diverse group of coaches – individuals who have deep but very different experiences of the game. Importantly, Southgate doesn’t just gather advisers, he is keen to listen to them. These diverse coaches are not rebels in the sense of seeking to disrupt the team. Rather, they are rebels in the sense of injecting fresh thinking which helps everyone perform better.

The tragedy is that people in echo chambers often don’t even realise they are trapped. This is a point made by the novelist David Foster Wallace, who tells a story that starts in a fish tank. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then one of them looks at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?'”

Wallace’s point is that when we are surrounded by people who think the same way, we can overlook the obvious. Classic examples include Blockbuster Video, which missed the opportunities of the internet despite dominating the movie rental business, and Kodak, which was so fixated on print photography that it never took the opportunities afforded by digital.

The CIA missed an entire series of threats due to its clone-like recruits. A few more rebels could have changed everything. It wasn’t until after the 9-11 attack that the CIA started to broaden its intake.

Of course, diversity shouldn’t be pursued frivolously. If Brailsford, Giles, Badale, Grainger et al were advising not on football performance but how to design the Large Hadron Collider, they would be ineffectual. Introducing outsiders for the sake of it rarely works. The key is to bring people together whose perspectives are both relevant to the problem, and which are also different from each other. This maximises both “depth” and “range” of knowledge – leading to “collective intelligence”.

Secret No 3 – Respect for the competition

Another feature of Southgate is his genuine respect for the opposition. Denmark played well in the semi-final against England. They are a good and fine team and a worthy adversary. Southgate holds them in high regard, as he does Italy whom England play in the Euro 2020 final. Belittling the opposition is not Southgate’s style nor is it the style of a great leader.

At the date of writing this blog, the England football team haven’t played the Euros’ final. However, success in the semi-finals proves that the power of diversity is beyond dispute and central to the strategies of many of the most cutting-edge institutions.

But what about businesses?

If we turn to ourselves reading this blog, many of us are business owners. How do we fare in the depth and range of support from which our businesses benefit? Who are the relevant people whom we might bring in to help us and give us that much needed different perspective and insight?

For some businesses, this wider perspective is not just valuable it can be a matter of life and death. Liverpool legend Bill Shankly once famously and tongue in cheek said that “Football is much more important than life or death” On a serious note, tragically many lives were lost in the two crashes of the Boeing 737 MAX planes. Some 189 people were killed on Lion Air Flight 610 on 29 October 2018 in Indonesia. On 10 March 2019, the crash of Ethiopian Airways flight ET302 took 157 lives. Within less than six months, 346 people died in no-survivor accidents in Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. In Ethiopia, empty coffins have been buried, and relatives have been told that positive identification of remains may take up to six months due to the force of the impact.

We know the cause of the crashes was the malfunctioning of the MACS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System). One of the terrifying aspects though of the Boeing crashes is that it was rivalry of Boeing with Airbus (Boeing’s competitor) that caused safety corners to be cut. The drive for profit overtook safety issues. The safety responsibility for which was held by the FAA but who amazingly delegated it back to Boeing!

The new technology of MACS could have been presented as a benefit and so needing extra training for the pilots but the opposite view was taken by Boeing to hush up the changes and give scant (and wholly inadequate) training to the pilots. Group think and the echo chamber contributed to these terrible disasters which were foreseeable. After the crashes Boeing went into denial insisting the planes were safe when clearly, they were not. Boeing’s reputation will never (and rightfully) never fully recover. The many human errors that brought down the Boeing 737 Max – The Verge

Boeing is not alone. The Post Office scored a terrible own goal by the scandal of its prosecution of its own innocent sub-postmasters. The Grenfell Tower disaster need not have happened and so it goes on.

Perhaps if ‘a Gareth Southgate’ was on the governing board of Boeing, the FAA (the US Federal Aviation Authority), the Post Office, building contractors and building regulators these awful tragedies might not have happened.

Echo chambers may be comfortable, but they are inherently self-limiting. In the post-pandemic age, with the world changing faster than ever, it is diversity that unlocks the key to success.

This blog asks the question ‘What can Gareth Southgate teach us all?’ We have hopefully seen that (a) Southgate’s genuine care for each of his team members combined with (b) the relevant diversity of advice on which he draws has given the England team the winning edge and (c) his respect for the competition and professional adversaries is his recipe for success. That same winning edge can equally be ours too as owners of SME businesses.

Bill Shankly may have been right up to a point. Learning from Gareth Southgate and looking at the avoidable tragedies in recent years, we are able to say that football can be the difference between life and death.

If you would like to explore how your team might benefit from this approach, do give us a call at SME Strategies or drop us an email.

David Eaton
07841 215182

This blog draws on and gives credit to a published article by Matthew Syed who is author of ‘Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking’. Matthew represented Great Britain in table tennis at two Olympic Games. Credit is also given to material published on the BBC news website. Any mistakes or omissions are however the responsibility of David Eaton.

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