The dilemmas of talent management. The case of Kevin Pietersen

KPIn the space of a week, Kevin Pietersen, cricket’s most talented and controversial figure, scored a record number of runs and learned that he would not be selected for the England test team

Great individual talent sometimes requires great talent management. Kevin Pietersen’s international cricket career is a prime example.

The English cricket establishment has since his arrival on the scene struggled with the challenge of harnessing the exceptional talent of Kevin Pietersen and dealing with assorted off-field controversies.


Kevin Pietersen has been at the centre of controversies since his defection from South Africa to play for England in 2000. His batting talent has rarely been questioned. His judgement, loyalty to the team, weakness against spin bowling rarely out of question.

After serving four years residency in England, he quickly became selected for England’s test team in 2004 as a brilliant and aggressive batsman. His on-field efforts were accompanied by an unconcealed belief in his own superior abilities and a sense of entitlement earned through his special talents.

By 2008 Strauss had replaced the fatigued Michael Vaughan as captain, who could be credited with skilful man management of his team including Pietersen whose subsequent appointment was not fulsomely welcomed, and his brief spell as captain of the England team ended in typically spectacular style in early 2009 as Pietersen attempted to introduce changes which exceeded his authority, and spooked an already-nervous establishment. [Note: the Vaughan era was briefly interrupted by captaincy spells from Marcus Trescothick and Andy Flintoff]

Pietersen continued to enjoy success as England’s most talented and prolific batsman. However, his brushes with authority were to culminate in texts he sent during an international series to friends in the opposing South African team disparaging Andrew Strauss, his successor as captain of England.

By then, the rise of financial rewards playing the short form of the game had tempted Pietersen, and provided more evidence for alienated administrators and team colleagues of his lack of commitment to test cricket.England performances declined as rebuilding the team continued. with particularly bad defeats by Australia in 2012-14, after which Pietersen was singled out as no longer in the Selectors’ minds.

Kevin writes a book

In 2014, to publicise his version of events, Kevin wrote a book claiming a culture of bullying existed in the English squad, which had been allowed by Captain Strauss and coach Andy Flower. The Mail suggested that the book was full of contradictions:

One of Pietersen’s central claims is that a culture of bullying existed in the England dressing room, particularly among the clique of [senior players] Matt Prior, James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann.

Yet Pietersen is relentless in his contemptuous attitude towards Prior, assassinating his character and constantly ridiculing him. The scale of abuse he directs at Prior appears to be of a persecuting nature itself.

Graves throws out a lifeline

Pietersen was encouraged later last year by Colin Graves, the in-coming Chairman of the ECB [English Cricket Board] to demonstrate his commitment to the team by returning to play regional (‘county championship’) cricket leaving lucrative shot-game (Twenty20) contracts, in the Caribbean Premier League for St Lucia Zouks and in the Big Bash League for Melbourne Stars.

This suggestion was quickly shown to be opposed by the existing executives within the ECB. Nevertheless, Pietersen returned to England and began to show strong form for his Surrey team as the 2015 season began.

Then the announcement came that the new supremo would be no other than former England captain Andrew Strauss, whose antipathy towards Pietersen’s influence on the team was well known and which had worsened after Pietersen’s autobiography was published.

On the week of Strauss’s appointment, [May 11th 2015] coach Peter Moore lost his job after poor form shown by England on a tour of the West Indies.

Strauss also moved quickly to meet with Pietersen and confirm the official line that Pietersen remained outside the considerations of the England Selectors.

An on line poll on the recall of Pietersen was running at 86% in favour of his re-selection when I tried it [8 am, May 12th 2015]

A balanced review of the ECB leadership fiasco can be found in The Guardian of May 12th

The dilemmas of talent management

The media stories have tended o focus on Pietersen and his personality. It is useful to take a perspective from the literature of team dynamics.

A recent post by Paul Hinks applied the processes to a study of the team crises at Liverpool Football Club, and the efforts of manager Rogers to address them.

Rogers had a his own version of Pietersen to manage in the extremely gifted but volatile Louis Suarez. Just as Vaughan had achieved with Pietersen, Rogers won the confidence of all his players including Suarez. This season he has had other potential crises with departing captain Gerard and emerging star Raheem Stirling (although these players do not have the more explosive potential for team damage of Suarez and Pietersen).

The process of storming is natural. An effective leader is one who works to address groups that become utterly stuck in storm mode. Rogers (and Vaughan) found ways of dealing with the outbursts or storms of their players. It seems likely that the anti-authority figure of Pietersen was too much for the leadership styles of others having to deal with him, including Andrew Strauss, Andy Flower, and the current England captain Alistair cook.

Managing the talented player

One of the richest sets of ideas for understanding and developing teams comes from the Group Relations movement associated with The Tavistock School. The process of team development is encouraged by a leader with a facilitative style who helps the group be aware of and take actions over unhelpful basic assumptions. These include assumptions of dependency, of stereotyping, of bonding into in and out groups.

I have also written about The Manchester Method, the team approach at Manchester Business School which draws on the Tavistock principles.

Toxic and benign cultures

In his book, Pietersen was emphatic about the need to escape a toxic dressing room culture.. For me, the leadership skills required required are those of a creative leader who helps produce benign rather than toxic team cultures.

To be continued

13th May 2015

The story continues apace. KP prepares to return to his IPL commitments but has sustained an injury during his monster innings for Surrey

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