Crozier or Benitez: You Decide

October 31, 2009

I have been wrestling with the big leadership question of the week. Who is likely to be in his job longer, Adam Crozier of the Royal Mail, or Rafa Benitez of Liverpool Football club?

Mr Benitez’s team has suffered from injuries, losses on the field, and departure of key players. Worse, he has received a formal endorsement from his employers that his job is safe. It is part of football black humour to assume that any leader offered such an endorsement is far from safe in the job. His team faced one of those crunch matches over the weekend. We will never know what might have happened to Rafa if Liverpool had lost their sixth successive game. The players rose to the challenge and defeated their bitter rivals Manchester United.

Earlier in the day, the CEO of Liverpool FC gave Rafa that dreaded endorsement

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has been handed long-term job assurances by the club’s managing director Pressure has been mounting following a miserable run of four successive defeats. But Christian Purslow told Sportsweek: “Liverpool are on a long-term journey and you do not do that by worrying about short term results. Rafa Benitez is absolutely central to that long-term plan.”


Mr Crozier has appeared to be slumbering while his company sank into irretrievable strategic trouble and imminent industrial relations conflicts. His management team also seemed to be facing a crunch match with the rampant forces of the Workers Communication Union.

The fate of these leaders way be settled by factors outside their control. But there may be indicators of the strength of the limpet factor in each case. Rafa is believed to have a high Limpet factor in the penalty clauses which would be triggered on his dismissal. Adam Crozier’s financial arrangements are unlikely to be such a consideration for his employers, which arguably include the Government (which claims not to want to interfere).

What do you think?

Rafa Benitez is a great manager: How does he compare with other top coaches?

May 11, 2009
Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez had demonstrated considerable managerial skills this year, as his Liverpool team began to fulfil its potential. But how do you evaluate a coach’s leadership qualities? And will he be remembered more for a few outbursts in the media?

Popular culture results in distorted stories of individuals as heroes and villains. Incidents become important elements fixing a personality in our mind. Rafa Benitez was once labelled for his obsessive team rotation. More recently it was for public announcements directed against bitter rivals Manchester United which were dismissed as pale imitations of the mind games played by United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

This strereotyping ignores his other leadership qualities. In this correct that strictly on trophies won, Liverpool FC have had another disappointing season. However, the team has if anything been playing better recently since the public outbursts of Benitez. This in part can be attributed to a return to fitness of key players Gerard and Torres. So how much can be attributed to Rafa’s leadership qualities?

Aren’t managers easy to compare?

Not really. Take the current magnificent four in the Premier League. The top four teams on results have remained the same for over a decade, namely Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. I have listed the clubs in alphabetical order so as not to distract those who have strong views on the historical and current status of teams. There is little to argue that they have been the most consistently successful Premiership teams since the competition started.

Each of these teams has an outstanding manager. I argue this not just on recent results. The retention of football managers operates on a Darwinian process of survival of the fittest. Survival depends on various factors within the manager, and the external circumstances in which he finds himself. Results are important for survival, but there are further unpredictable factors which need to be considered such as the power relationship between the owner and manager, the financial circumstances of the club, injuries to players, even maybe a single decision in an important game by a linesman or referee.

Sir Alex Ferguson is widely attributed as the architect of much of Man U’s great successes since his arrival. Arsene Wenger has experienced successes with Arsenal, and has a track record of finding and developing great young talent. Gus Hiddink came to Chelsea, the team which can afford any coach available in the market place. His track record elsewhere is impressive, and he seems to have started well. Then there’s Rafa, who has built a Liverpool team for the club which had for several decades been the most successful English team in Europe.

What’s the point of all this?

My main point is how to assess leadership qualities. One way is to try to link recent information with established beliefs of a wider kind. Yes, I’m talking about bringing a little theory into practical affairs. For leadership, over a century of attempts to pin down the qualities of leaders were eventually thrown into disarray. The demise of The Great Man theories had begun. One difficulty was a failure to pin down ‘the essence of greatness’ possessed by the greatest leaders. There seemed to be too much variety.

You can see where I’m coming from for that sub-set of leaders known as football coaches.

All is not lost

That does not mean we should stop trying to understand leadership. There are ways of examining the process which offer more reliability. One such study (on international football managers) is underway and I hope to report on results when they become available.

Asking the right questions

In such a study, it is important to ask questions which offer promise of getting somewhere worthwhile. This is sometimes called finding the research question. Much popular discussion of leadership does not focus on particularly powerful research questions. For me, the questions of sporting leadership would have more value if they were to throw light on how future leaders might act to become more effective. ‘What can we learn from the leadership actions of Rafa Benitez’? What can be learned by ‘comparing and contrasting’ Rafa’s actions with those of other leaders in similar (but not identical) contexts?

‘Facts’ alone are not enough. Which, by coincidence, was a point demonstrated in one of those controversial episodes recently when Rafa read out a series of ‘facts’ about Liverpool and Manchester United to a bemused press audience.

The Search for a New leader: Now its BA and Willie Walsh

May 15, 2008

Update: The post below [May 15th, 2008] was updated [December 16th, 2009] as British Airways faced a highly damaging strike of Cabin Crew over the Christmas holiday period. Original post follows:

When a company starts looking for a new leader, rumours about the incumbent are bound to arise. The most recent case is that of British Airways and its CEO Willie Walsh. Students of leadership succession should keep a close eye on unfolding events.

The duty of a corporate board is to safeguard a company’s future viability, and that must include monitoring of its leadership. While secrecy is desirable, it may suit pressure groups to bring matters to public attention. For example, shareholder activists seek advantage for their narrower interests, which would include getting the best short-term deals on investments, but might also include the possibility of becoming king-makers for a change of leadership.

The Independent reports that

[British Airways] has appointed the recruitment consultants Whitehead Mann to find a new chief operating officer and possible successor for its embattled chief executive Willie Walsh.

The successful candidate will fill a newly created role, devised after the recent Heathrow Terminal 5 fiasco. Both BA’s director of operations, Gareth Kirkwood, and head of customer service, David Noyes, parted company with the group last month [April 2008] . The two roles will now be combined to create the position of chief operating officer.

The airline, which will publish its full-year results on Monday, is believed to have instructed Whitehead Mann to find a senior level candidate who could be considered for a position on the board within two years, and could also be a potential replacement for Mr Walsh within five years.

Opening Sacrifices?

For ‘parted company’ read sacked. Gareth makes an opening sacrifice in BA’s attempts to allay criticisms for a wave of customer service reactions. David will do for the time-being for operational failings, as Terminal 5 lumbers into action.

Later, [May 13th 2008] BAA, Heathrow’s operating organization announced the departure of Mike Bullock, its Managing Director at Heathrow, another victim of the Terminal 5 opening (or non-opening, if you prefer). At least the BBC announced it, beating the BAA web-site to the news.

The departures at British Airways seem more in the nature of opening gambits, if we want to puruse the theme of chess as a metaphor for corporate strategy.

The Times has reported that public sentiment strongly in favour of BA finding a replacement for Willie Walsh.

However, Richard Northedge argues that

Walsh directly culpable too [for the recent Terminal 5 opening fiasco]. Unfortunately, BA cannot afford to lose him. It has other problems that require solutions – from its pension deficit to its industrial relations – and Walsh is the best man it has. But stakeholders require some recognition that Walsh’s acceptance of responsibility is not just hollow words: it would be appropriate if, when the remuneration committee considers bonuses, it acknowledged the need to punish Walsh.

The Walsh Legend

Mr Walsh arrived at British Airways in 2005 already as something of a celebrity. His reputation had been secured as a former pilot who aspired to leadership. He had risen through the ranks at Aer Lingus to be acknowledged as a transformational figures for the fortunes of that company.

Stories accumulated about his hands-on style, and were used to sketch his operating methods.

He was known for negotiating toughness. Successfully reinventing Aer Lingus as a profitable no-frills airline, while other established European flag carriers went to the wall, he slashed costs by 30% and shed more than a third of staff. [saying]”we make no apologies for focusing on profit” … [and that] “a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations”.
He is renowned for not driving an expensive car and choosing not to take on a secretary, instead writing all his own letters and answering his own phone.

Mr Walsh’s obvious toughness and eye for increased profitability no doubt caught the attention of BA’s board. After the UK airline’s long history of staff disputes, most recently the wildcat walkouts in August 2005 in support of sacked workers at the airline’s main caterer, he must have seemed ideal.

Be careful of what you want…

‘Be careful of what you want. You might get it’ runs an office-wall summary, capturing the myth of the Faustian pact. Maybe that is another version of getting the leaders we deserve. The appeal of a tough leader for BA was obviously appealing, not just to the Board, but to its major shareholders.

Students of leadership succession should keep an eye on events at British Airlines. We will continue to watch Willie, at Leaders We Deserve.

To go more deeply into succession planning

We touched on British Airways in the context of Mandrill Management .

Travolution is a useful site for wider issues of the industry

The Post Office/Royal Mail leadership succession activities were noted including attempts to have a fall-back plan if Allen Leighton were to leave.

Times Warner’s appointment of Jeff Bewkes also makes an interesting succession story.

EADS strategic issues under Louis Gallois
and also its leadership challenges have been covered.

There have stories of the rise and fall of varous sporting leaders. When Liverpool owners approached Jurgen Klinsmann, the story blew-up as a scheme to get rid of the popular Rafa Benitez.

England’s Rugby Football Union eventually appointed Martin Johnson and relegated Bryan Ashton to the bench.

Numerous posts covered the stories the longest leadership succession saga of modern times.

The transition from President Vladimir Putin to Dmitry Medvedev is offering further insights into succession issues in internationally important arenas.

Overall, the events covered in these posts indicate recurring themes within recent leadership succession stories. A thorough examination might produce a valuable contribution to understanding of the dynamics of leadership succession. They may also hint at the likely outome to the story of Willie Walsh at British Airways.