14 August 2017

Cohesive Leadership: How to Manage a Modern Organisation

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)


In these modern times, it seems that the best teams have every area covered when it comes to backroom staff. There’s the obvious strength and conditioning expert alongside a mental coach, but rosters are swelling at an alarming rate. More support staff, mean more headaches for a head coaches, as managing different personalities is a challenge all on its own.

With the help of Terry Condon, a man with experience in managing elite teams, CONQA unpacks the unique skillsets required to be a modern manager.

Cogs in the leadership machine: Innovation, Creativity, Improvement, Challenge, Success and Opportunity

Cogs in the leadership machine: Innovation, Creativity, Improvement, Challenge, Success and Opportunity

Felix Magath, the German football manager currently in charge of Shandong Luneng FC in the Chinese Super League, was once described by former Eintracht Frankfurt player Bachirou Salou as the “last dictator in Europe.”

Magath has built a fierce reputation and no-nonsense approach to managing with emphasis on discipline, fitness and conditioning. It’s an approach that has clearly worked, as he has won the German Bundesliga twice, with Bayern Munich, as well as with VfL Wolfsburg between 2004 and 2009 - to go along with four cup titles.

Magath is a manager from the old school that includes the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Rinus Michels and Helenio Herrera. Tough as nails, a disciplinarian through and through, and a man that wouldn't hesitate to send an outspoken player or coach to the Gulag. 

However, that way of running an elite sports team is thankfully disappearing. Leaders are cottoning on to the idea that a collective mindset, where each member of the team feels emboldened to contribute ultimately creates an environment that produces the best results.

When Magath and those mentioned above cut their teeth as managers, the gaffer was the main man in charge and ruled with an unquestioned authority. Today, backroom staff can comprise up to twenty individuals with highly specific roles. From physiotherapists to strength and conditioning coaches, from psychologists to nutritionists, each member of the team will have a different set of objectives and a unique perspective on how to get the best out of their athletes.

For Terry Condon, a high performance and conditioning coach who has worked with the Australian National Rugby Union side, as well as various Australian Football League teams, such as Geelong Cats and Richmond Football Club, the greatest challenge for a modern head coach or manager, is uniting all the different visions under one ethos.

“You can never know for certain how individuals will get on with each other, and so it is up to the person leading the way to ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction. There can sometimes be competing objectives within an organisation. Of course everyone wants to help the team win but one department might think that means preventing injuries, while another might think it means ensuring every athlete is pushed to their performance limit. That can create conflict which impacts a team’s chances of winning.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp might be one of the most likable bosses in football but even he needs to whip his team into line from time to time. 

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp might be one of the most likable bosses in football but even he needs to whip his team into line from time to time. 

Condon is no longer directly involved in elite sport. After leaving Geelong in 2016 after two years working as the performance pathways manager and the physical performance manager, he started his own consulting company Faction Elite where he helps organisations better understand the challenges of managing a team.

“My experience as a pathways manager or as a coordinator [Condon worked as the national rehabilitation coordinator for Australian Rugby] has helped me understand that it is not always the best individuals that put in the best work. In any industry, not just sport, a lot of people are attracted to status. The best organisations consist of people content to let the athletes be the stars of the show.”

Condon explains, how internal competition has increased in recent years with the expansion of backroom staff. He compares elite sports teams of twenty years ago to a startup company where one individual was expected to fulfil multiple roles within the organisation. Today, with so many moving parts working almost independently, it can be difficult to keep individuals to focus on their direct task.

“Elite teams are like large corporations and the challenge for any leader, is making sure the people don’t feel like they’re having their toes stepped on. “If roles are not spelled out properly early on, and expectations are not clearly drawn out before a contract is signed, this problem will happen sooner or later and that will be to the detriment of the side.”

That is not to say that there can be no fluidity within an organisation. Encouraging the cross-pollination of ideas is a vital component in any successful team. But deferring to an external source (whether that is from outside the organisation or from a different department within the organisation) can only happen if everyone is comfortable with their role and feels valued by the leader.

As Condon says, “The longer you have been in a job, the less you question yourself. I think it’s healthy to be questioned. It’s important to know where your responsibility lies, however you can’t be the sole source of the right answer. But this can bring it’s own challenges."

Condon speaks of the ‘halo effect’ where an individual’s talent in one area, and the confidence that brings, can spill over into a false sense of competence in another. For example, a talented strength and conditioning coach might assume that he or she has an inherent understanding of nutrition, which could see a clash of horns with a designated nutritionist.

Here Condon highlights a particular battle that he has encountered at many of the organisations he has worked with. He explains that tensions between the medical staff and the performance staff are common in elite teams, that are well resourced but without clear divisions between roles and an understanding of who exactly is running the programme.

“I saw this a bit when working with Australian rugby, It was my job to get injured Wallabies back on the field, so I worked closely with both the performance and medical teams, whilst both groups wanted the best for the athlete, they had different ideas about what that meant.”

Condon explains that the brains trust at the Wallabies managed to cultivate the all-important collective buy-in from both groups, but that the process was often rife with friction. Negative working relationships create fissions within a team, which can leave a player feeling torn between two conflicting ideologies. And as Condon points out, the player will tend to go with whichever side he perceives to have his best interest at heart.

“Even the most selfless and team-oriented player, will have an egocentric streak and will be looking out for their own interests,” Condon admits. “If two divisions of the backroom staff are offering different solutions to the same problem, there is the potential for the player to lose trust for the side that he decides to ignore. What if a team-mate follows the alternative path? Now you have two clear divisions not only off the field but amongst the playing group too.”

With elite teams hiring specialists to fulfil every conceivable requirement, an elite athlete might have to find that extra percent that could be the difference between winning and losing, which will likely continue to diminish.

With ever burgeoning rosters to manage, head coaches have to be more than innovative tacticians. They need to handle the unique personalities and drive individual ambitions towards a common goal. The age of the dictator is finally over but as we’ve seen, democracy brings it's own set of challenges.