21 May 2017

Prolonging the Honeymoon: The Impact of New Managers

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

Who’d be an elite coach? The merry-go-round at the top can be a daunting prospect for any manager and in this line of work, even the very best get the axe. But as we see time and time again, appointing a new manager often has an immediate positive impact on the team. Maybe there is some logic behind the madness. Two experts in their field with decades of experience help CONQA unpack the effect new managers have on teams and find ways to replicate that for those who are trying to keep their job.

A whiteboard showing the factors of successful change management.

A whiteboard showing the factors of successful change management.

When Paul Clement took over as Swansea City manager in January this year, the club was languishing in 19th on the log and were in serious danger of relegation.

But 5 wins in 8 matches, including a 3-2 win away at Liverpool and a 2-0 victory over defending champions Leicester helped the Welsh club climb the table and set their sights on safety.

Unfortunately the honeymoon period would not last as 6 games without a win followed as the pressure started to mount on the new manager.

When asked what he needed to do to get things back on track, Clement joked that he was considering resigning and then re-joining the club. A sort of, switch-it-off-and-then-switch-it-back-on-again approach.

What Clement was alluding to was the impact a new coach can have on a group of athletes and how a change of leadership can galvanise a team and improve performances.

In the end, that change was not needed as the Swans rallied to secure three wins and a draw away at Manchester United to avoid the drop ahead of Hull City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland with a game to spare.

So does the changing of a manager really impact performance? According to the global data collecting site Transfermarkt, there were 19 managerial changes in the top European leagues of England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France around the time Clement took over at Swansea.

Of those 19 managerial changes, 16 improved the points per game of the team. For whatever reason, the change of a manager has at least a temporary impact on performance. The question is, why?

“The simple answer is that change is exciting and lights a fire under players as they now believe that their performances are on notice,” says Steve Gera, an elite sports consultant, professor and entrepreneur who has worked in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers, as well as La Liga giants Real Madrid CF and the Philadelphia 76ers in the National Basketball Association (NBA). “It gives athletes something new.”

Gera speaks about the need to create new goals and find new motivations. All coaches need to keep things fresh and nothing sweeps out the cobwebs like a new coach.

However, it’s important to take a step back here and understand that the improved performances might have less to do with the incoming manager than they do with the one who has just vacated the hot seat.

Warren Kennaugh is a behavioural strategist and author with more than 20 years’ experience working with elite athletes and businesses at the Australian national cricket and rugby union teams, the National Rugby League (NRL) as well as a host of corporate giants such as Toyota and KPMG.

According to Kennaugh, “You can replace a manager who has lost the dressing room or the trust of key players with anyone. My mum could walk in and have an immediate positive impact. It’s not so much about who is coming but more about who is going.”

The rationale behind Kennaugh’s argument is his assertion that change appeals to the emotional side of the brain. He calls this the “halo effect” and says that while elite athletes are mostly mentally and physically strong, they lack an emotional strength.

“The newness of a new coach appeals to emotion, and more specifically, it appeals to the hope that things will be different,” Kennaugh says. “Players want to believe that this new coach can turn things around so they start feeling better, they play with a newfound love of the game and more importantly, they want to impress their new boss.”

If this is true, is change for change’s sake ever a sound option for a team owner or general manager desperate for a turnaround in the side’s fortunes? After all, Hail Mary’s sometimes lead to touchdowns. For Gera, shots in the dark mostly bring temporary success.

“It doesn’t work in the long run,” Gera says. “You’ll find that teams that are constantly changing their managers are the teams that are constantly in the middle or bottom half of the table. If a manager is not equipped for the job, he’ll be found out sooner or later.”

Kennaugh agrees and uses a colourful analogy to support this view: “When you start a new relationship, everything is great at first. But after a while, things that you were able to brush off initially now start to annoy you. Does your partner squeeze the toothpaste from the middle? Does your partner never offer to cook dinner? Certain things eventually play their role in a breakup and it’s the same with managers and their players.”

But that does not mean that owners have to be too picky when change is so obviously needed. Kennaugh points out that there is one variable above all others that should impact who is appointed the new man or woman at the helm of a club: difference from the old manager.

“With everything being equal, I advise owners and managers to select a coach that is the opposite of the one they just fired,” Kennaugh says. “What the players are looking for is difference. If the old guy was a ball-breaker and used fire and brimstone to motivate his players, the next guy should be a bit softer and more of a people’s person. If you replace like for like, the players will look around and think, “What’s different?” They might start to doubt themselves which will negatively impact performance.”

Kennaugh has seen this happen in the corporate world. At a reputed and well known company, Kennaugh was hired to consult on a change of leadership. The departing manager constantly drove his team with an abrasive touch.

Instead of shifting gears, the company hired a similar leader and in the space of 6 months the majority of the team resigned. “Even if the new manager is equipped for the job, if they remind the players or employees of the old manager they won’t be able to see the positives,” Kennaugh says. “How many relationships fail to get off the ground because the new partner is too similar to an ex?”

But it’s not enough to simply be different from the old regime. A new coach has to inspire hope where there was none. For Gera, that comes from redirecting the narrative and is a something that he advises both new and old coaches implement whenever performances are going awry.

“You don’t have to be new to a job to shift tact and redirect the dialogue,” Gera says. “It could be a change of captaincy or it could even be changing the way you communicate to your team. Good coaches know what the trigger points are and can use them to manufacture motivation.”

Gera admits that he has never worked with a team that changed coach midway through a season but he has twice been involved in a change at quarterback with an NFL team (though he won’t say who they are).

“One time, the team was struggling and changed the quarterback from a guy who was relaxed to a guy who was in your face and very direct with what he wanted. On another occasion, the reverse happened. Both times the change resulted in an upswing in performance. Players want to know that those at the top are trying to make things work and if they appear to be proactive, that can often be the difference.”

Both Gera and Kennaugh make strong cases for changing the leadership team but are in unison when they argue for consistency and assert that sacking a manager should only be used as a last resort.

Change invariably comes with a new manager but that does not mean that it is only possible with a new person at the top. Astute managers and coaches are intuitive and can identify when change is required. By reading the tea leaves and finding the right stimuli for players, elite managers can prolong the honeymoon period before they themselves are out looking for a new job.