Two hands shaking on a deal

Would you employ Jose Mourinho? (This is not a rhetorical question)

hr leadership management Feb 01, 2022

So the Portuguese maestro has done it again. Within three weeks of being sacked by Tottenham, Jose Mourinho has been appointed boss of A.S. Roma. One man’s poison is another man’s elixir. And how fitting that the ultimate football circus relocates to Rome. Daniel Levy and the Tottenham board are the only definite winners in this deal, having dodged a pay-off of up to £20m. Fair play to Jose, in that he prefers working to watching Bargain Hunt at home.

But Jose has the luxury to do this because of his earlier pay-offs. In total he has received £77.5m in compensation from clubs (77% from English). That’s the same as ITV’s annual ad revenue from Love Island. Or winning the EuroMillions jackpot. Given that the odds of winning are one in 139.8m, any punters reading this may want to reconsider their strategy and try to become a football manager instead.

For those unfamiliar with Mourinho, he has won 20 competitions in six countries. This includes 8 league titles in 4 different countries. The only club he didn’t win anything at is Tottenham. It is tempting to account for this failure by quoting Warren Buffet: when a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.

But that would be ignoring the data. He has been sacked six times from his last seven managerial roles. In each case the cycle was the same:

·      Mourinho wins the gig by impressing the board of an underperforming club, by showing them where they are going wrong in a 200 slide deck

·      The team immediately improves, thanks to superior organisation and a desire to impress the new manager

·      Jose spends huge sums on new players

·      The team rises and maybe even wins a trophy, thereby justifying the eye-watering managerial salary

·      The transfer tap is slowly turned off and Jose flips to the dark side, starting to agitate

·      The team’s performance drops

·      Jose antagonises the media when they criticise him

·      Jose antagonises his players when he criticises them publicly

·      Jose antagonises his employers when he starts talking about other clubs

·      The club is plunged into a state somewhere between toxic atmosphere and existential crisis, the only escape route being…

·      Immediate dismissal and pay-off

The only difference was that each time he has been less and less successful, winning fewer trophies and points per game. Other than that, everyone knows what to expect and it duly comes to pass.

Would you employ him?

Don’t be ridiculous I hear you say. Why are we even asking? Well, because at some point in your future you will be asked to. Not to employ Jose himself, but someone like Jose. A big hitter. A proven quantity. A big name. A person whose reputation and ego are capable of transcending the world’s biggest football club (this is not a Tottenham reference). They might be a Chairman, a CEO, a CFO, a COO, or even a CMO. They are a business galactico.

Why? The need in your business will be acute. You must have them to solve a huge problem that is holding you back. You will have the cash to pay for them. The brand to attract them. They will have been recommended by people you trust. Their credentials will be impeccable, with a long list of past glories. They have been there, done it, and have the winners’ medals to prove it. And you will be under ever increasing pressure, perhaps from investors, to sign them up. To buy your way out of a problem by recruiting the very best.

It is at this point you need to remember Jose. Football owners are not stupid. They knew what they were getting themselves into, but they took a calculated risk. For all the money they ended up losing and the expensive players they were stuck with, they managed to stabilise their share prices and maintain TV incomes. Jose is second only to Donald Trump in being able to generate attention. You will face the same calculation. What are you really risking? What is the potential gain? The net gain needs to be huge, even if they end up costing twice as much and delivering half what you expect.

It some situations it will be the right call. The business will need an injection of new thinking. The conditions will be perfect for mutual success. Together you will ignite serious growth and reach the promised land. In others, it will be wrong. You’ll soon find yourself in a predictable cycle of negativity, where the only thing igniting is your business as it spontaneously combusts.

These are the main things you need to consider when you face your Jose dilemma:

1.     Is your business an art or a science? Mourniho would see football as a science, which conforms to a set method. That method works in all contexts. Is that true for your business? Do you need a Bobby Fischer or a Karpov? A DeChambeau or a Seve? If it is more of an art, you need to make sure that the pinch-hitter’s skills are indeed transferable and likely to work in your dynamic environment. 

2.     Is their past record a good indicator of future success? Experts are like investments: they can go up or down. With Mourinho, the evidence is a clear no. Find out all your can about your target’s history. Not just the companies, but the roles they played, the business context and crucially, their ability to shape everything to generate success. Try to find and talk to people who were there. Then make an objective assessment about their likelihood of future success in your business. Great people can still be a bad fit.

3.     Are they really up for the challenge of your business? Football is a young man’s game. The same is true of football managers and business leaders. Successful people can lose energy. They become wealthy enough not to be incentivised by money. They accumulate side projects and commitments. They disappear at weekends to race classic cars. Are they willing to commit to the extent you need them to? Try to understand their personal lives and put yourself in their shoes. How committed would you be? A good test is to see what they are willing to sacrifice to join you.

4.     Will you be able to control them? This is where every football club has failed with Jose, whose only mode is to remake them in his image. Everything becomes about him. That’s what you can get with big personalities. Be clear what you need your big hitter to do and what is not negotiable e.g. a winning purpose and strategy. Spend time discussing the future in detail with candidates. What is their vision? What would they do if they had a free hand? Where have you gone wrong? Discuss scenarios – what would they do if…? Make a point of challenging their answers and see how they react. Do they see you as a leader? A peer? A junior partner? Or worse, a meal ticket?

Increasingly, football clubs are dispensing with old wisdom and looking for the stars of the future. The next generation of high performers, who understand how and why their world has evolved and have ideas to shape its evolution. There will always be a place for Jose Mourniho in football, and his equivalents in business. But perhaps not in your firm…


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