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Playing to win

According to Karren Brady, Managing Director of Birmingham City Football Club (BCFC), “what makes a business great is the staff”. And she should know, as she has turned around the fortunes of the Club since her appointment in 1993 when she was just 23 years old.

I heard Karren speak at an event organised by EEDA (the East of England Development Agency) for small and medium-sized businesses. A very engaging speaker, Karren told us many stories about her experiences, but the messages that stick in my mind are about people and how to get the best from them at work.

In Karren’s opinion too many business don’t have the guts to change the people to grow and/or change the business. Only one person working at the Club 15 years ago when she arrived still works there.

She assesses the level of motivation of her staff by constantly reviewing the level of sickness absence – not that it’s a problem now at BCFC at a quarter of a day per employee per annum. Compare that to 2006 estimates from the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development) that in the UK an average of 8 working days per employee per year is lost to sickness.

So what does she look for in her staff? She highlights 3 things:

  • determination

  • enthusiasm – “you can’t teach it!”

  • an understanding of their individual contribution to the business.

She makes it clear to people that they “need to do the things that need to be done, when they need to be done, whether they like it or not” and as each new recruit spends time with her in her office on their first day, it gives her an opportunity to drive this message home at the earliest opportunity. And everyone has to do everything they can to make the business a success. This involves, for example, doing many of the other roles at BCFC – which in turn promotes understanding of the different challenges that each role faces and encourages a ‘one team’ approach which many businesses would envy.

Jim Collins, author of ‘Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make The Leap… and Others Don’t’ holds a similar view based on his research with successful companies. He says “If I were running a company today, I would have one priority above all others: to acquire as many of the best people as I could. I'd put off everything else to fill my bus. … The single biggest constraint on the success of my organization is the ability to get and to hang on to enough of the right people.”

So why do so many leaders ignore or resist tackling those people who are sucking energy from the business? Is it from some sort of misguided loyalty? Fear of legal challenge? Concern about what people will think? What sort of message does this inaction give to those people who are assets to a business?

To quote Jim again “For no matter what we achieve, if we don’t spend the vast majority of our time with people we love and respect, we cannot possibly have a great life. But if we spend the vast majority of our time with people we love and respect – people we really enjoy being on the bus with and who will never disappoint us – then we will almost certainly have a great life, no matter where the bus goes. The people we interviewed from the good-to-great companies clearly loved what they did, largely because they loved who they did it with.”

So leaders, be brave – follow Karren & Jim’s advice and take action. You will be respected by those who want to follow you and you will create opportunities for new blood and new business. Surely that’s worth it?


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