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O Gaffer, my Gaffer!

Maritime tradition states that a captain holds the responsibility for the ship and everyone aboard. If the ship starts sinking, the captain is expected to be the last one to leave, providing quite the incentive to keep ships afloat.

For organizations not cast out to sea, alignment of incentives between “ship” and “captain” becomes paramount for maximizing sustainability and performance. Football clubs often find themselves in foreboding circumstances due to poor navigation or unexpected storms. These moments tend to expose the true alignment between head coach (or manager) and club.

Antonio Conte’s recent legal victory over Chelsea, confirming his £9m post-sacking bonus, does not exemplify maritime tradition. Yet it’s not surprising news within the football world. And we can add it to the ever-growing list of former head coaches being financially rewarded after having a flame-out with their employer.

Football coaches are a special breed. They are part of an elite club where experience, performance, and reputation are critical for survival. This pressure is exacerbated by football’s zero-sum nature and media-heavy environment. But with no maritime tradition, head coaches can always jump ship.

Clubs can’t. We feel everlasting ripple-effects tied to every head coach appointment – be that winning trophies, qualifying for competitions, attracting new talent, inspiring local and global fanbases, or simply week-to-week emotional swells.

The Conte-Chelsea news acts as a fresh reminder of a core challenge clubs face when hiring a head coach. Irrespective of the strategy (approach to youth development, playing style, recruitment, etc.), clubs considering a hire already deal with a limited pool of options:

  • Those who might be available
  • Those who are available, yet inexperienced
  • Those who are available and experienced

Those who might be available come with a potentially awkward situation as clubs approaching coaches about the role could reveal too much of their own hand. Plus, poaching can create negative public perception and foster an unfaithful environment for future island hopping.

Those who are available, yet inexperienced come with energy and ambition. But a club will need to grapple with how to extrapolate their ideas and perspectives into anticipated performance when managing at the senior-level. This uncertainty often causes a club to opt for options they “already know”.

Those who are available and experienced come with the complication of having been unemployed for a window of time. There will be temporal media coverage with debatably skewed facts, and each coach will always have an explanation and a positive spin on the previous departure(s).

While every situation is unique, thankfully there are ways to navigate this challenge. As we think about considerations for appointing our next head coach, we can look to:

  • Establish clear principles that reflect the forward-looking approach
  • Develop a surveillance system based on those principles to continuously monitor potential fits (never know when a coach may leave)
  • Filter any consideration through that system as a second opinion
  • Bake mutually aligned incentives into the contracts of new appointees

No hire is ever foolproof. But leveraging the power of information to our advantage will help identify a new captain to steady the ship and navigate exciting unchartered waters.


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About AJ Swoboda

AJ Swoboda has created 7 entries.