Business Lessons from Leicester

In a normally quiet, mid-sized city in central England a seismic revolution just took place. Leicester (pronounced “Lester” for you non-Brits) City Football* Club (LCFC) has just won the English Premier League title, arguably the most prestigious national club league trophy in the world.

If that strikes you as unremarkable, consider these:

  • Last season, LCFC won just 11 of its 38 games in the league and narrowly escaped relegation to a lower division
  • In its last ten seasons in the top flight of English football, LCFC finished 21st (relegated 1995), 9th, 10th, 10th, 8th, 13th, 20th (relegated 2002), 18th (relegated 2004), 14th and—incredibly—1st (champions 2016)
  • The LCFC squad cost around £22million to put together; that’s about one leg of Christiano Ronaldo or many other of the world’s top payers. In fact, £22million would not buy you a single player from the world’s top 100 today
  • Betting shops are today paying out on the odds of 5000-1 they gave for LCFC to win the title at the start of this football season. Lucky fans are collecting life-changing sums of money from sullen bookies 🙂

But Leicester’s ascent to the pinnacle of the world’s most popular sport has as much to do with its brilliant management strategy as sporting prowess. And it’s LCFC’s team manager, Claudio Ranieri, a calm, self-effacing, Italian who has sent the most powerful shockwaves through the footballing world.

Ranieri set out his stall soon after his arrival at Leicester in July 2015. He realised that simply imposing the Italian style of play on a relatively inexperienced and unproven squad wouldn’t work. So, instead, he chose to work with what he had and build the team’s playing style around the natural talents of key players.

Out of the window went the well-proven tactics from Ranieri’s past and in came a very fresh approach: he gave permission to his oddball collection of players to play their best individual football, while supporting by a finely-tuned team work ethic.

Ranieri also realised that his young squad lack the raw skills needed to play top-flight possession football. So he instilled a fast, aggressive, energy-sapping work rate into their playing style so they could win back the ball and counter competitive attacks with ruthless efficiency.

To support this, the club switched its training routine to give players more time to recover after matches. Speaking in February, Ranieri explained “My boys are training a lot, but not too many times. They need more time to recover. We play on Saturdays and then Sunday is free for everyone. We resume on Monday with light training. Tuesday is hard training, Wednesday absolute rest. Thursday another hard workout, Friday is preparation for the match.”

Giving the squad the freedom to relax between training days meant their bodies were always ready to throw everything into the next match. No other team in the Premier League has managed to find this balance, but Claudio Ranieri made it an essential component of his plan right from the start. Relaxed players, he says, are better players. They respond to calm and respect in the dressing room and are unashamed of the “fire within themselves” when they really have to perform.

And like any good manager, Ranieri also understands the importance of letting his team enjoy themselves. Speaking about mealtimes in the players’ canteen, Ranieri observed “Sometimes we sit at the dinner table and I am frightened at how much they eat. I’ve never seen players so hungry! The first few times I was surprised, then I learned to smile. If they run this hard, they can eat what they like.”

It’s always dangerous, and often comical, to draw too tight an analogy between sporting prowess and business principles, but I think there are some truly valuable lessons for us all in LCFC’s remarkable success.

  • Great managers understand the individual abilities of their team members. They get the best out of each player and build a unique team environment where they can achieve collective brilliance
  • Great managers allow their team to relax and recover when they can. They personally invest in creating calm moments together, knowing that the payback will come when the pressure and intensity of the big game returns
  • Great managers know the value of living, eating and being together. Cohesive team spirit is not born of yelling at each other, its comes from mutual respect and absolute commitment to one shared goal

The LCFC story has been truly inspiring this year. And Ranieri, with his refreshingly simple approach to team management, has given all of us plenty to think about for our own working lives.

The road ahead for LCFC will be tough. Challenger brands often struggle when they hit the big time and the additional pressure of being champions and playing European Champions League matches could take its toll. But, right now, I wouldn’t bet against Leicester City FC and Ranieri. Would you?


* For the avoidance of doubt, the football I am referring to here is the type of football you play with your feet.


[This post first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse]



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