Arsenal’s blunders give companies lessons on talent management

Jens Lehman, Lauren, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, Gilberto Silva, Patrick Viera, Fredrik Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. Do these names ring a bell? If not, it’s in order for me to say “Welcome to the world of English Premier League football”.

Jens Lehman, Lauren, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, Gilberto Silva, Patrick Viera, Fredrik Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. Do these names ring a bell? If not, it’s in order for me to say “Welcome to the world of English Premier League football”.

First, a trip down memory lane. Between 2003 and 2004, these players formed the starting 11 of the team that has since been hailed as the greatest ever in the English Premier League.

They, like colossuses, strode through an entire league season undefeated to clinch the trophy, becoming the second team to do so since Preston North End in 1889. It was a run that went for an amazing 49 games.

Although all these happened more than eight years ago, the games are etched in my memory as if it was yesterday .That is the only reason that I and many other Arsenal fans remain loyal to a club that has only but history to glorify our hearts.

It is as if we climaxed in that season and thereafter became victims of our own success, worshipping the heights we once straddled upon as a mere illusion to be coveted but never to be achieved.

What went wrong, you may ask?

To answer this question, first a quick follow up question — what happened to the invincible?

They have all left Arsenal, some in controversial circumstances.

Away from the invincible, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger attracted other great players who, just like the ‘invincibles’, have also left within short spells. The latest being Alex Song who moved to Barcelona FC on Monday in a Sh2 billion deal.

These raise yet another question? Why the exodus? Can the slump in the Arsenal’s winning streak be the reason for this massive high turnover of key players? Sadly yes.

What can we as business people learn from Arsenal on how not to manage our best talents in the company and retain them? Here are my few picks:

1. Let success not get into your head nor failure into your heart
In 2003/4 season Arsenal were at the peak of their performance. They were so good that they were christened ‘the invincible’. This feeling of invincibility penetrated deep into the players psyche.

Unfortunately, success got into their heads and their game stumbled. The players seemed tired and were but a pale shadow of their former selves.

Their 2-0 loss at Old Trafford in October 2004 brought an end to their winning streak. The loss also heralded the end of Arsenal’s winning mentality. They let it get too deep into their hearts and like a cracked glass the scars refused to heal.

The moment we let success get into the heads of our employees or failure to cripple their hearts, we lose them.

2. Smell the air and adapt to new wind

The turn of the century saw a strong wave of commercialisation spread over the English Premier League as well as the rest of the European top leagues.

The popularity of the game soared the costs for broadcasting rights. With new media, players started attracting cult following and their value shot over the roof. They started to demand huge wages.

Mr Wenger did not welcome this new money wave very warmly. He could not understand the new found greed in the football circles and remained aloof to the changing environment around him.

He found it hard to replace the aging invincible players with other good players because new ones were too costly. Soon, even the Arsenal players started being wooed out of Highbury by the more attractive salaries elsewhere. Before you know it, all the best players were jumping ship.

Mr Wenger resigned to signing young unrefined players whose price he at least found manageable. But his policy backfired on him. The players he got sought brighter openings after he turned them into stars.

Companies should learn that to retain top talent, they must be willing to compensate them according to the market rates if not better.

Good talent may appear costly but then it’s said only fools know the price of everything but the value of nothing. As an employer view employees not in terms of their price but their value.

3. Generation Y think loyalty is a smart card programme

Arsenal is a team with a great history. Legendary players have worn the shirt and it has scribbled its name permanently in the books of football history. This is all good. But not good enough to retain top talent today.

Wenger seemingly played the loyalty card once too often.

He promoted the best players to captain sometimes not because of their leadership but as a bait to keep them loyal. Yet they all left despite the allure of the captain’s arm band and their loyalty to the club.

Most players are under 30 like many of our employees. There is one thing to learn about this generation — loyalty exists in their dictionary alright, but it neither defines allegiance nor devotion as expected.

It’s probably regarded simply as a reward programme — like a supermarket smart card or flier miles card for an airline.  Who cares for those cards anyway? The cashier must always ask them whether they have the smart card for them to use it.

This generation is not attracted on loyalty and deep history alone. In the end, they are happy to read about those who were decorated before them.

But it reaches a time, sadly soon enough, when they want to be the ones being decorated. You win the trophies or they are gone, legend or not.

Mr Sissey is the CEO Business Insider Africa.


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