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Wayne Rooney of Manchester United

ManU's Rooney – The one to hire?

In December I had the chance to visit London and went to Craven Cottage for fútbol (having grown up in South America, I can’t call it but fútbol). Fulham, a team which I’d like to see succeed, was up against Manchester United, a team which I’ve learned to respect, even start to love.

Most of the Fulham players, especially the defense, never really heard the whistle at the start of the game. ManU heard it loudly and showed elegance at every level of the field, from the goalkeeper to defense (always impressively relaxed), to that machine the team has starting at midfield. As the bench began coming in – Park Ji-Sung and Berbatov among them – ManU went into higher gear. With this team, it’s difficult to know what is the bench. After about 90 minutes, ManU had scored five goals and Fulham none.

On the days that followed it occurred to me that ManU has the characteristics of a first-tier law firm with all its institutional depth and resources. Fulham, on the other hand, while it can rise to the occasion with efforts heartfelt and clever, more often falls short. Like firms which are second- and third-tier, Fulham depends on the low-hanging fruit, the easier games, to generate revenues and stay afloat.

Fulham has surely had its share of internal assessments and outside consultants to determine what it can do to loft itself into the upper crust. Internally, Fulham could focus on building its skill set and confidence – including bulking up their facilities, even if Craven Cottage quaintly exudes an ambience of a stadium of the 1950s and early 60s. The main external measure would be to recruit and hire ‘lateral’ talent, for a more competent defense and robust execution up-front.

All institutions looking to upgrade and transform encounter the same problems: money and brand.

For example, if ManU’s Wayne Rooney were to consider a move to another team, he’d need to ensure its midfield can deliver actionable passes to him with the same regularity so he can continue to score and retain his brand. While Rooney could probably get a lucrative contract at a team that won’t deliver passes, in the long term this will hurt his brand as he’ll score less and less.

I think of Chelsea, a competitor and not quite the equal of ManU, which has both the brand and the profitability (among several other important attributes) and whose strategy involves almost exclusively hiring laterally. Yet somehow Chelsea hasn’t yet gelled as a great team, particularly in relation to ManU.

By contrast, consider Manchester City, ManU’s crosstown rival. With lots of funding and though less brand, Manchester City has built a top-tier team in the last 12 months which has gelled in a way that Chelsea hasn’t in over 5 years of trying.

While Chelsea has aimed to hire superstars – the leading and strongest players for each position – Manchester City instead has mostly focused on hiring just very good players, unsure if they are starters or benchers, though all of them with exceptional strong skills in their positions. The end result is that each player has to play hard and none of them think they can score without the team. With that mindset, Manchester City players tend to put the team ahead of themselves. They know that without a strong team performance they will individually have weak performances.

Okay, football analogies don’t always translate to different contexts. But is there a broader lesson here for lateral hiring strategies? The thought that there is hit me a few days after the match with the force of Rooney’s shot to goal against Fulham.

The lesson goes like this: A top-performing market leader in a particular area can only be hired with above-the-cut comp. Such a person is under pressure to perform and deliver in a relatively short period of time. Consequently this sort of hire may focus almost exclusively on his or her practice area.

Contrast that situation with hiring someone of slightly lesser quantity, yet with strong skills and potential, someone who recognizes that s/he needs a strong performance firm-wide to score and build. This slight strategic hiring shift may yield a stronger positive trend.

I had a great time watching ManU and Fulham and mulling its implications for staffing and running complex organizations. I do however want to express my empathy to all the Fulham fans who didn’t have it easy at all on the evening hours of December 21st, 2011.

photo: Gordon Flood