What this season’s Premiership title race can teach us about spotting and nurturing talent

By now, even non-football fans would have read about the incredible exploits of Leicester City Football Club. Rated 5000-1 outsiders by bookies before the season, they completed an amazing year-long turnaround from being bottom of the table at one point last season, to winning the title with 3 games to spare. This is a team that was assembled on a budget at a fraction of the top teams. In fact, Leicester City became the first team outside the top 5 wage paying clubs to win the Premiership (I am not including the time before the Premiership started) — Leicester was in the bottom 5 in terms of wage spent. This is remarkable given that the wage bill is the top determinant of a team’s final position in the table.

Leicester’s accomplishment has overshadowed what, in any other season, would have been the fairytale story of the year. That of my beloved Tottenham Hotspur who exceeded everyone’s expectations and not only qualified for next year’s Champions League, but with one game to go, will finish no lower than third, which would be their highest spot for decades. Again, the team achieved this with a wage bill, while much larger than Leicester City’s, is not in the top five.

Both clubs have achieved their results with a mix of talent and incredible team work. Leicester’s team comprises journeymen from other clubs who clicked and under the leadership of their manager, believed in the team ethic over their individual objectives. That is not to say that their players are not individual talents. One of them was rewarded with the the Player of the Year award from fellow professionals and their top scorer is a nail on addition to England’s Euro 2016 squad. But it is incredible how many of their players were written by other clubs before this season. As for Tottenham, their manager moulded a young team to his philosophy of a tireless work ethic and a willingness to promote from the youth ranks if a player was good enough.

I was reflecting on this while watching Spurs’ last home game of the season yesterday. In particular, I remember an open discussion on Reddit with the man who is in charge of Tottenham’s youth development. I had expected him to talk mostly about how to spot and develop talent but he devoted the entire hour to talk about identifying and developing character. He talked about how a great footballer would play 800 games in his career, of which 200 of those he might be a 10 out of 10 player; another 200 would be 7 or 8 out of 10; and the remaining 400 he would be just horrible. The Spurs coach saw his job as helping young players develop the mental strength to go through and bounce back from those 400 poor games. He also gave the example of a player who was deemed unsuitable and cut from the development team when he was just a young teenager but he refused to leave. He came back every day to the training centre and pleaded his case. His coaches were impressed with his resilience and took him back and he has since played for England’s national team.

The coach also talked about all the players who made the jump from the youth team to play for Tottenham’s senior team. But he also said that for every one of these successful players, there were 10 others who didn’t make the grade. This was not news to me, but what was revelatory was what he said next. That he felt it was his duty to make the successful players know that their success was due to these 10 other players. And that it was the duty of each player to help everyone else succeed.

This last part really got me thinking because at the Cambridge MBA, we emphasise collaboration. But at the same time we tell our students that collaboration only works if they achieve more as individuals by working together. And it is through projects like the Cambridge Venture Project and Global Consulting Project that students practice how they can balance the individual with the team.

Now I know that it isn’t enough to just have a team. Talent is also important. But watching the Spurs and Leicester teams (it is revealing that most neutral fans describe both clubs as teams and not focus on any superstar individual talent) it does suggest that qualities like resilience, strong work ethic and a fierce commitment to the team are just as important.

And in what I promise is my last football reference, I pulled out this article from the Economist that draws a comparison between perceptions about two successful footballers and how investors or recruiters value determination over talent. For football fans of a previous generation, the choice was between George Best, someone who was supremely talented but ruined by the trappings of his success, and Kevin Keegan, a less talented player but who achieved a lot through sheer determination. A recent study showed that investors preferred to invest in someone with talent and potential rather than someone who had accomplished a lot through determination. The question was whether this behaviour applied to recruiters. And I would say whether that applies to admissions in business schools.

It is something that I am very conscious of as well. When I first started in admissions, I would catch myself imagining what a promising candidate could do if they were to come on the MBA and what they would accomplish after. Now I am much more careful about thinking more deeply about how a candidate has reached their accomplishments and look for that balance between talent/potential and determination/resilience.

The view from the South Stand at White Hart Lane, home to Tottenham Hotspur
The view from the South Stand at White Hart Lane, home to Tottenham Hotspur
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One Response to What this season’s Premiership title race can teach us about spotting and nurturing talent

  1. I agree with you, as a leader I have followed this principle in choosing my teammates and it has worked many times.
    Well written and presented article.