I recently finished reading a great biography on former Liverpool FC manager Joe Fagan, and it taught me plenty of team building lessons. Fagan was in charge for two seasons at Anfield, but prior to then had been a member of the coaching staff for over 25 years. During those years Liverpool became the most successful club in English football history, winning an unprecedented series of domestic and European titles. Here’s some team building lessons I took from the account of those years.
Be straight with people: When Bill Shankly became Liverpool manager in 1959 he realised changes needed to be made, and that many of the current players would be moved on. He was up front with those players who would be leaving, and he was also straight with those whom he wanted to keep but were underperforming. He clearly laid out where and how they needed to improve, and he gave encouragement that showed he believed they could improve. Do your team members know what’s expected from them? And do you encourage them, so they know you believe they can succeed?
Tell your team you expect loyalty and solidarity: Shankly told his new coaching team that he expected complete loyalty and solidarity from them. Anyone caught telling tales or backbiting about a staff member behind their back would be instantly dismissed. As a result, the team became incredibly close, knowing they could trust each other and were looking out for each other. Do you insist on loyalty from your team members to each other? And do they know that speaking behind a team member’s back will remove them from the team?
Train people regularly in key skills: Under Shankly the Liverpool training sessions became drills of what they players would be expected to do during the game. Players practiced the core skills they would need each match until they became unconscious habits. It sounds obvious for footballers, but does it apply to your team? What are the key skills you need from your team members? Are you ensuring they keep practicing them to a level of unconscious habit? One of your jobs as leader is to make sure they receive the skills training needed to perform at a high level.
Remove team members whose performance holds you back: Any team mates who couldn’t maintain the necessary level were dropped from the team. That may sound harsh, but the success of the team has to come before the needs of any individual. Work with those who are underperforming, either by helping them grow their skills or by moving them to another role where they can flourish. But if neither works, for the good of the team they need to be replaced.
Slowly bring in new team members: Each year Liverpool would plan to transfer in one new mature player from another team, and would promote a couple of their own youngsters into the first team. Here’s a great lesson for any team. You should have a constant pool of young people steeped in your team culture that you can recruit a couple from each year. Complement this by bringing in the occasional outsider who is already an expert in their role, and you’ll keep your team fresh and growing.
Simple and brilliant team building lessons that can apply to any team situation. Which ones do you need to start applying in your leadership?
Mark Williamson works as a director of One Rock. He’s an experienced leadership trainer, author of biographies on John Wesley and William Wilberforce, and is also passionate about praying for London. He enjoys good films, good food, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna. You can follow him on Twitter @markonerock.