I’m not much of a football fan. I don’t have a favorite team and, like most neutrals, I support the underdog when I find myself watching a game. Heading into the 2015/2016 English Premier League season, British bookmakers had Leicester City down at 5000-1 to win the trophy. You would be hard pressed to find a bigger underdog. Elvis being found alive was paying 2000-1. City won the trophy with games to spare. It was the greatest story in sport and I jumped on the City bandwagon mid-season, after their odds had significantly shortened.
Not being a proper fan, City hadn’t crossed my mind until I recently discovered Rob Tanner’s, ‘5000-1: The Leicester City Story.’ My favorite character in the City story was their manager (coach), Claudio Ranieri. I thought he was funny. I figured he had to be more than just funny and I read Tanner’s book to learn more about how he led a team of ‘mis-fits’ to the title.
The previous season, with nine games to left, City looked certain to be relegated from the Premier League. They survived after a miraculous turn-around led by manager Nigel Pearson. Nevertheless, Pearson was sacked at the end of the season. It was Pearson’s second stint as City manager and City fans worried that the progress made under Pearson would stall with a new manager coming in – just like it had when Pearson left in 2010. There was a lot of concern about the beginning of City’s season being impacted by uncertainty and instability.
It took two weeks for Ranieri to be announced as City manager. The fans were sceptical and the experts were too. He was seen by many as an uninspired choice. Ranieri had a very impressive CV, having managed some of the biggest clubs in Europe, including Chelsea in the Premier League. However, his last job was a disastrous spell as the manager of the Greek national team and at Chelsea, he was nicknamed the ‘Tinkerman’ in reference to how often he changed his team. Ranieri’s appointment did nothing to settle the nerves of those wanting certainty and stability in the City set-up.
As soon as Ranieri was appointed, he flew out to the team’s pre-season training camp to meet City’s players and staff. Ranieri had coached much bigger and better teams than Leicester and the expectation must have been for him to immediately get to work and to make his mark.
Instead, he left all the coaching and conditioning to the coaching staff and looked on as everyone went about their business. During his first press conference, he said, ‘I am sure I don’t want to change too many things. I want to change things slowly so that everyone understands me.’
He went on to say that he was impressed by the talent in the team, the organization of the club and that they were strong enough not to be faced with relegation again that season. He also said that he must retain the current coaching staff as they were good and would provide continuity for the players from the last few seasons. He told the players that he didn’t think they believed how good the group could be and if they believed in themselves, they would go further.
By all accounts, Ranieri was off to great start without seemingly doing anything. What he had done though was taken the time the learn about the club and diagnose the situation that it was in. A man of Ranieri’s experience would have inevitably had many ideas and strategies ready to go. Ranieri was intelligent enough to know that he needed to match these strategies to City’s situation. And before he could that, he needed to diagnose their situation.
Michael Watkins writes of the importance of matching strategy to situation in his excellent book, ‘The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels.’
Watkins identifies four broad types of (business) situations that new leaders must contend with:
- In a start-up situation, a new leader must work to get something started from scratch.
- In a turnaround situation, a new leader must work to get something in trouble back on track.
- In a realignment situation, a new leader must work to revitalize something that is drifting into trouble.
- In a sustaining-success situation, a leader must work to preserve what is good about something and take it to the next level.
During that first training camp, Ranieri had clearly diagnosed City to be a sustaining-success situation. He decided that he needed to preserve the foundation that many felt he was going to erode and use it to take City to the next level. He communicated that to City’s fans, players and staff.
His strategy throughout that incredible season confirmed that his diagnosis was correct and he meant what he said in his first press conference. He believed that City were a good club whose commitment, desire, team spirit, coaching and recruitment could compete with the money of the bigger clubs. He instilled that belief in others and if he had an ego, he put it aside to walk the path that had been laid by those that had gone before him. Everybody followed him.
Every new leader needs to start well. By the end of Ranieri’s first 90 days in charge, City sat third in the table and were now paying 500-1 to win. The title wasn’t won yet (the Loch Ness monster was paying 500-1 to be found) but it was a very good start.