I love football. I watch it all the time, I used to play, and I’m fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes at professional football clubs. The dynamics that exist, what players are really like, how they organise themselves and train ahead of a game - everything. So in the build up to Euro 202
01, I’ve loved hearing more from Gareth Southgate, manager of the England men’s football team 🏴⚽️
It’s been great hearing about how he’s picked his squad, how they’ve prepped heading into a big tournament, and in particular how he creates an environment that means his team can perform at their very best. As I was listening, I’ve found there are loads of comparisons we can draw to managing high performing software engineering teams.
So what can software engineering leaders learn from Gareth Southgate? And more widely - how different is managing a winning football team from managing a high performing engineering organisation?
Even if football isn’t your thing, hopefully some of these insights are useful 💡
ℹ️ My inspiration for this post mainly came from Southgate’s interview on the High Performance Podcast. It’s definitely worth a watch/listen even if you’re not a football fan!
There’s lots we can learn from Southgate and the England team setup. I don’t know why I was so surprised (maybe it’s because you never really hear about what happens behind the scenes in elite football teams), but almost everything he was talking about on the podcast resonated with me and the teams I work with every day.
I thought about going down the path of describing how:
🏢 St.George’s Park (the England team’s footballing centre) is like our company office/company culture
🏋️ The gym and training pitches are like our staging/pre-production environments
🏟 Their matchday is like our production environment
Everthing the team is doing is leading up to making sure their plan is executed perfectly on matchday – similar to how we work together to write, test and ship high-quality, impactful code everyday.
But - I actually found the more interesting and relevant lessons and similarities to be around the environment that Southgate and his staff create to get the best out of their team and the individuals on it. Let’s dig into a couple of those…
One of the first things Gareth points to is how he tries to create an environment that the players always want to come back to. It’s got to be fun, safe, comfortable - and over time, familiar. The players have got to be able to build strong relationships and trust with each other, and the environment has to support maintaining those relationships. There are a lot of similarities here to how we make our engineering environments positive to work in - including making it safe to try new things out, and ok to make mistakes in the process.
He also mentions how the England players in teams of the past would play with fear; not wanting to be the scapegoat in a team that has dropped out of a major tournament early, or failed to even qualify. He reflected on his own experience of the criticism he received for missing that penalty at Euro 96, and how Beckham and Rooney took the blame following major tournament failure in more recent years.
There are some real similarities here to the environment we strive to create for our engineering teams; the focus should be on building a culture that allows everyone to do their best work, able to work without fear, and able to take calculated risks and not worry about punishment or blame.
Lots of the media attention over the last few years with the England men’s team has been on the team spirit and togetherness that’s been built - and how that is starting to translate into success (reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018, for example). The players seem to enjoy being around each other – so how can we help our engineering teams feel the same way around each other and their leaders?
We encourage team socials and activities as a way of building relationships and trust, but in essence it doesn’t matter what our teams do together - there just has to be something that helps the bonding happen. Southgate talks about how a lot of that occurs with the England squad during mealtimes - they all sit and eat together regularly and take time to learn about each other’s lives inside and outside of football.
My favourite example was one that Damien Hughes from the podcast gave about a time he was working with a team in Argentina. Their coaches were horrified to find that their players were all sitting together one evening watching Love Island on TV in their hotel - but his point was it really doesn’t matter what they’re doing together - the important thing is that they’re together.
This is the one that really made me sit up and listen. Southgate is pretty open that football players get into the squad based on their footballing ability and potential - but it’s their behaviour and attitude in combination with their talent helps keep them there.
In engineering we talk about the importance of technical impact and behaviours a lot - both of these contribute to high performance. It’s why most progression frameworks will reference both soft and hard skills - maybe it’s an obvious example to strike, but it’s one that I’d not given much thought to before with football. Technical ability is only one of many factors in high performance, apparently regardless of industry.
Ah, my favourite subject. Southgate talks about the importance he places on his players and on himself to learn from their failures. The team runs retrospectives after each match, much like we do after incidents or at the end of a project, and deep-dive into the details and understand areas that the team can improve in future.
He mentions how you have to go through difficult periods to learn and grow - sometimes you’ve got to experience failure such as losing a big game to be able to come out of it feeling like a better person and player. I think there are lots of similarities we can strike in engineering here - particularly around incidents.
Southgate’s comment about his exemplary captain and vice-captain in Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson resonated so strongly with me - those are his key senior players who he expects to set a high bar in the way that they deliver, and how they behave. There are a lot of comparisons I think we can make here to how important it is that senior engineers play leadership roles in high-performing engineering teams.
He talks about the varied role his coaching/management team also need to play in success. As well as coaching the players to improve, they’ve also got to help nurture leaders from within and help their current on-the-field leaders understand their role in the success of the team. He also mentions how important it is to create opportunities for players to develop as leaders, and build their experience over time – who’s on that journey vs. who’s there now? What highs or lows have they dealt with, and what else can they learn?
This feels strikingly similar to how we create progression opportunities for our engineers and managers to progress, and how important it is to build a strong partnership between managers and senior engineers as a joint leadership group.
Mercedes apparently has an F1 car in the middle of their office as a constant reminder of what they do everyday. St.George’s Park has been designed in a way that football and winning with the national team is front and centre of everything. How different is this from the way that we typically set up engineering organisations for success?
Similarly, we put our customers at the heart of everything we do. We serve up reminders for our teams in the form of mission, purpose and values of why we’re here and what we’re working towards. We release small regular changes that deliver value to customers incrementally, set customer-focused objectives, and create offices and workspaces that are centred around the customers we serve every day.
Maybe being the England football manager isn’t so different to what engineering leaders do everyday?
As I’ve been writing this I’m drawing the conclusion that it’s probably all common sense; of course you build football teams in this way if you want them to be the best. At the end of the day, a team is a team and the physical and psychological factors that impact humans remain the same, regardless of your profession.
It’s certainly not what I was expecting to hear from Gareth Southgate though - maybe the stereotype the media projects about footballers in general meant that I didn’t think any of this stuff really happened - that it was just tactics, selection and then all down to the raw talent and technical ability of the players when it comes to matchday.
I certainly feel inspired by what Southgate spoke about and I’ve found it equally inspiring to draw similarities to how he’s brought some of these basic leadership principles to life in a professional international football team.
I love his never ending quest for perfection - do the basics brilliantly, dive in to the details that help you win from there, and do it all consistently.
A team is a team - regardless of the people in it. Once Gareth is done leading England to success (🤞) who knows what’s next…? 🏆⚽️🏴