Managing change the US way

A new way to motivate your CEO: tell the world you've been actively trying to hire his replacement.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

That seems to be the strategy of Tom Hicks, the American businessman who bought Premiership football club Liverpool last year alongside George Gillett. He admitted to the local paper this week that the pair spoke to Jurgen Klinsmann, the former Germany boss, about taking over as Liverpool manager. When it was pointed out to the ever-astute Texan that Liverpool already had a manager – Rafael Benitez, the man who’s guided the club to two Champions League finals in his first three years on the job – Hicks suggested Klinsmann was as an ‘insurance policy’ in case Benitez took another job, or if communication between manager and chairmen failed to improve.

Apparently Hicks’ idea was to draw a line under the speculation by speaking out in support of his manager. But we’re not sure how you dampen speculation about your manager’s position by admitting to talks with another manager. Equally, we doubt that talking publicly about a communication breakdown is likely to resolve a communication breakdown. Either way, Liverpool’s top brass – including co-owner Gillet – are apparently spitting feathers over his latest indiscretion.

When Hicks (and Gillett) took over last year, most Liverpool fans were delighted. The man who had built a major US private equity firm (Hicks Muse Tate & Furst) would surely bring some proper US-style management discipline to a club that seemed to have missed the commercial boat. Despite its huge worldwide support, stemming from its European success in the 1970s and 1980s, Liverpool had been left in the shadow of local rival Manchester United – on and off the field. The new US owners would surely smarten up the club’s act.

Instead, they’ve done exactly the opposite. Hicks and Gillet have spent more time in the sports pages than the team – if they’re not fighting amongst themselves, or failing to refinance the loan they used to buy the club, or trying to flog a stake to Dubai, they’ve been falling out very publicly with their manager (who hasn’t done himself any favours by whinging to the papers about his lack of transfer funds). And this at a club that has never washed its dirty linen in public.

If this was a standard company, Benitez would be out on his ear already (and probably suing for constructive dismissal, on the basis of that interview). But he has one big advantage that your average CEO doesn’t have – the presence of 50,000 fanatical supporters chanting his name every fortnight. Hicks will be a brave man to take on the fans, and if he does it’s unlikely to do a great deal for Anglo-US relations in the North West. A banner at last night’s FA Cup game summed it up nicely: ‘Thanks Yanks – More Friendly Fire’...

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