MT Expert: The Premier League's new appointment shows outside leaders can succeed

Why are leaders from outside sectors becoming more popular and what do benefits do they offer, asks Cirrus leadership expert Nicky Little.

by Nicky Little

There is a big appointment in the world of football coming up, and the person filling it has never spent time in the dugout at the side of a pitch. Anthony Fry, due to take over as chairman of the Premier League in July, is a transfer from very different industry.

Fry is a corporate financier who has held numerous chairmanships and board positions across a range of businesses and not-for-profit organisations, including a position on the BBC Trust. He has had no previous roles in football. However, the FA firmly believes he has "the correct blend of experience, skills, attitude and demeanour."

Perhaps Fry will challenge some ingrained systems and beliefs. Often this is easier for a leader to do when they join an organisation from somewhere completely different. Bringing in a new leader from the outside can accelerate much-needed change.  New leaders often find it easier to challenge the status quo and make difficult decisions.  The most effective also take time to celebrate existing successes and capabilities rather than dismiss them.

Allan Leighton has built a hugely successful career from bringing his considerable expertise to businesses operating in some very different markets. An admired chief exec at Asda, he went on to take his career ‘plural’ with roles at a diverse range of businesses including Royal Mail,, BSkyB, Dyson and Selfridges. He has said, rather self-deprecatingly, that he has never had a good idea of his own – but keeps his eyes open wherever he goes.

So, is it always better to appoint a leader from the outside? Not necessarily. Look at Sir Terry Leahy, one of the UK’s most admired leaders, who led Tesco to market dominance. He joined as a marketing executive in 1979 and had completely transformed Tesco by the time he resigned his CEO post in 2011.

Leahy, a renowned innovator, also kept his eyes open everywhere he went. He looked beyond the boundaries of his own business to bring in fresh thinking from the outside. By doing this, home-grown leaders can still shake things up a bit. Many forward-thinking organisations have effective succession planning systems in place. The best develop highly-skilled leaders who are steeped in the company culture, while also embracing the new.

There’s another high-profile appointment in the world of football coming up too. The Football Association will also have a new chairman when Greg Dyke takes over in July. The former BBC director general has been a director of Manchester United and is currently chairman of Brentford Football Club. It is hoped that Dyke’s insider experience will help him to build trusted relationships with key stakeholders. Perhaps he represents an ideal blend of experience gained inside and outside the world of football. Come the summer, plenty of pundits will be ready to tell us just how well he’s doing.  

- Nicky Little is head of leadership at HR consultancy Cirrus

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