Why business leaders should learn from Wigan FC

Penny de Valk argues that supporting employees' ambition and good talent management is the best way to get results.

by Penny de Valk
Last Updated: 01 Jun 2012

An interesting business lesson came up the other day in an unlikely place for me, the sports pages, as Wigan FC granted permission for its manager, Roberto Martínez, to enter talks with Liverpool.  ‘I would love to keep him,’ said Wigan chairman Dave Whelan, ‘but I did promise Roberto and I have always said when a big club comes he would have permission to talk to them.’ 

This situation strikes a chord with the predicament many business leaders and managers feel as they dread the prospect of building up talent only to lose it a few years later. However, there is much for businesses to gain from emulating Whelan’s approach and engaging in open and honest conversations with their staff about individual career ambitions. New research reveals that managers’ failure to act as a coach to their employees is damaging both business performance and staff retention.   

In an environment where people no longer expect or wish to stay in the same company for their lifetime, managers can feel that they are treading a precarious line between supporting their employees’ individual development and retaining talent within their team. This, paired with the current economic pressure to do more with less, is resulting in managers focusing exclusively on ‘getting the job done’ at the expense of coaching and developing their team’s skill set.   

At Fairplace Cedar we recently conducted research into how effective managers are at coaching their teams and what impact this is having on business performance.  Currently, just over half of employees (52%) rate their manager as a good coach. This gap in coaching know-how has a significant impact on an organisation’s capacity to drive performance: 83% of employees who rate their manager as a good coach feel that they are continuously encouraged to develop and improve their performance, compared to just 18% of those who work under bad coaches. 

Whilst managers may worry that coaching and supporting an employee’s individual development will ultimately empower them to move on to another team or organisation, the research actually shows that good coaching increases retention and engagement.  Employees who plan on leaving their company within the next 12 months are more than twice as likely to rate their manager as a weak coach than employees who plan on staying at their organisation. More importantly, good coaching creates more engaged and motivated employees who perform to the best of their ability during their time within the team or organisation. This is a very valuable benefit, especially in such a difficult economic climate.   

Many managers are, however, clearly reluctant or unable to emulate Whelan’s approach, as less than half (46%) of the employees we questioned feel their manager has supported their career development or prepared them for transition to a new role. This has worrying implications for talent pipelines both within a given business and across the UK business network as a whole.   

As a successful businessman, Whelan is well aware that talented employees will eventually often move onwards and upwards. However his open approach in discussing and acknowledging his manager’s need for career progression will have helped motivate Martínez’s to perform to the best of his ability during the period of their partnership.  Moreover, as Wigan gains a reputation for supporting managers in their career progression, the club should have no problem in attracting fresh talent to the role.   

Businesses should take a leaf out of Wigan FC’s book and invest in a coaching approach which motivates their employees to perform to the best of their ability in the knowledge that doing so is mutually beneficial both to the business and the individual. 

Penny de Valk is chief executive of Fairplace Cedar, people development consultancy which specialises in leadership, management development and talent management.

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