“Trust the process”
Whatever language you use, you want everyone to understand what it means when you are under pressure. You are not actually communicating anything new. You are just reminding them of something you have gone through 100 times before.
If you imagine how stressed an England player might be before taking a penalty in a World Cup, it goes back to the oldest cliché – ‘control the controllables’. You cannot control whether or not you are going to score, so you think: ‘What is our process for taking a good penalty and for saving one?’
They will have practiced that again and again. We saw how hard they had prepared for that shoot-out against Colombia. They brought it back to what they could control – the process rather than the outcome.
One of the fantastic things about England is how they are concentrating on the process of building a winning team. Yes, they are doing really well in Russia, but since Gareth Southgate was manager of England Under-21s, he has been owning the process of creating a winning organisation.
Concentrating on the process is something I would encourage people to do in any high-pressure situation, because it brings you away from worrying about things you cannot control – the outcome.
In key negotiations, with your key supplier, for example, you would focus on the process. I was listening to the story of a company that went to get approval for a new drug. They had a celebratory dinner the night before the final interview. There was nothing more they could have done, regardless of what the outcome was. That was someone else’s job.
Their job had been to prepare, working together for up to 20-hour days for the previous six months. They realised that they were the only team that could have got the drug through. If they couldn’t do it, it couldn’t be done.
In the military, you focus on the process of the mission. ‘Do your job’ is the mantra of Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots in the NFL. In all of these situations, you simplify everything so you don’t have to think.
The thinking has all been done on the training pitch or in private conversations with players, some of whom Southgate has been working with since their days in the Under-21s. All of that has been geared towards improving the quality of thinking. I know they have focussed a lot on that.
Southgate is clearly a very skilled manager and leader. I have kids that play football and the England DNA work he did with Dan Ashworth, with the message ‘this is how we want to play’, was so important.
Back in 2016, Southgate said something that struck me as being hugely business-focussed: ‘Manage every game as though you are going to be around forever’. That means that he wanted to make all the right decisions for the long term. That is the single biggest issue that my clients face in stressful situations. It’s where many of them fail.
Often, the immediate becomes so pressing that you will do anything to get that short-term result. Southgate refuses to do that. Another big business cliché is the phrase: ‘Get the right people on the bus’, which came from a man called Jim Collins in his book Good to Great.
Southgate has done that. A lot of players have come through his Under-21s – Jesse Lingard, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, all of those guys. Equally, there are players on the team that didn’t. Then again, some of the players that are not there will not play for England again unless they can learn how to play in a more technically-skilful way.
Chris Smalling is an experienced player who would deliver a lot for a team, but he might be more likely to make a mistake if he is asked to bring the ball out from the back, which is what England are doing as an organisation moving forward. Another thing that I think is terrific is how the Football Association have recognised that it is an organisation that wins the World Cup, not just a team and not just a manager.
The first rule of football management has always seemed to be that you are going to get sacked anyway, so you should win or lose your way. You could talk about Southgate being a company man. I think that’s unfair, but he came from a resolute background of player development. He was all about bringing players through and helping them to express themselves. He even admits being worried about getting in the way of his own. That’s phenomenal.
Southgate knows he has to get the right people on the bus, to recruit them for what he wants them to do and then to help them do it. It’s the essence of collaborative management.
In 1997, in his first letter to Amazon shareholders, Jim Bezos said it was all about the long term. I could see Southgate saying exactly the same thing. And instead of being a reactive organisation, the FA is letting Southgate go for it, to set his stall out.
What about the waistcoat?
You want to get to the point where you are not thinking about what you are going to wear. That’s something Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerbeg have done. Think about how Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck is associated with Apple. It’s iconic, and part of the brand.
Southgate’s waistcoat might well have started out as him not wanting to think about what he was going to wear, because it’s not relevant to performance. Marks and Spencer will be overjoyed with how he is making three-piece suits popular, obviously. They’ll be making more money out of them.
It’s a sponsor’s dream, but I’m sure when he first wore the waistcoat he thought of it as practical. It hides perspiration in sweaty situations. Now it can become part of his brand.
I’ve done a lot of work with integrating military ides into business performance. Southgate holds himself with quiet dignity. He’s very clearly a patriot but isn’t jingoistic in the way that past England managers may have been.
Southgate’s grandfather was in the Royal Marines, so he will be familiar with that philosophy. He also has a strong learning focus, which is something that the military shares. It’s a highly motivational environment – if you are being shot at, you want to get better quickly.
The FA has integrated very similar learning cycles to those which the military use. They plan, they review, and coaches of under-10s and under-11s are encouraged to do the same. All of that is geared towards improving decision-making under pressure.
In the military, transitions between offence and defence are crucial. It is the same in sport, moving between the two. You are able to shape time, and cause consternation among your opposition, in the way that you do that.
The US Marines spend a lot of time thinking about transitions, and that’s something I speak to business people about as well.
The final thing I would endorse about Southgate is the value of integrity in leadership. More and more, companies pay lip service to this rather than delivering it. People talk about authenticity, and leaders have to be trusted. That is consistent with everything I hear about Southgate.
On military missions, you have to know that you are only going to be put at risk if you have to be. One of the key things in how Southgate integrates new players is that they trust him to make the right decisions.
If you get dropped, it is because you are not right for the team. It isn’t because you’ve annoyed him or he’s having a sulk or he is punishing you for a mistake you have made in a high-pressure situation or he is worried about receiving negative press for sticking by you.
That’s absolutely crucial and it is happening less and less in business because, sadly, leaders cannot be trusted. They will do what’s right in the short term by them. Southgate has demonstrated throughout all of this that he will do right by the players, even if he drops them.
If he says there is a way back, he is not paying lip service. That calms everyone down. It allows them to trust the process. They don’t worry if they are going to be OK because they have a leader who is looking out for them.
Jonathan Brown is a business performance expert