On the pitch for talent

Engagement and talent management is crucial to Manchester United’s success – Jenny Merry gives us the low down

Talent development often gravitates towards emphasising and cultivating ‘hard skills’ which are viewed as directly relevant to the development of future leaders of an organisation. While these workplace-focused skills are undoubtedly important, an increasing number of organisations are broadening their definition of training in recognition of the benefits gained through talent development outside the workplace.

Many employers take this more holistic approach when appraising the work and life experience of young graduates. Recruiters and HR professionals often place significant weight on extra-curricular activities. Playing sports or involvement in a cultural group can illustrate many important traits, from organisational thinking, to interpersonal skills, to dedication and commitment.

Progressive employers in 2015 are those who view the traits of all employees holistically and capitalise on them effectively. Those organisations that attract and retain well-rounded talent are successfully changing their approach to appreciate the variety of skills and facets their workforce can offer.

However, it’s not just employers who are recognising the importance of a more holistic view of workplace development. The engagement drivers of millennials – those born after 1980 – are placing the same expectations on their employers as previous generations, although increased employee mobility and flexibility have made these expectations all the more urgent. According to Aon Hewitt’s latest Trends in Global Employee Engagement report, employees under the age of 35 are often the least engaged within an organisation. These employees are also at a stage of ‘exploration’ during which they are testing and identifying goals and ideal workplaces for their careers.

However, what really sets millennials apart from older generations is the firm belief that they are, and should be, defined by ‘more than their job’. Millennials recognise that in order to succeed in a modern organisation, they will require a more diverse and adaptable skillset than previous generations and, more significantly, they are demanding a system of training that is similarly flexible, varied and personalised.

Moreover, as the Global Employee Engagement report predicted, the expectations and attitudes of millennials are likely to set the tone in terms of employee engagement for many years to come. It is therefore essential that organisations recognise this changing landscape and adapt their approach to better serve the rising generation of talent.

Training off the pitch

One of the industries where the benefits of talent development outside of the workplace have long been recognised is football. What happens off the training pitch can have a profound impact on performance on the pitch in the short- and long-term.

Manchester United provides one of the best examples of the important link between success on the pitch and player development off the pitch.  In its efforts, the club is supported by long-standing partner Aon, which presents a unique parallel on the topic of talent development within non-football organisations.  Both organisations are driven by shared values and a joint will to empower results. Some of the world’s greatest footballers have come through Manchester United’s academy from Sir Bobby Charlton to Ryan Giggs. Given the relatively young age that some players join the club, providing a rounded education is extremely important. For the past 17 years, Manchester United has worked with a local school where young players from the ‘Elite Programme’ are given a quality education alongside other studentsin a normal classroom environment.

Attending a regular school helps young players mature and develop, as well as continue to achieve academically. Current United defender Jonny Evans moved to Manchester from Belfast at the age of 15 on the understanding that it would not impact his education. He left school with two A*s, seven As and a B in his GCSEs and even went on to complete a further course in mathematics, all while representing United and Northern Ireland.

Education is important for helping young players to mature emotionally. “It was always to make the players better human beings, to develop their character,” said former manager Sir Alex Ferguson on the scheme. “It’s not ever about teaching them history or mathematics, it’s about inspiring them to be the best that they could possibly be.”

There is also another important reason for encouraging young footballers to achieve academically: only a small number of players will make it to the very top level and many will not be able to develop a career out of football. For Dave Bushell, Manchester United’s head education and welfare, helping the next generation of talent means ensuring they are well equipped for life whatever the future holds:

“The thing that motivates me is probably the end result. And that doesn’t necessarily mean seeing all the boys turn into footballers. We have a plan for everyone, in case things take a different turn and they don’t end up going all the way. I think making a person the best they can be is my main motivation. You try your best for them, whether they are going to be a Ryan Giggs or Jonny Evans or someone else. It’s supporting them and helping them on their way and being proud of them.”

Rising star James Wilson recently broke into United’s first team, but his education also helped him consider a career that many might not expect.

“I’d probably be an accountant or something similar [if I weren’t playing football] as I liked maths at school,” said Wilson recently. “The only thing I wanted to do was play football really so I focused on that but in school I was pretty good with numbers.” Players like Wilson are encouraged to think about how to develop skills that will serve them in the longer term.

At Aon Hewitt’s Talent Consulting Practice, we encourage organisations to adopt this kind of long-term thinking. Many organisations are looking to develop the skill and ability among leaders and managers to have career conversations with their individual team members. These are the conversations which help individuals to look beyond the role that they have now, or even their next role. Managers are helping their team members to uncover where they see themselves in the future, where their strengths are and where their aspirations are. Managers also need to be skilled in coaching employees to fulfil their potential, and supporting them to take on new career opportunities.

Diverse teams

Football teams also have experience dealing with a challenge which is now faced by many other organisations: integrating talent with diverse backgrounds and skillsets into an engaged, motivated and cohesive workforce. Manchester United’s first team squad contains players from twelve different countries while a further nationalities are represented in the youth teams and academy.

Even players from within England will come from a diverse mix of regions and backgrounds and the same is true of the wider workforce too. For example, people from an ethnic minority background make up approximately 20 per cent of the millennial workforce in the UK – a four-fold increase on the baby boomer generation – and similar increases in diversity are occurring worldwide due to increased mobility and migration. Creating a welcoming and friendly environment can be just as important in talent development as formal training.

Many Manchester United Academy players are from the local area, however, search for the best young spreads much further afield than Manchester meaning that some young boys have to relocate. For young football players, moving away from their families to be closer to the club can be daunting. That’s why legendary manager Sir Matt Busby established the ‘landlady scheme’ to house the likes of Bobby Charlton and George Best back in the 1950s and 60s. The landladies are now called Family Accommodation Providers but their role remains essentially the same: to provide a welcoming and caring environment for young players as they move through the system. At present, there are 27 houses in the scheme, all within the catchment area of the school attended by the players.

“I think it’s important for the boys to be with families,” says Bushell. “They learn so much from being with a family. 

“Learning to be in on time, learning to get to school and training and learning to make those decisions and be dedicated to do so is all part of growing up, whether you are a footballer or not. You have to learn to make mistakes and the family environment gives you the parental discipline but also the room to learn.”

While most companies may not need to consider issues like offering housing, they can still help to ensure that their workplaces are a home to all kinds of employees as they come on board. In an increasingly globalised world, training and engagement strategies are a crucial element in preparing for, and adapting to, the needs of a global workforce.

Aside from the practical elements, it’s about making sure managers and leaders put in place the mechanism and processes which make new or relocated employees quickly feel part of the team. Employees need to feel like their contribution is valued from early on and their ideas are listened to.

These issues can also be understood within the context of diversity within the workplace. Until recently, diversity in the workplace has been focused on the numbers. For example, how many women or people from different ethnicities are being employed within a given organisation? However, there’s now an increasing shift in emphasis towards trying to understand how effectively such a diverse mix of employees is working and helping an organisation to be successful. By introducing development programmes which raise awareness of the unconscious bias of leaders, managers and colleagues, new employees are able to bring their ideas and contribution into play and feel included.

It is generally accepted that increasing levels of diversity in a workforce are best nurtured when an equally diverse range of training is available. By offering flexible and adaptable training frameworks, organisations can both help employees prosper by addressing their different needs, while also optimising and harnessing the variety of skills within a workforce.

A future of success

Formative experiences early in a job can resonate throughout the rest of a career. Often these occur within a workplace environment or through formal training. However, the personal relationships that can develop between trainer and trainee can often be equally as important as the formal content of the training.

With many employees working for longer – up to and past the traditional retirement age – a lot more companies are adopting a ‘leaders as teachers’ mentality. It’s important that individuals who have a lot of experience share their stories and experiences with younger generations.

For Bushell, retaining relationships with players who have gone on to experience success is one of the most satisfying parts of his job.

“Our support of the players doesn’t end when they leave the Academy. Players in the first team like Adnan [Januzaj] will sometimes come back in for a chat, Paddy McNair will have a chat and I talk to Jonny Evans all the time,” says Bushell. “Even when they move on ad leave Manchester United, they often come back when they need a chat or some adviceor a friendly word from someone they know.”

In business, senior leaders who have experienced both success and failure can be extremely effective mentors for younger employees as well as helping them feel more integrated and engaged with the organisation. Within a football club, it is often senior players who are the most important influences on younger players, both on the pitch but also as personal role models.

When manager Louis van Gaal appointed Wayne Rooney as club captain, his conduct and performance off the pitch were some of the most important factors in the decision.

“Wayne has shown a great attitude towards everything he does,” said van Gaal at the time. “I have been very impressed by his professionalism and his attitude to training and to my philosophy. He is a great inspiration to the younger members of the team and I believe he will put his heart and soul into his captaincy role. I have also explained to him that outside the pitch is also very important to me.”

Innovative talent strategies

It’s widely accepted that talent is now an important point for discussion in any boardroom, be that in the business or the sporting arena. Whether considering your experienced leaders or young new signings, talent development isn’t just about what happens ‘on the pitch’, as Manchester United clearly demonstrates. The importance of formal training and professional experience will always have value for an organisation, but the impact of external influences should not be underestimated.

A more holistic view of those factors which can impact workplace performance can help to develop a team that produces exceptional results. Moreover, as companies look to ensure their talent is engaged, they are increasingly going to have to adapt their talent development programmes to the opportunities and challenges of a new generation.

Companies that challenge themselves to demonstrate innovation around their talent strategies will be best positioned when faced with the evolving demands of a changing workforce. As businesses look to develop the leaders of the future, these strategies will only grow in significance.


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