Nurture or head hunt; lessons from the pitch on talent management

By Kenyatta Otieno

There was a story online on the raging debate on who is the best between FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Christiano Ronaldo. The writer reduced the debate to difference in choice when it comes to hiring; Ronaldo represents the hard working, focused, performing individual while Messi is the highly talented team player.

Looking at football teams as organizations, one gets many similarities that can be drawn now that Human Resource Departments have become Talent Management Departments. The trend to have full fledged football academies gained prominence in the mid-eighties but most clubs had youth teams from as early as 1920s. Players now had a chance to be nurtured fully with the goal of escalating them upwards to the first team. There are several hits of success stories but then we also have as many misses.

Looking at two clubs with serious academies in Arsenal FC of England and FC Barcelona of Spain gives a good view of the dilemma in talent development. The two clubs have strong puritan cultures of how they do business and play football. Culture is crucial in talent identification, tapping and development, without a culture you will never know what kind of talent to pick from the rainbow of talent that different cultures around the world churn into the market.

Barcelona have an acclaimed academy called La Masia which has churned out a number of stars like Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi, Puyol, Victor Valdez and the midfield supremos of Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi. All these players can be referred to by a single name without someone missing their identity; they either left a mark while some are still creating marks in the football world.

On the other hand, Arsenal academy has produced the likes of Ashley Cole, Lassana Diarra, Jack Wilshire, and Hector Bellerin among others. The Arsenal Academy has not produced a football star in the recent years but has churned out quality talent that has spread across Europe. They have released most of their academy products with several players who were tipped to shine at the top level underperforming even for fringe clubs.

In the recent past, the two clubs have been purchasing players (finished products) from other clubs more than promoting their youngsters into the first teams. Some promising talents like Gerard Deulofeu for Barcelona and Emmanuel Frimpong of Arsenal remained just that, promising. This gave credence to Pep Guardiola’s quip that the virtue of crème of La Masia comprising Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and a few others is more on the players’ talent than the production system.

Are the academies turning out to be the necessary components for clubs psychological wellbeing even if the output is not commensurate to the input? Or clubs resign to the consolation that even if you do not produce the best, you can ship them out and outsource the best when need be. This is true because regardless of the standard of its academy, a clubs must buy players to bolster the team.

Extrapolating this to the corporate world, there is the fight on whether to raise leaders in a systematic process or wait to poach the best that have fought their way to the top in other organizations in the industry. Most organizations will go for both to balance out on internal system deficiencies. Raising leaders internally has its advantages especially as they come in young and moldable. The organization can also spread the growth in their compensation as compared to tapping talent. When someone comes in knowing that he is needed, he will ask for high remuneration package.

For clubs like Barcelona where there is more emphasis on a specific type of play, even external acquisitions bail out if they do not adapt to the clubs philosophy. Several players have fallen down the pecking order and left while some were pushed out for technical reasons. The delicate balancing act in managing team members has led to Human Resource departments adopting the talent management mentality. This is what gave us appraisals and key performance indicators akin to individual statistics for football players.

Like clubs, the focus is more on talent as it is on cultural fit. It remains a challenge to invest in talent that will cause ripples on team chemistry. Clubs will analyze players’ statistics depending on his position as they scrutinize the figures for the X-factor that separates the player from the rest. It is a process that is similar to the rigorous several tier interviews that have become the norm in the corporate world.

Despite the failures of internal systems to generate good talent, when the right talent comes along, the organization gets to top-notch talent for a minimal fee. Compare this against the haggling for packages and price inflation when you go out to tap talent, it is wise to take the risk and nurture talent even if they will not turn out right.

Looking at Barcelona, it would have cost them a fortune if they had to purchase the whole crop of La Masia greatest generation of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Pique and even Sergio Busquets. Even if the virtue for the players was in their talents and not the system, they vindicate the internal talent development in the interest of the club. Even as they look out to bring in more players, they can still trust their youth system.

What about the manager?

There is a school of thought that believes when it comes to performance players like Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta will give you results regardless of the coach. Manchester City’s Yaya Toure’s agent threw a barb at Pep Guardiola that even his grandfather can win titles with the caliber of players at FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the two clubs Pep has managed.

There are players who need very little input from a coach, but this crop is rare. The same applies in a work environment. The Messis and Iniestas are hard to come by so you can never judge a manager by how much he influences such players. The mantle of a manager is seen by how he can manage players and build a team around his stars in such a way that the team performs as the stars shine.

To this end, the kind of manager an organization will hire must be a good man and team manager. The manager also maters when it comes to hiring, mentoring and managing talent. In as much as the team counts, who leads them also maters. The only difference between organizations and football clubs is that the former cannot afford the turnovers in managers (CEOs) as it happens in the latter. Stability and long term approach works best for organizations.

When an organization decides to tap young talent and nurture them or hire experienced hands, the bottom line lies in the organization’s culture and long-term goals. There is no superior approach, but a good blend of the two has proved to be the best option.

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