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Dr Dan Parnell

FOOTBALL, SPORT, SOCIAL CHANGE, POLICY, MANAGEMENT

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Sporting Director

Challenging football’s old boys’ network

Article was originally published on The Training Ground Guru – found here.

FOOTBALL clubs need to start using fair, transparent recruitment processes instead of relying on existing social relationships, argue Dr Dan Parnell and Dr Paul Widdop. Otherwise they risk missing out on new ideas, insights and information and holding back their businesses.


RECRUITMENT in football often seems to be based more on social relationships than on making the best rational economic decisions.

By social relationships we mean friends, family, past colleagues and historical trusted connections. Every season many football appointments are made in which there is a social relationship between the recruiter and the recruited.

Often there hasn’t been what we would consider a proper and transparent recruitment process – with a clear job description advertised, applications invited and interviews held.

These are some recent appointments in which there was a social relationship between a powerbroker and the person recruited. The recruitment process was not clear:

  • Dougie Freedman appointed Sporting Director at Crystal Palace. Was this based on a transparent process or his relationship with CEO Steve Parish? Freedman had not held this type of role before.
  • Daniel Talbot’s appointment as senior/ European Scout at Fulham. Was this based on merit or the fact his father Brian Talbot is the Assistant Head of Football Operations at the club? Talbot has no previous experience of scouting in an official capacity. [Head of Football Operations Tony Khan told TGG this was a “straightforward hire”, but the process behind it still remains unclear].
  • The double appointment of Chris Badlan, Head of European Scouting, and Kieran Scott, Head of Domestic Scouting, at Norwich. Were they the best talent identified through a clear process, or was the fact they had worked with Sporting Director Stuart Webber at Wolves before key?
  • Recruitment of Nuno Espirito Santo as manager at Wolves. What role did super agent Jorge Mendes play in the appointment?

This is not to question the merits of individuals involved – it is to question the process that led to their appointments. This approach, of surrounding yourself with trusted and like-minded people, might appear prudent, but research suggests more diverse connections can be more beneficial to football clubs.

The work of Economic Sociologist Mark Granovetter can help us explain why. Firstly, Granovetter put forward the principle of the quite contradictory idea of the strength of weak ties, arguing that connections with diverse groups of people are more beneficial than strong bonds with a few in many business scenarios.

Whilst strong bonds with people create a culture of trust and shared behaviours, it is the weak ties that bridge across a network allowing access to information or resources people may not otherwise have had access to.

Secondly, and relatedly, he put forward the notion of embeddedness, arguing that all economic action was rooted in social relationships. The Embeddedness framework has many implications for the general traditional economic view of football business, one being that the market doesn’t operate as a free market with perfect competition, and all people (buyers, sellers, recruiters etc) don’t have access to all the same information.

 

This is an excerpt of a piece of research from another prominent academic, Charles Tilly, in which you can easily substitute the word ‘society’ with the words ‘the football business’:

“It is through personal networks that society is structured and individuals integrated into society. Daily life proceeds through personal ties: workers recruit in-laws and cousins for jobs on a new construction site; parents choose their children’s paediatricians on the basis of personal recommendation; and investors get tips from their tennis partners. All through life, the facts, fictions, and arguments we hear from kin and friends are the ones that influence our actions most. Reciprocally, most people affect their society only through personal influences on those around them.”

Individuals who share strong connections to one another tend to be very similar in nature (which is termed homology). While some may argue this is important, especially for trust and shared culture, the downside is it can also create the dreaded ‘yes man’, or at least a blinkered view of the world, which may not see dangers looming or innovations happening elsewhere.

The network can become one of people who see the same things, think the same way and share the same information. If a group shares strong relationships and all the individuals are relatively similar, there will be many redundant connections regurgitating the same information, which stifles creativity and innovation.

Many leaders in football are overlooking a (perhaps better) wealth of talent that could be identified through a transparent and professional recruitment and due diligence process. Instead, they are turning to their closest network to make appointments.

To tackle this natural bias, leaders in football must develop and utilise a broader network of connections and undertake a transparent recruitment process. More diverse connections bridge networks of people and in turn introduce new ideas, insights and information that would otherwise be unknown.

Only then can football clubs be confident they’ve got the best man, or woman, for the job.

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Levein commits ultimate Sporting Director no-no

This article was originally published on the Training Ground Guru. 

In making himself manager at Hearts, Craig Levein did something no Sporting Director should do, argues Dr Dan Parnell from Manchester Metropolitan University.

TWO of the key hurdles in developing the Sporting Director/ Director of Football role in Britain have been understanding and trust.

Some head coaches and managers have been sceptical, seeing the Sporting Director as a manager in waiting. The situation with Craig Levein at Hearts will not have helped this perception, to put it mildly.

To recap, Ian Cathro was sacked as the club’s manager before the start of the season, having had just eight months in charge.

 

The man who appointed him, Levein, then undertook a recruitment process for prospective candidates, picking and unpicking their strategies, tactics, evaluation of the team’s problems and plans for the future.

He also may have developed and enhanced his own strategy. It has already been reported that Steven Pressley, Dougie Freedman, Paul Hartley, Billy Davies and caretaker Jon Daly were interviewed for the job.

Afterwards, Levein – a man who has been out of management for almost five years (and out of club management for almost eight) – was able to go back to the board and say, ‘we have found no-one, but (in the words of Private Baldrick) I have a cunning plan.’

READ MORE: In defence of the Sporting Director

This involved him taking on the manager’s job in addition to his own. As outlined previously on this site, the Sporting Director’s job is to find the best people for the job and to help them to be as successful as possible.

 

The role emerged primarily to allow the manager or coach to focus on his role. In my view, any Sporting Director who takes a manager’s position is either uninformed, ill-equipped or has harboured an intention to be the manager.

 

If it’s any of these three reasons, then this person should not have become a Sporting Director in the first place. Hopefully, Levein can communicate the full process and rationale that has taken place at Hearts.

Because this is not a criticism of him as a person. After all, he wants to do the best he can and to survive at the club. But, unknowingly, he has hampered the Sporting Director movement and could do Hearts a disservice as well.

De Boer welcomes Freedman appointment – Expert Analysis

This article was originally published on the Training Ground Guru (see here) with the below expert analysis.

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City Talk: Sporting Directors

Delighted to join Steve Hothersall on City Talk to discuss on research and education programmes surrounding the Sporting Director role. Here is a link to the interview.

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Chelsea loan players to 87 clubs in five seasons

CHELSEA have sent players out on loan to 87 different clubs in the last five seasons, with destinations ranging from Club Universidad in Chile to the Metropolitan Police.

Vitesse Arnhem, who have had a close relationship with the Blues for several seasons now, are the leading destination, with 17 loanees going there. Next up is Middlesbrough, with six, and then Reading and Belgian Pro Division side Sint-Truidense with four each.

 

Courtesy of Dr Paul Widdop and Dr Dan Parnell

Courtesy of Dr Paul Widdop and Dr Dan Parnell

As things stand, 38 Chelsea players will be on loan at the start of the 2018/19 season. The above ‘ego network’ shows the destinations of Chelsea players during the last five seasons – starting in 2013/14 through to the upcoming season.

 

It was produced by Dr Paul Widdop of Leeds Beckett University and Dr Dan Parnell of Manchester Metropolitan University. The teams closest to the centre received the most players on loan.

 

He won’t pick the side, but the incoming Director of Football will be a key part of the team at Rangers

Here is the link to an interview I published with the Evening Times in Scotland – see here. Thanks to Christopher Jack for interview.

The article went in the Evening Times and Herald Scotland. The pdfs can be found here: Herald Scotland and Evening Times.

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Where do you find a Sporting Director?

Where do you find a Sporting Director?

Article originally published on The Football Collective here.

By Dr Dan Parnell and Dr Paul Widdop

Where do you find a Sporting Director in football? 

We have seen a growing media lens and attention given to the Sporting Director role in football (or Director of Football, Technical Director, Head of Football Operations as the role may also be known). Whether it’s Stuart Webber’s appointment at Norwich; Rangers pursuit for a new head of football operations; the emergence and success of Ross Wilson at Southampton; or ‘the Monchi move’ – the Sporting Director movement is gaining momentum. Whilst popular in Europe the role was often greeted with scepticism in Britain, but now it appears to be a panacea, curing all football clubs of their ills.

Our question is, where do you find a Sporting Director for your football club? We ask this because we don’t believe clubs are exploring all the available candidates, and as a result, the best talent available for such positions might be slipping through the recruitment net.

In a much cited academic paper on network connections, Economic Sociologist Mark Granovetter (1974) provided evidence that employment markets, such as finding Sporting Directors (or any kind of talent such as players for that matter), does not work as free and open competition, as laid out in neo-classical economic frameworks.

That is, any pursuit for talent depends on established ties to others; and behaviour is influenced by their social relationships.

In the case of the role of the Sporting Director, it is typically owners and CEOs that use their personal network to make contact with (i) potential employees, (ii) intermediaries and (iii) recruitment agencies.

However, within the everyday working environment of the owners and CEOs, they often rely on a network of strong ties/connections.

Why is this problematic?  Individuals who share strong ties to one another tend to be very similar in nature (the technical term for this is homophily).  Because of these strong ties, there is a significant amount of trust invested in the network and a source of what Sociologist Robert Putnam termed ‘bonding social capital’ (social networks between similar groups), which facilitates shared social norms, cooperative spirit, and trust.

Trust is important in this context in many ways, especially guarding against unethical or mischievous behaviour.  Networks of strong ties are important not least as a support mechanism.

Yet because of the nature of these strong ties, information (such as insight and recommendations on talented prospective Sporting Directors) which flows through the network tends to be often redundant as it is circulated many times. For example, if a juicy bit of gossip is being communicated through these strong ties you are likely to have been told it many times.

As such, whilst searching for a Sporting Director, a CEO or owner might overly rely on these strong ties resulting in the same information on the same names and faces, many times. Moreover, there are examples of where the same people are moving around the identical or similar roles.

In many ways one shift in the football pyramid of Sporting Directors, whether a transfer or sacking, creates an interconnected cascade effect of changes. However, it is clear from evidence we have collected, that recruitment agencies offer owners and CEOs similar names.

This is not to say that those individuals currently occupying, or who continue to be associated and forwarded for the Sporting Director role are not excellent executives or fit for purpose.  But it does mean that owners and CEOs are overlooking a (perhaps better) wealth of talent in the recruitment and due diligence process, simply as a result of being constrained by their network.

The issue of getting help to find talent

Who can blame owners and CEOs, they are working with a tinderbox marketplace, and relying on networks of trust is a rational choice, given the circumstances. They are already under significant pressure to lead a football club, without the added burden of (re)searching the football industry to find the best candidate for their club!  However, this reliance on strong ties is also how much of football operates, whether finding players, managers, sport scientists or medics.

As a result, owners and CEOs seek out recruitment agencies they trust to help find them talent. In this respect, it is fair to say, recruiters could do better.

Many in football reading this will acknowledge that key people, have the skills to do the Sporting Director role but don’t get considered. The role of acting as guardian over a football clubs sporting strategy is demanding so there is no surprise.

Moving forward: navigating the network to find the best talent

To move forward, we must return to Granovetter.  On the flip side of his research, evidence shows that it is in fact weak ties (ties to others outside the core group that reach out to other networks – see figure below), which are advantageous in economic activity, such as recruitment.

For Granovetter, these weak ties are a source of novel information and new network flows.  These weak ties can be advantageous because they bridge networks introducing new people, ideas, insight and information, that are otherwise unknown. It is these weak ties that have strategic importance.

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What does this mean for future Sporting Director recruitment?

Placed in the context of the Sporting Director, it means owners and CEOs (and recruitment agencies) whilst continuing to utilise their strong ties, must also explore avenues away from their core connections to uncover new people and talent capable of delivering successful sporting strategies in football clubs.

Over the past few months, we have increasingly connected with leaders and influences in the football industry (including owners and CEOs) seeking to recruit the right talent, specifically for the Sporting Directors role. We found that these leaders in the football system are capitalising on weak ties to deliver new people, ideas, information and insight to inform decision-making and recruitment. This is not the status quo.

Our challenge to those involved in the recruitment of Sporting Directors, is to not abandon their strong ties, but to also capitalise on their weak ties.  To reach out to unexpected connections and to consider casting their recruitment net further to find the existing talent in the industry. Talent who possess the capabilities and who now need the opportunity to break into this often closed environment and prove their worth.

Interview: Is Stuart Webber the right man to turn Norwich City’s fortunes around?

Interview with ITV, found here. 

Following the appointment of Stuart Webber as Norwich City’s new sporting director, we decided to find out more about a role that is still pretty unfamiliar to football fans in England.

We fired some questions at Dr Dan Parnell who is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and has done extensive research into leadership and governance in sport.

  • What exactly does the role of a sporting director entail?

Dr Dan Parnell has done a lot of research into the role of the sporting director.
Dr Dan Parnell has done a lot of research into the role of the sporting director. Credit: Manchester Metropolitan University

“There is a bit of confusion around the role of the sporting director.

In Europe, where the genesis of the role first began, the sporting director oversees the sporting departments, reporting directly to the owners.

The departments under the leadership of the sporting director includes medical and sport science support, recruitment, the academy, Under-21s, and the first team.

The broad aim of the sporting director is to develop and deliver a strategic plan towards achieving success. In many cases this might include developing the strategic plan too!

This includes; recruiting and supporting the first team head coach; recruiting the best people to lead various departments; overseeing the academy and development teams; managing the movement of players or developing a high-performance culture across the departments.

Interestingly, in the UK we use various terms for the sporting director and set varied expectations.

In this respect, many view the sporting director as being in charge of recruitment. Indeed, many will be measured (hired and fired) on which players they recruit.

Our research tells us that the sporting director role is much more than this though and being able to recruit is only part of the job.”

  • What traits does a good sporting director need?

Txiki Begiristain has been Manchester City's sporting director since 2012.
Txiki Begiristain has been Manchester City’s sporting director since 2012. Credit: PA

“The sporting director is someone who the owners are investing in for the long-term.

The role requires the utmost due diligence, as the sporting director will be the custodian for the club’s sporting performance.

For us, this is the most important position in a football club.

The sporting director must have: Football industry knowledge, business and financial acumen, ability to lead and develop a high-performance culture, ability to develop and deliver a strategy both strategically and operationally, an understanding of good governance and an ability to manage change and innovation.

Importantly for football in the UK, you may note that recruitment is not a ‘must have’ here.

Our research shows that the sporting director should recruit the best person possible as a Head of Recruitment, to allow that person explicit focus as one of the key departments in the sporting strategy.”

  • Are Norwich right to change their structure and put their faith in a sporting director? Is it something that could catch on and what would you say to those who are sceptical?

It promises to be a summer of change at Carrow Road.
It promises to be a summer of change at Carrow Road. Credit: PA

“It appears that Norwich are taking a leap of faith. However, for many who understand the role, the club have an opportunity to protect their investment and bring on-field success through effective leadership and decision-making in the short, medium and long-term.

Clubs increasingly need to develop a competitive advantage. The sporting director can help develop a strategy to improve performance on and off the pitch.

This is not just about recruitment. It includes enacting more subtle strategies, which are not commonplace in football – such as clear communication lines between departments.

For example, ensuring the Head of Recruitment, First Team Manager, Head of Academy, Head of Performance/Sport Science, Under-21s Manager and the sporting director have frequent opportunities to discuss key areas such as performance and recruitment prospects.

Ultimately, the increased finances in football have heightened the need for clubs to strengthen their financial sustainability.

The sporting director role is a major part in protecting multi-million pound investments whilst also bringing further success and rewards.”

  • What will Stuart Webber’s short, medium and long-term tasks be at the club?

Norwich chairman Ed Balls was keen for the structure changes to take place.
Norwich chairman Ed Balls was keen for the structure changes to take place. Credit: PA

“In the short-term, promotion to the Premier League is clearly the main objective for next season. Before that though, he needs to recruit Alex Neil’s successor to give them the best possible chance of achieving that.

Looking further ahead, communication with fans will be vital. Robbie Brady has just been sold for a fee in the region of £12million, but the reality is that Stuart might only see £2million of this for transfers. This and other examples need to be communicated to the club’s fans.

There also needs to be shift in the culture. The comments by Cameron Jerome seem in the distant past, but they suggest a negative culture developing at Carrow Road. This needs attention and management to develop a positive high-performance culture as soon as possible.

In terms of the longer-term vision, creating a culture where there’s clear expectations and accountability will help achieve success.

Norwich do not want to yo-yo in and out of the Premier League.

Recruitment alone won’t achieve this. The sporting director must develop and deliver a clear sporting strategy for the club.”

  • Finally, do you know anything about Webber? Has he got the credentials to turn the club around?

Norwich have had a season to forget in The Championship.
Norwich have had a season to forget in The Championship. Credit: PA

“Stuart Webber is very well-regarded in football for his previous work. He received notable media acclaim for his role in bringing Raheem Sterling to Liverpool from QPR in 2010 for example.

Yet, that was at Liverpool (who, as an Everton fan, it hurts to admit are a global football powerhouse) and not Norwich.

However, working with both Damien Comolli and Frank McParland has definitely helped develop Stuart as a strong and diligent operator in recruitment.

It appears that Norwich do not just need a sporting director to act as a Head of Recruitment, but they also need someone who can deliver a sporting strategy that deals with the potential issues with low morale of staff, alongside delivering long-term success.

It remains to be seen whether Stuart is up to huge challenge ahead of him, but I certainly wish him the best of luck.”

Last updated Thu 6 Apr 2017

Sporting Director: Football’s most misunderstood job?

What exactly does a Sporting Director do? And why does the role arouse suspicion and even hostility in this country?

 

Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo (above), better known as Monchi, is revered in Seville. English football has never had a Sporting Director who comes close to him in terms of public affection. We asked Dr Dan Parnell, who leads research on the Master of Sport Directorship course at Manchester Metropolitan University, for his lowdown on the role…

 

The full article is available on The Training Ground Guru, found here.

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