Book feature: Be a business Svengali


Straddling the footballing divide between England and Sweden is no simple task, especially when in the eyes of many your very foreignness is a problem.

Continental flair may be fashionable in England right now but being a manager with more of a reputation for subtlety and skill than the English leagues are typically used to can create as many problems as it solves.

And then there are the people issues. Managing a top Italian club like Lazio is one thing, but winning the respect of top players and fans is not made easier when you never got out of the lower divisions yourself as a player.

That said, if you can lead your adoptive country to a World Cup final you will be forgiven everything – and hailed as a hero in both England and Sweden.

And that’s what George Raynor found. George who, you might ask? If you haven’t heard of him you should have: the parallels with Sven-Goran Eriksson are irresistible.

Many gems in the book
The tale of George Raynor – an English journeyman footballer turned successful manager who, after a spell with Lazio took Sweden to defeat against a great Brazil team in the 1958 World Cup final – is one of the many gems in the management book Leadership The Sven-Goran Eriksson Way.

Written by London Business School professor Julian Birkinshaw and business author Stuart Crainer, the book takes a populist approach to leadership.

And it’s much more engaging for it. In how many business books can you turn to the contents page and find consecutive references to Liverpool manager Gerrard Houllier, Orange chief executive Graham Howe and early 80s pop stars The Human League?

Nevertheless their message is serious as well as engaging.

‘In this era of mass entertainment, leaders in the sporting world are among the leadership icons of our time,’ write the authors. ‘We are as likely to take our leadership lessons from Michael Jordan as George Bush, from Roy Keane as Bertie Aherne, from David Beckham as Tony Blair.’ The reference to Keane and Aherne might be unfortunate given the controversies of recent weeks, but you get the point.

And the authors explain why Eriksson matters so much. ‘Our argument is that Eriksson’s approach to leadership is important because it brilliantly exemplifies a new approach to leadership that defies conventional and historical stereotypes of how leaders think and behave.

A modern leadership archetype
‘Eriksson is not a tub-thumping bellower of orders. He is no dictator. Instead he is a modern leadership archetype, a leader we can all learn from.’

Central to this is his Swedishness. Accepting that may have been a problem for the hordes of former English footballers and managers who insisted last year that only an Englishman could manage the national team. But Birkinshaw and Crainer insist that it is his nationality that makes Eriksson a great manager – irrespective of last week’s England-Sweden result.

According to one of the most famous managers of recent times, former GE CEO Jack Welch: ‘Pound for pound Sweden probably has more good managers than any other country’.

Sweden also has more large companies per head of population than any other country in the world. And, somewhat unusually in this day of Coca Colanisation, many are still independent leaders in their chosen sectors – Eriksson in mobile infrastructure and Electrolux in white goods, among them.

Sweden has also been labelled the most future-ready country in the world in the IMD/World Economic Forum annual competitiveness rankings.

And in design, marketing and entertainment it innovates too: think IKEA, Absolut vodka’s memorable adverts or ABBA. ‘Less well known,’ the authors add, ‘is Max Martin, the Swede who is responsible for penning all of Britney Spears’ hit records’.

Well, no-one’s perfect.

Motivated, polite and familiar
And the success? Swedish management is motivated, polite and familiar. And that doesn’t mean it hasn’t innovated: Sweden was steeped in the now-familiar techniques of empowerment, teamwork and consensus-based decision making long before they were fashionable. No wonder Swedes are sometimes called the Japanese of Europe.

However these virtues do not come without attendant (potential) problems.

The Stockholm School of Economics has found Sweden achieves the highest international ranking for non-assertiveness. Meanwhile the Swedish equivalent of Nike’s ‘Just do it’ philosophy is ‘See what you can do about it’.

The book gives a well-rounded feel to the support of its central thesis.

It quotes plenty of other business gurus (Michael Porter, Charles Handy and Tom Peters among them) so you feel you are getting a full picture not just the view of the two authors alone.

And it quotes Sven himself regularly, though not directly it seems. It would have been more interesting if the authors had been able to speak to him themselves. Nevertheless his philosophy is interesting.

A typical quote runs: ‘Always think you are never as good as they tell you when you beat Germany 5-1 away, and you are never as bad as they tell when you lose. You are some place in the middle.’

Plenty of practicality
The book accompanies the philosophy with plenty of practicality too.

There are regular calls to ‘Sven yourself’ with some personal questions about your leadership style. And it recommends any first-time or newly appointed leader emulate Eriksson’s approach: distance yourself from the past (don’t have any other agenda than success); survey the scene (Eriksson reportedly attended 22 matches in his first five weeks); identify the problem areas (if you need a left footed player, find one – don’t play a right-footer at left back); accentuate the positive (don’t tolerate negative attitudes among your players); and make initial gains and build on them (even if you are not winning make it appear as if you are).

All in all Leadership The Sven-Goran Eriksson Way is an informative read.

And those who fail to identify with the leadership style it advocates may well enjoy the regular and entertaining references to football and pop culture.

Distinctive management style
We will all know in three weeks whether distinctive Swedish management techniques can win England the World Cup. Even if they can’t, the authors argue, there are plenty of UK business managers who could learn a thing or two from this truck driver’s son from Trosby.

Leadership the Sven-Goran Eriksson Way: How to Turn Your Team into Winners by Julian Birkinshaw and Stuart Crainer is published by Capstone at £12.99.

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