Premier teamwork: Soccer champs’ victory offers lessons for HR pros

by Peter Lowe

They were a rag-tag group of has-beens, rejects, and journeymen. They were hired at low wages and with even lower expectations. A recently fired 64-year-old Italian was hired to manage them. They enjoyed a 138-year history, yet no history of success. The odds of the team winning the championship were 5,000 to 1. Yet in May, the team—Leicester City—defied the odds and was crowned champion of the English Premier League. The story of how lowly Leicester City became the champion of one of the world’s richest, most competitive, and far-reaching sports leagues provides valuable tips for HR professionals. LeicesterCity celebrates Championship of English Premiere League in Thailand

Diversity

By my count, the team is made up of players from at least 14 countries. Players hail from Japan, Argentina, Jamaica, Austria, Australia, and England—to name just some of the nationalities that put on the team’s now-famous blue “strip” (English for uniform). Central to the team’s success were the son of an Algerian man and Moroccan woman who grew up in poverty in France, an Englishman with a criminal record, and an Italian manager who was widely viewed as washed up and too old.

Many employers would have found reasons not to hire those gentlemen. The English striker might have failed the background check—he got into a bar fight in his teens. The Moroccan magician might not have been considered a “good fit.” The 64-year-old manager may not have met the company’s “vision for the future.” Whether those reasons would have been considered discrimination (age, race, or criminal history) is anyone’s guess. But to their credit, the Thai owners of the club put their faith in a mosaic of personalities and nationalities. We often hear about the benefits of a diverse workforce. To me, Leicester City is the poster child.

Leadership

The man at the helm of the team, Claudio Ranieri, is an inspirational leader. He was never stronger or more protective of his players than when the team lost (which was rare). At the outset of the season, the pundits predicted he would be the first manager to be fired (the tenure of a Premier League manager is very precarious), so he and the team were under intense scrutiny. With grace, charm, and considerable skill, Ranieri took the heat and pressure on his shoulders and gave his players the freedom to do what they do best—play soccer.

Ranieri led by example and displayed great class and dignity. His approach to press conferences is one example. When he entered the room, he shook the hand of every member of the media. It is hard to imagine Bill Belichick doing that. By the end of the season, media from all over the world descended on Leicester City, and Ranieri had a lot of hands to shake. His grace and class permeated the club.

Divine forces?

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Leicester City fairy tale is the spirit of Richard III. Richard III was the last English king to die in battle in 1485. His body was unceremoniously dumped in an unmarked pit, which was later paved over as a car park (parking lot). In March 2015, his remains were identified and recovered from the nondescript car park in Leicester City and placed at rest in Leicester Cathedral.

At the time, Leicester City was at the very bottom of the Premier League and faced almost certain relegation (think of an MLB team being demoted to the minor leagues). Since the medieval king was placed in the cathedral, the team has had an unprecedented run of success—one that has defied all the odds. I am not sure what lesson can be gleaned from this mythical aspect of the team’s wonderful tale, but it is a great story!

Takeaway

Any team that is willing to embrace diversity has an opportunity to get a leg up on the competition. Workers who are overlooked or discriminated against by your competitors may be valuable contributors to your business, bringing a different set of experiences to your company. This is particularly important to consider in Maine.

Although Maine is one of the least racially diverse states in the country, the demographic makeup of the population is changing rapidly, especially in Portland and our firm’s home city of Lewiston. Just ask the Lewiston High School boys’ soccer team, which won the state championship this past year with players from six different nationalities, just like their Leicester City counterparts.

Peter Lowe is a partner with Brann & Isaacson in Lewiston, Maine, advising clients on personnel practices and employee relations matters.  He can be contacted at plowe@brannlaw.com

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