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Cultural awareness just as important as business acumen

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Is it possible to take charge of an organisation in the commercial world and run it effectively if you know little or nothing about the company’s core business?

Imagine an automotive industry wizard – the sort of person who has built up a highly successful engineering business – being parachuted into ailing supermarket giant Woolworths and being told to turn it round quickly.

Do you back the person running a mining empire to know how to run an emotional and consumer oriented sector such as health care?

It’s a big call.

Yes, their core competencies, experience, people skills and managerial abilities may well take them so far. But when a major problem blows up, particularly one with a clinical edge, it’s possible they will struggle, not because they are not smart, but simply because they do not have sufficient experience in the core business.

In many ways that’s how Australian soccer has operated in the past decade, with very few people at upper management level – not just Football Federation Australia’s chief executives – coming into the business with extensive knowledge or a demonstrated previous interest in the sport.

This is not an exercise in bashing chief executive David Gallop or the head of the A-League, Damien De Bohun, both of whom have copped several huge whacks in the past fortnight, nor the staff in situ. And De Bohun, it must be said, has had some experience, having run Football Federation Victoria earlier in his career.

But there are questions worth asking in the broader context of the Australian game.

Has it had sufficient people in its senior management in with a real, deep-rooted understanding of the game? And is it developing and nurturing a talent pool to take it on?

Would the AFL, for example, have recruited widely from almost anywhere but footy to fill its top positions, not worrying whether those now in charge had ever really been bothered about the game?

The argument against “soccer people” playing a role in “new football” back when Frank Lowy revolutionised the game was that they had been given their chance for more than 30 years and blown it. Now was the time to try something radically different.

That was understandable. But it’s also fair to ask if, in the past few years, the game had had more “soccer people” in its upper management, would there have been greater engagement with fans and less likelihood of the boycotts and arguments that have blighted the sport in the past fortnight?

If the people running the sport had played it and followed it all their lives, would there have been a better understanding with the players union and less likelihood of the sort of damaging disputes with the Matildas and Socceroos that dogged the game for months earlier this year.

Would the relationship with the clubs be better if there were executives within FFA management and board steeped in the ways of the soccer world, people who knew what it was like to put a club together, manage its budget, recruit its players and deal with its commercial sponsors?

No one can say that former rugby union boss John O’Neill, former AFL heavyweight Ben Buckley and former NRL chief David Gallop were not all highly experienced, successful and competent sports executives with a proven track record of achievements before they came into the game. Few voices were raised against their appointments.

O’Neill had a rather more charmed run in the early years, but his background in rugby and his commitment to the one-team, one-town philosophy perhaps led him to misunderstand the role of rivalry in soccer and the galvanising effect derbies would have.

Buckley had to manage the fall out from a failed World Cup bid, botched expansion and the challenges of dealing with Clive Palmer, none of which was easy. Gallop has had to handle stagnating crowds and television audiences and crowd problems.

None of the three grew up as football fans.

Buckley played AFL at the highest level, so he, at least, had the knowledge of what it meant to be a high-level sportsman. Gallop was cricketer, good enough to play league cricket in England, while O’Neill had run a Rugby World Cup and was steeped in the Sydney corporate culture and union.

All three had plenty of runs on the board and, in itself, there is nothing wrong with having an “outsider” in charge of the ship.

But, in that case, whoever takes over as captain, if they are not of or familiar with the sport, needs to have lots of key executive who are well versed in how the vessel reacts to the pitch and sway of turbulent waters, when it flounders and when it finds smooth sailing.

That has rarely been the case at its senior management levels. Historically, FFA has had a lot of smart people with good track records from other sports who, when the crunch comes, haven’t intuitively grasped the culture of the game and therefore haven’t perhaps been able to react as adroitly or as appropriately as may have been the case.

Soccer is in a better place than it has ever been, despite what the lurid headlines of recent weeks suggest.

What FFA management needs to do is harness some of the cultural understanding of the game that its predecessors possessed and yoke that to the commercial, political and business smarts of the incumbents.

Perhaps Steven Lowy, who has succeeded his father as FFA chairman, can make that one of the core aims of his time at the top: for the sport to grow its own competent senior administrators, people with a lifetime of “skin in the game” so that, when the time comes to find a replacement for Gallop, the game won’t have to raid other sports.

© 2015 The Age | This article was written by Michael Lynch and first appeared in The Age on 12 December 2015.

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