HR · 5 January 2016

Micro business New Year’s resolutions: Lessons from Chelsea FC

Former Chelsea FC manager Jose Mourinho
While it’s easy to blame everyone else for problems with your business, admitting when things are going wrong will earn you more respect from your staff.

Starting your own business is tough, and sometimes succeeding feels about as likely as winning the Premiership.

It’s been well-documented that 80 per cent of startups fail within the first 18 months. And some 23 per cent of these failures happen because teamwork breaks down, according to research carried out in the US by CB Insights.

The relentlessly competitive small business landscape is very similar to the Premier League, with many firms with great products and services vying for a place at the top, with the risk of relegation never that far away.

That’s why the owners of micro enterprises have a lot of lot to learn from the cautionary tale of Chelsea FC, which managed to plummet from top of the Premiership in January 2015 to 14th place at the beginning of 2016.

Lesson One – Know when to delegate, and let your employees get on with it

One of the most controversial – and damaging – moves that Jose Mourhino, Chelsea’s sacked manager, made was openly criticising club doctor Eva Carneiro for trying to treat Eden Hazard when his side was struggling for a point with only ten men.

Getting too involved, and criticising too heavily, is easy and tempting for micro business owners who have built their small business up from scratch and are unwilling to see someone else ruin it.

But the experts agree that being able to let go is important if you want a sustainable business.

Stanford Business School’s Jeffrey Pfeffer counseled in his book “What were you thinking?” : “Your most important task as a leader is to teach people how to think and ask the right questions so that the world doesn’t go to hell if you take a day off.”

Lesson Two – Show key members of staff that they’re valued

Chelsea suffered because Mourinho let talented players like Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne leave without putting up a fight. Similarly, retaining important people is important for micro firms with a small number of staff that will tend to have a high level of firm knowledge.

Research by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) revealed recently that while a third of employees wanted to move jobs in 2016, for the vast majority this decision wasn’t about money – making this insight relevant even if the salaries you pay are a few zeros off those Premiership footballers are used to.

Almost one in five of those surveyed said they were thinking of moving because they wanted more appreciation – something a simple “thank you” or a round of drinks on a Friday can easily remedy.

Lesson Three – Watch out for burnout

Mourinho was also criticised for his habit of achieving success for two seasons followed by disastrous performance during a third. This “third season syndrome” has been put down to the pressure he puts on players to perform, which sees them burn out after two years.

Again, there’s temptation for the founders of young firms to pursue growth so enthusiastically that employees are pushed to the limit – especially if they’re happy to sleep, eat and breath the business.

But research from AXA Healthcare in 2014 showed employees of small businesses were at increased risk of burnout and ill health.

So if you think employees are at risk of suffering due to overwork, encourage them to use up some of their holiday allowance – or give them a couple of extra days to say thanks. Productivity will benefit in the long-run.

Lesson Four – Admit your mistakes

Just weeks into Chelsea’s 2015/16 season Jose Mourinho brushed off an embarrassing defeat against Manchester United as a “completely fake” result. But while it’s easy to blame suppliers, competitors, or even the weather for problems with your business, admitting when things are going wrong will earn you more respect from your staff, even if you only have one or two.

Research carried out by ACAS in 2012 found that communication was a key part of the culture at all the small employers surveyed.

And many of the most successful business leaders have got where they are today by being honest about where they’ve gone wrong – if Karren Brady and Richard Branson can admit their mistakes, then you can too.

Lesson Five – If all else fails, change something

The fact that Chelsea have won four games in a row since Mourinho was ousted – just like they had a row of straight successes when he returned to the team as manager in August 2013 – is suggestive of a management theory known as “The Hawthorne effect”  after the factory where experiments into the phenomena were first conducted.

It was coined in 1958 to explain the fact that changes to working conditions improved productivity – but so did changing them back. The researchers who carried out the study believed that this was because a changes showed workers that people were paying attention to their needs.

While premiership footballers seem hardly justified in the belief that they’re not getting enough attention, micro business employees probably have a greater cause for concern. And although owner-managers are unlikely to want to fire themselves, changing team structure, working hours or office arrangement could be enough to spur employee productivity out of a rut.

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Hannah Wilkinson is a reporter for Business Advice. She studied economics and management at Oxford University and prior to joining Business Advice wrote for Kensington and Chelsea Today about business and economics – as well as running a tutoring company.