More to a team than lone stars

16th June 2006 at 01:00
There is a God," screamed The Sun, above a picture of a scissor-kicking Wayne Rooney. It was a sign of hope during the breathless wait to see if he would recover in time for the World Cup finals.

The fans seemed clear enough about what was at stake. With Wayne, the team is now as good as on the open-topped bus, crossing Trafalgar Square with Tony Blair at the wheel. Without Wayne, it would be an early bath - or at least a bleary and swift return to Luton airport with a grumpy reception from the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

But how do you think the other players react to all that? And how does the manager deal with it? These aren't just football-related questions. What we're discussing here is how to manage a team of individuals - all talented, and some with quite exceptional gifts.

I once had a glimpse of how not to do it. I visited a primary school. The head - let's call her Mrs Ernison - took me on the standard tour. Several times she spoke warmly of one particular teacher: "Miss Foot, an absolute gem - just wait till you see her," she said.

When we did go into the star's classroom, what attracted my attention wasn't so much the charismatic teacher, the alert children or the beautifully organised room. Rather, it was the behaviour of the head. She went straight up to her protege, looking meaningfully at me as if to say, "Are you getting this?" Then she melted into a display of smiles, arm-touching and head-tilting. It was behaviour quite different from anything I'd seen in previous encounters with other teaching colleagues.

At lunchtime, it came as no surprise to find a more or less silent staffroom populated by glum-looking sandwich munchers. The star wasn't there because - the head said approvingly later - she preferred to work in her classroom through the lunch break.

Heads are not naive, and it's unlikely that Mrs Ernison thought she was doing anything more than ensuring that a key player, essential to the success of the squad - sorry, school - felt looked after and valued.

Schools are remarkably vulnerable to staff changes. Two good people leaving, replaced by two not-so-good ones, or by a succession of agency supply staff, can be enough to knock a high-flying school or department off its course. What Mrs Ernison is in danger of forgetting is that by putting so much energy into one apparently indispensable person, she runs some risks - quite apart from the obvious and very likely damage to personal and professional relationships.

It seems possible, for example, that she is failing to pick up on and nurture the skills and ideas of other colleagues, some of whom undoubtedly have serious ambitions and the potential to realise them. If so, then not only might they lose interest and momentum, but some of them might actually leave.

Either way, no matter how good Miss Foot may be, the result is likely to be a net loss of teaching quality. The answer - and Sven, no management fool, undoubtedly knows this - is to run a development programme that clearly provides equality of access for all.

That's the approach of Paul Carey, managing director of consultants RSM Potentia International - and a soccer fan - to whom I chatted about this.

"People need to know that the same rules apply to everyone, and that each person is encouraged in the area of their strengths," he said.

Mr Carey is very keen on working to strengths and not wasting time correcting weaknesses.

"I used to know Puskas - he coached my son when he was in Australia," he said.

Ferenc Puskas was captain of the Hungarian team that beat England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, and 7-1 in the return match in Budapest. In a long career, he became one of the greatest soccer players of all time.

"Puskas couldn't shoot withhis right foot," he explained. "But what would have been the point of spending time making him do it? He was Puskas, after all."

It seems possible that Mrs Ernison spent a lot of time thinking of weaknesses, and regretting that more of her staff weren't like Miss Foot.

It's an easy trap to fall into, and overcoming the mindset can be difficult.

But maybe Sven can do it. He told the Daily Mail last month: "Wayne Rooney is one of the best footballers in the world, but at a certain point we have 22 other players in the squad, plus stand-by players, and they are really, really good football players, absolutely."

Or perhaps you think that's one "really" and one "absolutely" too many.

Gerald Haigh is a former headteacher

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