The Value of Talent

Sports team are creative companies.

At their best, collections of world-class talent expressing themselves within a strategically designed and sensitively managed system.

At their worst, indulgent, inconsistent and reactive rabbles.

As a case study in long-term excellence, the English football team Manchester United takes some beating. Analytically as well as physically. A painful confession for a lifelong Chelsea FC supporter.

Last week, however, saw the removal of a cornerstone of Manchester United’s business success.

The belief that no one individual is bigger than the whole.

A critical foundation for any valuable creative service business.

Manchester United is a business with a history of having employed some of the greatest talents in its industry. George Best. Eric Cantona. David Beckham. Roy Keane. To name but four.

In each case, their individuality was the fuel of their genius. An explosive combustion the club measured and managed, and always framed within that cornerstone ethos.

And in each case, once the balance tilted, once complacency started to rival contribution, the club severed their ties quickly and decisively. Always before anyone else had recognized the threat.

Last Thursday, Manchester United threw those standards away. Deciding that a 24 year old forward by the name of Wayne Rooney, who has showed periods of greatness during his six years at the club, should be treated differently.

This comes in the wake of Rooney: dramatically underperforming during England’s World Cup this summer; being photographed publicly urinating on a golf course during a round with his English team mates; being photographed publicly urinating in the street outside a Manchester nightclub; alleged to have been repeatedly unfaithful with a prostitute while his wife was pregnant; publicly arguing with his manager - Sir Alex Ferguson - about whether he was injured; scoring one goal since March, and last week announcing his intention to leave Manchester United because of both their “lack of ambition” and his concern at the club’s inability to attract the world’s best players. A damning indictment of previously loyal, and world-class teammates.

Manchester United’s response to this series of self indulgences in the midst of growing pressure from their fans and the press?

To sign him to a new five year contract at more than double his previous compensation.

Thereby throwing away, overnight, one of the foundations on which more than fifty years of success has been built.

As a piece of adaptive preference, I understand why Manchester United would convince themselves this was the right decision. The need for talent being the most common rationale for bad decision making in any talent driven business.

As a Chelsea supporter, I am thrilled they did

Long term success takes a long term to create. But only a moment of self deception to undo.

Define your principles. Then resist, resist, resist the temptation to throw them away when the pressure is on. They will see you through.