‘Andy, I’m a big palace fan, well done mate’. I’d just arrived at St George’s Park, and got out of my small Hyundai alongside the Range Rover of Andy Johnson, a Crystal Palace legend and one of my all-time favourite players. He politely said ‘Thanks, mate’ in return, got in the car, and left my life as quickly as he entered it. Not my finest moment. A quick message with a friend informed me that he’d just scored the winner in a legends competition called the Generations Cup, at which point I saw other Palace favourites Mile Jedinak and Jobi McAnuff leave, too. Fortunately, they were too distant for further self-induced humiliation.
And so, I arrived at St George’s Park feeling even more humble than when I’d been making the three-hour journey, earnestly listening to the High Performance book on Audible at 1.5x speed (you can’t tell the difference) to ensure I finished it by the time I returned to Surrey two days later.
I had been invited to the FA and England football HQ to observe the FA and UEFA’s Pro Licence course, the most elite football coaching qualification. Previous learners to have completed the course include Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and this year’s cohort features similarly household names, who I won’t mention while they complete their studies.
During the course, learners are invited periodically to St George’s Park to complete various modules, while FA tutors also do workplace visits to track progress and offer guidance along the way. The Pro Licence is a hugely complex course which has been developed and honed expertly over the last ten years; rather than attempt to explore how the course runs, this post will outline the experience I had over two days with the team. The module that I’d been invited to was on ‘High-Performing Teams’, with my contact being a mentor of mine, Alistair Smith, who has worked in Education, Elite Sports, and with many other high-performing organisations as a consultant, speaker, and advisor.
Here are some of my key takeaways from two days of listening and discussing what football, and many other industries, can teach us about high-performing teams.
Clear vison and narrative at every turn
When you wander around St George’s Park, the vision for the England Football set up is clear: pride, inclusivity, passion, unity. The facilities are immaculate, the attention to detail is pinpoint, and the visuals are striking. There are endless photos commemorating iconic moments and people from England’s history as a footballing nation; these adorn corridors, staircases, and even the bedrooms in the on-site Hilton – I slept with David Beckham above my bed, posing triumphantly after THAT goal against Greece in 2001. There is a memorial half way along the long, winding drive from the main road that commemorates Arthur Wharton, the first black professional footballer, and other touches throughout the site that visually celebrate England’s footballing history.
When you step inside the corridors where the classrooms and learning areas are based, the walls are clad in photographs of the three lions and what that means today: men’s football, women’s football, youth football, disability football. The narrative is clear: we take pride in who we are, we all belong, and we are a family. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into creating a vision and set of values for England Football, one that encompasses every team in the set up – it is clear, over communicated, and impossible to miss.
The site is a hub for all things football, with youth games often played here, a pitch that emulates Wembley’s, and even a place for Premier League referees to get a massage on a Monday morning.
My Thriving Teams blog series is attempting to take an evidence-informed approach to how teams can succeed and become more than a sum of their parts. That, too, was the focus of this module of the Pro Licence.
So, what came out from two days of knowledge sharing and discussions?
The learners had been given some homework before we got together; they had to spend some time with an elite team outside of the football world, ask them about what made them successful, and then prepare a 20-minute presentation. During the course of a few hours, I listened and asked questions as ex-footballers and coaches told the group about elite RAF squadrons, The Savoy restaurants, rock group The Coral, and countless other examples. The takeaways were fascinating, but often similar.
These elite teams shared many things, usually a commitment to vision, purpose, small details, and a winning mentality – we do everything we can to be the best we can be. It became apparent that thousands of hours of preparation often went in to a process that was over in a matter of minutes or hours. Finally, I was perhaps surprised how often these elite teams relied upon systems. Clear, flawless systems. Systems that everyone knew and everyone relied upon. In the words of an RAF squadron leader: ‘no room for mavericks, the system soon sorts them out’. Ultimately, in high-pressure situations, it was protocols that allowed teams to function effortlessly, with role clarity and confidence.
Later in the day, the course delegates, with some facilitation by FA tutors, attempted to codify their learning so far. Here are the top aspects of high-performing teams that they recorded:
- Vision – purpose, buy in, intrinsic motivation – shared goals
- Culture – are the team psychologically safe but still committed to improvement? Is there genuine group belonging and trust?
- Ambitious goals
- How the team reviews, evaluates, debriefs
- Team work and communication: role clarity, candour
- Shared mental models and systems
- Relentless drive to improve and grow
- Identifying team responsibility and team accountability
During this module, three guest speakers were invited to pass on their own experiences and insights regarding high-performing groups. Emily Martin, a prison governor; Danny Kerry, formerly the Team GB Hockey chief for the men and women’s teams; and Damian Hughes, host of the High Performance Podcast.
Emily Martin was an inspirational speaker and was extremely reflective. A former social worker, Emily transferred into prison leadership, working her way up to Feltham as governor, turning the prison’s fortunes from catastrophic to thriving. During her talk, she recognised how many leaders have a diverse community in front of them, which is why it is, in her words, vital that we become ‘culturally congruent’ with our team – that we understand their story, so that we can lead them, and advocate for them, with the empathy and understanding that they deserve.
Emily also advocates a calm, humble leadership style. She spoke of the importance of being calm in the eye of pressure; this sense of calm allows your team to feel confident, but also allows you to help them find their own solutions to problems without the threat of a leaders’ sense of panic or tension. The words that I wrote down and underlined on my pad of paper were simple yet have come to mind every day since: ‘Confident, calm and assured in enacting; humble in reflection’. Emily promotes a sense of relational, trusting leadership where the leader sets the right temperature for the team, actively listens to them, and protects them at all costs.
Danny Kerry then came to speak to the group about how he has attempted to codify high performance in elite hockey. The mind-set that he wishes to imbue upon his teams is to see opportunity and threats in the same way: every challenge is something to embrace and to galvanise the team towards. Danny spent a lot of time discussing vision, culture, and team norms. He stressed the importance of gaining collective agreement over the team’s vision, so that members and leaders can refer back to this and use it as an anchor for tasks and decisions.
A tool that one could apply to any team when evaluating vision and culture is as follows:
- Integration: what is shared? What is consistent?
- Differentiation: what is contested?
- Fragmentation: what is ambiguous?
This framework allows a team’s leadership to review organisational culture by identifying how well the team can articulate the overall vision. It’s important to understand which part of the vision is shared and consistent throughout the team; this then helps evaluate what might be ambiguous, as those things could soon become contested.
Danny also advocates mapping out the team’s vision, values and behaviours – for GB Hockey, this manifested in a display with key words pertaining to those. Then, crucially, the team checks in regularly: in the last few weeks, did we live our values and behaviours?
As far as team leadership goes, Danny’s model is similar to Emily’s: people will feel responsible for the environment and team if they are involved.
Over the course of the two days that I spent at St George’s Park, I felt immersed in an environment that was dedicated to a clear vision and purposeful narrative. Every individual that I spoke with was committed, humble, and eager to improve. I spent hours speaking with people who were fascinated in the teams research I had read and reflected upon; they sought to know more and understand more. When I presented to FA staff about the science behind team debriefs, they accepted the input with enthusiasm and humility, and peppered me with questions about all sorts of other research. This is an organisation with a clear culture of learning.
What I learnt more than anything, was that football is like many other industries: striving for improvement by focusing on people. There was more discussion of trust, belonging, autonomy and collaboration as the focal points for successful team work than I had anticipated; as a multi-million pound industry with unreasonable accountability measures (sounds familiar!), it was heartening to see staff and learners alike putting team communication and involvement at the heart of what they do.
Finally, it was a wonderful and inspiring experience to spend two days with the FA on their UEFA Pro Licence course, and it’s easy to see why this is the world-renowned course for coaches to complete on their journey to the highest level. If I’m invited back, I’ll improve my car-park chat and continue to learn more about how we can all be part of thriving teams.
Just like the research I have been disseminating, this experience was an invaluable one, and is contributing to my study of high-performing teams and cultures. As I continue with this research project, I have begun creating presentations and workshops on this area of work – please let me know if you’d like me to contribute to similar work that you may be undertaking with your teams.