Incompetence Runs Amok

For more than a decade I have been vocal regarding the core competencies, experience and skills of senior “decision-making” managers and coaches within the AFL system.

Most have very little commercial and/or corporate experience and therein lies the problem. 

Most AFL players were the ring-leaders at school – the “jocks”. They were idolised and doted upon, with the authorities (read teachers) generally turning a blind eye to misdemeanours and errant behaviour including overlooking work not handed in on time and providing extensions not available to others.

Every week the whole school would adulate the efforts of the star player. At the end of year 12 he is drafted and by Christmas he is signing autographs at Safeway and being noticed having a coffee at the local cafe.

He then plays football for a decade or so – somewhat in a cocoon or bubble – experiencing not much more than constant adulation, worship and a smattering of leadership development  with an annual “respect and responsibility” video presentation that is meant to help him make correct decisions.

Post career he is recruited to the coaching staff at the ripe old age of 28-32 years old. He then “learns” on the job at the incumbent players’ expense for a few years. At this point in time the solitary thing he knows is that he was able to play football at the highest level. He has no idea about teaching, coaching, development, recruiting, management, planning, communication or selection. He has a somewhat compromised view of strategy and tactics. This usually is the result of how he has been instructed to play for the last decade OR if he has endured a somewhat unsuccessful team performance he adopts an alternate view to the one applied by his previous coach. He has no rationale or logic as to what is right or what is wrong. All he has is what he has experienced.

After developing and honing his coaching skills for a few years he applies for a Senior Coach or General Manager Football role and is appointed – sometimes after several interview attempts.

After that little introduction, perhaps we can understand and get a greater appreciation of the process behind appointing a senior person at a football club.

Is it any wonder we have problem after problem? Each season is highlighted by incompetence and mis-management. 

There is little doubt that the AFL environment can be akin to a seducing, intoxicating drug.  People fall over themselves to take control of – and get involved in – the AFL system. Unfortunately the process of appointment and the standards of engagement are as poor as the candidates and pursuant selection criteria.

Until the AFL starts to implement higher standards of competency we will continue to have the problems that exist within AFL clubs.

Essendon, Melbourne, Port Adelaide, GWS and Adelaide have all had their problems over recent years. In fact very few clubs have been immune from potentially disastrous situations. Be it off-field or on-field performance, there has been a litany of examples – and by no means are the AFL exempt from the scrutiny. 

In fact the AFL has created many of the existing problems with either a complete lack of understanding of the situation or an arrogance and denial that beggars belief – I tend to lean to the latter.

I read with interest the Dr Ziggy Switkowski report on the Essendon debacle.

It reads like organised mayhem. One glaring piece of ego driven incompetence after another. Is also exposes the massive lack of understanding, experience and skills of the people in senior positions of authority and leadership.

How can former footballers with little or no business experience be subjected to the situation at Essendon and handle it efficiently and effectively?

There is less excuse for the CEO Ian Robson and former People and Development Manager and current General Manager Football Operations Danny Corcoran. Both have had ample experience albeit I am not sure they have suitable track records of success.

The Switkowski report outlines the need for appropriately high levels of experience, management skills, leadership acumen and general corporate knowledge. Gone are the days of just appointing a former player as a coach and expecting him to wave a magic wand.

Given we have rarely adopted the recommended approach of appointing a seasoned, conditioned, experienced person with a strong record of management and commercial/corporate success, we have a diluted expectation of performance and only can evaluate the situation based on people who have held the positions. Therein lies the problem – we have nothing to evaluate against so the status quo remains. Clearly a change in strategy requires bravery and solidarity and unfortunately these qualities are not overflowing at AFL clubs.

The laughable thing is people still think you have to be a recently retired player and assistant coach to perform the senior coaching role successfully. This is actually the antithesis of what is required. I rate playing and assistant coaching as average core competencies.

The credentials of a successful assistant coach somewhat fly in the face of the criteria required to be a senior coach. One is a technician and developer of skills (Mark Neeld) and the other is an entrepreneurial, leader/manager of people and strategy (Sir Alex Ferguson).

Its incredible that AFL clubs tend to appoint inexperienced, young former players as coaches and sports overseas such as the EFL and NFL appoint experienced, older and wiser managers to oversee the entire production.

There was constant ridicule towards adopting a similar model in AFL. It was considered too controlling. Let me tell you something – I bet the Bombers wish they had a leader who took more control during the last couple of years.

The Switkowski report reveals the gross inadequacies of the people in charge of the processes. Was it experience? Was it personality? Was it leadership? Was it process? Was it management? It was all of that and more.

Rest assured you will not get “it” from many of the current crop of people in senior positions at football clubs.

Look at the collateral damage being experienced at Essendon and one can only imagine the consequences if the same debacle had occurred at Melbourne.


13 thoughts on “Incompetence Runs Amok

  1. This, this and so much this! The industry down to grass-roots level is so obsessed with a jobs-for-boys mentality that it simply ignores or belittles the appropriate skill set required to perform the task at hand. Telling it like it is, well done Thommo.

  2. A good, reasoned article. As someone that has looked to apply for roles in Sports Administration, I have always found it interesting that key requirements for specific roles include a background in the specific sport (which is understandable and something I lack, despite a passion for the field), but also experience in management/administration, which I often find hard to comprehend that some of the successful candidates would have…yet one seems to be preferred over the other.

  3. Great article GT. One thing i would ask you though, James Hird comes directly from a sports performance and marketing back ground through his work at Gemba. How did he not pick up on the fact that what his team was doing was wrong and would have a detrimental effect on the environment that he was working in?

  4. What clubs most clubs are looking for is short term success. If you read a book good to great, it looks at long term success and management needs to be one of over-seeing the entire organisation and giving direct responsibility to others. It gives clear direction and accountability to all. I wonder how many clubs have read the book

    • Joel, I bet you to a dollar that Brian Cook (CEO Geelong FC) has….just have a look at the last couple of strat plans the Cats have released and it will show some of key themes extracted from that book!!

      • Well if they have, then it shows clear management process and the way it should be done. What Melbourne must do is put the wheels in motion now, because success wont be for another 2-3 years based on current results.

  5. A lot of clear cut logic there Grant, but I can’t see the AFL gravy train slowing down to allow new drivers anytime soon. A personal dislike is the way clubs build in guaranteed failure by claiming rebuild/try the kids/window is closed etc but know the money will still roll in ! Not how the real world works.

  6. Firstly, there are some valid points here but I think you paint too big a brush over all AFL teams. I may be wrong but all the senior coaches have done the appropriate coaching courses. Almost all have served their “apprenticeships” at a variety of clubs (and in some cases a variety of leagues). Where do you see the AFL coaches getting their experiences if it isnt at a footy club? This article could have been written about Sheedy, Malthouse, Parkin etc back when they started. A novice coach is a novice coach and only after years of experience do we then say they were worth it or not. What was Fergusons training and what was his first few years like? BTW he finished his playing career in 1974 and started his Manager career in … 1974.

    Secondly, this article smacks to me of laying the blame for the Essendon drug taking at the feet of the process and not squarely on the shoulders of those in charge. Thompson has ample coaching experience, they have an experienced doctor and you want to say its not their fault. Essendon tried to go outside the rules (and I believe) with the knowledge of the football department and they got caught and should be held fully accountable.

    The fortunate thing about this affair is the AFL have no control over the penalties and therefore it cant be wiped under the carpet like the Crows draft and Melbourne tanking episodes.

  7. Great read, Grant. As someone who worked with Ex- AFL players in the media for a number of years ‘helping’ them assimilate (as well as teaching them to spell and speak), many of your points make plenty of sense. I am no longer in the business, as dealing with numerous sycophants and your so-called ‘school yard heroes’ on a daily basis ended up boring me to death. Keep up the good work.

  8. Great article Thommo and this is the direction PAFC has taken with people in the know outside football taking more of a senior management role ie Koschi. You should have at least hightlighted this fact as the road to success, albeit the beginning.

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