The sack race: Sky-high demands fuelling shorter tenures at football clubs and boardrooms

Like football managers, CEOs can be worshipped one week and vilified the next

USA coach Vlatko Andonovski, left, could well lose his job after the side’s unexpectedly early exit at the Women's World Cup in Melbourne. AFP
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As we’re entertained by the Women’s World Cup, alongside the tension of the football matches is another drama. Once they’re back home, many of the managers can expect to get the chop.

Look at the USA. Their exit to Sweden is being hailed by commentators as “a total disaster”, “a historically bad result”, “a catastrophe”. The criticism is not confined to football journalists. Politicians are also having their say, none of it kind.

What has sealed the fate of head coach Vlatko Andonovski is not just that the USA lost but that the defeat came after criticism for implementing a more direct playing style and not getting the best out of the players.

Jonathan Tannenwald of The Philadelphia Inquirer said: “Obviously, Andonovski will lose his job.” His contract is unlikely to be renewed.

No matter that the USA dominated the game and the Swedish keeper Zecira Musovic held them at bay with an incredible 11 saves. Rightly, she was named player of the match.

Neither, apparently, does it make any difference that the Swedes won thanks to a penalty scored by Lina Hurtig. The USA keeper Alyssa Naeher seemed to have clawed the ball away, only for goal-line technology to show it had crossed the line by millimetres. USA were out and soon, it appears, their unpopular, unappreciated coach will be too.

It’s the same elsewhere. In England, this season's Premier League is about to kick-off. The media and fans’ forums are full of predictions as to which club will finish where – and which manager will be the first to face the sack.

Whoever it is, they won’t be alone. Last season, a record 13 (out of 20) clubs changed their boss. A fourteenth, Bournemouth, got rid of theirs later – this, after he had avoided relegation. His fate was typical – damned if they went down, damned if they stayed up.

While we like to think of football as a sport, remarkably in the more cautious, conservative environment of corporate boardrooms, the hit rate is little better.

Last year, 23 FTSE 100 companies bid farewell to their chief executives, among them Burberry, JD Sports, Johnson Matthew, Prudential, Rolls-Royce, Shell, Unilever and Vodafone.

In 2023, British American Tobacco, Diageo, Legal & General and RS Group have switched theirs and it is still only early August.

An article in Management Today says that while Brexit, the pandemic and lockdowns persuaded many leaders to stay put, “what we are seeing now seems more pronounced than a return to historic norms”. Increasingly, concludes the magazine, we’re treating CEOs like football managers.

Peter Cheese, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, says our expectations of leaders have grown while our patience has diminished. “It’s hard now to be the kind of CEO who keeps their head down, gets on with the job and focuses on results.”

Cheese, author of the book The New World of Work, adds: “We expect CEOs to be agile, adaptive, resilient, empathetic, transparent and visible, which is especially important in times of uncertainty. We have also become much more demanding about how leaders behave.”

According to Cheese: “People want to be led but they want to know where they are being led to and why, and they longer want an autocratic, command and control, all-seeing, all-knowing boss. In reality, no single person ever could experience everything taking place in any organisation, but that model is even less credible now.”

Like football managers, CEOs can be worshipped one week and vilified the next. Dame Emma Walmsley, head of pharma giant GSK, finds the adulation too much. “It’s unfortunate that chief executives are set in that way. I have never woken up in the morning, wherever I am in the world, and thought: ‘Gosh, I feel powerful’. It’s just not how I feel.”

Andy Roxburgh, who managed Scotland at the 1990 World Cup, says: “Almost every manager in football is only eight bad games from getting the sack.”

It’s not a question of results, although they play a part. It’s also about perception, whether the coach is thought to be doing a good job. As Roxburgh says: “Some coaches tell me that the most important 30 seconds of their week is how they manage the TV interview after a defeat.”

Perception does for company CEOs, too. Dino Adriano, a Sainsbury’s lifer, who ascended to chairwoman and CEO of the supermarket chain in 2000, stood down after less than three years in the top post.

He was fatally wounded by an episode of the TV programme Back To The Shop Floor, in which he was filmed working on a busy checkout giving a shopper an item for nothing, rather than wait for a price check.

Executive search consultancy Spencer Stuart estimated the average tenure of a UK CEO was 5.4 years and 38 per cent had been in the job for three years or less.

A cultural bad fit can be terminal. At Manchester United, in two and a half years, Jose Mourinho won a European trophy, the League Cup and finished second in the league with what was commonly regarded, for a club of United’s pedigree, as a so-so set of players.

As with the USA’s Andonovski, the fans, though, did not appreciate his style of play, which they deemed boring. That, plus his plain-speaking, which saw him frequently criticise his own players, did for him. Mourinho was duly fired.

“I’m a coach, not Harry Potter,” Mourinho once said, as he attempted to deal with fans’ crazily high demands.

There are plenty of managers at the Women’s World Cup who know that feeling.

Published: August 08, 2023, 1:45 PM