Strategic agility: a game of two halves?

Organisations need to move fast, with leaders who can pivot. Look beyond corporate role models for inspiration, says John Dore


Improving strategic agility is one of the capabilities most often highlighted by corporate clients of executive education. CEOs clearly see the value of investment in developing agile leaders, who can adapt swiftly and with confidence to changing circumstances. Yet it seems a fiendishly difficult quality for leaders to harness and their organisations to unleash.

This demand for agility is not just a personal requirement – it’s institutional. For large enterprises, pursuing ambitious strategies requires an ability to pivot quickly in response to new markets, embracing and scaling new initiatives, driving innovation and pursuing digital transformation. But whether at a leadership or an organisational level, such agility is often very difficult to find and harder still to maintain.

A story in two halves about Barclays illustrates why such agility is hard to engender, and where new inspiration may have been simply missed.

The first half: Barclays goes for agility  

In 2000, Barclays, the banking group in the UK, was looking tired with its retail business overreliant on a defunct counter service model. Barclays needed capital for refurbishment, new acquisitions and the rapacious demands of its ambitious investment banking arm. Under the leadership of its new CEO Matthew Barrett, Barclays undertook a huge internal restructuring programme breaking up four major divisions to create 26 Strategic Business Units. At an organisational and financial reporting level, this disaggregation of the business was a massive and unsettling undertaking.

The markets were initially sceptical of Barratt’s puritanical “economic value based” approach, but he enthused employees with his vision of Barclays dumping its “supertanker” inflexibility and unleashing “a flotilla of speedboats”, each able to pursue market, customer and new business opportunities with agility. Within his first two years, Barratt took this vision on the road, speaking to more than 14,000 employees at events in the United Kingdom, Paris, New York, Madrid, and Lisbon. But measuring value creation at a business unit level was not his biggest problem. He needed a large cohort of leaders confident and equipped to steer their part of the flotilla.

‘As Barclays wrestled with its organisational strategy, it managed to conclude, almost by chance, one of the smartest marketing moves in corporate history’

A few years later, the plan was reversed and with Barratt elevated to the role of Chairman, the new CEO re-clustered the business units into... four major divisions again. The reason for the reverse was communicated as part of a new customer-centric strategy. Underlying this volte face was a major reality check that Barratt’s restructure had surfaced. It wasn’t a financial black hole that emerged as the problem in Barclays’ ambition, but a paucity of agile leaders. Barclays couldn’t readily find 26 CEOs overnight with the skills, capabilities and confidence needed.

Barratt’s frustration boiled over memorably in a meeting to review succession and future talent. “We’re world-class at getting ready,” he bemoaned when presented with a list of high-calibre execs. For Barratt, new ideas were many and they were well-presented as if wrapped in a ribbon but actual “execution at speed” (which was then touted internally as a positive leadership behaviour) was sparsely evident across the Group.

At Barclays, like other major corporates, so much management control, governance and authority at a divisional level had been historically ceded to the centre. The whole organisation could thrive perfectly well with 200+ managing directors, seeking ‘assent’ and ‘permission’ from the benign bureaucracy of the Group centre. But in giving a few of them the sudden autonomy of a nippy ‘speed-boat’ unit to manage, too many quickly got caught in choppy water.

The second half: Barclays plays a blinder

Meanwhile, as Barclays wrestled with its organisational strategy, it managed to conclude, almost by chance, one of the smartest marketing moves in corporate history. It decided to sponsor the new FA Premier League. The Barclays Premiership, as it was then called, grew and evolved over the next decade to become the pre-eminent football league in the world, transforming the British game into a global talent magnet and aggrandising owners and enriching players in a way no one (not even Barratt) could have ever anticipated.

Despite Barclays’ longstanding brand partnership with a sport made up of brilliant athletes and a common language of coaching, development, youth investment and training, almost all the leverage of the sporting relationship was at a brand-marketing level.

The Premier League has continued to attract global talent, its teams onboarding and brutally offloading management, yet the whole League overall has built scale, capability and evolved; inherently demanding adaptation and reinvention with some 49 teams being part of the league in the past two decades.

An EY study in January 2019 revealed the Premier League contributed more than £3.3billion in tax to the UK exchequer, with its clubs supporting almost 100,000 jobs. Since 1998/99, the economic impact of the League on the UK has increased by more than 800%, at a compound annual growth rate of 13%. If only its early major sponsor had grown with such agility! While investing so massively in sport, did Barclays miss a trick? Did its leaders look closely enough at what agile lessons it might learn from sport itself?

‘What data points might prompt you to change the productivity heatmap and investment decisions in your organisation?’

Now, nearly 20 years later, Barclays has announced the biggest ever investment in UK women's sport by a brand, with Barclays unveiled as the title sponsor of the FA Women's Super League with effect from the 2019-20 season. Hopefully this time the Group will look closely to learn from its imaginative investment in a fast-growing sport, not just leverage it as a branding opportunity.

Takeaways for leaders

There are countless analogies between business and sport. Often these are shared in broad sweeping terms about the inherent value of teamwork, clear leadership, mutual support and maintaining a winning mindset. But there have also been more subtle learning and particular sports-led innovations codified in the past two decades. Three of these provide some clues to the Premier League’s extraordinary success.

1. Create and use data to powerful effect

The Premier League has spawned a whole industry driven by powerful metrics, endlessly analysed by club managers, fans, the media and the online-betting industry. Twenty years ago, player performance statistics were rudimentary records of height and weight, games played, substitute appearances and goals scored.

Today, Opta, a sports statistics company, records some 1,500 “events” from every fixture and every player. Literally millions of comparative data points are found, collated, analysed, commoditised and marketed every week. Playtek inserts GPS trackers on the backs of players so their exact movement can be measured in centimetres, capturing distance covered, showing sprint-speed tracking and positional heat maps for every moment of every game.

In business, talented individuals, team performance and productivity is not yet tracked real-time by satellite. But neither is it measured very differently than it was 20 years ago, with talent tracked with little more sophistication than a periodic performance review, peer group feedback or water-cooler hearsay. The world’s best sport coaches have obsessed on data patterns, adjusting the minutiae, seeking to squeeze the tiniest incremental improvements through the creation of brilliant performance enhancing environments.

Meanwhile, our offices and workplaces still tend to focus on providing standardised desks, decent lighting, access to common technology, training, career paths, procedures and work-patterns. What would the Opta or Playtek equivalent for workplace or business performance measurement look like in the modern enterprise? What data points might prompt you to change the productivity heatmap and investment decisions in your organisation?

2. Elevate the ‘war for talent’ to a new level

The Premier League has become a global magnet for talent, arguing its case strongly for liberalised international labour markets, lobbying governments and sports authorities, using a combination of soft power and investment leverage to make the case for a global game in a local market.

In its inaugural season in 1992, some 73% of first team players were English nationals. By 2013 that figure plummeted to 34%, and despite some domestic quotas agreed with the Football Association, currently only a third of players are eligible to play for any UK home nation. Players representing 109 of FIFA’s 207 licensed nations currently ply their trade in the Premier League. It is global, diverse, cosmopolitan sample of the world’s best talent with all Clubs actively investing in global scouting networks to scour the planet for new talent.

This voracious approach is not without its controversies and there are broader economic and political debates about barriers, borders and restrictions to hiring global talent in many sectors and markets other than football. But again a lesson can be learned.

The most competitive, successful, admired football league in the world aims (with some limits) to be borderless and open to all talent, irrespective of nationality, race, ethnicity or background. The only qualification needed is undoubted proven talent. Does this sound like a description of the typical current and future talent pipeline in major corporates who want to compete on the world stage?

3. Learn from failure

The CEO role is often seen as precarious and short-lived. In 2019, the average tenure among FTSE 100 CEOs had risen to five years and six months, up from five years and two months in 2018. But, compared to the average tenure in the Premier League, the FTSE boardroom is an oasis of calm. Chelsea, one of the most successful clubs of the past two decades has had 22 different managers since the formation of the Premier League. The average Premier League manager will coach in the top flight for less than two and a half years, coaching two different sides in that time and winning only a third of his games before being fired.

The scrutiny of the City analyst, the rigours of quarterly reporting and the agitation of the activist investor mean the business CEO needs to be armed with brilliant investor relations teams, strong PR support and much resilience. The average Premier League manager – at the summit of his career – will be apologising to his stakeholders nearly two-thirds of his time in a Premier League career of less than 30 months.

However well-paid, it’s a brutally unsympathetic business where relegation is the default fear for most and ultimate success historically experienced by very few. The League creates a dynamic churn of promoted and relegated sides, with some attracting largesse from tycoons and sovereign wealth funds while others fall out of the League and continue to tumble.

It is indeed a “flotilla of speedboats”, competing with one another for talent, revenue and success, amidst choppy waters and much uncertainty. Perhaps this was the dynamic model Barratt had in mind that spooked his shareholders and his board.

The Premier League’s business success has been founded on the brilliant use of performance data, an obsession with acquiring and developing talent and an internal dynamic of ferocious competition. Is yours?

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