Culture and leadership - Lessons from Ireland’s most successful women’s football manager
Ahead of a stacked couple of weeks for Irish sports fans, there is much to look forward to with Euro 2024 qualifying, and a Rugby World Cup all on the horizon. There too is much to learn from the past few weeks, and lessons to be gleaned by businesses from the management, leadership and culture issues experienced and publicly aired in the fallout between the FAI and Ireland’s most successful women’s football coach, Vera Pauw.
Pauw had been in charge of the Women's National Senior Team since 2019 and led the team to its first-ever FIFA World Cup this summer. Just two other Ireland international managers before Vera Pauw achieved this feat with a Senior Ireland Football Team. In spite of this incredible achievement, Pauw’s contract was not renewed by Ireland’s governing body, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).
Since the announcement of her departure, Vera Pauw has released a hard-hitting statement alleging that “executives within the FAI, not technical football coaches” undermined her role as Senior Manager and spoke to players and coaches about their role in the team. In the statement, she says how her advice was often “disregarded and not respected.”
Furthermore, she highlighted how commitments were made to her, which were then reconsidered at a later date, further sabotaging efforts to focus on football during the FIFA World Cup. The dynamic between Pauw and her Ireland team reached a tipping point when she clashed with star player, Katie McCabe during Ireland's 0-0 draw with Nigeria in the World Cup. In the aftermath, players failed to publicly show support for their manager, despite being given multiple opportunities to do so.
“For all Vera Pauw achieved, losing the support of players was the only thing that counted.”
Making key decisions about top talent is never straightforward. CEOs and other leaders within businesses can learn from high-profile sports managers, who lose the dressing room. Although the context of sports and business may differ, there are certain principles that apply to leadership and trust-building in both arenas.
Communication is paramount
Effective communication is crucial in maintaining trust. Just as sports managers need to communicate openly and transparently with their players, CEOs should foster a culture of open communication with their employees. Regularly sharing information, being receptive to feedback, and addressing concerns promptly can help build and maintain trust. Communication also goes both ways and team members should be invited to contribute and input into key business decisions and thought processes. A number of different mechanisms can be established to ensure effective, dual communication, which in turn can make team members feel valued and appreciated.
Building a culture of trust
“Having encouraged people to speak up, the true test is how leaders respond when people actually do so. A productive response must not be angry or disdainful but instead appreciative and respectful, offering a path forward” (Amy Edmondson, 2019). Encouraging feedback and input is important but it has to be done in a manner that builds not undermines team morale. Team members must feel that their input and contributions are valued and considered. This applies to how leaders foster a culture within an organisation and how feedback is encouraged and responded to.
Preparing for the unexpected
When leading a team, there is always a need to expect the unexpected. Anything that can wrong, will go wrong – Murphy's Law. While any manager can prepare for all the eventualities on the field, there are always external factors and non-playing events that can derail a team. For business, a business continuity plan or Emergency Management plan are obvious examples of ways to prepare for any reasonable worst-case scenario and adopt an ‘all hazards’ approach to risk.
Investing in Personal Development
Sports managers often invest in the personal and professional development of their players. Similarly, CEOs should provide opportunities for skill development, career growth, and learning for their employees, demonstrating a commitment to their well-being and growth.
Lessons can be derived from high-profile sports manager departures and the loss of player trust emphasises the importance of communication, relationship building, empowerment, accountability, adaptability, and other fundamental leadership qualities.
As for the FAI, a vacuum has now been created, with no response made to Vera Pauw and her accusations of ‘major mistakes’ at the World Cup, one week on. Like any crisis, a response can represent an opportunity to de-escalate the issue and improve the reputation of an organisation. Opportunity does exist for the FAI to communicate their rationale, to justify their decision-making process and to showcase transparency and good connectivity with key stakeholders especially ardent fans.
The incident represents yet another high-profile fallout for the FAI and one which is now permeating into other aspects of their work, including the management of the Men’s team and decisions about the future of manager, Stephen Kenny. Thankfully, for the FAI the Spanish FA has distracted a huge amount of international attention on their mismanagement of the Luis Rubiales situation and player safety and welfare. However, with tough fixtures ahead for the Men’s team against France, the Netherlands and Greece, the FAI could soon be faced with more key decisions, all of which will need to be justified and communicated effectively, or else they risk further detachment from stakeholders and fans.