Case Study

Taking Southampton Football Club’s leadership team to the next level

The club’s board asked us to help create a shift in mind-set, skills and behaviours in their senior management team (SMT). The aim was to enable it to take a more strategic, joined-up approach to leading the organisation, and to help each member take their own leadership capabilities to the next level. We worked with the SMT and the board, collectively and individually, remotely and in person, creating a bespoke programme and evolving our approach over a 10-month period. The work had a huge measurable impact on the team’s capability, identity, unity and relationship with the board, and transformed the way SMT members approached leading their own teams.


Southampton Football Club (SFC) is a Premier League football club with around 250 staff, revenues of over £110m and assets in excess of £190m. With only a quarter of the income of the league’s richest club, SFC fights well above its weight on the pitch and is seen as a real success story. When CEO Gareth Rogers and his Head of HR Michelle Butler asked us to partner with them and their organisation, the invitation appealed to us on a number of levels:

  • The club has an impressive track record of finding and developing young footballing talent and wants to build a similar reputation for developing its leaders and staff
  • It has a reputation for operating as a business, not a ‘billionaire’s plaything’
  • The high profile “first team” that plays in the Premier League is just the tip of the iceberg: SFC is a multi-faceted organisation with operations across the UK and aspirations to increase its global footprint
  • The CEO was very committed to the work we’d be doing together and prepared to invest the time, energy and resources to make it a success
  • We really liked the people we were going to be working with

The board’s vision for the organisation required a step change among its SMT – an intentionally leaderless team of 12 peers reporting to the board. Our brief was to:

  • Take effective operational managers and help them develop the skills, mind-set and headspace required to attend to the strategic needs of the whole organisation
  • Enhance each individual SMT member’s leadership of their departmental teams
  • Create a consistent leadership ethos while respecting and encouraging different management styles
  • Help ensure the SMT and their teams were optimally equipped to maintain a consistent high performance mentality, despite the very public emotional highs and lows that are endemic to this industry. Being with the SMT and board during and after both an ecstatic home win and an unexpected away loss showed us first hand just how challenging this can be
  • Deliver an experience and outcome that would set SFC apart when it came to leadership development – not just in football, but across sectors

The approach we took

Our experience told us from the outset that this step change would require changes across the club, not just among SMT members. As in all organisations, the SMT’s ways of thinking and working would be driven not just by their own habits, needs and mind-sets, but by those of the people above, below and around them. Gareth played an instrumental role in this. From start to finish, he was in frequent contact with us, sharing insights and listening to our observations of the various forces hindering the SMT’s efforts to change, including well-intended behaviours on the part of Gareth and the rest of the board.

We also knew that if we were to deliver significant sustained change, we needed to engage the SMT, their departmental teams and their key stakeholders. This began with an on-site kick-off meeting, attended by the board, the SMT and their two LeaderSpace team coaches. The board shared their aspirations for the work, answered initial questions and then left the SMT and their coaches to explore the team’s own hopes and fears regarding the work. It was a very candid conversation that set the tone for the next 10 months. The fact that the team gave us permission to share the key themes with the board also helped lay the foundations for a different relationship between SMT and the board.

We then worked with the SMT to engage their staff and stakeholders. This included the SMT talking them through the work we were doing and inviting them to share their views on the team and its leadership by completing our High Performing Teams Questionnaire (HPTQ) – assessing the operational effectiveness of both the SMT and the teams led by SMT members.

Over the next 10 months, we met with the team five times, typically for two days at a time. Each of these ‘modules’ was designed to stretch and develop both the team and its individual members. We offered a wealth of input and discussion on leadership, team dynamics and systems thinking; we gave participants feedback and encouraged them to give it to each other; we helped the team explore the forces within and around them (past and present) that reinforced the status quo; and we allowed space for emergent ‘hot topics’. We also taught participants to coach each other and their teams, which was key to ensuring they continued to learn between modules and enabling the team to continue coaching itself following the final module.

Throughout, we sought ongoing feedback from the board and provided one-to-one coaching between modules, which included a three-way meeting with each SMT member and the board member to who they reported. These extended and deepened our work on the relationship between the SMT and the board. In addition, the team worked on two cross-departmental projects, set by the board and of significant strategic value to the organisation.

When it came to ‘the end’, we all acknowledged that there was plenty of work still to be done. The team had clarity at an individual and collective level regarding what that work was and how they’d go about doing it. They and the board were also keen that we begin working with the next tier down, to help embed the cultural change they were seeking across the organisation.

Key Challenges

Securing commitment from the team: LeaderSpace hadn’t previously worked in this sector, but we pride ourselves on quickly understanding our clients’ organisations and operating environments. Nevertheless, some of the team were initially concerned that the lessons we’ve learned and applied across a range of industries wouldn’t apply to the “cut throat world” of football. We’ve heard the same concerns when first starting work working with Gucci, Shell, the military and certain charities, and when deploying our skills in different cultures, such as in Oman, Chile, Romania and India. As always, we invested heavily in understanding the team, the organisation, its culture and history, and focused on joint exploration using our shared expertise, rather than telling them how to run their business. We also had to deal with our differing interpretations of the term “coaching”: Les Reed, one of the board members, literally wrote the Football Association’s book on coaching football teams and one of the SMT members was responsible for the club’s coaching operation. This made for some very interesting conversations, our agreement being that what “coaching” means in a business context is a subset of what it means in Les’s book.

Maintaining commitment when things got tough: despite their initial reservations, the team felt a huge wave of enthusiasm following the first 2-day module. We warned them that a subsequent dip in motivation was par for the course – as we all know, change is hard and sustained change is harder. Sure enough, we faced a number of obstacles that threatened their motivation. For example:

  • Difficulties getting everyone in the same room at the same time. While we booked the sessions a long time in advance to avoid sporting fixtures and other designated ‘no go’ dates, a few points difference in the first team’s performance in the league can mean a member of the SMT suddenly needs to fly to another country at a few days’ notice. In addition, one team member, Kate, had a baby shortly after Module 1. These challenges were a real benefit to the team. They learned new ways of working and representing absent team members. Kate joined us from maternity leave, even bringing her husband and baby daughter to Module 3, which helped her stay bonded to the business and further enhanced relationships across the team.
  • Fear of exposure and aversion to conflict: culturally, the club had been through a big change in recent years, but there still existed an underlying fear of exposing one’s weaknesses or engaging with conflict. Both are essential to building high performing teams, so we helped create a sufficiently safe but challenging environment in which the team could develop cohesion, deeper levels of respect and trust, mutual understanding and the courage to have more challenging conversations with each other and the board.
  • Disappointment with the pace and visibility of change. It’s easy to forget that for a leadership team to ‘step up’, it’s not only individuals that need to change. It’s the relationships between them, their individual and collective relationships with the board, and the entire culture of the organisation beneath them. That takes time and a lot of hard work. The process is similar to boiling water: the heat is on from the start, but anyone watching the water will see very little change between 5°C and 85°C. It’s only when we approach boiling point that they start to notice the change. Of course, the SMT, who were swimming in that ‘water’ since the start, could feel the heat throughout! Our job as coaches was to help maintain the team’s momentum, and to facilitate feedback conversations between them, the board and their departmental teams.
  • Balancing individual and team development: as always, it’s tempting for participants to focus on what the team needs to do differently rather than on the changes they might need to make as individuals. We were able to strike a healthy balance by focusing on both spheres in the team sessions and by supplementing the work we did together with one-on-one coaching.
  • Personnel changes: the team didn’t change, but the board members did. The Chief Financial Officer left early on and it took several months to replace him, and the club created and filled a new Commercial Director role. The work the SMT and the board did on the programme helped all parties manage the transition and capitalise on the benefits brought by these changes at the top.
I’d gained a lot from working with LeaderSpace in a previous role and I was keen to bring their expertise to Southampton. I’ve seen a real, definitive change in the team. They’ve really stepped up as a team and as individual leaders. When we first brought LeaderSpace on board, the SMT was a team only in name. In reality, they were a collection of individuals who barely knew each other. Now, they’ve a clear identity and presence in the business, and they’re taking more responsibility rather than relying on the board. Speaking personally, the work also changed the nature of the one-to-ones I’ve been having with the members of the SMT reporting into me. They’re far more open to reflecting on their approaches to leading this business and to changing the way they operate both individually and as a team.
Gareth Rogers, CEO
I joined the board from my previous role at Virgin, just after the penultimate module. By the final module, the SMT was one of the most cohesive teams I’ve ever seen.
David Thomas, Commercial Director

The impact we had

At a team and organisational level, the work contributed to:

    • A marked increase in the SMT’s sense and clarity of purpose, their transparency and trust in each other, their willingness to challenge and support each other and take shared accountability
    • Faster, more effective decision making as a team
    • Greater trust, proactivity and healthy challenge in the SMT’s relationship with the board
    • Promotion for the seven team members who had yet to be promoted to ‘band 6’ – the board hadn’t initially expected to promote everyone but were impressed by improvements in these individuals’ level of leadership and strategic contribution to the business
    • More frequent and effective cross-departmental working

The client also saw a range of improvements in participants’ individual performance, including:

  • “Incredible progress” in becoming a more strategic leader
  • Greater open-mindedness and positivity
  • Enhanced awareness of their own and others’ ways of thinking and working
  • Greater alignment in the teams they lead, in terms of purpose, roles and ways of working
  • Greater willingness and ability to involve, listen to and delegate to their staff, producing greater confidence, proactivity and autonomy among the teams led by SMT members
  • Increased ability to monitor and manage their own behaviours and emotional reactions to challenging situations
  • Improved relationships with their family, through conscious management of boundaries between work and home, and by employing techniques they’d learned on the programme