Sunday, 11 March 2012

Working with colleagues - lessons from football

Do any of you know who the Secret Footballer is? Neither do I. Not many people do. If you’ve never heard of him, he is a top flight footballer who writes anonymously for The Guardian, about the world of professional football.

Sometimes, he is so good that I wonder whether he is a footballer at all. That may sound unfair, but you get so used to hearing footballers talk uninsightfully in the dramatic present (‘He’s taken the ball, and he’s put it in the back of the net.) that it can question your credibility when you are faced with someone who bucks this trend, but won’t tell you who he is. His column this Saturday was one of those times. (

He was talking about how assistant managers rarely go on to make good managers, because being a good assistant requires a different skill set to being a decent gaffer, and the one does not translate into the other. In fact his argument goes even further - he argues that being a good assistant precludes the ability to be a good manager.

I particularly like the point he makes when he says that the indifferent form of a team can often be put down to the players becoming too comfortable with the man in charge, and no longer trying as hard. He argues that when a manager says that they have taken a team as far as it can go, what he is actually saying is that ‘this group of players is no longer motivated by me.’

Knowing when to let go as a leader is really hard. Few people get the timing right: there are loads of sporting examples, such as Mohammad Ali, Ricky Ponting and Michael Schumacher. In politics, Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill are excellent examples of leaders who overstayed their welcome, and their usefulness. Picking people who have timed it well is more difficult, and the best example I can come up with is Bill Gates.

Which is interesting, because he hardly has a stellar reputation. I suspect that some of the negativity with which he is viewed comes from the fact that Microsoft has failed to thrive since he stepped down, and also from the fact that he was never as cool as Steve Jobs was. I guess this underlines how hard the challenge is: it is not just a question of recognising that you as an individual are not the one to take things forward, it is also about recognising who or what is. Bill, I guess, fell down on this standard.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about what it means to lose the trust and confidence of patients and their relatives, and this week I have been thinking about how one goes about winning the trust and confidence of new colleagues.

Working with lots of different people, I sense that it is important to try to establish an effective way of working that fits best for all of you: no one person has the right approach, and finding a balance is crucial.. This may seem like a lot of effort, and it is, particularly given that you often only work together for a very short space of time, but there are two things that make it worthwhile. Firstly, medicine is a small world, and many of the people that you come across now will reappear at some later date, so getting a good working relationship sorted at the start would seem to be a good idea. Secondly, it is hugely rewarding to learn how to adapt to new styles of working, and to see what they teach you about your own preferences.

Of course, it is difficult to get it right all the time: I was in one handover meeting with some people I hadn’t met before. I thought it would break the ice and make everyone more relaxed if I made some light-hearted gags. It didn’t, and they weren’’t. And they were right: I had not earned enough of their professional trust to convince them that I had taken on board the relevant clinical information and that the patients would be safe in my hands. The humour could have waited until I demonstrated the required level of clinical competence to put their minds at rest.

And it would have been an entirely predictable response, if I had taken the time to think ahead. But I’m not going to beat myself up about that - much more important to reflect and learn, than to make the usual sporting platitudes to ‘get organised’ and give it ‘110%’.

And what does the Secret Footballer teach us? Lots really, but this weekend, he taught me that you need to understand the people you work with. Even if they don’t spend any time thinking about the way you do things, it will be effort well spent, even if all it saves you from is some poorly-timed jokes.

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