Swede Smell Of Success
Eriksson has transformed English football. He could do the same for UK business, argues Richard Scase
Observer, 15 October 2001
Sven-Goran Eriksson was appointed as the England coach just a year ago. There were howls of protests from the soccer community. He would be a disaster, we don't need a foreigner, there are plenty of English managers who could do the job. Now he is a national hero.
What is interesting about his style is that it represents the Swedish way of doing things. The culture of Swedish companies is very different to those found in Britain. It also seems to be very successful bearing in mind the track record of Swedish companies in world markets. Some of the best known of these include Saab, Volvo, Ikea, Eriksson, ABB, and Sandvik Steel. A small Swedish software company even had the impertinence to mount a takeover bid for the London Stock Exchange last year.
The major features of the Swedish management style can be summed up as follows:
- Discuss, analyse and then decide. The England coach comes over as cool. He watches games in a detached manner. He sits in the stand away from the touchline. A rather different approach from the shouting and screaming, characteristic of most English soccer managers. So it is in Swedish companies. The approach is to analyse, discuss problems with colleagues and to arrive at decisions. No place for the dominant, autocratic style of many British corporate leaders. Greenbury at Marks and Spencer was well known for this and he was taught as a role model at many UK business schools.
- Trust and empower. The reason for Eriksson taking a back seat at England games is that he trusts his players to get on with the job. Swedish companies are well known for their empowering strategies. They invest heavily in staff training. The result is highly productive businesses with low operating costs. You don't need all those tiers of managers if you have trained staff who you know can trust. Swedish companies have high trust cultures. There is the absence of employer- employee hostility found in many British companies. There is not the same tradition of poor industrial relations. High trust cultures are not easy to build. Incentives and rewards have to put in place. But most important of all staff know that they will be left alone to achieve what is expected of them.
- Build commitment. One of Eriksson's achievements has been to change the attitude of his players. They play as though they actually enjoy playing for the England team and it is their most important priority. Swedish companies are impressive in how they are able to do this. It means that employees get emotionally involved with their work. It is not simply a job. The staff at Ikea actually behaves as though they like working for the business. Once this happens, staff comes up with ideas for improvement and the company is innovative and therefore competitive. This makes for the next key feature of Swedish companies.
- Businesses are learning organisations. Eriksson has made the England team a learning organisation. He selects his players for each match from more or less the same squad. This means they get to understand each other and play on each other's strengths and weaknesses. Through this the team can develop its overall skills. Swedish companies give high priority to continuous improvement by staff development rather than through buying in skills. The strategy for many companies, as with English football teams, is always to go for the quick fix. Fire, buy-in, continuous change. This is in contrast to the slow but sure incremental improvement approach of Swedish businesses.
- Teams are the basis for individual success. Eriksson has made England a team rather than a collection of players who get together to play a game of football. For Keegan, it was built around two or three key players. Swedish companies are managed on the basis of teams. These are the foundation for the development of each person's skills. Importance is given to developing shared knowledge and mutual understanding. These provide the basis for the allocation of work tasks, decision-making and techniques of self-management. All of this requires low staff turnover and long term employee commitment. Eriksson seems to have promised all his players that they have a long-term future in the England squad. He speaks of the world cup after next.
- Respect and Praise. Eriksson respects his players for their talents. He sees his job as bringing out the best in them. His style is facilitative rather than autocratic. It is in sharp contrast to the half time dressing downs that most players get from their managers. The Eriksson approach is positive and supportive. He builds players self-confidence by respecting them. This allows him to work with them on correcting mistakes and improving the quality of their game. Swedish companies respect their employees through a number of ways. They are highly egalitarian in their conditions of employment. There are few status differences and fringe benefits for top managers. They have family friendly employment policies and stick to EU working hour's directives. In this way they respect their staff as individuals. The outcome is greater employee commitment.
Eriksson's style is very different from the barstool approach of most English football managers. He is the product of a different cultural environment, which has as its starting point, different assumptions about how and what motivates people. From these emerge different leadership approaches, organisation structures and ways of doing business.
Sweden gets a bad press these days. Labour politicians look to the United States for inspiration whether it is terms of macro-economic policies or for examples of developing business efficiencies. Why not take another look at Sweden? It has a low rate of social exclusion and scores high on all international scores of quality of life. A recent OECD study concluded that Sweden (not the United States) has the most advanced information economy in the world. The cool approach of Sven-Goran Eriksson has done wonders for the England soccer team. Perhaps we could do worse than to re-think the advantages of the gung-ho approach of US and British managers that we admire so much.
© Professor Richard Scase