Barça, a mess and the importance of managing people

Think about the last fantastic customer service experience that you had, and why it happened. Odds are that it was because an employee, empowered by a management that understands how to deal with humans, gave that person the tools they need.

It isn’t necessarily carte blanche, or anything tangible. Effective managing is making sure that your people, at all times, understand that you, the manager, have as your primary interest doing what needs to be done to make them most effective. Note the missing word there, which is happy. That’s because an empowered employee who understands that you have their back, is almost automatically a happy employee. They will move the building to the left if you ask them to. Good managers retain quality employees. Bad managers cost talent, because employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers.

The state in which FC Barcelona finds itself right now is basic managing incompetence. When my company sent me to management training, ages ago, the first day’s session was on the basics of managing. The person leading it came in and asked a simple question: What is being a manager? We all had answers, about balancing work, effective results, maximising workflow, blablabla. The instructor stood there, smiled and said, “You’re all wrong. Being a manager is people and their problems.” The most human managers spend as much, if not more time making sure their people are emotionally and psychologically equipped to excel. The naive manager thinks that if an employee is having troubles at home, “That’s their problem. When you come here, it’s to work.” But that problem is going to affect the product because it affects the employee.

At Barça, the money managers are doing a great job at the stuff they value. Revenue numbers, however much you believe what they are saying, are being hit. Sponsors are coming in, everything is bright and shiny. But the club right now is like a chocolate bunny that is hollow inside, because it has neglected the one thing that will kill a product as sure as anything else: the people.

The fallout from the extensive Eric Abidal interview has essentially boiled down to one sentence. In a wide-ranging, 35-minute talk, the club’s technical director discussed everything from how he feels about transfers, players, the quest for a new 9, Dembele, everything. The interview has, however, been distilled into a sentence, one that caused Lionel Messi to respond via Instagram.

However you feel about what either person said, that Messi felt it necessary to respond via Instagram demonstrates as much as anything else how much the club and its most crucial employees have been let down by management. In a properly run company, Messi sees what Abidal says, and understands that the managers, in this case the board, will have his back. He goes to them, in private, and says, “Hey, I saw what Abidal said in the interview, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it like that. Let me know what’s going on.” Or he reaches out to Abidal directly, they discuss it, the technical director explains what he really meant, and everything moves on.

When good, supportive management becomes crisis management, things that shouldn’t be public become shamelessly so. Arturo Vidal talks about not feeling important. Ivan Rakitic talks about bad feelings from part of management. And the managers themselves are only managing crises, like a parent so busy balancing the checkbook that they only notice the child when it starts crying from hunger or neglect. There is no more effective way to wreck a company than by ignoring the most important thing, which is the people. Unhappy people mean a bad product. “They get paid millions. They should suck it up.” But an unhappy employee is an unhappy employee.

Crisis management is the worst kind of management, because it’s reactive instead of proactive. If an employee leaves your company because they wanted a raise and you didn’t give it to them, then they go out an find another job, then you offer them the raise they have always wanted as incentive to stay, that is the worst kind of crisis management. It says to the employee that they aren’t valued until they demonstrate their value to someone else. Rarely does an employee stay in the face of a desperation offer, because the underlying conditions are still present.

If Bartomeu fires Abidal over this contretemps, it will be wrong, and the worst kind of management. Some reports say that he doesn’t want to fire him, that he wants Messi and Abidal to make up. In effect he wants the employees to solve a crisis among themselves that was created by management and its neglect. Messi isn’t angry at what Abidal said. He is, but what underlies that lashing out? Maybe, just maybe, it’s that appalling squad planning that couldn’t be worse if the board tried to screw it up, leaves the team, in the twilight of the greatest player to ever play the game, having to rely on a 17-year-old phenom as it hunts for three trophies. The board hasn’t given its employees the necessary tools to excel, and the workers are angry about that.

Pique in effect saying to Valverde “I don’t care what you say, I’m going to this event,” is the clearest sign of poor management. You’re also seeing it at Paris St.-Germain in the bust-up between Kylian Mbappe and manager Thomas Tuchel. The manager doesn’t feel empowered to do what they need, the employee doesn’t feel like they have any option to arrive at a solution that makes them happy, so nobody is happy and issues that should be private are aired in public. Messi is vexed about the years of neglect, the sporting failure, the lack of any real interest in the human side of the team and its players. Laporta might have been an egocentric, cava-soaked spendthrift, but he understood the human side of management. If my people are happy, I am happy. And if everybody is happy, the work gets done.

The excellence of the Guardiola teams was down to effective, empowered management. It wasn’t just, “Run, you bastards, run.” It was, “Run, you bastards run, and I will work as hard as you do and the effect of our collective work will be success.” Empowering the employee in their own success is a key tenet of good management. By choosing a succession of coaches beholden to them, the board has kneecapped the manager and the team they manage. By messing up transfers time after time, not planning, always reacting to crises rather than thinking about what could happen, planning for it and then making sound decisions, everything is panic. Valverde’s removal was panic. Setien’s appointment was panic, because they couldn’t get anyone they really wanted. Dembele was panic, Coutinho was panic. It’s a husband stopping at the train station to buy roses to make up for his wife saying, “I’m leaving because you have neglected me.” It’s a bandage.

Barça is bleeding. It’s bleeding because the people elected to be good managers, to ensure that happy workers make a good product, are only interested in their own outcomes, their own results, their own egos. At the next fiscal dog and pony show, the club is going to announce that it has reached the billion Euro income target. And people will smile, and congratulate themselves, applyig rosin to the bows that will fiddle while Rome burns. Messi and Abidal isn’t about Messi and Abidal. It’s about Bartomeu and how he has, or more correctly, hasn’t done his job. He won’t realize it now, just as he hasn’t before, and there will be another crisis with the same genesis. Shameful, neglectful management of the most crucial parts of a company: humans.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.