11th September 2020 – One of the reasons that Kevin Keegan OBE became such a successful football manager was his ability to create a genuine rapport with his players.
Whether it was Manchester City, Newcastle, Fulham – or the England squad – he had a knack for getting the best out of his team.
When I caught up with Kevin for one of our regular mentoring sessions, he explained how he develops that rapport: it all comes down to trust.
“It’s only five letters but it is such an important word,” he said. “If people don’t trust you, you can’t lead them. If you say to your guys, ‘You’re going to run through this brick wall.’ They are going to think: ‘but that’s a brick wall. I’ll hurt myself.’
“A good leader will go first, and run through. They will take the fear away.”
Kevin believes that his ability to establish trust with his players has been one of his greatest achievements. He says this trust enabled him to get the absolute best out of people, and to have hard conversations without creating bad blood in the squad.
“I had so many occasions where I had to pull a player into my office to tell them that they weren’t doing well enough,” he told me. “I’d tell them they were quite a way off getting on the team. They needed to know that.
“Some of these players were on three-year contracts. They know and you know that they will never play. I would pull them in and say you have two years left; stay as long as you want but I think it would be better for you if you looked to move where you can play. You’re 23 or 24, you need to play.”
Kevin explained that his policy of relentless and consistent honesty meant that he won the respect of his players. “You can’t manufacture trust,” He says. “This way, they look at you and think, ‘At least I know where I stand with this guy.’ You have to be very honest so people know you’re not just trying to pacify them.”
Kevin said that the fastest route to mistrust is letting gossip and whispers spread because you haven’t been completely upfront with your team. He also warned against sending someone else to do your dirty work – if he needed to have a difficult conversation with a player, he’d never send an assistant. He would manage the issue personally.
Not every leader can handle the responsibility that comes with trust. Once your team trusts you, that gives them the confidence to speak up when they disagree with you. Kevin believes this two-way communication ultimately makes organisations much healthier and stronger. “Players would feel comfortable to come and tell me privately that they didn’t think I was fair on them,” he explains. “They could say if they thought what I did was wrong. If you want to apologise, that’s your choice as a manager. It’s likely your players will think, ‘Fair enough. He’s not a leader who thinks he gets it right every time.’ I don’t think any leader ever does.”
Kevin’s words really hit home. Trust is paramount in everything we do at BigChange, whether it’s keeping promises to customers or being honest and fair with the team. I have made mistakes in the past and it isn’t always easy to put your hands up and ask for forgiveness. I’ve done it a couple of times on this blog. Having the courage to apologise and admit when you are wrong doesn’t undermine your leadership, it makes it stronger.
“Once you get that relationship with your players, trusting each other, then you have a chance of success in football,” Kevin said. “The same if you’re in sales.”
Trust doesn’t get the attention it deserves in business because it’s intangible. How do you quantify it within an organisation? It’s such a precious commodity – hard won and easily lost – that many leaders can’t bring themselves to explore the issue deeply, in case they don’t like what they find. But if you really want to achieve great things, you need to trust your team and they need to trust you.