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Arsenal have a Hero issue

High hopes and heartbreak sum up a lot of what this season is turning into for the Arsenal supporters. Some blame Wenger, some blame the board, but my experience as a tech entrepreneur has me thinking about things a little differently.

High hopes and heartbreak sum up a lot of what this season is turning into for the Arsenal supporters. Some blame Wenger, some blame the board, but my experience as a tech entrepreneur has me thinking about things a little differently.

I am a diehard Arsenal fan, and have been paying very close attention to the Twitter-sphere buzz about Arsenal and Arsene Wenger this season. I may not have all the answers, but a tweet from@1Walid1, one of my favorite Arsenal commentators made me realize I might be able to diagnose the problem.

“All well & good wanting a change in manager but be honest to yourselves, can you actually trust this board to appoint the right man? I don’t!” –  Walid Arsenal ‏@1Walid1

Walid’s tweet struck me like a Russian meteor to the head. Arsenal are going through exactly what my small company went through about a year ago, albeit on a larger scale. It’s a double-edged sword, where our greatest asset also creates our greatest blind-spot.

I believe that the problem with Arsenal is structural; it is linked with the very framework by which the club makes decisions, and it effects every performance level within the club. Neither replacing management nor bringing in players will fix our problems. Put another way, Arsenal’s problem isn’t that Arsene Wenger has had too much time at the club, it’s that there isn’t enough Arsene to go around and there never will be. I know this because I have dealt with the exact same issue in my organization.  Walid may or may not have realized it, but his comment highlighted something that occurs all the time in businesses as they start to grow.

Allow me to explain.

I started my business at age 22 in my Mother’s living room in 2007, a tech-startup dealing with improving Healthcare outcomes. At the start, it was just me and my mom working, and though we had no clients, we were both capable, smart and hard-working.

As much as I would like to take credit for our company, the truth is that my Mom is a complete business rock-star, and known in her field for being incredible at solving problems. Because of this, the very DNA of our company was built on her heroic capacity for delivering the impossible. Mom could solve anything, and because of that, a company of our size didn’t need to be properly organized. In other words, her super-human talents meant we could get by without doing our homework or taking our vitamins. That was all fine and good at the start, but after a few years and a few dozen employees more, Mom and I were overworked and we hit a wall in terms of growth and success, eventually it felt like we were going backwards.

Day-to-day, I was doing everything from putting together new office furniture to negotiating corporate contracts and M&A. Mom was buying lunch for everyone, doing all of our marketing and all of our pipeline work, on top of being a CEO of complex tech firm during a global financial crisis. We were working 70+ hours a week, and despite this, were not growing at the rate we had become used to. What had happened to our early successes, were we just incapable of managing a larger organization? Had we reached our limit? Was it time for us to find someone else to help us run things?

During this period, I had lunch with a friend who is a very successful tech-startup investor. “You’ve got a hero problem” he said, and when I asked what he meant he explained, “Look, you two are great, and you have great people who work with you, the problem is that they can’t help you because your company is built to be small, you can’t scale because you are built to be run by two people, and you have reached your limit”.  It dawned on us that we had to change the way we operated. The problem wasn’t our personnel or our managers, the problem was our process, it was our DNA, it was the way we approached problems and how people operated on a daily basis. Being super-human allows you to run a 10k race without learning proper running technique. By the time our company had to run marathons, we weren’t getting to the finish line because we had not developed a process to take us past the first 10 Kilometers. Arsenal has the exact same problem.

Arsene Wenger is Magic

Arsene Wenger is a bloody magician, the man does it all, he hires, he fires, he builds the team, he recruits the players, he designs the training ground, he negotiates salary increases, but most importantly he is getting the team ready for each and every game every week. He’s super-human, and that creates a blind-spot in any organization. The problem isn’t that Arsene isn’t good enough, it’s that he’s so good that Arsenal have not built a scalable process to deal with the new reality of managing a super-club. Arsene’s strengths allows for Arsenal to progress despite itself. Think of Arsene Wenger like a jar of marmalade, and the various competitions like loaves of bread. In the beginning, the bread was limited; Arsene Marmalade could cover all the bread in the world. But now, Arsene is spread too thin. This process happened naturally, and can only be changed systematically.

Having a hero-run club worked brilliantly when Arsenal was smaller (ensconced in Highbury) and when the league was more manageable. But success under Wenger had a cost: the club had no need to build-out its infrastructure in order to win trophies because they had a genius at the helm.

We must accept that period is gone and it is never coming back. The problem we face is that Arsene, like my Mom, will always believe in his super-human capacity to carry the weight of his entire organization. Heroes are incredible people who never say die. Arsene, like our CEO will work himself to death to try to make amends, and will never ever surrender or admit defeat.

To be blunt, the solution is not to sack Arsene, it’s to support him. It will take a team of  top-level people Arsene can trust (Henry, Bergkamp, Dein, etc) to make themselves available to Wenger, and to protect him from burning out. For too long, the Arsenal board of directors has been able to outsource their public relations, club management and financial reconciliation to one man, and he has taken it all on because he has absolute faith in his ability to handle anything that comes along. In the end, Arsene is right, he CAN do anything, but he CAN’T do EVERYTHING, and this is the problem we find ourselves in.

Heroes Pick up the Slack from Non-Heroes Until They Crash and Burn

Take the Arsenal Board. Right now, Arsene Wenger is under pressure from all sides, thus reducing his effectiveness where we need him most. Every summer, we hear the board make the same statement: “We (The Board) have made money available to Wenger to Spend”. This, whether intentional or not, absolves the board of any responsibility. What the board is really saying is:

 A: “Hey, I did my bit, it’s all Wenger’s fault for not spending whatever secret amount of money we gave him”, and

B: “The solution to this problem is monetary not organizational”. Instead we need the board to say, “What we have been doing historically may not have been enough, and our job is to organize the club so that Wenger does not have to do everything”.

The only way this situation will change is if a member of the board is willing to stand in front of Wenger and accept some personal and organizational responsibility for both the way things are and for the path moving forward. Because Arsene takes shots from the press on behalf of the board, and on top of that performs miracles every year, the Board of Directors has forgotten how to do their job.

The same goes for Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen, who is remarkably silent most of the time and Ivan Gazidis who needs to come out and support Wenger when people criticize him for Arsenal’s financial decisions. I think most critics of Arsene have things backwards. I don’t think Arsene Wenger is a tyrant who keeps the board and his team members silent; I think the board and his management staff are able to stay silent because Wenger is so bloody good at his job.

What Gets Measured Gets Managed

It’s time for an internal restructuring of Arsenal Football Club to hold board-members accountable, this will ensure that Wenger and Arsenal get the support they need to be successful. While all of Wenger’s achievements are measurable, it is very unclear to me what the Board does, what their targets are and what, if any means of accountability they have.

This is to their benefit, the more they are measurable, the better they can manage their interests. Most importantly, they need to inform supporters what the consequences are if they do not achieve the goals they are responsible for achieving. Without stakes, there can be no progress.

The “Wenger Out” crowds need to take into account that running a football club is not supposed to be a one-man job, and Arsenal differs from other super-clubs in that it came to be almost entirely because of one man’s super-human excellence. The other super-clubs like AC Milan, Barcelona, Man United, Real, all exist because of unique corporate, financial or social realities that Arsenal never had access to. It is highly unlikely that replacing Wenger tomorrow with another “hero” would result in higher achievements. Wenger needs strong managers under him to take more personal responsibility for targets set and the resulting delta between high hopes and heartbreaks. This means the players, the technical staff and especially the board need to consider taking ownership of goals and action items and being responsible for managing the process of their success.  Our problem is that nobody besides Arsene Wenger wants to be held accountable, and everyone can get away with it because Arsene has always found a way to achieve miracles in spite of them. We the supporters need to realize that the shadow of Wenger is a result of his genius, not his shortcomings. This is an effort that will take collaboration and teamwork, Victory through harmony. Because although nobody is bigger than the club, the club must always step forward and protect its own, and make no mistake, Arsene Wenger is our man.


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