Sack The Board!

by | Sep 4, 2014

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Nick Samouilhan, multi-asset manager at Aviva Investors, believes investment portfolios should be run like football clubs, with decisions made by individuals rather than committees


 

 As I write this, I have my Twitter feed open – 1st September being the last day of football’s latest ‘transfer window’, and with it the usual rumour mill on who is being bought and sold.

For instance, Colombian striker Radamel Falcao appears to be going to Manchester United on loan. I always feel my club, Spurs, suffers the worst of this rumour mill. A simple result of the disconnect between interested fans and a football club where decisions seem to be made exclusively by a secretive club chairman. As such, all fans can do is wait and see what whim takes the chairman on everything from player transfers or club premises to coaches (of which he tends to be somewhat flighty with).

The Ebbsfleet Experiment

This disconnect between fans and their club led to one of the most interesting experiments in British football in 2008, when members of MyFootballClub, a group of football fans, pooled their money together and bought Conference club Ebbsfleet United. The intention was that this would be a fan-led club. All the decisions normally taken by the chairperson or coach, such as team selection or player transfers, would be made instead by fans through a one member, one vote process.

The fan-led approach, while great in theory, suffers from one major problem: a large group of individuals is terrible at making decisions. As a general rule, decisions are more easily made, and responsibility more clearly assigned, when they are made by one person rather than by large groups. For instance, it is very rare to find successful investment funds run by large groups of fund managers rather than just one or two managers. There are two important reasons for this. Firstly, it tends to be easier to reach a speedy conclusion when only a few people need to debate the points and reach a consensus. By contrast, decisions by committee are often sub-optimal, fudged compromises.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, when only a few people are involved in making decisions, responsibility over the results of those decisions should be clearer. However, when many people make a decision everyone becomes responsible, which effectively means that no one really is. Indeed, many people like committees for their very ability to collectivise, and so remove, responsibility for decisions. For running money or a football club, where someone needs to be held to account for decisions and performance, committees are a bad way of running money.

Back To Focused Management

That decisions are better made by an individual or a small group is clearly shown by the MyFootballClub example. MyFootballClub’s initial desire for large-scale, collective decision-making was quickly diluted with a vote being passed removing members’ ability to select teams. Instead, teams were solely selected by the head coach.

Over time, the members voted to pass more and more decisions to smaller and smaller committees. However, after a steady move away from collective decision-making and a series of poor runs,  the members voted in May 2013 to sell the club to Kuwaiti business KEH Sports.

KEH Sports promptly reverted to the standard manner of running a football club. Subsequently, in 2013/14 Ebbsfleet United scored their highest number of league points in a season since introducing collective decision-making following the MyFootballClub takeover in 2006/7.

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