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Welcome to Sunderland AFC, CEO Jim Rodwell. Now what are you going to do to improve 2020-2021?

Good CEO’s share certain behaviours, and those behaviours breed success. Malc Dugdale looks as how such behaviours can benefit Sunderland AFC, after the recent EFL decision on this season's conclusion.


After the expected result from the EFL vote this week (expected in my opinion, and as per my previous Roker Report piece), supporters of numerous clubs are now in turmoil, and so are the clubs themselves no doubt.

At the positive end of said turmoil, those who are promoted now need to look at the best way to try to stay in the EFL Championship, after something of a questionable but no doubt welcome rise in the ranks (from their perspectives). They will need to complement and tune remnants of squads to try to survive in a very competitive and strong league. They need to take the controversial gift delivered to them and do whatever they can to hold onto it, as this probably (hopefully) will not happen again in our lifetimes.

Those who have fallen down the tiers of the game will be looking for an immediate return to League One, assuming they can survive. Several in my view will sadly not be around, given the impact of Covid-19 on clubs’ revenue and the impact of also falling down a league.

This is a huge shame for our game, and for fans like us all around the UK who may no longer have a team to call their own. I wish them all the best of luck, as losing football clubs is the worst outcome for football, period.

Those who are to play off for League One’s 3rd place need to carry on training (and Covid testing), to be the best prepared team for probably the latest playoff sequence ever to be held. They will be desperately hoping that squad members follow(ed) “lock-down” rules religiously, so the spine of their team stays uninfected by the tragedy around the world right now. The team with the least ring-rustiness and best fitness is likely to prevail, rather than the best “on paper” team sheet.

Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The outcome will be influenced by illness (including Covid-19, God forbid) and injuries, the latter partly due to the disrupted season and the restart to come. All these factors plus a smattering of luck will define who keeps their shape and takes opportunities in those critical playoff games. More pot luck to come for all, including the potential new Covid victims. Good luck, and good health to all involved, they may need it.

Moving on to our club. As we now know Sunderland aren’t going up or (thankfully) down, nor are they in the play-offs as we have reached an all-time low (again). So, what should Sunderland AFC focus on for the coming 3-4 months, until play starts again?

What we do know is SAFC is a business, one which our owners procured hoping to trigger some success and then sell on at a profit in time. Businesses do well when CEOs are successful, and we have a new CEO as of late April. So, the challenge to you Mr Rodwell is, what can you do to make things better next season?

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

According to a Harvard Business Review carried out in 2017, successful CEOs have 4 particular behaviours that set them apart from their less successful peers. On review of those behaviours, I feel they relate very well to what we need to see from CEO Jim Rodwell and his SAFC team over the coming weeks, pre 2020-21 season starting:

Successful CEO’s decide with speed and conviction – this is a behaviour we very much need at these times of change, and with the lack of clarity and predictability all around us. We need to decide promptly and with commitment what our vision is and what our values are and pursue those with conviction. We have not had a clear identity for years… lets get that in place, and fast, and build on it? With that defined, we can also commit our playing style and squad to that, and see what that brings. As per the referenced article, “smart but slow decision makers become bottlenecks, and their teams either grow frustrated (which can lead to the attrition of valuable talent) or become overcautious themselves, stalling the entire enterprise”. Isn’t this our situation in a few lines? Let’s change that, Jim.

Successful CEO’s engage for impact – The best CEOs build a strong bond with the stakeholders around them (I include fans in that group), and they ensure that the outcomes and results that the CEO is after are clear. They create a shared vision, bringing those who will help achieve those outcomes properly on board, too. In my view the leadership and accountability at SAFC have been fractious and ineffective for too long, hence this behaviour (if leveraged) can only bring good things to our team, and to the business behind it. If Jim documents the vision, values, and what the CEO needs from the owner, other members of the board and the senior management team (and even us fans) to progress with that vision and to succeed, how can it not be better than the last few years, even pre our present owners? Let’s set out some outcomes and hold people accountable if they are missed. That is what multi million-pound businesses do, so why not SAFC?

Successful CEO’s adapt proactively – this behaviour is very much at the essence of this article. Over time we can and will accept that we failed this season, and last. We cannot change that. We can mope, dither and faff our way into the 2020-21 season, as I feel we did at the end of last season after those 2 Wembley losses. Alternately, we can proactively adapt to what is to come, and we can be as prepared and as well set up as we can be to make next time better for all. We can and should review what happened last season, adapt, learn and improve. Einstein’s definition of insanity is very appropriate here – “doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results”. We will reap what we sow, so we should very much adapt and sow well now, while we have time.

Successful CEO’s deliver reliably – as mentioned in the Harvard review, this is one of the most important CEO behaviours. We need a reliable, steady set of hands who sets realistic expectations (unlike the 100 points target Charlie and Stu…) and who follows through on their commitments. These are critical to our success, and always have been, but again have been amiss for so long. If the club sets out a vision and the fans can see that the club are doing all they can, with the resources they have to achieve and deliver that vision, then the fans will be there, as they are now and always have been.

Looking at his first almost 2 months in role (and given most CEOs get 3 months to get up to speed), we assume Jim Rodwell has probably spent his time to date understanding how SAFC did work, and what the owner and board need from him now and ongoing.

My view is he should use the experience, skills and behaviours he was hired off the back of (if he truly has them) to determine his way forward. If that is done well and he is/has what we need including the above behaviours aplenty, we will succeed as a business, and likely as a football team too.

Thinking “glass half full” for a moment, I am sure Jim Rodwell and the board will have used this lull in football activity to get fully aligned and ready to express these key behaviours, once the decision many expected to come from the EFL arrived, which it now has. Though the recent handling of season ticket renewals does not inspire fans with positive opinions of the CEO right now, all that most fans ask is that the board do the job they are paid for with the skills and behaviours they are expected to possess. Same for the players too really.

Fingers crossed these are skills and behaviours you possess, Jim.

Good luck, but with the right work done, and done now, we should not need it.

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