4 key recruiting lessons from Leicester City FC winning the Premier League in 2016

by Chris Tang in Blog

DatePosted on May 03, 2016 at 02:56 PM
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It’s not every day I can use football as a spectacular and vivid analogy for successful recruitment, and so I’m going to grasp this opportunity with both hands!  Yesterday’s confirmation of Leicester City football club winning the English Premier League (‘EPL’) has not only astounded the sporting world but from a recruitment perspective, it goes to show how a smart recruitment strategy can lead you to punch well above your weight.

Let's put this into perspective. This once journeyman football club was near to relegation in the previous season and started out the 2015-16 season as one of the favourites for relegation.  Conversely, the odds of the club becoming champions was 5000-1!

Back in September 2015, it was reported that the most expensive squad in the EPL, Manchester City, cost 560m euros to assemble, with Manchester United 2nd (worth 533m euros) and Chelsea 3rd, worth a miserly 407m euros (source: @sportingintel). Positioned 17th out of 20 EPL clubs in terms of squad value, Leicester City's squad at the start of this season was worth a mere 72m euros. Clearly, the club didn't have high prospects for success.  

So where did it all go so...right?

Arguably, the key to their success was in their recruitment, and in particular, the recruitment of their manager and his ‘backroom staff’. And for the record, I'm a lifelong Liverpool FC fan, so this blog is merely to admire the qualities of a great manager, irrespective of which club he manages, unless it's Manchester United or Chelsea! 

Claudio Ranieri - a spectacular recruitment for Leicester City FC (image source: BBC Sport)

1. Ignoring the hype (or lack thereof) 

In the summer of 2015, the Thai owned football club departed ways with their former manager, Nigel Pearson, and hired Claudio Ranieri, a highly respectable manager whose previous clubs included football giants Juventus, Roma, Inter Milan and Chelsea FC. 

Granted, the last team he managed before Leicester City, the national Greece team, suffered a run of successive defeats under his 4 game tenure (including his last game in charge, a defeat by the Faroe Islands, which was the equivalent of a non-division team defeating an EPL team).  He was quickly dismissed as the Greece national football manager in November 2014.  

By the time Mr Ranieri was appointed by Leicester City in July 2015, he’d been out of a job for 9 months. Among the so-called 'experts' (former players) and commentators in the football community, he had passed his peak, he was unfashionable, he was boring. He was 'the wrong man for the job'.

Not having been in one job for more than 2 years since leaving Chelsea FC in 2004 (he was, in recruiting terms, 'jumpy'), Ranieri was seemingly confined to the scrap heap by a lot of clubs or simply overlooked because his style wasn’t the ‘rock and roll’ of other managers, such as Jose Mourinho (who then, was riding on a high of winning the title for 2014-2015 with Chelsea FC but subsequently fell from grace earlier this season and was dismissed when his team slid dramatically down the league).  

Yet, senior management and the owners of Leicester City ignored the noise in the media and his short track record with Greece in an otherwise highly successful, long and solid managerial career.

"he was, in recruiting terms, 'jumpy'"

Further, his ‘gap year’ was not even considered a hindrance to his ability to do the job. A year or two can be long time in any industry, however, the time out of the footballing world seems to have reinvigorated Mr Ranieri and given him impetus in leading his squad to ultimate success. 

2. They hired a pragmatic leader 

Leaders have many qualities, and one of those is to recognise that leadership can mean getting the best out of your current resources. The Telegraph quotes the team’s goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel when he said, “The best compliment I can pay is that [Ranieri] resisted the urge to change everything. That is something a lot of managers want to do, they bring their own people and do everything their own way.  

“He came in the first week, he introduced himself and then didn’t say anything the following week because he just watched us and how we work. He recognised that he had a squad that worked well with each other, got on really well, played well and trained hard.”

With his ability to harness the existing team spirit, utilise his own backroom staff and blend his own tactical expertise, Mr Ranieri was able to leverage off the below-par performance of the EPL's usual elite of football clubs and storm ahead in the league. 

3. They hired a motivator with charm, warmth and personality

Famously, early in the season, the manager promised to treat his entire team to a pizza dinner if they kept a 'clean sheet' (ie, no goals would be conceded in an entire game). It took them 10 games before they managed to do so, and the manager kept to his word, throwing in a pizza-making class, much to the visible delight of his players. 

This was one of many examples (including treating the team to a fancy dress Christmas party in Copenhagen) throughout the season where the team spirit was continually managed exceptionally well. And this highlights how important team-bonding events can be for your staff, no matter how seemingly silly, low budgeted or small. If anything, employees love creativity when it comes to team events that help to nurture morale.   

4. They hired a manager who was humble, respectful and selfless

Following confirmation that the club had won the top division's title for the first time in its 132 year history, Mr. Ranieri said: “I’m so proud. I’m happy for my players, for the chairman, for the staff at Leicester City, all our fans and the Leicester community. It’s an amazing feeling and I’m so happy for everyone. I never expected this when I arrived. I’m a pragmatic man, I just wanted to win match after match and help my players to improve week after week. Never did I think too much about where it would take us." 

He added, “The players have been fantastic. Their focus, their determination, their spirit has made this possible. Every game they fight for each other and I love to see this in my players. They deserve to be champions.”

And not once in these quotes has Mr. Ranieri mentioned anything about himself.  At all times, his focus has been on his employer, his club, and his team. And his respect for his peers even went as far as placing photogaphs of all the other EPL managers in his own office!

Transfer that to the ‘normal’ work setting, it's not difficult to see how the finer details in how you recruit and manage your key staff help to nurture and maintain productivity, team spirit and loyalty, and that even the underdogs,with the right recruitment strategy, can outshine their competitors.  

ps for those who noticed that the banner picture is that of a rugby pitch during the Hong Kong 7s, you're correct! But for the sake of speed, it was the only team sports related picture I had! 

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About the Author

Chris Tang

Chris is a co-Managing Director of Star Anise and a former practising corporate lawyer. He is a regular post contributor on LinkedIn and you can connect with him here: 


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