Broken Orient

One year ago I wrote a blog post about leadership. It was a delight to write with great clarity about how an organisation had achieved remarkable things through strong, committed, innovative, focused and inspirational leadership. I was using this organisation as a model example of how leadership can deliver success to a business and inspire its employees and ‘customers’ to become even stronger advocates or ‘fans’ of the organisation.

One year on and it is with great regret that I am writing about this organisation for the second time – a great regret as I am now able to describe how a change of leadership can very quickly and incredibly dramatically change the fortunes of a company, even when it appears that more success should be likely, or maybe even inevitable.

In April 2014, the football club I have supported my entire life was on the brink of something quite special. Leyton Orient, a little known football club from East London were on the brink of promotion to the championship. Whilst this may not sound particularly significant, to followers of football in England and to committed fans of ‘the O’s’, this was a feat of epic proportions. It was epic as this kind of thing does not happen to Leyton Orient very often!! In my 42 years on planet earth, Orient have achieved automatic promotion on just one occasion!!

What made the Orient story special was the story behind their achievement. A story that started twenty years earlier with near financial ruin and that culminated with the establishment of a financially stable business. By April 2014, led by Barry Hearn, Orient had become one of the most stable professional sports clubs in the UK. Although he was not always popular with the fans (his customers) Barry turned Orient into a sustainable business, something that seemed unimaginable when he bought the club for the paltry sum of £5 in 1995.

Whatever anyone thinks of Barry Hearn, it is difficult to dispute that he is a very astute and successful businessman. It is also now difficult to dispute that Barry was and is an inspirational business leader. Under his stewardship, a crumbling company was transformed. The transformation was largely achieved through his relationship with people – especially his employees. During his twenty years as chairman of Leyton Orient, Barry Hearn worked with two of the longest serving managers in the football league. Both Martin Ling and Russell Slade helped Orient to become a business that its fans (customers) could become proud of.

The inspirational leadership team of Barry Hearn and Russell Slade

The inspirational leadership team of Barry Hearn and Russell Slade

Martin Ling celebrates Orient's promotion to League 1 in 2006

Martin Ling celebrates Orient’s promotion to League 1 in 2006

Transforming the financial fortunes of Leyton Orient as a business was not achieved through the influx of a large amount of financial investment. Quite the contrary – this is one of the things that made the achievement of near promotion last year all the more amazing. By the time Orient walked out onto the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium in May 2014, not a single transfer fee had been paid for any player in the squad. Russell Slade was manager of Orient for over four years and NEVER paid a transfer fee for a player.

Orient’s success was achieved through amazing leadership – the ability to create and generate a culture of desire, character and togetherness that drove people to achieve incredible things. The desire, belief and pride that was clearly felt by everyone connected to Orient was infectious – it was hard to believe that good things were really happening to a club like Leyton Orient!!

HOWEVER…… as the image at the head of this post suggests, sadly, the Leyton Orient story one year on is rather different – a story that has seen the hearts of all Orient fans broken. The reasons why our hearts have been broken is the real reason I am writing this blog post. So with a deep breath, let me explain…..

On the 25th May 2014, Leyton Orient sadly did not achieve promotion to the championship. It was close….. very close, but I am not writing this blog post to re-live the pain of missed penalty kicks. Inside Wembley stadium that day, sitting next to Barry Hearn was an Italian businessman. Unknown to the thousands of Orient fans (customers) assembled inside the stadium, this unknown Italian businessman was about to dramatically change the fortunes of the club they love.

Shortly after the disappointment of defeat at Wembley, Barry Hearn sold Leyton Orient to Francesco Bechetti. A businessman who has made the majority of his billions in the waste industry (cue lots of jokes about him wanting to buy more rubbish!), his purchase was announced by Barry Hearn to the media as the best thing that could ever happen to Orient. I must admit, when I heard the news, I could hardly believe that my club was now owned by someone that had serious money at his disposal – billions!!

Benefactor or Destroyer? Barry Hearn introducing Francesco Bechetti as the new owner of Leyton Orient

Benefactor or Destroyer? Barry Hearn introducing Francesco Bechetti as the new owner of Leyton Orient

On hearing the news though, I was also disappointed – disappointed that the wonderful leadership team of Barry and Russell was being broken up. The reality is that nothing lasts forever – all organisations experience changes in leadership. The challenge is whether or not the performance of a business can maintain itself once leadership has changed. You only have to look to high profile examples for the effect of changing leadership – especially when the previous leadership team had been in place a long time – Tesco (Sir Terry Leahy); M&S (Sir Stuart Rose) – both retailers fortunes have changed dramatically since these transformational leaders were in charge. In the football world, we only need to look as far as Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson. Maybe Tim Cook, CEO of Apple gives us hope that leadership change can sustain success of a previous regime.

Back to the Orient story – during the summer last year, Orient recruited a number of new players (employees) – they recruited the kind of players that they could only have dreamed about just a few weeks before. With a new owner who has very deep pockets, they could suddenly afford to pay players significantly increased wages. As seemingly far more experienced recruits joined the fold, Orient fans (customers) were finding it difficult to hide their excitement. As has often been seen in the business that is professional football, money can and has bought success to others – finally it seemed that money was going to buy success for Orient.

I can confirm that money does NOT buy success – not for Orient…..not for any business. Do not get me wrong – money and investment is essential for any business wanting to grow. An injection of capital enables an organisation to do things that it was previously unable to do – spending money on new resources, equipment, employees etc. – are all a vital component of a growth strategy. Yet without good leadership, HOW that investment is used is what really makes the difference. In THEORY, as we approach May 2015, Orient should not only have been able to repeat the success of 2014, they should have been able to go that one step further and actually achieve promotion. In REALITY, not only have Orient failed to do that, the impact of the change in leadership has been a complete disaster – a disaster that will very likely lead to Orient being relegated to League 2 in just a few days time.

When any business changes leadership, it creates a period of instability. It is inevitable when new leaders have their own ideas and ways of working. If you try to change too much too quickly, the results can be catastrophic. Bechetti made so many changes so quickly, in just twelve months his leadership has single-handedly undone twenty years of organisational transformation.

Russell Slade left Orient early on in the season. It was clear that he was not going to be able to maintain the kind of working relationship he had with Barry Hearn in the new regime. Russell was not the only leader who left the club. Only one of Orient’s leadership team from last season remains at the club (Kevin Nugent). Orient’s current manager is their fourth – yes fourth – of the season!! The man still at the helm is a former Italian international, Fabio Liverani. Fabio does not even speak English and still conducts his post match interviews in Italian.

It has been reported in the media that Orient have players being paid as much as £20,000 a week – unimaginable numbers. Bechetti has funded one of the highest paid squads outside of the Championship. Yet this squad of highly paid players are about to return Orient to the basement of English football. The ignorance of leadership has led to a complete lack of BELIEF in the employees of the business that is Leyton Orient. This lack of belief has led to DISBELIEF among its loyal fanbase (the customers). A complete lack of leadership has as a result led to despondent FAILURE – failure that will hit the business in its pocket – albeit a very deep pocket of its billionaire owner.

The reason I am sharing this story is that it is a great example to any business of how leadership affects an organisation. With strong committed leadership that galvanises its employees to work together as a seamless unit – that gets everyone working selflessly for each other – that sees everyone fighting in the same direction and for the same goal – amazing things can be achieved. Money helps, but is not essential to achieve great things. Achieving great things will provide the rewards to those who deliver it.

However, as soon as you replace passion; belief; commitment; pride; guts; courage; knowledge; and understanding – you can throw success away in an instant. Throwing money at a problem will have no effect on that problem if the people you are throwing money at do not know what they are supposed to be doing, If the people you are throwing money at do not believe in the strategy or approach the business is taking, they will take the money whilst finding it difficult to achieve the objectives of the organisation. Throwing money at a business will often take the focus away from the purpose of the business. The people who then suffer the most are the customers – in the case of Orient, the fans.

As Orient prepare for the effect of poor leadership, another small English football club, Bournemouth, are preparing for their first ever promotion to the top flight of English football – the heady heights of the Premier League. Arguably a story even more amazing than Orient’s, Bournemouth were almost relegated out of the football league entirely just six years ago. Like Orient, Bournemouth have had an injection of much needed investment from a wealthy businessman. The difference is that the principles of leadership underpinning their business have remained untouched. Their desire, character and togetherness has enabled them to use their investment to believe that they could achieve anything. They have done so with amazing success – I am delighted for their fans…..loyal customers who deserve it more than anyone.

I hope that my heart and those of all Orient fans will mend in the future. I am not hopeful though. I dream that one day we will enjoy the delight of promotion again……. whether Orient will be a sustainable business in the future is yet to be seen.