Leadership & Culture, Performance | Dec 1, 2021
The Manager explains that support from the owners, colleagues and mentors has been essential to his work at the English Premier League club.

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By John Portch

West Ham United Manager David Moyes is adamant that he does not – and cannot – do everything himself at the English Premier League club.

“When you invest in a new job you feel that you have to do everything but, as I’m getting older, I don’t want to have to do everything,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute’s Jimmy Worrall.

The conversation took place in August just as West Ham and Moyes had made a promising start to the current Premier League season. The Scot was still basking in the glow of West Ham’s highest finish since 2001 and their first qualification for European football since 2006. As December arrives, they are again challenging at the top of the table.

At the time of his appointment in December 2019, however, delegation was not a priority. The club was mired in relegation trouble and Moyes’ remit was for a swift turnaround. “I think to get things up and running you need to have your hands on everything. You need to try and get all departments pulling in the right direction,” he continues.

Just three months later, the pandemic brought the 2019-20 Premier League season to a standstill. Moyes relished the opportunity to work closely with his playing group during the enforced hiatus. “We were on the pitch every day and, in a way, I think it helped me,” he says. “It certainly helped the team because I got the chance to do individual work with them every day. We were only allowed one member of staff and that was me at the time. The more I saw it, the more important I thought the individual work was. The players were probably having a closer relationship with the manager and the coaches as well.”

While positive results tend to produce a better atmosphere, and soft skills alone will never produce results, it is clear that Moyes’ players are both happy and receptive to his ideas. “I’ve played in teams here that have fought relegation and been mid-table, but in the last two seasons, what the manager has built for us, and what we’ve bought into as players, has been amazing,” West Ham midfielder Declan Rice told a press conference in September.

Rice, who represented England at the delayed Euro 2020 this summer, reported back for West Ham duty earlier than requested and has maintained his superb form in claret and blue. “It’s a place where you wake up in the morning and you look forward to going in and having breakfast with the lads. You look forward to having a laugh and you look forward to training.”

Rice’s words resonate with Dave Slemen, Founding Partner at Elite Performance Partners [EPP], a performance consultancy and search firm working across elite sport. Slemen says: “Tapping into why players love football and keeping it fun is such an underrated quality in a coach. So much pressure is put on players externally – if you can make it fun, it releases the stress so players are only in that state during games, when it matters.”

Nor has there been unrest from those fringe players with limited game time. Moyes has made every effort to ensure they feel included. “It’s like a big family,” added Rice. “I think the gaffer said it before, we’re all like a bunch of kids. Honestly, it’s such a great place to be around at the moment. With the results and how well we’re doing, that makes it that bit more special.”

“Winning makes a big difference and, in the sport we’re in, it really does change how you feel, how the media perceive you in all things,” Moyes previously told the Leaders Performance Institute. “But I would hope that I would still be treated the same way if we were losing.”

Changing perceptions

Moyes has been more directly involved in player transfers than during his first spell with West Ham. A number of his signings have sparkled including, in January 2020, Tomáš Souček [initially on loan] and Jarrod Bowen. They, along with many who made up the squad Moyes inherited, did their bit to stave off relegation that season.

“Getting a couple of players right was really important for me because suddenly we changed the dynamics, the mentality of the club,” says Moyes of his first weeks back in charge. “Yeah, the manager’s got a lot to do with it but, ultimately, it’s the players. Whether you buy them, whether they’re already in the building, you need them to be the ones to do it for you and, fortunately, we got a couple of players in the January window not by massive design, not by massive scouting networks and watching them for 20-30 games; a bit of simple work, looking at a few stats and you hit the jackpot. Now and again, you hope to be lucky and a couple of Januarys ago I was, we got these boys in.”

First-Team Coach Kevin Nolan – a former West Ham player and the coach with perhaps the strongest links to the playing group – has spoken of the club’s growing preference for younger players with a point to prove. “We can’t match the financial side of a lot of clubs but we can match it by hard work and determination,” he told the Athletic in May. “People will want to come here and work hard and not be seen as a club where players look to finish their careers, or come and enjoy a year in London. That’s not what this club is about. The gaffer wants to make this club better day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year.”

Moyes has also taken a keen interest in the fortunes of West Ham’s youth and under-23s teams, regularly attending matches home and away when his schedule permits. He also tells Worrall of the importance of getting to know the grounds and kitchen staff at West Ham’s Rush Green training ground. “I hope in some ways to start to build the club and show people that you’re trying to build a better and brighter future for all the people who are involved in the club.”

This approach is crucial for alignment. “The team is bigger than just the players,” adds Slemen. “We believe alignment can have a big impact on the behaviours of the group and its sense of identity. It can bring people closer together, especially when things get tough.”

Perhaps this is all circumstantial. Moyes is wary of trying to pinpoint empirical evidence in a conversation of his successes and shies away from attributing his success to any particular cause, but he does highlight the organisational stability and job security he currently enjoys. His tenure has long surpassed his six-month spell in 2017-18 when he first helped West Ham to retain their Premier League status. “Getting the chance to feel that you’ve got a bit of time I think gives you the feeling that there’s stability, you can get a bit of power and you can start to make decisions that you think are correct. I think when you feel as if you’re on a short lead you find that you have to do things quickly, you’re maybe making rash decisions.

“I’ve got to say, though, when we came back in here at West Ham this time, I felt under pressure that we would have to make quick decisions. We had to stay in the Premier League.” Results were required and, when they came, he gained a little more latitude. “Sometimes, people will get jobs that are already nicely prepared for you, all nicely packaged up for you to be a success.” Most managerial appointments, however, follow a poor run of results. The incoming manager is required to firefight. “Quite often the job is that you have to correct things, put things back, and try to start again.”

Moyes is also keenly aware that he, like any manager or head coach, is just a few bad results away from being pilloried. He is familiar with both ends of the spectrum. He built his coaching credentials at third-tier Preston North End, where he began as a player-manager in 1998, and led them to promotion to the second tier in 2000. He further burnished his reputation during an 11-year spell in the Premier League at Everton. Less fondly regarded are his spells at Manchester United, Real Sociedad and Sunderland, which seem like a distant memory at this stage.

He has always backed his ability as a coach, but understands that he had to continue learning and relearning the art of coaching. “To become a better leader, you need good people and staff around you,” he says. “It’s vitally important.” Each of Moyes’ first-team coaches – the aforementioned Nolan, Billy McKinley, Paul Nevin and Stuart Pearce – have been managers in their own right. “Even leaders need to be told ‘well done’ now and again because the leaders make the decisions and, quite often, the decisions are not right. It’s not a bad thing to have people around you to say ‘well done, you’ve done a good job today’.”

“No one gets there on their own – no one,” says Slemen. “You need to be both challenged and supported in any coaching role, this is especially true of the head coach. You would hope they are having the biggest impact so need the most help to get it right. In fact, 55 percent of CEOs in FTSE 100 have executive coaches and it wouldn’t surprise me if that will be the next trend at the top of the game.”

Moyes says: “We’ll all have bad days, it might not go right, but I think that’s when you need the support even more so than when you’re winning. We can be very isolated, very lonely. Yes, you have staff to help you but you still need good mentors in the background, good people that you think you could speak to about something you’ve got a concern about; people who if you’ve got a decision that you’re torn between could maybe clear it for you. I think to have one or two people around you who can help you with that is really key when you’re in the top level in elite sports.”

Slemen suggests that Moyes is onto something. “Everyone needs help – both coaches and mentors – people to talk you through what you do but also people who have been there before that can relate specifically to the challenges you are going through,” he says, adding that during his recent MBA dissertation he interviewed ten elite sports leaders and found that their only common trait was their use of coaches and mentors at different stages of their journey.

East London calling

Moyes famously coined the phrase ‘people’s club’ at his first press conference as Everton Manager in 2002 having been inspired by the Everton jerseys he saw on the streets of Liverpool as he drove to that first media engagement. His inference being that Liverpool Football Club did not seem to be as highly represented amongst the local populace. The sentiment was warmly received at Goodison Park.

He feels West Ham, surrounded by illustrious London neighbours, can occupy a similar space in the east of the city. “I think it’s an area that needs its football team and I think, for so long, we’ve been behind it. I want us to have a new young support, I want us to have new methods of trying to attract more supporters, but I think the biggest attraction to supporters is winning, especially to young supporters. A lot of the dads who maybe want to bring their sons or daughters to the game might have been West Ham supporters but might not feel there’s been enough success to warrant getting a season ticket or coming to the games. But I think, at the moment, there’s quite an exciting young team at West Ham and some really nice young players and the team’s going well.”

Like Merseyside, he also sees east London as a hotbed of young talent. “I’d love to have 30 or 40 scouts all around the East End of London because that was the way we done it at Everton and we pulled up an awful lot of good players at that time.”

Worrall wraps things up by pointing out that Moyes seems to be smiling on the touchline these days. “I’m very much the realist and I still am – but I felt as if the realist bit is not working anymore,” says Moyes, explaining that he has to be softer with the truth. “I find some of it really hard because I only want to speak the truth. Sometimes nowadays it’s very difficult to do that, but these are the things we do as we get older and we learn a bit better.”

Moyes may be a realist but he is also an optimist. “I hope that the best period of my management is still to come, even though I’ve had some pretty good periods. I’m hoping that this period might see me doing even better than I’ve done before.”

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