Empathy & responsbility | What can HR learn from Gareth Southgate?

What can HR learn from Gareth Southgate?

Although Gareth Southgate’s England team eventually came unstuck in a penalty shootout against Italy in the Euro 2020 final, the manager, as well as his palyers, have won many plaudits along the way – and not just for reaching the first men’s football final in 55 years.

Many, from the world of business and football, have given Southgate kudos for his leadership style, his embrace of diversity – as well as diverse thinking – and a seemingly empathetic approach to management.

Below, HR Grapevine unpicks some of the leadership tricks and organisational structures he seems to have relied upon as Kane, Maguire, Rashford, Saka and the whole squad got as close as they could to UEFA tournament victory, as fans watched on from ITV and BBC across the month.

Read on to find out more...

Diversity of thought

Southgate has a small army of advisors around him that any CEO or modern leader would be jealous of.

There’s the ever-present Steve Holland – most will recognise him as the man standing next to Southgate as they watched matches on ITV or BBC – who Southgate seems to use as a constant sounding board.

Then there’s a diverse set of coaches. Graeme Jones, Chris Powell and Martyn Margetson are not only ethnically diverse but also have very different experiences of the English football game and can bring a wide set of learnings to the table.

Additionally, Southgate also has access to a technical advisory board, who help give insight into performance.

This groups is not just from the world of football and helps dilute any footballing echo chamber that might’ve existed if Southgate only had access to insiders from his specific sport.

That group includes: Sir Dave Brailsford, a cycling coach, Colonel Lucy Giles, a college commander at the Sandhurst Military Academy, the Olympic rower Kath Grainger, Manoj Badale, a tech entrepreneur, the rugby coach Stuart Lancaster and David Sheepshanks, mastermind behind the St George's Park national football centre.

According to Matthew Syed, writing for the BBC: “Echo chambers may be comfortable, but they are inherently self-limiting. In the post-pandemic age, with the world changing faster than ever, it is diversity that unlocks the key to success.”

And its not just diversity of thought that Southgate relies upon. Drawing on players from a wide range of different cultures and heritages, England also had one of the youngest squads at the competition.

HR – take note.

Empathy and wellbeing-centric

Although many fans might have had their heads in their hands after last night’s penalty loss, for those brave enough to watch the live BBC feed they will have noticed that Southgate, almost immediately, went to hug 19-year-old Bukayo Saka.

The image of the manager offering words of consolation to Saka might’ve stirred emotions in some but for others this action is totemic of a manager who seems to genuinely care about those he leads.

It dovetails with what many in the world of business and HR say managers now have to do – which is foster trust with their employees, via displays of empathy and care for them, to get the best organisational outcomes.

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In an exclusive interview at the end of 2020, Jason Fowler, HR Director & Head of HR Northern & Western Europe at Fujitsu Global, told HR Grapevine that with trust between employers, managers and their employees now crucial in driving success, managers – in the England example, Gareth Southgate is centre stage here – have to focus on how their charges are doing.

He said: “Now, managers genuinely and sincerely have to think about the care they’re giving to their team and have to want to know and care about how they’re feeling. They’re there to coax, coach and guide.”

Integrity, dignity and responsibility

At the start of the tournament, many were calling for Southgate to change formation, personnel and tactics. He stuck to his guns – and, methodically and without too much drama, England progressed to the Euro 2020 final.

When he is in the media spotlight, he is usually calm, circumspect and composed in press conferences and his open letter to England before the tournament showcased both dignity and also an understanding of the responsibility he holds in his position – something which leaders should be aware of, not only when they make statements but in how they comport themselves everyday.

He wrote: “I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold,” Southgate explained. “At home, I’m below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order but publicly I am the England men’s football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.”

Taking responsibility goes further than just being words with Soutgate. After the penalty shootout loss he took responsibility for Saka, Rashford and Sancho all missing spot kicks.

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“It's down to me,” told the media. “I decided on the penalty takers based on what we've done in training. Nobody is on their own. That's my call and it totally rests on me."

His actions align with what Leo Flanagan, Business Professor at the University of Notre Dame in the US, stated are the actions of a responsible leader.

“To be a good leader, [you must] decide to be someone who takes personal responsibility for the current and future performance of your team,” he noted in an essay, adding that even if this leads to severe ramifications for the individual, it also reinforces positive behaviour for employees and the company as a whole.

“Being an accountable leader takes courage and honesty; if leaders are accountable, it drives everyone within the business to be accountable,” he concluded.


Finally, there is the purpose that England’s football team under Southgate’s tutelage has shown – and not only on the football pitch.

Players take the knee, with Southgate supporting of this, before each match to support anti racism and are keen to take stances on events outside of the footballing world.

In fact, Southgate backs the social and political causes many of his players support.

In a letter before the tournament, he wrote: “It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”

Again, this is what many contemporary employees want. Younger workers, especially, want to be in organisations and under leaders who share their values and take active stances on issues.

According to research, 62% of millennials want to work for an organisation that makes a positive impact and 53% said they would work harder if they knew they were making a difference to others.

In fact, Mark Price, Managing Director of Waitrose, adds that this can be an important tool in getting the best talent.

“Ethics are becoming as important in the recruitment of the young as salary or other benefits,” he said. “This is a recent and potentially seismic change for the better. The best businesses are a force for good and bear an important responsibility to the communities they serve.”

Again, Southgate seems to embody this thinking and its something that HR, as the war for talent hots up again amongst growing labour shortages, should start to action plans against.

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