LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) – Arsène Wenger’s career is instructive in many ways. The studious Frenchman helped revolutionise British soccer following his arrival as Arsenal manager in 1996.
His focus on nutrition, precise training and mental discipline produced a golden age of victories for the North London club. As Wenger hangs up his boots after 22 years in charge, however, the main takeaway for corporate leaders is this: don’t hang around too long.
Wenger steps down as the most successful manager in Arsenal’s modern history. His teams have won three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups, twice hoisting both prizes in the same season.
In 2004, Arsenal’s “Invincibles” became English champions without suffering a single defeat, a feat no other side had achieved in over a century. He helped transform young players like Thierry Henry and Cesc Fàbregas into global superstars. And he achieved all this while spending considerably less on expensive transfers than rival managers.
Chief executives could do worse than to follow his model of leadership, talent development and capital allocation. They would be even wiser to pay heed to the most striking aspect of Wenger’s Arsenal career: his best achievements came in the earlier stretch. The club has struggled to recapture its former success, even finishing outside the Premier League’s top four under his stewardship for the first time last season.
Some of it was beyond Wenger’s control. Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern sheikhs have been willing to buy success at any price. The sport also caught up with Wenger’s ideas. It is no longer remarkable to feed players broccoli instead of beer. Tactically, he has been overtaken by younger peers.
Those sitting in the corner suite often suffer similar fates. Martin Sorrell, recently forced out of advertising giant WPP after more than three decades in charge, could have retired a hero not long ago. Others like JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, who recently extended his 12-year tenure for another five years, or Bob Iger, who is in his thirteenth year leading Walt Disney, should be wondering how much more they can really achieve. Wenger’s two halves serve as a reminder to get out in good time.