What can this little football club, Exeter City F.C., teach businesses about creating high performance culture? Simple, it’s about nurturing talent.
Exeter City F.C. is an Academy built on a high performance culture
In recent seasons Exeter City have sold three academy graduates for a total of nearly £5 million. This figure does not appear profound relative to high transfer fees of the Premier League, but for a club in League Two this highlights huge opportunity. Selling a player for £1 million in League Two is a rare phenomenon, but for Exeter this has been achieved three times in the past six years, with many other academy players leaving the club for fees narrowly short of this threshold. It is no coincidence that Exeter’s academy has flourished over the last decade. Their club strategy showcases the intrinsic value of a culture of performance and community ethos to improving their business.
Academy graduate Joel Randall has recently signed for Peterborough United from Exeter City and is tipped to follow Ollie Watkins’ rise to the Premier League.
Exeter City’s academy has constructed a fan-led club culture that allows for the development of good coaching, leadership progression, effective team-building, and community outreach.
The English football pyramid provides immense opportunity for all levels of football to progress, but often grants big clubs space to exploit lower league teams for high potential players and offer little financial compensation. Consequently, many lower league teams avoid investing large percentages of their income in academy development to avoid exploitation. But Exeter’s community ethos guides their strategy to continual academy progression.
Exeter City are located in a region of England sparsely populated with professional football clubs, meaning in theory they face little competition in scouting and recruiting players. But, bigger clubs like Bristol City, Bournemouth, Southampton, and Portsmouth also benefit from the thinly populated region of professional clubs in the South-west of England. Nevertheless, Exeter City still remain one of the most popular academy destinations in the region, despite their lower club status.
Exeter’s category three graded academy puts huge trust in a player’s potential and continuously looks to give youngsters a chance, favouring a club strategy of long-term progression over short-lived success. Their trust in academy players further stimulates interest for future young players to join Exeter’s academy with a stronger likelihood of first-team football. Trust in former-players like Ollie Watkins, Matty Grimes, and Ethan Ampadu, rewarded the club with player-sale profits above the large majority of clubs in League Two. Arran Pugh, Exeter City’s Academy Operations and Performance Manager, noted that the transfer money has been re-invested into the academy and facilities to expand their model for the future.
Emphasis is placed on a player’s wellbeing, both in and outside of football. Many academy players across English football are sold an unrealistic dream that they will become a professional footballer. According to Exeter City’s Chairman Julian Tagg, 95% of academy players do not make it to professional level. At Exeter they deliberately keep their players grounded against this belief. The ethos of the academy centres around looking “after the best interests of every young player in our care” and “plac[ing] a young man’s personal development above his football development”. This involves making sure the young players perform well in school, are well-behaved, and learn respect. The result is an academy that is determined to keep players focused and responsible.
Ollie Watkins celebrates his debut goal for England vs San Marino in March 2021. After leaving Exeter City for championship side Brentford in 2017, Watkins signed for Premier League side Aston Villa for £28 million in 2020.
Investment in good coaching is pivotal to success. Coaches are trained to mentor young players and offer continual guidance in both their football and personal development. According to Arran Pugh, their academy offers more contact hours for players than various other clubs. Former Exeter player Ross Bellotti’s son plays for the academy and he was eager to praise the staff for making sure academy players enjoy their time with the club. Initially skeptical about his young son being sold an unrealistic dream, he quickly noted that the academy excels in developing the right attitudes and mentality for future careers inside and outside of football. Academy players are given the best chance to succeed in the future, regardless of whether they reach professional level football. Emphasis on personal development supports an individual’s growth, allowing them to search for areas of self-improvement that benefits both themselves and others around them in the future. The equal opportunity removes the barriers of social division between players, manifesting an inclusive and united team focused on their responsibilities.
Internal development also remains imperative to continuously improving their performance-based culture. Arran Pugh noted that staff development is just as important to the club’s team-work and performance development. Staff are treated with equal respect to players and offered a wealth of support to transform themselves into future leaders. Pugh recalls the numerous stories of staff working their way through the club ranks and progressing to work for big clubs like Arsenal and also the national team. Their developed leadership and team-working skills influence others in their dedication and determination to achieve results, providing maximum opportunity to advance the club’s performance culture.
With Exeter City their trust in academy players rewards strong financial income, whilst personal development creates a performance based culture attracted to persistence, tenacity, and dedication. The result is a club that continues to compete in professional football and receive widespread admiration for their focus on individual development.
The lesson for business is clear. Whether small or large, investing in your talent and building the right culture makes a massive difference. Decent and compassionate leaders, who support positive cultures will develop the best talent and staff. When they develop, they will either be better members of your team, or they will go off into the world and are your potential partners of tomorrow. Allowing for the progression of exceptional human performance provides enduring, meaningful, and sustainable impacts for businesses in the long term.