I recently had the privilege of attending the Football Writers Award ceremony, where the stars of the game celebrated Wayne Rooney’s contribution to English football, not least his achievement of surpassing Bobby Charlton’s record of most goals for Manchester United. For me, his career highlights how reaching the top is always challenging but the biggest test is staying there.
Rooney is sometimes ridiculed by the press and opposing fans for not achieving greater heights during his career, for example, not having played football abroad or winning a World Cup. But hold on a minute. Here we have an athlete that made his debut in England's elite football league at 16. And now, at the age of 32, he is still performing with and against the best players and teams in the world.
So, what’s the secret to Rooney’s world-class longevity? Paradoxically, it’s not the ability to stay the same but the drive to keep transitioning. Most people would see playing for England as the end-goal, but for Rooney getting on the team as an individual contributor was just the beginning. His hunger to adapt and grow enabled him to transition from being just a member of the team to captaining both Manchester United and England.
More precisely, it’s Rooney’s capability and adaptability that has fuelled his remarkable performance at the top-level over such a long period:
Capability – transitioning into a leadership role requires the development of several capabilities, including the ability to see the bigger picture and build networks. Rooney has collaborated effectively with a variety of managers, including the former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who he had a strained relationship with. He also maintained high performance whilst adjusting to the different styles, preferences and personal interests of his teammates.
Adaptability – avoiding career stagnation also requires individuals to develop both a learning mindset and personal resilience. Throughout his career, Rooney has demonstrated a drive to learn by playing a variety of different positions; not only enhancing his understanding of the game but also helping him to work on his biggest development areas and become a more well-rounded player. Furthermore, Rooney exhibited strong resilience in the face of a career of criticism, including being dropped from the United’s first team under José Mourinho and has now battled back into the reckoning and broken the goal scoring record for the club. One that may never be broken again!
In the same way, employees and organisations need to constantly adapt and alter in this ever-changing environment. Attributes that made Rooney a success 16 years ago will not be fit for purpose in the modern game. To achieve over the years, he’s had to let go of what made him successful previously and repeatedly refocus on what will make him successful now. Leaders and businesses need to do the same.
Ultimately, being ‘built to last’ requires a mindset that’s also ‘built to change’.