Damien Comolli: Why I employ a 'truth teller' at Toulouse FC
Written by Simon Austin — June 30, 2022
DAMIEN COMOLLI has explained why he employs a ‘truth teller’ at Toulouse FC.
The Frenchman, who was previously Director of Football at Tottenham, Saint-Etienne, Liverpool and Fenerbahçe, was appointed Chairman of the club in July 2020 and last season they were promoted back to the top flight after winning Ligue 2.
One of Comolli's first appointments was that of Selinay Gurgenc, the Head of Strategy and Culture. Speaking on Episode #40 of the TGG Podcast, he explained that the inspiration for the role had been an article revealing that 30% of leaders had at least one “fatal flaw” that seriously hampered their performance, yet they did not have the self awareness to recognise.
“It’s a role I’ve been wanting to create for many many years in the clubs I was working at,” Comolli told TGG. “What convinced me to do it was an article I read in the Harvard Business Review.
"They were saying that top CEOs nowadays need to be advised by someone who talks into their ear all the time and challenges them and at the same time makes sure that when decisions are made they are being implemented.
“I wanted this person to help me with all the strategic aspect we have at the club, from Academy to recruitment to management to who we appoint - anything you can think of.
“This person who is in charge of strategy has got all of the projects we have going on. Last year we were up to 62 projects; so who leads it, when do we meet, what time, what day, when do we meet again, how do we implement.
“That person is also in charge of challenging me in everything I do and think - everything. I keep telling her, ‘You need to give me your opinion on everything we do and challenge me.’
“During my career as a director, the biggest mistakes I made were when I was isolated. Sometimes you are in a club which is so political, like Fenerbahçe, and people try, for different reasons, to isolate you. Because they want power, they want money, they want this, they want that, so you have to fight not to be isolated.
“Not being isolated and having a kind of truth teller all the time has been a massive massive improvement with what I do.”
Gurgenc has a Master’s in Football Business from the Johan Cruyff Institute and was a financial analyst earlier on in her career before becoming Assistant Sporting Director to Comolli at Fenerbahçe. Comolli said she was the perfect choice as Head of Strategy and Culture at Toulouse.
“I needed someone with a clear strategy, a very high EQ, to understand the culture, the people and where we were going,” he explained.
The other main part of Gurgenc's job is culture. After arriving at Toulouse, Comolli organised working groups that included local leaders, as well as current and past staff and players, to work out exactly what the club meant to people and what the culture should be.
“The culture aspect, this was work I couldn’t do myself," Comolli said. "Two of the groups told us, ‘We want a culture where we are allowed to fail.’ One group said, 'Feedback is a gift.'
“They wanted instant feedback rather than annual reviews. They wanted a system - and are in the course of doing it - where they have instant feedback.”
As Chairman and Sporting Director, Comolli said he was not afraid to admit his fallibility and mistakes.
“One of the main skills of a leader is vulnerability - to show that you have weaknesses,” he said. “By showing your vulnerability you become a different leader and people are not scared to speak or come up with ideas and not scared to fail.”
This was something he had learned the hard way earlier on in his career, when he was Director of Football at Tottenham.
“I signed for Tottenham (in September 2005) and we qualified for Europe (that season), the first time for forever, and then we won the Carling Cup (in 2007/8), their first trophy since 1991 and the last one they won.
“We had Bale, Modric, Berbatov. Daniel (Levy) extended my contract for five years, he wanted to put a release clause of £10m. My feet didn’t touch the ground and there was a period when I was totally tunnel vision, focusing only on signing players, so I was not looking at the culture, the playing style.
“So I was not looking at, ’Is he a culture fit, are people happy at the training ground, are the players happy, is the connection between the players and coaching staff right?’
“All this I totally blanked. It was just recruitment, recruitment, recruitment, and the kind of approach of saying, ‘Look, I know. So don’t tell me. I’ve proven it.’ I remember one specific signing where Steve Hitchen, who was a European scout for us at the time, went to see the player and said, ‘Damien don’t sign him.’
“And I remember very well in my head saying, ‘What is he talking about? Of course I’m going to sign this player.’ And the player was a failure. When I started to say, ‘I know better than all of you and I won’t listen,’ that was wrong.”
Comolli was sacked in October 2008 after a disastrous start to the season in which Tottenham claimed just two points from their first eight league games. That was an experience which changed him forever.
“It was eating humble pie by getting fired and all this," he admitted. "From that day I thought to myself, first of all, I should lose my big head.' People tell me I still have a big ego, but that’s life. And communication, not isolated, having a truth teller in everything you do. Listening to people.
“At 32 and 50 you are not the same. You think you know everything at 32 and you get to 50 and realise you know nothing. I always remember Arsene (Wenger) telling me, 'The more time I spend in football the less I understand it.'
“When he says that, I look at myself and think, 'Who are you then to think you know, if that great man is saying he doesn’t?' You pay the price for the mistakes and even at 50 I am still making mistakes, but hopefully not the same ones.”