Every four years, the eyes of the world turn to soccer world championship. Hosted by Brazil (in 2014), the countries of the world convened in the South American country to determine which country would claim the title of the “World Champion” after surviving the rounds of the World Cup competition. In typical soccer style, 2014’s competition did not disappoint. There were upsets, shocking losses and breathtaking wins over the course of the World Cup, but at the end of the competition, there was only one winner: Germany. A fourteen year overhaul of the German soccer program ended in victory as their efforts paid off on the global scale. How did Germany, a country that was mortified after the stunning 2000 World Cup defeat, resurrect into becoming a powerhouse of foot skills and determination? Are there lessons to be learned from the principles applied by a soccer coach that can translate into the business world?
To fully understand how to build and coach your company as a soccer team, you will need to 1) understand the game, 2) lead practice drills, 3) empower employees, and 4) command the game. Finally, to help further understand the benefits of approaching your company as a soccer team, we will 5) look at examples from the World Cup.
UNDERSTAND THE SOCCER GAME
Before any coach can take to the field, they need to have a clear understanding of how the game is played. There is little value to have a coach who doesn’t know the rules of the game and soccer has some distinct rules that must be followed. To coach effectively, the coach must possess more than a passing knowledge of the game. It is not a coincidence that a majority of coaches were previously players; they have firsthand experience with the game and the specific rules the game has. This enables the coach to understand the game from the inside, gaining an advantage over the coach with no play experience.
As a business leader, it is similarly essential to know the rules of business. This is one of the reasons that successful entrepreneurs often have experience in the industry that they choose to join. Regardless of past experiences, however, one of the primary jobs of the entrepreneur is to understand the specific rules of the industry. Each field has its own unique set of requirements and regulations; working within the rules is important if the company is to succeed. Are there licensing requirements? Tax liabilities? Sales tax filings? Government regulations? Find out the specific guidelines that govern the industry and stay on top of any changes that will affect the business.
Along with understanding the rules of the game, it is imperative that the coach have an understanding of the various positions, as well as the strengths of the individual players. A player with speed can be utilized as a mid-fielder – someone who can race up and down the length of the field in order to help direct the game. Players who have a commanding kick may be best used as a striker – someone who can consistently get the ball into the net. The player who is not afraid to face down a field of players and won’t hesitate to throw their body in front of an advancing pack needs to be the goalie. By maximizing the individual strengths of the players, the team is better equipped to win.
In the same way, the business leader must know the strengths of the employees and match them to the job they are best-suited for. An employee who can handle customer service requests with a smile is wasted as a stock clerk in the warehouse. The staff personnel who knows their way around an excel spreadsheet should be working in the office, and the employee who never met a stranger should be on the front lines of dealing with customers and sales. Proper placement of the skills that employees have will result in a company that not only runs smoother; it will be strategically designed to win.
There is one goal in soccer: to achieve more points than the opponent when the final whistle blows. Everything done during the game is an attempt to either score a goal (the team on the offense) or prevent a goal (the team on the defense). Knowing the goal makes it easier to keep the goal in focus as the game progresses. It is easy to get caught up in the drama of players ‘getting hurt’, fighting or the other action that goes on during a game. The coach, therefore, must have laser like focus for maintaining the drive to score. It is the coach’s responsibility to make sure the team properly understands not only what the goal is, but how to best reach that goal.
Likewise, a business leader must keep the goal of the company in mind at all times. Identifying the goal (lead the industry in sales, increase production, exceed customer service requests), and then communicating that goal to the rest of the company is essential.
LEAD PRACTICE DRILLS
In addition to understanding the game, another important skill the coach must engage in is to lead practice drills. While getting ready for a game, players will practice for hours, weeks before the game. Practice sessions are designed to provide opportunities for the players to learn new skills and to practice techniques for the game. The players have the opportunity to work on game strategy and develop a plan based on the team that they will be playing.
In a practice setting, players will practice corner kicks, penalty kicks and passing drills to help build their skills for the game. They will work on heading the ball, dribbling, receiving the ball and shooting in specially designed drills to provide practice and reinforcement. To further help the development of their skills, the team will often scrimmage another team to put their work to the test.
Within the business environment, providing training opportunities for employees is essential. Not only is it important that employees stay current on new trends, methods and information about the industry, it provides the company with means to establish training opportunities. Setting up mock scenarios where employees can engage in practice sessions can enable the employee to put newly formed skills to the test.
Additionally, soccer players are often called upon to take another player’s position mid-game. This can be done due to injury or to the needs of the team. If the player has been properly cross-trained, they can slide into any position and provide skilled support from anywhere on the field. They will have no problem filling in for a teammate, when called upon to do so.
The business leader must facilitate the same level of cross training to ensure that any employee could step into another’s position and take over their duties as needed. Employees get sick; they have family issues or other circumstances that may impact their ability to be at work. To prevent a loss of productivity in these situations, employees should be able to pick up the slack until a permanent replacement can be found. This level of cross training would enable a company to continue working, regardless of employee issues, and would also increase the likelihood that the company will maintain its place in the market.
Successful coaching requires teaching the players how to play, and then allowing them to do so. Players need to know how to pivot on one foot, pass the ball to their own teammate and look for opportunities that are farther down the field. They cannot perform these skills if their coach is constantly correcting and critiquing their performance. The coach must let the players play their game, without interference.
Within the corporate structure, empowering employees is best handled by not only teaching the employee the specific skills related to their job but by instructing them in the company mindset. This can be demonstrated in the legendary customer service exhibited at Neiman-Marcus. The retail giant prides itself on its lack of customer service training, stating they simply instruct employees on the Neiman-Marcus mentality of really listening to customers. By doing this, along with empowering their employees to handle most customer issues without the need for managerial oversight, they have successfully created an environment where their employees can thrive. In doing so, they have given themselves an edge that other companies can only dream about.
One of the most important skills in soccer is the ability to communicate with teammates about what is happening on the playing field. Players must talk to each other, giving feedback, insight and direction, while the ball is in play. This can be overwhelming for new players who may be timid and not feel comfortable yelling for assistance while racing down the field. However, communicating among the team is paramount to success in a game.
Often, departments within a company begin to feel as though they are a world of their own. They keep information and details within the confines of their own department, ignoring the larger company and vision that they are supposed to be a part of. There must be communication between the various parts of the company, however, if the business is to succeed. The shipping department must communicate with the sales department to inform them of possible delays, issues or concerns that may impact customers. The promotions department must inform the sales department of upcoming specials and events that customers will participate in. Without cross-company communication, the daily operations of a company can grind to a halt, and business will suffer.
Soccer is a game of structure and improvisation. The coach instructs the players in the specific skills and techniques of the game. During games, however, the players must improvise based on the events of the game. A successful coach has empowered his players; giving them a wealth of game strategies to choose from as the game unfolds.
Empowering employees can be thought of as providing a structure for the company. Giving the basic framework of the daily operations gives stability and direction for the business, but still allows the employees the freedom to work within that structure.
COMMAND THE GAME
A difficult concept to master in the game of soccer is the idea of creating space. Players can create space by drawing the opposing team’s defense out, leaving a wide expanse of open field to create an opportunity to score. The team that can consistently create space on the field has the advantage – they are in control of the ball, and most likely, the game.
Companies who wish to maintain an advantage must learn to create space within their industry. By developing new processes, improving systems and finding ways to pull ahead of the competition, they remain in command of the marketplace. Innovation and design are key to maintaining an edge, along with a well-developed strategic plan.
Another way of commanding the game can be seen in the coaching strategy on a game day. Coaches who have been effective leaders are standing on the sidelines, offering encouragement and guidance. The time to train the players is during the long hours of practice – that is when the coach is in command, giving instruction, barking out steps. At the game, the coach knows that the players must take command of the game and put their skills into play. The team must be flexible – dealing with injuries, rain, bad calls and other unexpected issues that can change the flow of the game at a moment’s notice.
Instructing employees on how to handle specific situations is important. However, the time to teach an employee how to deal with irate customers is not while the irate customer is present. Those situations can be rehearsed and dealt with before the employee ever comes in contact with an unhappy customer. During the actual interaction, the business leader should be confident to stand back and watch the interaction. Allowing the employee the flexibility to deal with unexpected situations or concerns while working within the corporate structure is another important factor in commanding the marketplace.
Soccer is a test of endurance. Two 45 minute halves that consist of mainly running back and forth across a field are grueling enough. Adding the full body workout that comes from the players using their heads, arms, chest and legs to move the ball and the game can be brutal. The game is not for the timid, and must be approached with the utmost respect for physical fitness and health. To be successful in the game, the player must be willing to work hard and stay in shape.
The life of an entrepreneur can be equally as taxing. Taking on the challenge of starting a business can be both mentally and physically challenging. It requires a dedication that many have no interest in exhibiting. Business leaders who wish to maintain success must plan for the long haul. This may require weeks of long hours, little pay and large stress. Establishing a plan to endure will help the entrepreneur succeed when others give up.
When a soccer player has an open net, there is only one thing to do: take the shot. Every opportunity to score must be taken, because the game changes quickly. In the final game of the World Cup, Germany scored five times in the first 30 minutes of the game. They went on to score another two goals in the second half of the game, and likely would have continued to add to their total if the game had been longer. They took advantage of every opportunity they had to score, and they were wildly successful. Brazil was unable to answer those goals and went down in a stunning defeat.
Businesses who truly wish to be successful must do the same. Seizing every opportunity that is presented is the only way that a company can master the industry and come out victorious. By not being willing to settle for ‘good enough’, the company can create an advantage that will continue to bring success, and ultimately, profits.
2014 WORLD CUP EXAMPLES
The German team regained its status as a dominating force in the soccer world with its win at the World Cup. Some of the key individuals who played in the tournament can provide examples of how leading a business as a soccer coach can be beneficial.
Andrea Pirlo: The 35 year old Italian player knows his limits. He is no longer the young player on the field, and so is content to leave the long runs to others. As a midfielder, he can command the game due to his ability to place the ball, as well as his tactical skills. He has adjusted his game based on his abilities. Successful companies know how to shift their strategy to accommodate the strengths of the business.
Jurgen Klinsmann: The German coach of the US National Team, Klinsmann shocked the soccer world when it was announced that he had eliminated Landon Donovan from the US roster. Donovan’s own admission that he no longer felt he could train and play as hard as Klinsmann would demand did nothing to squelch the rise of angry fans that could not image a US team without the star. He stood by his decision, however, and the US went on to play great soccer – without Donovan. Sometimes business leaders have to make tough, unpopular decisions for the betterment of the company. To achieve success, the leader must be willing to stand firm in the face of adversity.