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Management Lessons from World Cup Football
Article » Finance
Posted by : thedesk   Jul 24 2006
Read how the football world cup threw up a few important management lessons
The world cup ended a little over a fortnight ago. We sat up into the wee hours of most days or nights in June, depending of course upon where on earth you were, and watched the pulsating action. We watched the sun set on Ronaldo, Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Olivier Kahn, Erwin Van der Saar, Ruud van Nistelroy and others just as we welcomed the emergence of fresh, delectable soccer skills of Robinho, Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lukas Podolski.

The fascinating part of a football world cup is the common feeling of a near fanatical obeisance to this enchanting game during the month long fiesta. Football is more than the mere sight of twenty two footballers from amongst the best in the world slugging it out to prove which country was the best with the ball. Football is more than watching a ballet of dancers on the ball, weaving magic in our spellbound minds. Football is much more than a flagbearer of globalization. It is more academic than a laboratory session yet more heart-pounding and livelier than a night club. It is more permanent than ninety minutes of action. A football match starts before the players stroll out onto the ground and finishes much after the referee blows the final whistle. I wouldn’t be wrong if I were to say that watching a soccer game is like a lesson in management class.

The Lessons:

Recruit and create the best combination and not merely select the best individuals.

For those who follow football, Real Madrid is an example where you had the best of talent from across the world, with people like Luis Figo, Zidane, Raul, Beckham, Roberto Carlos and others and yet the team would only flatter to deceive. The world cup proved that having the best set of players like Argentina or Brazil did not mean you had the best combination. If you had Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka, Roberto and others in your team, like Brazil did and yet did not perform, the purpose is defeated. The ability to collectively produce a greater degree of consistency and a finer blend was shown by the lesser known Italian attacking force of Luca Toni, Zambrotta and Francesco Totti. That’s because complementarity is as important to a team on the football field as it is in an office environment. After all, aren’t we all working towards a common goal? Consider why an orchestra never has the best violinists only. Or the best vocalists only. It also has players of other instruments. Therefore it is necessary to identify, recruit and create the best combination possible.

Keep a mix of experience and youth
Though younger teams did well upto a point, experienced teams began doing better at the knock-out stage, when nerves had to be kept in check and the game needed to be taken to another level. At that stage, younger players sometimes lost their nerves or did not have the right strategy for want of experience at that level. Similarly, in an organization, it is good to have younger people. You will have more energy, speed, efficiency and stamina to meet deadlines. But that indescribable feel for adapting to crunch situations comes with experience. This cannot be better brought out than the run of France. The team was old, slow, sloppy and untidy. Yet it delivered performances like a brute when it came to the knock out stage. Finished off a younger team like Portugal and a skilled outfit like Brazil. However when they met a better balanced Italy in the finals, they stuttered and fell apart like an overused, obsolete old engine that had run beyond its time. The moral here is that though experience helps immensely there will be a time when you will need to have a combination of youth and experience in your team to get results.

Identify the strategy and key positions
The Argentinean manager failed to identify the key positions in his team. The result was that world class players like Messi, Tevez, Saviola and Cambiasso were underutilized. If their strategy was attack, their key positions should have been those that assist fruitful attacking moves. They had the attacking players and yet chose to defend and attack half heartedly. Their key positions were never filled and so unsure were they of their strategy that they chose to pack their defences when they were up against Germany in the quarter finals and thus allowed Germany to get back into the game and eventually win it.

In an organization, choose the key positions in your team after having understood what the business strategy is. Before recruiting the best team, it is essential to identify what is good for the overall performance of the team and organization and then work towards creating the positions that help that goal.

It is good to have an element of unpredictability as a Manager
Did you watch the Australian coach Guus Hiddink in the world cup match against Japan. Down 0-1, he brought in a striker to help level the score. Australia did make it 1-1 and then 2-1. Common wisdom said that once you have the lead you should defend. But Hiddink isn’t a common man. He chose to attack when most other coaches would have defended. It threw the Japanese game plan off-gear. They weren’t sure how much to put into their attack as the Aussies threw in the numbers near the Japanese goalmouth. The result – The Aussies slammed in one more to put the issue beyond doubt. The lesson is that if a manager is too predictable in his approach – so much so that all his actions and reactions are sorted out by the team beforehand, he may tend to lose some of his efficiency, especially with regards to motivating the team towards the achieving the goals set. A little unpredictability helps in keeping the team fired up. For example, if your team knows that good work will lead to XY rewards 100 out of 100 times, it is fine but it may result in people’s extreme familiarity with your psyche that may lead to slackening in performances. Consider this: what about a team that knows that good work leads to rewards 100 out of 100 times but is a little unsure of the reaction you might have, which could be in relation to the effect of the work on the overall picture, the criticality, the frequency of such work. That lack of complete knowledge about the manager’s moods helps him push his team to greater feats. It also helps the team avoid a typical lackadaisical attitude that may creep in with familiarity in surroundings.

Right Man Right Job: Know the potential and strengths of your teammates
Carlos Parreira, the Brazilian coach made Ronaldinho play as a withdrawn midfielder in this world cup. Anyone who knows the way Ronaldinho plays will agree that this is like telling Mahendra Singh Dhoni to play the sedate role of an anchor and asking Rahul Dravid to blaze away. If you watched the Italians play, Lippi their coach insisted on concentrating on the defensive strengths of goalkeeper Buffon, Nesta and Cannavaro and the fighting skills of Zambrotta and Materazzi. It didn’t look pretty but it was very effective. Pekerman, the Argentinian coach knew that Messi, the dribbling artist and Tevez, the bustling goal scorer made the perfect combo, and yet he hardly ever played them together. He never recognized their strengths. If, as a manager, you find it difficult to understand the strengths of your teammates, you will almost always never be able to get the optimal results.

In contrast, look at Portugal. Luiz Felipe Scolari, their coach recognized the speed of Cristiano Ronaldo, the experience of Figo, the long range ability of Deco and the surprise of Maniche. The result – a semi final place for a team that wasn’t expected to go far. It is a sacred truth – Know Your People Well.

Some of these world cup coaches have known players since their early club days. It is only when you know your people well that you are able to tap into their reserves of talent. For that to happen, a manager needs to go beyond the immediate performances and understand why an individual performs in a particular manner. It’s important to continually watch performances and proactively place people into positions that match their skill sets.

Remember the transformation from a hands-on leader to a creator of performers.
If you watched the coaches closely you would have found different approaches. Marcello Lippi (Italy) was more of a CEO whereas Van Basten or Juergen Klinsmann were like hands-on COOs. It helped in both cases. Lippi played the role that best defined his methods. He had a leader like Canavarro to carry his ideas. Klinsmann is an ex international star. So is Van Basten. And both chose to manage the team from the front but did not create leaders in the team though Klinsmann had Ballack and Van Basten had Nistelroy and Philip Cocu.

It is essential to lead your team from the front. Both Klinsmann and Van Basten were successes when they played. As managers, they succeeded too. However, they would have gone farther had they created leaders on the field. Lippi did nurture leaders in Nesta and Cannavaro and yet did not lose control. The result was that he could think about things 20-25 minutes beyond the current proceedings as Cannavaro kept executing Lippi’s plans smoothly on the field. For a sample – check the number of red and yellow cards Italy received in its matches. The idea was to stop falling to irascible temper and let the coach think freely about forthcoming tactical changes.

You must lead your people from the front but as you go along, remember to create team leaders that help your plans and have exponential effect on results. Remember to change the style of your leadership when it’s necessary.

Consistency and the Art of Doing Simple Things Well
Consistency is the cornerstone of all work. If you are flashy, brilliant and talented, it will look good but if you do not perform at that level all the time, you are bound to be overtaken by some one who is able to perform at a slightly lesser pace and efficiency than your high level, but at a more consistent and sustainable pace. Look at the performances of Spain. They began by thrashing Ukraine in such a manner that suggested they were in a hurry to get back to Madrid after the world cup. Yet what happened after a few brilliant performances? The Spanish Armada sputtered, gasped, choked and ultimately sank against Zidane’s never-say-die Gauls who were struggling till then. On the other hand, take a look at Italy. They did the simple things well and then strove to add a few moments of brilliance. To buttress this claim, check out the number of field goals Italy conceded in this tournament. It was… zero! The two goals they let in were – a suicidal own goal and a penalty that Zizou converted in the final. They made sure they were safe. Once they did that, they attacked and closed the matches. They did that to Australia, scoring in the dying moments. They did that against Germany, closing out the match as the whistle was being blown.

Argentina was brilliant against Serbia and Montenegro, pumping in six without reply. However, they couldn’t up the ante when it was needed against Germany. Germany, on the other hand consistently played at slightly lower level of brilliance than Argentina, but never did they ever let that level drop. The result was that they performed way beyond their potential.

Have you ever watched Goran Ivanisevic play tennis? And Ivan Lendl? Who won more titles and who had a more attractive game between the two? No prizes for guessing. You couldn’t guess which way the Croat played because of his stupendous but erratic shotmaking although you would be surer to bet your money on Lendl making the finals. Like champions, managers who do well, prove themselves consistently over a period of time.

Underpromise but Overdeliver
When the world cup started, Brazil was the overwhelming favourites. The kind of publicity they received was second to none. It was thought that they would weave magic. Forget weaving magic, it seemed someone had instead cast a spell on the magicians themselves! They overpromised and underdelivered. The disappointment that was caused was more than what would have happened had they had failed without promising much. In contrast, take a look at Ghana. They lost to Brazil and bowed out before them, but theirs was a success. That’s because there wasn’t any hype built around them. So was Portugal who reached the semis with lesser lights. Also, check out Germany. People expected them to be dour and unattractive. What they dished out was an attacking brand of free flowing soccer and a series of good performances that helped them reach the semis.

If you commit a promise to your clients, employees, colleagues, you need to follow up. Understand your capabilities, time limitations, resources at hand etc before you commit. This is because your future goodwill will always depend upon the gap between promise and delivery. If Promise > Delivery, then goodwill is bound to suffer, however well you have delivered the results. However, if you underpromise and overdeliver, it increases your stock manifold. It will help you establish yourself as a capable, responsible professional. Mind you, being both capable and responsible helps you more than many other qualities. And when you establish the perception that you indeed carry a lot of those qualities, it increases your goodwill exponentially and for a durable time.

Hunger to succeed
Whatever the situation, if you do not have the will to fight the odds, you will find it difficult to turn on the heat in your performance. Brazil had all the talent but lacked the hunger to go the distance. Ghana was lauded because they had the will but couldn’t go farther because of lack of experience at that level. Costa Rica and Portugal had the hunger while Spain and England didn’t. There is no other reason one can have for explaining the failure of teams with players from the best leagues in the world. The lack of hunger could be due to tiredness and a lack of motivation to prove themselves as players since they earn decent sums in league football. A Ghanaian player has a lot to prove, for the difference between an eye catching performance and an ordinary one at the world cup may mean either getting to play high quality soccer in the English or Spanish league or missing the bus totally to resign himself to poorly paid clubs in the backwaters of Ghana.

The hunger to succeed needs to be maintained when pursuing your goal. The competition is too intense to let your guard down. When recruiting people, it is good to pick people with the extra hunger content. You won’t need to work on motivating a lot that is already motivated. Besides, professional hunger helps create positive energy around everyone that can translate into good collective performance. To sum it up, can you imagine the impact on the entire Brazilian team had Ronaldinho made one of those characteristic surging runs and created a goal.

It is not just the world cup of soccer that throws up management lessons, but sports itself is all about managing one’s capabilities, fighting off competition and marching towards the goal. We at thedesk thought that since football kept our spirits rolling for a month, it would be interesting to sit back and look at what football could do to our professional selves.

We realized it could do a lot more than we knew! ,