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Lessons for Organizations from the 2014 Football World Cup

By Elmar Kronz

Elmar Kronz

It’s July 13, 2014—the day when Germany won the football World Cup against Argentina at Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Few would disagree that the most deserving team won this year’s tournament in one of the most exciting, entertaining, and competitive world cups in modern history. (Of course, I’m German so I may be a little biased.)

World CupEveryone watching the semi-final match against Brazil on July 8 at the legendary Belo Horizonte stadium was either in disbelief or shock given the extent of the public humiliation of the great Seleҫão Brasileira. It will be remembered forever and not just because of the 7-1 defeat and the many records that were broken in this match. The German team scored 4 goals in just under 6 minutes, marking the largest margin of victory in a FIFA World Cup semi-final. Brazil’s loss broke its 62-match unbeaten-at-home streak in competitive matches going back to 1975, and equalled its biggest margin of defeat: a 6-0 loss to Uruguay in 1920. On the German side, Miroslav Klose overtook Brazil’s own Ronaldo as the tournament’s all-time record goal scorer.

The list of records goes on and on, but while watching this particular game I couldn’t help but wonder whether there are any lessons in it for all of us in the HR profession, for organizations, and for talent in a competitive environment. And, despite the fact that hindsight is always 20/20, I strongly feel that we can extract some very valuable lessons from this event, particularly the diametrically opposing fates of the German and Brazilian teams. So, here are my personal top 3 lessons:

1.    Winning is a team effort

This obviously applies to football, and it equally applies to every business in the world. Nobody would argue that the Brazilian team under coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has a number of very talented and impressive individual players, many of them playing for world-class clubs like Barcelona, Chelsea, or Bayern Munich. But they hardly came together as one unified team, and appeared, at times, selfish and utterly disorganized. On the other hand, the German team lacked the players with "global superstar celebrity" status of the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Their biggest strength and, ultimately, the key to their world cup win was the team spirit, a single mission, and the individual humility of the German squad.

In those dramatic 6 minutes of the semi-final game when Germany scored 4 times, the goals were kicked by the men in the best positions to score—the “best player for the play”—marking an absence of individual egos. That’s the essence of working as a team and most likely the biggest accomplishment of Germany’s coach Jogi Löw: taking a bunch of young, individual talents and inspiring them to become a team with one goal, and one goal only—win for Germany. The ability to build and engage teams remains one of the most critical skills for every great leader in today’s competitive environment.

2.    You’re only as strong as your bench

A fundamental difference between team Brazil and team Germany was the respective depths of their benches. There was much discussion about the impact of missing Brazilian forward Neymar and central defender Thiago Silva in the game against Germany. And in fact, it probably made a big difference, especially to the Brazilian defensive team, which literally disintegrated in front of everybody’s eyes. But great teams don’t complain about one or two missing players. In the end, that’s just life, and football teams or organizations lose people. The measure of true strength is not the few iconic "superstars" but whether you have prepared a bench to replace them when the need arises. As a case in point, in the final match against Argentina two substitutes prepared and scored the winning goal for Germany.

So the lesson for organizations is, don’t over rely on your "superstars"’ and make sure you have sufficient talent ready at all times. Leverage your A players whenever possible, but don’t build your whole strategy around them.

3.    Play the long game

Great football teams, as great organizations, are not built overnight.  It only takes a few lacklustre months or short years to lose the competitive race. What we saw in this year’s World Cup was the difference between an overreliance on individual stars vs. a long-term process of systematically developing individual talents into highly competitive teams.

After Germany disappointingly exited the group stage of the Euro 2000, the European football cup, the German Football Association invested heavily in a youth development program. Nine years later, the investment paid off as their Under-21 team captured the UEFA European Championships in Sweden with a crushing 4-0 defeat of England. Of note is the fact that six of the players from that 2009 team were among the 11 who bested Brazil in the 7-1 defeat in this World Cup. It took 14 years to reap the fruits of the seeds planted in 2000.

Can organizations learn a lesson from this? Absolutely, positively they can. Developing your next generation of leaders and A players will take time, and there are no real shortcuts. Gaining the strength, team spirit, and experience that you need to be competitive on the world stage requires a planful and disciplined process of spotting talent early, developing it in an accelerated fashion with purpose, and inspiring it to win as a team.

Some countries in this year’s football tournament have done a better job than others, most notably teams like Argentina, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, or the United States. Those teams have become highly competitive and played full of passion. Given the individual potential of players on the Seleҫão, the losses against Germany and the Netherlands can only be interpreted as resulting from a lack of systematic investment in the future.  Not too long ago, the proud football nation, Brazil, was considered the epitome of world-class football, having won 5 world cups in its history. By the same token, if you look at the Fortune 100 a century ago, you won’t see many of the same organizations on today’s list.  It’s tough to stay at the top of the game for everyone.  

Posted: 15 Jul, 2014,
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