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Teamwork Lessons from Soccer Leagues

ODC Teamwork Blog

To me, there are few better examples of team development and team performance than the soccer teams many of us religiously support, whether they are in the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga or the German Bundesliga. Each week, save for a short off season, billions of fans all over the world congregate in sports bars, homes, halls, anywhere to catch their favourite team pit their skills against one of their challengers. They only want one thing: for their team to win. Nothing else is good enough.

Yet, even for the wealthiest club, winning doesn’t come easy. Much of the visible responsibility fall on the team manager whose head is the first to roll if their team does not enjoy some measure of success. Whether in-season or in the off-season, whether they just won the league championships or were relegated, the team manager has to constantly re-shape his team, bringing up players from their youth or reserve squads, buying some and trading out others who no longer fit into their plans. To do nothing would be considered almost suicidal because the manager knows his competition will not stand still. He may even be blindsided if other teams, in the same league or otherwise, win a bid for his star players whether they are still under contract or not.

We can probably argue that a fortunate manager will have on his team a depth of talent, some perhaps superstars. Still others are personalities with reputations forged by their footballing talents and antics off the field. Yet, a manager knows that one man or even several men do not make a team. The so-called best teams can lose to minnows, while minnows can become champions.

So, the team manager has to constantly work to make a team out of the egos and disparate individuals that his team players are. He has to constantly work to make a team that not just wins but entertains, a team that will fight to the very last second to turn around games, a team that will engender that loyalty among their fans so that they will stay with them through thick and thin.

Should organisational teams be any different?

Organisations exist and fight for success in a different kind of league. In their leagues, there may be many similar teams in the same country or across the world. Those teams may be playing to slightly different rules whether it is because of their market size, geographic location, regulatory regime or other reasons. Depending on industry type, new competing teams can easily emerge. More terrifyingly, some of those teams can change the rules of the game and disrupt the entire league.

If we draw the parallel with soccer teams, then organisation managers should also constantly look at what their competitors are up to, whether they are getting a new coach, new players or new income sources. They need to know which positions need strengthening and where to find the players for their teams. Some of the organisations may have the wherewithal to hire superstars and pay a premium for such talents. Many will not, but they can take consolation that, like soccer teams, one man does not make an organisation.

If constantly re-shaping of the team is what organisational managers should do, then in a way, it seems counter-intuitive to how many of us would like to manage. One of the holy grails we seek is some semblance of stability in the team, when turnover is low, when team members click well with each other, when the team seems to be truly performing at its highest level. By making adjustments, whether incremental or transformational, could the organisational manager be actually de-stabilising the team structure, causing it to perform sub-optimally? On the other hand, if we are fearful of this, are we allowing ourselves to slip slowly to complacency and atrophy?

We can continue to argue over this. The fact remains, though, that change is the only constant and change itself is accelerating. So, internal and external forces themselves are changing and faster than ever before. These must have some impact on the organisational team, if not immediately, then at least in due course. There is only one way to respond. The organisational manager has to do what the soccer team manager is used to doing: re-shape their teams to ensure that they are able to not just withstand the shocks of tomorrow, but succeed and win. Otherwise, he and his team may end up relegated and consigned to history, something that has happened too often in the business world.

The organisation manager who can best gell their team members together, harness their individual potential and synergise their talents will probably have the best chance at the winning their version of the championship.



Xavier Lim is a senior consultant with Organisational Development Concepts specialising in areas of people-centric leadership. He previously held various leadership roles across various functions at Singapore Airlines, and was a member of the senior leadership team at Tiger Airways.


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