Can Executives Learn from Football Players?

FIFA World Cup 2018 has been a true revelation. We learned that World Cup cities can turn into 24/7 festivals of kindness and friendship. But that’s just scratching the surface. Football is way beyond than just a game. It’s an enormous industry with hundreds of thousands of employees and billions of clients. It’s strategy and tactics, leadership and teamwork. Football teaches us a lot of things and gives us hope. In the last month, outsiders have beaten acclaimed favorites thanks to better shape, tactics and motivation. Yesterday’s winners turned out unprepared to new challenges, could not overcome their internal struggles and lost to competition. Football teams, coaches, and players can teach us a lot about the art and science of business and management.

Please comment on your own insights from the World Cup. Here are some examples of how leading business schools teach football lessons for business use.

First, you can always LEARN BY ANALYZING FOOTBALL teams and players’ performance.

Diversity does improve defenders’ performance and decreases that of the offensive players

Avner Ben Ner from the Carlson School of Management is our personal hero. He analyzed twenty-eight soccer teams and 1723 players that played in 6120 (!) Bundesliga games in ten seasons to analyze how place-of-origin diversity is connected to individual and team performance. Turns out that diversity does improve defenders’ performance and decreases that of the offensive players. The explanation suggests that in prevention (defense) people are more likely to benefit from cooperation, while in promotion (attack) competitiveness creates collaboration issues. Many of us can probably relate to that by remembering some personal experiences with “prevention-oriented” nonprofits vs. “promotion-driven” super competitive investment banking or consulting companies.

Klinsmann’s story is an excellent illustration of context-dependent leadership and the challenges of change management.

Christoph Burger, a senior lecturer at ESMT, specializes in innovation in the energy sector, including blockchain (check out his course on Blockchain in December!). He is also an expert in negotiation and decision-making. In 2008 and 2009 he co-authored two cases about outstanding German coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s leadership and change management — the first follows Klinsmann’s successful turnaround of Germany’s national team, which his then-assistant Joachim Low brought to victory against Brazil in 2014 and to a crushing fiasco this year. The second case is about Klinsmann’s failed attempt to reform Bayern Munich against the backdrop of club management’s expectations of short-term success. It’s probably time to complete the trilogy with a case of Klinsmann-led Team USA failed qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Klinsmann’s story is an excellent illustration of context-dependent leadership and the challenges of change management.

Second, you can LEARN DIRECTLY FROM top football professionals. For example, MBA students at Stanford GSB have the opportunity to learn from the President of San Jose Earthquakes Football Club, David Kaval, whose specialty is sports management and marketing. The Earthquakes are one of the most high-tech sports teams and a startup itself — the franchise was launched just over 20 years ago. It embraces wearable technology and its brand new Avaya Stadium is the first cloud-enabled MLS stadium and the solar panels makes it net-zero on game day.

From Gerard Pique’s Facebook Page

Finally, you can LEARN TOGETHER WITH top football stars. Spain national team and FC Barcelona’s best defender Gerard Pique is known to have taken an HBS course taught by a legend, one of the youngest female professors to be promoted to full tenure at HBS. Anita Elberse is one of the most prolific case writers on sports, media, and entertainment. Among the ones she authored are cases on FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Sir Alex Ferguson. As many top players have completed their careers this summer, there is a good reason to expect meeting some of them in Anita’s next class. If you didn’t get a seat at the final game, you can still apply to the program. Always happy to help.