How Does A Canadian Hockey Coach Run An English Premier League Team?
In 2014, Southampton Football Club owner Katharina Liebherr approached former Edmonton Oilers coach Ralph Krueger to join the club as Chairman. The Liebherr family had purchased Southampton five years earlier, and were familiar with Krueger’s exploits from his decades spent in European hockey. Still, many wondered how a lifelong hockey coach (albeit accomplished) with no soccer experience was going to run a multimillion dollar Premier League club.
Krueger’s background makes him — in my mind — one of the most interesting men in the world. Born in Winnipeg, Canada, he would go on to play international hockey for West Germany, the country of his parents. After a healthy playing career, at age 30 he moved into the coaching ranks and led Austrian club VEU Feldkirch to five straight Austrian titles, and a European Cup. He then spent 11 years as the Swiss national team coach and guided them at three Olympic Games.
After the Vancouver Olympics, Krueger’s career brought him back to North America, where he rose through the coaching ranks with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, eventually becoming Head Coach in 2012. Relieved of his duties after one lockout-shortened season, Ralph joined Hockey Canada’s coaching staff for their gold medal run at the Sochi Olympics. He’s written a book (in German); coached Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey; and been an active member of the World Economic Forum, where he contributed on leadership. But none of that is the interesting part.
A Coaching Mindset
While Krueger is now on the administrative side of a team in a completely different sport, he uses the lessons of his past to help guide his future. “After 20 years as a coach, I still walk into work every day and coach people. That’s something I’ll never let go of because it’s what gets the most out of people,” Ralph told me during a lengthy one-on-one interview. What I found stunning about Krueger was the consistency with which he delivered his messages about the teams he leads. Whether it’s an NHL team, a Premier League team, or a team of real estate agents, his messages seem universal.
“Success is being honest about where your potential is and going after your potential. The byproduct is winning, which is what the world sees as success,” he mentioned about halfway through our conversation. Reading quotes from his introductory press conference in Edmonton, he offered up a thought that was startlingly similar: “Our natural ability will lead us to winning. The winning is a byproduct, not a focus. The focus will be excellence; it will be our execution, our practices.”
While Southampton have not been getting the results they desire this season, under Krueger’s watchful eye the club have begun to realize their potential — coming within minutes of winning a rare trophy — eventually losing the 2017 League Cup final 2–3 to Manchester United.
Purpose And Vision
In early 2014, one of the first exercises Krueger undertook as Chairman was to hold a staff meeting with every full-time employee in attendance. The session went for over 4 hours as the employees completed a series of team-building exercises and short written assignments. But this was not your ordinary snooze-fest type of meeting. Far from it. “The biggest single thing about purpose and visionary work,” Krueger told me, “is the involvement of the people who are supposed to be motivated by it.” In a meeting that has become legendary around the club, all 204 full-time staff got on the microphone, voicing their opinions about their job, the culture, and what they thought Southampton could achieve as a club — both on and off the pitch. “I wanted to make a point that everyone had the opportunity to speak that day,” he added “and it’s less important what they said and more important that they knew they were involved. Where companies struggle is when they try to dictate culture top-down.”
The learnings that were taken away from that meeting have helped guide the cultural identity of Southampton Football Club. Their people all had input into The Southampton Way, which is published on the website for all to see. The club also developed a firm purpose, which echoes through everything from their transfer targets to their social media department. Southampton’s mission, in everything they do, is to turn potential into excellence.
So — how does a lifelong hockey coach lead a soccer team? The same way he led a hockey team: with a commitment to people, and a coaching mindset. We can all learn from Ralph Krueger, regardless of the discipline we’re in.