Staying on the ball

Oct 07 issue

From public relations to managing volatile personalities,
Chris Ingram finds plenty of business lessons in the topsy-turvy universe of football.

Last month I said that you could learn all you need to know about business from restaurants. This month, I want to turn to football.

At clubs, it’s the same as restaurants when it comes to success and failure – the results of your actions are witnessed very quickly indeed. It’s as difficult to be in denial about your team having no points after ten games as it is about an empty restaurant.

Think of the former Leeds chairman, Peter Ridsdale, going from the giddy heights of Champion’s League football to relegation and bankruptcy. ‘We lived the dream,’ he famously said, and how quickly it descended into a nightmare. Here are some lessons you can learn from watching the beautiful game.

Freedom to play

Businesspeople often talk glibly about the need to take risks and be innovative in an ultra-competitive world. But it takes a great deal of work to create an environment in which innovation can thrive.

A soccer team that reins in or sidelines certain players because their style of play doesn’t fit the prevailing system is a perfect parallel with many companies that don’t allow their employees the freedom to innovate.

Teams often win for, say, eight straight games then suddenly start losing. The crowd gets on their back and begins groaning and jeering. They can’t understand why the striker, who was shooting on sight before, now continually passes the ball to someone else.

Like an employer, the fans have paid their money and feel entitled to vent their frustration, but they don’t seem to realise that they are destroying the confidence of their team. That striker will do anything rather than take responsibility for shooting at goal because he’s scared of missing and getting more jeers.

Eventually the team can become so paralysed with fear that they do even the simple, safe things too slowly and the other side snatches the ball away and counter-attacks.
How do you break out of this desperate vicious circle? Again, the answer’s clear: the crowd has to shift from venting their frustration to welcoming the tiniest improvement. They have to applaud someone who tries an ambitious, but unsuccessful pass (“Ah, but the thought was there!”) or the forward who shoots wide (“At least he had a go!”), and lo and behold, the team’s confidence will come creeping back. It can happen in 45 minutes on the pitch, or take at least six months in business, but the principle is the same.

Get the team on side
In most businesses, there’s a time when the going gets tough. Perhaps you’re losing orders and, whenever the phone rings, it’s bad news. Or maybe you’re running a public company and you know this year’s results will see you vilified by the press.

In my experience, it’s the threat of lawsuits or public humiliation that is the most divisive.

I have been involved in two such cases. Many senior executives got scared and just melted away when the going got tough. You may think you know people well, but wait until there’s a rumour that the ship might sink.

On the pitch you want to be playing on the same side as the guy who’s not scared to put his foot in. He goes into every 50/50 tackle looking to win, not pulling out at the last minute. These people are worth their weight in gold! They never run away from the tough decisions.

The benefit of experience
The most telling parallel between soccer and business is the older, class footballer – perhaps a former ‘box-to-box’ player who used to run endlessly up and down the pitch for the full 90 minutes. What does he do when he starts slowing down, but still wants to play?

The key words here are not the generalised phrases used in business or the outraged cries exclaiming: ‘They don’t value experience these days!’ The words are vision, interception and anticipation, and an ability to read the game.

An experienced player has a better overall view of matchplay, not just the part that he’s playing. That’s the vision. When he receives the ball, he knows in advance what he’s going to do with it: where, how and to whom.

He’s not really quicker, but he’s done his thinking in advance so he can use those few seconds to greater effect. He knows where he’s going to put the ball – and he has several options up his sleeve because he knows the game is constantly changing.

Because he can anticipate what’s about to happen, the old hand seems to have more time while others rush around in a frenzy. There’s a nice expression that sums it up: ‘He lets the ball do the work.’

People talk of footballers who have the knack of being in the right place at the right time. This enables them to make the timely interception of a defence-splitting pass or a crucial tackle. Again, the experienced player has seen the threat long before the other players have considered it.

I cannot think of a better parallel with today’s digitalised, always-on business life. Perhaps those ‘ill-educated’ footballers have a thing or two to teach us when it comes to selling the benefits of experience.