There are many interesting analogies between business and sports, which leads besides others to the fact that top athletes or successful sports trainers are frequently welcomed speakers at business conferences of large conglomerates. This blog highlights some of these analogies, which are from my point of view of particular importance.
Take care of your health and fitness
Approx. 15 years ago, Siemens invited Thomas Bubendorfer to an event of the department, I was working for at that point of time. Bubendorfer is an Austrian solo free-climber, who made headlines in the 1980s and 1990s with spectacular free-solo climbs, for example in 1983 in the north faces of Grandes Jorasses, Matterhorn and Eiger. In 1986, it took him 23 hours to solo climb the granite giant Fitz Roy in Patagonia. In 1991, Bubendorfer first climbed solo and without rope through the South Face of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America. In the past 15 years, he has succeeded in many first ascents as an ice climber.
Source of photo: http://www.bubendorfer.com/?s=fotos&g=12
Bubendorfer’s presentation at the Siemens event was really inspiring. Amongst other things, he highlighted one important difference between top athletes and top managers that I have remembered over the past 15 years every now and then.
A top athlete usually prepares himself systematically for his competitions and doses his training according to the requirements of the competitions. This also includes rest periods for recovery after the competitions and, above all, the thorough healing of injuries. The top athlete does this because he knows that the body is his most important asset, which he must treat with care in order to be able to achieve top performance in the long term.
In contrast, most top managers are constantly under full load. They often neither allow themselves rest breaks nor cure illnesses adequately. Top managers often spend a lot of their office time sitting in front of a computer screen or in meetings. As a result of the high time consumption the resulting movement deficit is often not compensated even after work hours. Work lunches or hastily taken snacks between two meetings complete the unhealthy lifestyle. This often leads to overwork or even burnout.
Maintaining their health and fitness is just as important for top managers as continuous development of their professional knowledge and skills. In these areas, top managers can learn a lot from top athletes.
In terms of sports teams additional qualities are important beyond health and fitness, as we will see in the next paragraph.
Take care of your people and focus on your customers
Juergen Klopp is a German football manager and former professional player who is the current manager of the English Premier League club Liverpool Football Club (LFC).
Klopp spent most of his 15-year playing career at Mainz 05, before going on to become their longest-serving manager from 2001 to 2008, during which time they achieved promotion to the German Bundesliga. In 2008, Klopp joined Borussia Dortmund, leading them to back-to-back Bundesliga wins in 2011 and 2012, as well as the DFB-Pokal in 2012, the DFL-Supercup in 2013 and 2014, and their second appearance in an UEFA Champions League final in 2013. Klopp was awarded as German Football Manager of Year in 2011 and 2012, before leaving Dortmund in 2015 having also become their longest-serving manager. In October 2015, he became manager of Liverpool Football Club, whom he led to the finals of the English League Cup and the UEFA Europa League in his first season before guiding them to the 2018 UEFA Champions League Final.
Even though Juergen Klopp was not a top notch football player himself, he is without any doubt a highly successful football manager with an impressive track record, who has proven his skills with various teams in different environments. How did „Kloppo“ make it from a mediocre soccer player to one of the best coaches in the world? What makes him so successful and what can top managers learn from Juergen Klopp?
Klopp’s career is a success story against all odds. It has to do with many coincidences, with courageous decisions and with a lot of charisma. It can only be explained by the phenomenon Klopp, the motivator, the „Kinski of the coaching zone“, as the German satirist Micky Beisenherz called him. „He can infect not only teams, but entire cities with his euphoria and enthusiasm,“ says his Biographer Raphael Honigstein. Klopp, the wandering volcano, the saviour, whose first official act after his arrival in Liverpool is to open the doors in the whole house and memorize the names of all 80 employees at the office. Klopp touches people from the first moment. „And if you can,“ says biographer Honigstein, „then you can also become Chancellor.“
I. Juergen Klopp has a vision
Studies of the Technical University Dortmund in basketball clearly show that if coaches succeed in creating a vision and players internalize it, each team member achieves better performances, which can be measured, for example, by the number of baskets, ball wins and some other values.
During his time with Borussia Dortmund, Juergen Klopp not only won several titles with his team, but also built up a team hungry for success from young, highly motivated players. In an analysis from 2013, a Technical University Dortmund research team led by Prof. Jens Rowold was able to find many factors of the transformational style in Jürgen Klopp’s leadership behavior: „He is an above-average motivator, can charismatically convey visions and lives up to his role model function by living the passion he demands from his players“.
Klopp’s ambition is nothing less than to celebrate together with his teams spectacular football events, which make fans and professional experts enthusiastic. He hates boring ball possession football à la Pep Guardiola, in which the players try to keep the ball in their own rows for minutes in order to find a gap in the opponent’s defence at some point, as well as José Mourinho’s destructive defensive football which is primarily designed to destroy the other team’s game and win by shooting one own goal.
An important side effect of the enthusiastic football played by Klopps‘ team is the high degree of support from the fans, who regularly become the „twelfth man“ for the team. This happened in Dortmund as well as in Liverpool on a regular basis and released additional strengths for the players.
II. Juergen Klopp has a strategy
The following citation is taken from an article published in the English Guardian on October 16, 2015, under the headline „Juergen Klopp’s Liverpool and the importance of Gegenpressing„. It illustrates, that Juergen Klopp has not only a vision, but as well an adequate strategy, which supports his vision:
„Who is the best playmaker in the world? While others squabble over individual players, Jürgen Klopp has no doubt. Nothing, he believes, creates more chances than „Gegenpressing“. It is his faith in that style and his ability to instill its principles in his players that allowed Borussia Dortmund to compete with far wealthier clubs. The system was able to negate the fact Bayern Munich was able to afford better individual.
A UEFA technical report on season 2014-15 Champions League headed “Counters are key”. According to this report 20.6% of all goals scored from open play in the Champions League in season 2014-15 were from counters. The figure was presented as though it was a lot, but it was down from 23% in 2013-14 and 27% in 2012-13.
In 2005-06 a report put together by the technical director of UEFA, Andy Roxburgh, suggested as many as 40% of all goals from open play came from counterattacks. In other words, the proportion of goals scored from counters has almost halved over the last decade until 2014-15.
What that suggests is that the top clubs, at least, are getting better at countering the counter, that the transition from attack to defense has become as significant as the transition from defense to attack, and part of the reason for that is Gegenpressing. No one, perhaps, has done more to popularize the style than Juergen Klopp.
“The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it,” Klopp has said. “The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”“
III. Juergen Klopp is a great people manager and communicator
The aforementioned studies of Technical University Dortmund in basketball confirmed as well a clear link between the team performance and the individual promotion and support provided by the manager for his players, which significantly improves their individual performance. At Borussia Dortmund, Klopp supported and encouraged his players individually, so ‚pick them up where they stand‘, as he himself once put it.
One of Klopp’s biggest talents is to lead his teams very effectively under consideration of the individual strengths and needs of the players. Individual recognition, respect and appreciation are important elements of Klopp’s leadership style as a team manager as well as his ability to create enthusiasm and develop the skills of his players individually.
Mario Goetze, who scored the German winning goal against Argentina in the final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, was stronger under no other coach than under Juergen Klopp between 2009 and 2013.
Finally, Klopp’s shows not only a respectful attitude for people in the relationships with his players, but also in his handling of fans, support staff, media and colleagues.
He simply didn’t find anyone in his research who wanted to say anything bad about Klopp, says Klopp’s biographer Raphael Honigstein. „Even people with whom he once had arguments in football say with a little distance: ‚I love this guy.'“
Klopp convinced the bosses of the Liverpool Football Club at the exploratory talks in New York with his enormous expertise, his analytical skills and his charisma to such an extent that they wanted to sign him right away. „He could start at Apple tomorrow and be on stage to sell the world’s newest iPhone,“ says Mike Gordon, CEO of the Fenway Sports Group in Boston, which owns the Reds. „It was hard to find a weak spot in him at all.“
Due to his excellent communication and entertainment skills Juergen Klopp is a popular man in the media and for advertising purposes.
In 2005, Klopp was a regular expert commentator on the German television network ZDF, giving his views on games of the Germany national football team. He worked as a match analyst during the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, for which he received the Deutscher Fernsehpreis for the „Best Sports Show“ category in October 2006, as well as for the Euro 2008. During the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Klopp worked with RTL alongside Guenther Jauch, for which Klopp again won the award for the same category. Klopp has also appeared in the documentary films „Trainer!“ (2013) and „Und vorne hilft der liebe Gott“ (2016), which could roughly be translated as „And in the front the good Lord helps“.
Klopp’s popularity is used in advertisements by, among others, Puma, Opel and the German cooperative banking group Volksbanken-Raiffeisenbanken. According to Horizont, trade magazine for the German advertising industry, and the business weekly Wirtschaftswoche, Klopp’s role as „brand ambassador“ for Opel successfully helped the struggling carmaker to increase sales.
He is also an ambassador for the German anti-racism campaign „Respekt! Kein Platz für Rassismus“ („Respect! No room for racism“).
IV. Juergen Klopp is authentic
Juergen Klopp was born in Stuttgart, the state capital of Baden-Wuerttemberg, to Norbert Klopp, a traveling salesman and Elisabeth Klopp. Juergen Klopp grew up in the countryside in the Black Forest village of Glatten near Freudenstadt with two older sisters (Isolde Reich and Stefanie Klopp). He started playing for local club SV Glatten and later TuS Ergenzingen as a junior player, with the next stint at 1. FC Pforzheim and then at three Frankfurt clubs, Eintracht Frankfurt II, Viktoria Sindlingen and Rot-Weiss Frankfurt during his adolescence before he joined Mainz 05 in 1990.
In 1995, Juergen Klopp obtained a diploma in sports science at the Goethe University of Frankfurt, writing his thesis about walking. He has been married twice. He was previously wedded to Sabine and they have a son, Marc (born 1988), who has played for a number of German clubs. On 5 December 2005, Klopp married social worker and children’s writer Ulla Sandrock. They met at a pub during an Oktoberfest celebration that same year. She has a son, Dennis, from a previous marriage.
Juergen Klopp is a Protestant Christian who has referred to his faith in public, citing the importance of Jesus in his life in a media interview.
Jurgen Klopp’s mum Elisabeth Klopp, once said: “My son gets along with everyone“. Juergen’s early childhood life was centered around the word „loyalty“. He never loved to dream big. He always settled for less as a boy. This was indeed his strength. Devotion and self sacrifice to his country. As a boy, Klopp said what he meant, and meant, what he said. His boyhood dream was to become a footballer and a great football manager.
The following photo showing, Klopp with his father, his son and his grandfather is taken from a (chargeable) article, which was published in German language in the WELT newspaper on November 17, 2017, under the headline „Football as fight for survival: The unknown side of Jürgen Klopp„.
Klopp sometimes finds it hard to accept defeats like a fair sportsman, which has certainly to do with his deep emotional involvement and which is from my point of view his biggest weakness. On the other hand, he compensates this weakness with a great sense of humour and the ability not to take himself too seriously.
Due to his background as a petty bourgeois and his sense of family, Jürgen Klopp has remained authentic and touchable to this day. He expressed this at his first press conference for the Liverpool Football Club when he stated „I am the normal one“.
Further information on Juergen Klopp’s biography is provided in a blog published on February 12, 2017, under the headline „Juergen Klopp childhood story plus untold biography facts“ at lifeblogger.com.
Excellent players, who take care of their health and fitness and continuously try to improve their skills, a coach with an inspiring vision and and adequate strategy, who is an excellent communicator, treats his players, fans, media and colleagues with respect and appreciation and always remains authentic are certainly qualities, which are also mission critical for top managers and can make an important difference for corporates in a tough global competition.
There are other aspects that could be considered in context of such an evaluation, such as the support infrastructure. However, I would just like to touch on this aspect so as not to make the blog too long and since I am not sure whether the comparison is still appropriate and fair at this point.
All major football clubs employ doctors, physiotherapists, fitness trainers, nutrition experts, psychologists, rehabilitation experts and other specialists. In addition, all major football clubs have a stadium with a playing field, visitor areas, VIP lounges, catering, car parks, transport infrastructure, etc. pp.
The quality of this support infrastructure is undoubtedly important either for the success of football clubs (e.g. when players become fit again faster after injuries through good medical treatment and good build-up training) or for the user experience football clubs are able to provide to their fans (think of the „Kopp“ at Anfield Road in Liverpool) . The interesting question is, to what extent these factor can differentiate on football club from another?
And what does this mean for corporations? Let me put it this way: It should be a no-brainer, that the likelihood for corporations with a strong focus on customer satisfaction, excellent staff, a compelling vision, an excellent strategy, superior products and effective processes to succeed, is above average. However, I would be careful with the inversion of this argument, that everything, which is not customer facing or does not cause a tangible competitive advantage (e.g. office space and site management, IT equipment and other IT infrastructure, fleet management, …) can be outsourced and treated with priority B due to negative side effects, which can be caused by bad support infrastructure on the performance of the players.
In any case, corporates should carefully and systematically investigate, to what extent supposed „standard service“ can be leveraged to provide a competitive advantage – at least indirectly.
As always, I am grateful for your feedback to this blog. In addition, I would be interested, if you see other major analogies between sports and business.
Additional thoughts on the question „How to successfully change a corporate culture“ are provided in my blog of the same name published on June 10, 2017: https://kubraconsult.blog/2017/06/10/how-to-successfully-change-a-corporate-culture/.
My blog „The Chief Information Officer’s ultimate reading list“ published on May 18, 2018, comprises a list of my most important publications, which are not only relevant and interesting for CIOs and IT experts, but as well for other interested parties: https://kubraconsult.blog/2018/05/18/the-chief-information-officers-ultimate-reading-list/.