What is it that defines today’s top managers, whether in business or in sport? Is it purely results and a larger than life public image, or is it more the path to sustainable success with a strategy that enables team members to deliver the best possible performances while retaining their authenticity and humanity?
The public perception of what a successful manager looks like is still defined by maxims such as “he’d sell his own grandmother”, “tough cookie” or “control freak”. But these attributes are being broken down by the fresh wave of new generations who measure themselves by totally different definitions of leadership, team and success. They are developing young talents that will be the high performers of the modern society of the future – on the soccer field, in business and in art.
Talking shop with German national team manager Oliver Bierhoff
I spoke to a manager who has always done his own thing and completely transformed German soccer culture both on and off the field. Here Oliver Bierhoff discusses team culture, success and leadership.
In 2004, just two years after your last game in the German national team jersey, you were back wearing the manager’s suit. How did you switch so quickly from the soccer field to business?
My move into business had actually been planned for some time, even if it wasn’t always a conscious thing. I studied business during my active professional soccer career and later got more closely involved in marketing, because I also have my own personal marketing strategy.
After my conscious decision to end my career, I resolved to take on a new role. As a brand ambassador for Coca-Cola at the 2006 World Cup, I was able to experience the planning for the World Cup and get a taste of the world of business. Learning by doing was the name of the game. I learnt a lot and got to know new areas, such as law, organization and budget planning, without having to take on full responsibility straightaway. This was an important learning phase and prepared me for my management role at the German Football Association.
You have been in the job for 13 years now. During that time you’ve built and nurtured a new team culture in the national team. Where did the inspiration come from?
We went out as a team and were open to new things. We said farewell to secluded country hotels for the team! We wanted to be open, active, and take an interest in things outside of soccer. That was a personal conviction that we brought into the national team, both in a sporting sense but also away from the field.
To this day I still feel it is important to come together with interesting people from art, culture and sports. Travel is a constant source of new insights and opens up to you all the things you can do, all the things that are possible. I still get a buzz from transposing these ideas to the special context of a soccer team.
One example is Campo Bahia, our team base camp for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The players lived in shared accommodation and integrated trends from the modern world of work. They didn’t just go to the pool to relax, they were also given medical treatment, they trained and worked there. It was a fluid transition from relaxation to togetherness to work to food. Trailblazing ideas come about when you step outside of your little bubble and exchange ideas with interesting partners. You find out what happens in innovative companies, how the new world of work functions and how we treat one another.
From a vision into the individual’s heart
How do you bring this kind of new culture to life in each individual player?
This is a particular challenge in our case, because we don’t have the national team players for 365 days a year. Initially, the most important thing is that as a leader you internalize this culture yourself. I am not a fan of just writing a few buzzwords on posters. If there is no energy or life behind the culture, it will never become established in a team. You have to be convinced of your principles, and live them daily. You have to exude them.
As a second stage, it’s important to have an all-round program. It’s the little things that make the difference, not always just the big bombshell. The sum of the details that are lived out constantly creates interesting things and a sustainable change in the team culture. And here the leading players play a decisive role. They must be completely convinced of the vision. Without them it won’t work. Because these players carry and shape the culture too.
So top-down and bottom-up are just as important then?
Yes, but it also depends on the team. In 2004 we were in a significant rebuilding phase. We had to provide the motto and the way forward. Ten years on we were a team of much more mature players. We were able to move away from the basics. The mood and the atmosphere were generated by the team. That’s how it should work in an ideal world. But when the bottom has got used to a certain style over years and decades, a radical change under one’s own steam may not be possible. Then the organization needs a bit of an external shake-up. And that’s the job of management.
Whether you’re working with Germany or in a global company, team members are scattered all over the world. How do you ensure your group is in sync and players work as a unit?
We have a WhatsApp group and a communications app so we can be in constant contact with all team members, although that can never replace bringing the individual players together in person.
Spending time together creates the most important moments for a group. Team events where you simply feel kinship for one another are just as important for soccer teams as they are for business teams. These experiences make a team something special and each member feels a connection. Maintaining communication between meetings is essential and should be pepped up with special measures, such as sharing one’s thoughts or a small surprise in the post from time to time.
Sports x Business – one world, two names
There are many more parallels between sports and business than you would think at first glance...
Definitely! I am very often asked exactly that. And my first answer is always that a football team works like a business unit. For a long time it has been more than just eleven friends who go for a beer together after the game. They are work colleagues from different countries, with different characteristics, strengths and weaknesses.
Every team member has their own plan and individual career. If you are in an ambitious department, every member will also want to follow their own path. You’re all working towards a common goal, but everyone also has their own plan. These two worlds are thus very similar. I often notice that sports analogies work very well when I’m explaining processes or responsibilities. Company employees often understand what it’s actually all about more quickly.
For example, if I say that someone is a fantastic defensive midfielder and valuable to the team, most people immediately understand the analogy and know what status and function that person has in the team.
From a strategic perspective: How do you ensure that not only the team, but also each individual player, is constantly improving?
Well, the most important thing for me is to keep checking the players’ mentality. The new generation does not just want to execute, they want to shape things themselves, understand them, and tackle challenges. We give the players the tools to do so, because that’s sometimes missing.
For young people especially, we can provide them with individual help in conceptional and structural areas – for example, we can help young players find their own personal career path in the national team. But players are also individuals. There are some kinds of players with whom you can conduct tough analyses and give very clear instructions, while with others this needs to happen in a gentler, more personable manner.
Efficiency must be developed, and for me internalizing a winning mentality is the most important step to achieving sustainable success.
The new generation of creators
Do young, creative players sometimes feel their self-image as a creator is inhibited by this kind of process or do they actually value it because they’re able to manifest themselves more freely?
That varies greatly. The unknown is always uncomfortable. You often see that innovations lead to uncertainty and people close their minds to them. That’s why you have to keep breaking through with the young creators in order to awaken their creativity. In the areas where they feel comfortable they are very creative. But as soon as they might find themselves out of this comfort zone, they suddenly feel very trapped. The manager has to find a connection to the players, move them emotionally and then win their mind and rational thought.
Can soccer players benefit from an entrepreneur-inspired mentality?
Definitely. You can learn something to help you improve from anyone. It is always beneficial to communicate with interesting people and listen to them talk about their views and lifestyle. It’s often then that you realize that everyone else puts their pants on the same way, too. But there are always two or three things that will stick with you and give you new momentum.
Are they going to hire a chef or physiotherapist? How are they going to position themselves in their personal marketing? How do they organize their private life? Getting out of their own surroundings and meeting other young entrepreneurs who are taking a risk and have their own convictions is immensely important.
Early career planning is essential
You combined the best of both worlds early on in your career, in that you studied business alongside while playing. Why did you keep your studies secret?
During my active professional career, Germany was known for its stereotyped thinking. It would quickly lead to statements like “you’ve been brought up too well” or “you think too much”. I was quickly pigeonholed as the “executive’s son, the student who can’t tough it out and doesn’t want to get his hands dirty”. That’s why I simply avoided the issue. In Italy and Austria my studies were never an issue for my teams.
I always did my own thing. A dual career was always an unbelievably good source of variety for me and helped provide important distance from soccer. There are always more important things in life than soccer. A soccer player has a lot of free time, particularly when they’re not playing internationally. I did my high school exams, completed my military training and was playing professional soccer all at the same time. After that I did nothing for a year and realized how difficult it was to think and how much my concentration had dwindled. Everything happened more slowly and I somehow achieved less.
It was clear that I needed a second career dimension and another string to my bow, just in case it didn’t work out with soccer. My studies proved hugely advantageous and repeatedly provided me with new perspectives.
Do you think that the negative attitudes towards having an academic career alongside professional soccer have changed over the last ten years?
For players in the national team in particular, the demands are now extremely high. If I had played at a top club like Bayern Munich from the very start, I probably wouldn’t have been able to study at the same time, because the demands on your time are simply very high. It requires major discipline. Nevertheless, currently around sixty to seventy per cent of players complete their high school exams. But I actually think it’s much more important that the guys use their free time sensibly and occupy themselves with something that advances them and expands their horizons. Whether that’s learning a new language, studying, or other hobbies – at the end of the day, you have to prepare yourself for life after professional soccer.
A gaze into the crystal ball
If you were looking into a crystal ball today, what kind of mentality would be successful on and off the soccer field in the future?
The fundamental attitude has not changed. It’s about giving your best every day, trying to become better and never resting on your laurels. I’ve had the chance to be with very successful people. The really successful ones are truly unpretentious and uncomplicated, but they simply have an inner drive to want to do things better.
Now you’re in the national team!” or “now you’ve got your dream job!”. If you rest on your laurels, you won’t achieve anything long term.