6 essential ingredients to Germany’s success that in my opinion are equally valid for successfully running a business
1. Invest and believe in your people. Although this has become something of a cliché thing to say in the business world there are few companies that actually practice what they preach. Compare this to Germany who is not only able to field players that have played in the previous World Cup but also can call on the services of one player, Miroslav Klose, who at age 35 has played in 3 previous World Cups! On the coaching side Joachim Löw has now been Head Coach for an incredible 8 years after being Assistant Coach for 2 years prior to that. 10 years working in such a high-pressure environment! Incredible! This feat is even more remarkable when considering that Germany has up to now not won any major league title since Joachim took the top job. Retaining your key staff in a sport as in business is a key ingredient for capitalising on the next 5 ingredients.
2. An effective team of good players usually trumps a team that relies heavily on a few stars. When talking about the really good soccer players, names such as Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar invariably come up. Watching games where these virtuoso’s are playing are usually entertaining and result in soccer that is beautiful in the truest sense of the word. Although Germany has no such stars, watching the team play, however, quickly makes one forget the individual players in favour of observing the “beauty of a well-oiled machine” which arguable is better suited to deliver on the ultimate objective of winning a game. Businesses can learn from this example and adjust their performance and incentive system to reward team performance instead of individual brilliance.
3. The performance of a system can only be as good as its weakest link. This is one aspect that Germany really understands well and although they are known to consistently improve all aspects of their game they most importantly are obsessed with increasing the overall tempo of their game (by distributing the ball faster) . And this, they believe, is their key leverage point. Although their strategy is well known it is incredibly difficult to counter and often has their opponents reeling from the sheer pace (as was evidenced in the recent semi-final with Brazil) and allows them to perform consistently well (they have been number 2 in word-rankings for the last 2 years). A business that understands this simple truth learns where to spend its scarce resources to achieve maximum (financial) throughput.
4. Build a sustainable advantage. In the quarter finals the Dutch stunned the world by exchanging their number one goal keeper with a penalty specialist close to the end of extra time. Their opponents Costa Rica seemed ill-prepared for this audacious move and subsequently lost the penalty shootout allowing the Netherlands to progress to the last 4. Here, however, they met their match when they lost against Argentina in another penalty shootout after extra time. It was thus quite ironic when Van Gaal, the Dutch Coach remarked after the game: “It’s disappointing. Losing on penalties is the most difficult scenario. We were equal to them, if not better, so it is a big disappointment.” As already alluded to in point 4 Germany instead focuses on building a decisive competitive edge and have absolutely no inclination to rely on penalties to win. Most businesses these days use the “turbulent times” as an excuse for not being able to build a long-term decisive competitive advantage and rather rely on short-term tactical approaches to outsmart the competition. The problem with this is, as we have seen, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose…
5. Be ruthless in execution. The objective of soccer is to score goals while denying the opposition to do the same. In the semi-final with Brazil Germany did just that, even after all but winning in the first third of the game. During the second half they scored two further goals and when they did finally concede one goal in the 90th minute, Manual Neuer (the German goal keeper) was furious with himself. How often have we not seen teams (in all sports) change their approach to a more defensive posture after securing an early lead only to lose the game in the end. Businesses often find themselves in similar positions when scoring an early lead and, instead of building on their lead by ruthlessly focusing on extending it they allow the competition to catch up and in the end often lose the war after having won an initial battle.
6. Embrace the lucky breaks, but don’t take them for granted. The previous 5 points all support the claim that Germany has a solid soccer foundation and the ability to beat any team on any day. What happened at the semi-final, however, no-body, least of which Germany, could have predicted. A sober Löw remarks: “We were lucky that the hosts were shell-shocked. Now we must prepare well for the final”. While it is true that being at the right place, at the right time could lead the astute leader to a huge business break, it is also true that the fall from grace is usually hard and humility is definitely recommended.
While researching and writing about these 6 lessons I had some glimpses here and there of other business lessons that may still be hidden in the spectacle we call the Fifa World Cup. If you can fill in the gaps it would help all of us to become better at leading our businesses.