Three Lessons for Managers from Soccer

Three Lessons for Managers from Soccer 640 426 C-Suite Network

In our always networked and networking world expertise is no longer confined to a couple of smart guys in corner offices. Everyone in today’s successful organizations gathers and shares information, is a leader and a follower, has a role and a specialty, and fills in for everyone else. Organizational success requires real-time decision making, independent action, and systems thinking. It is therefore not surprising that tech entrepreneur Daniel Neal told me that “Not a single day goes by in my work life as an entrepreneur that I don’t use skills I learned playing soccer.”

Below are three of the lessons current and former soccer players – from a World Cup winner turned consultant, to a former Ambassador and rec league player, and more than two dozen more – shared with me for Soccer Thinking for Management Success: Lessons for organizations from the world’s game.

Total Football

Total football relies on players being very good at their specialty, and also good at filling in for others without a second thought. If a defender sees an opening she takes it – and someone else on the team moves into the defender’s position to ensure the system keeps its shape. This is the opposite of the management adage, “stay in your lane.” Total football recognizes that staff aren’t racing against each other to see who can get their individual task completed the fastest. In total football, colleagues are teammates keeping their eyes out for each other and each other’s lanes to ensure everyone crosses the finish line together.

The best organizations play total football. As former Mexican Ambassador to the US, and over-45 rec league goalkeeper, Arturo Sarukhan told me, his embassy staff “did what needed to be done, even if it was not their area of expertise. It is like the concept of ‘total football’; everyone had a role in the Embassy but if people needed to do beyond that, that is what the team did.”

Know the System, Play Your Role

Total football is an organized, dynamic system that moves through time and space. For the system to work, every player needs to know what is expected of them and what is expected of everyone else. Without this information, staff can’t adjust their work to support others, can’t fill in for colleagues, and can’t think about ways to advance the organization’s goals. The former Managing Director of Johns Hopkins Medicine International and a former intermural and rec league player, Sonia Ruiz-Bolanos, drove the point home when she told me, “In an operating room, everyone needs to work together to ensure the patient’s safety. Everyone needs to know why their task is important, what everyone else is doing and why what others are doing is important, and how to adjust if necessary. [Soccer] is a universal metaphor … You have to explain the system to make sure everyone is invested, that everyone has an important role.”

Soccer Fields are Loud

Soccer is a constant reminder of our cognitive limits. Soccer fields are big, and a player can only see small parts of it at once. At the top levels, players have one or two seconds to make a decision after they receive the ball. A lot is going on over a big area and the player with the ball doesn’t have a lot of time to decide what to do about it. As such, players rely on their teammates to help narrow the range of options and delineate threats. Everyone on a soccer field is constantly coaching and being coached.

Organizations are no different. Moving toward a clear goal, as a unit, in a clear system, requires constant communication. A lot is going on inside and outside of organizations that can have a positive or negative impact on operations. It can be difficult for managers and staff to sort the signal from the noise, and to process the right information in time to either seize an opening or deal with a potential threat before it’s too late. The CEO of a management consulting firm who describes himself as a lifelong mediocre pickup player pointed out, “Even when your roles are clear, there will be things that are ambiguous and you need to communicate…I was thinking about an area on our staff where we have two people whose roles are clear, but there’s always stuff that’s a little murky – and I thought about when you have a center-mid and awing midfielder and a ball comes in-between them, no matter how clear the roles are they just need to talk to each other to decide who’s taking it.” Managers and staff need to constantly be talking and listening, taking and offering input, and helping each other succeed.

This post was submitted by Peter Loge a C-Suite Book Club Author
Make sure to check out his latest book, Soccer Thinking for Management Success: Lessons for organizations from the world’s game