We can all be football managers

20 July 2010
As a management writer I am frequently asked: why not give us a break from all that stuff on supply chains and come up with something different? OK, I don’t actually get asked that very often. But it is certainly my duty, in the wake of that rather large and important football tournament which ended a couple of weeks ago in South Africa, to describe what I see as the key management lessons of that event. So here they are: 1. Project management is a crucial skill It’s a big ask, playing one vital football match after another over four weeks. The winners of the World Cup, Spain, actually lost their first game. So the message has to be: plan ahead. Don’t expect worthwhile results straight away. Competition is relentless in business today. You need staying power. Breaking larger tasks into projects might help. But then seeing those projects through, and understanding what the realistic and achievable milestones are on the way to completion, is also a key skill. 2. There is no substitute for talent... The Spanish team were a pleasure to watch. They moved at speed, were versatile and worked hard for each other. But the foundations that coach Vicente del Bosque had to build on were strong: a crop of talented players from the leading clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid. As the management guru Jim Collins says, you have to get “the right people on the bus” if you want your team to succeed. (By the way, del Bosque was sacked as manager of Real Madrid seven years ago. Comebacks are possible for the resilient.) 3. ...or organisation Football looks like a simple game – especially when England are playing – but competing at the highest level requires sophisticated planning. The fact that the vastly superior Spanish team took almost two hours to score a single winning goal against the Dutch in the underwhelming final shows what (defensive) organisation can do. Football is disciplined play. Good businesses work on similar lines. Yes, there is creativity and spontaneity. But there is organisation too. That is where good management comes in. 4. Globalisation is real This was a World Cup that lived up to its billing. The first World Cup on African soil. The first African team, Ghana, to be just inches away (the thickness of the crossbar) from a place in the semi-finals. So although two old European nations made it to the final, we should recognise that, in football, the global era is truly upon us. It is in business too. The stay-at-home, little Englander mentality has nothing to offer British business. There is an exciting and ever-expanding world of international markets out there to trade with. 5. Right will prevail Let’s end on an optimistic note. As the Dutch team kicked and bullied their way through the final, true football fans and neutrals worried that, while the game remained goal-less, the Spanish might be denied their rightful victory. But justice was done, thankfully without the need to endure the lottery of penalty kicks. So the final lesson from the 2010 World Cup is this: stick to your strategy, remain true to your principles, work hard, and you will get the results you deserve. Stefan Stern writes for the Financial Times (stefan.stern@ft.com)
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