Guest Post: Key Business Lessons from Chelsea’s Unexpected UEFA Champions’ League VictoryMay 29th, 2012 | Leadership,Small Business Tips | No Comments »
Football (Soccer), like many sports has grand lessons for any business enterprise. This because sports teams are complicated business enterprises that are supposed to both entertain (hence are mired in all sorts of strange emotions) and make money applying skills of players with different sorts of talent yet liable to injuries that turn the fortunes of a team upside down anytime in a season.
Chelsea of England has been a great Premier League and European team since it was purchased by Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch, in 2003. In seeking greatness (read, winning the Champions’ League trophy which is as prestigious as the World Cup for European club teams and global players at club level alike), many Chelsea coaches have fallen victim to this objective (the current coach is the 8th in that period, serving in an interim capacity). The dismissals have come even where other teams would have paid to be in Chelsea’s shoes (e.g. losing the final of the Champions’ League, winning the Premier League and FA Cup etc.)!
At the start of the 2011-12 season, Chelsea paid thirteen million pounds for the coach they much coveted to be released by his club Porto from his contract. This coach was brought in with two key objectives for him, transition the club into a greater club by culling the team of its older players making the team dependent on younger ones, and change the team’s playing style into an attractive one like that of Barcelona and Arsenal. In business parlance, he was the change agent to make the organization better placed to compete in the future.
The way he went about this was wanting from the start. His pronouncements in public about “this project” as he put it, especially on the old players did not help his cause. He completely antagonized those the club depended upon over many years and still had much to give, both in terms of performance and passing knowledge through their experience to the next generation. In the process, he isolated them!
His presence at Chelsea turned into unmitigated disaster given the results which placed the club out of its customary top 4 in the premier league (which comes with participation in the Champions League, thirty million pounds for competing and hence is a boost to a club’s finances, in addition to serving as an attraction for the best players in the world which guarantees staying in the upper reaches of football). He was fired in the middle of the season. Players breathed a sigh of relief on his departure.
His assistant, a former Chelsea player with minimal coaching experience at the top levels replaced him in an interim capacity. Every experienced manager, pundit, and media person at the time predicted nothing but doom for Chelsea. In addition to poor premier league performances (they ended the season 6th), Chelsea had just lost a Champions’ League game and were likely to be eliminated from the next round. The playing unit was suffering from a total lack of motivation with senior players on the team shocked by the treatment they received. In essence, the club was totally dysfunctional.
The new manager though interim seemed to turn this around. He did a number of things right. He met each player personally, and explained each one’s role he was going to play moving forward in the short period of the season remaining. He decided games were going to be played applying strategies and tactics amenable to the players available vis-à-vis the opponent. Every player young and old alike got a clean slate in competing for a place on the team. The team was going to work and fight for each other. As the media and experts continued to spell the doom awaiting Chelsea game to game, the team went about its business of winning by using the most pragmatic means necessary. In the process, they were either lucky or indeed created their own luck! The manager sought leadership from players within the playing unit. You didn’t have to be captain to lead. It was expected of you as a member of the playing unit to play that role.
In doing so, they reached the final of the Champions’ League when least expected, eliminating arguably the best team in Europe, Barcelona at the semi-final stage. The final was going to be a taller order as they were playing at the home of their opponent, Bayern Munich. All pundits deemed Chelsea a non-issue, handing Bayern the trophy before a ball was kicked. This team was arguably the worst seen at Chelsea in the last eight years, albeit the core of the playing unit having been there in the same period. Matters were made worse by the fact that four of their best players were suspended for the final. When the team won the Champions’ League trophy, players young and old stated clearly that their season was turned around when the prior manager left. Others have stated they will never forgive him for the way he treated them – such was the dysfunctional state of affairs at the club in his presence, and justifies how massive an accomplishment winning this trophy was.
What business lessons are here that we can learn from Chelsea’s success under the prevailing circumstances? Here are a few:
1) Recognize that job titles do not necessarily tell who your best leaders are on your team. Some team members are leaders by virtue of what they do and their influence on the rest of the team. For Chelsea these leaders were Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Petr Cech (none is either captain or vice-captain on the team). They gave 100% every game, even when the team was supposed to be at its worst. They rose to the occasion in special ways each game. Identify your team members who take pride in speaking through their actions. Reward them accordingly, as you need them and they will come through for you at your hour of need!
2) Team members who understand where the company has come from and the micro-culture within it can save a sinking ship. The interim manager, a former Chelsea player, brought the team together, with players responding due to the respect they afforded him having been in their shoes before. Do not underestimate the value that can be brought by people who have played a role in the past, especially in times of crisis. Don’t burn bridges with team members who leave, they may come in handy in the future when you most need them!
3) Create your luck and ride it! Chelsea did so by implementing tactics to suit the players they had on the playing unit in a very disciplined and systematic fashion. Everyone in the team (manager, players, and staff) was on the proverbial same page all the way to the last and most important game of their season! They took advantage of any mistakes of omission or commission by the other team at every occasion. For this, they were crowned champs for the most prestigious trophy in Europe at club level, something they have failed having been to at least the semi-final stage six previous times when they were at their best!
4) You are as strong as your weakest link. Clarity of purpose is essential to success even when failure is the assured result. Each member understanding their role and how their non-performance will result in sure failure for the whole is fundamental. This has to be set at the top, yet and most importantly it also has to be passed on to the team clearly. At Chelsea, the interim manager accomplished it by speaking to each player individually and ensured that each understood their role clearly as they strode toward the team’s end goal.
Let us know if you have any lessons from the most unlikely victory in the comments section.
GUEST POST: This article is a guest post to the KikScore blog from Eric Akunda who was moved to write this after he saw the victory by Chelsea and then saw the parallels to large companies, small businesses and startups!