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What the beautiful game can teach us about effective teams

by Kim Walker

December 6, 2022

As a career expatriate Aussie, my knowledge of football could easily fit into a small jar of Vegemite.

But while most will look at the World Cup in terms of country victories, to me the tournament is a lesson in the dynamics of teams.

Japan shocked the soccer fraternity by defeating Germany 2-1. They continued this winning streak by beating the mighty Spain. Over my morning coffee a few days ago I saw an interview with famed coach José Mourinho commenting on Japan’s stunning victory over Germany.

He said: "In European football there is a big focus on the individual, egos. I coached the best Asian player [Son], the mentality is special. The team is the most important thing."

While I know precious little about soccer (as we Aussies call it), having lived in Tokyo for nine years and at that time being fairly fluent in the language, I do know a thing or two about Japan.

It may be a generalization but it’s fair to say that Asia is about collectivism, the West is about individualism.

Teams vs individuals

What does this tell us about teams versus individuals in the marketing communications context?

During my advertising days there were huge egos at play that needed to be carefully managed. Highly talented creative supremos could dictate terms to their humbled clients.

But we learned through painful experience that reliance on superheroes can be the undoing of great relationships. They move on or they start to under-perform.

Win-lose or win-win?

But if collectivism is so good for teams then why don’t Asian teams fare better in the World Cup?

There’s a fundamental difference between competitive sport, and business teams. In sport, there’s usually a winner at the expense of the loser.

When it comes to client-agency relationships, one hopes for a win-win scenario. Both teams collaborating for mutual success, benefit and reward. But whether collaborative of competitive, the strength of a team depends on cohesion.

The problem with superstars

According The New York Times columnist David Brooks, “Sometimes too many geniuses is a problem.” Every successful coach knows that a team of stars is not a team unless some of those stars are willing to channel their formidable talents to team rather than individual excellence.

In recent months, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo has been consistently sidelined by Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag. In the twilight of his career and costing £500,000 per week, so much time on the bench was not good for Ronaldo or the managers. Ronaldo’s individual style of play did not work well with the team.

The coach told Ronaldo he must adapt to the coach’s style of play. Ronaldo didn’t change, and he has since left the club.

Empathetic, team-oriented leadership

While I’m in no position to comment on the rights and wrongs of the coach’s strategy this is a lesson in courageous leadership. Manchester United has striven to put the team ahead of the individual despite Ronaldo’s skill and broad following.

Following the football theme, consider the England manager, Gareth Southgate.

English football has woefully underperformed in recent times despite the incredible talent produced (Gazza, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard etc). England are guaranteed to disappoint and manager after manager has failed to get these amazing players to work as a team.

Then along comes Gareth Southgate, who was at one time a national joke because of an infamous missed penalty. Through empathetic and strategic leadership and working with the team, not the superstars, he's steered England to unprecedented success – victory at last in a penalty shoot-out, and finalists in the last European tournament.

A lesson in building stronger teams

After Japan’s victory over Spain, Tom Byer - a personal friend and lifetime devotee to the improvement of soccer in Japan - was asked in a BBC interview about the key to building stronger teams. His answer provides a powerful lesson to business leaders. Tom said leaders must close the skill gap between the best and the worst players. To do this they must train technical skills at the grass roots level. “That’s where the magic begins”.

His words echo findings from an analysis of team behaviors from the Aprais database of more than 25,000 evaluations that revealed on-the-job skill among team members as being the most critical factor for creating successful client-agency relationships.

How to work as a team

The marketing communication industry is famous for its egos. In an ideal world we might ship these legends off to a Mindfulness retreat.

This is not often practical. Instead, we need to learn how to manage and channel their often extraordinary and diverse skills for the benefit of the team as a whole.

This article in Harvard Business Review has some useful tips about managing egos for team betterment.

1. Set big goals

Nothing motivates talent like a big goal. Talented people love nothing better than tackling big problems. The more difficult the obstacle, the more engaged they become.

2. Rub egos together

Smart people like being around other smart people. They especially enjoy proving how much smarter they are than the others. Treat everyone fairly — but not necessarily equally. That is, the more one achieves, the more recognition he will receive.

3. Keep team goals first

Work to ensure that rivalries are achievement-oriented, not personal. Bruised egos are fine; hurt feelings are not. Make certain that everyone continues to feel part of the team.

4. Invite a star to leave

Not because she is a malcontent or because she is causing trouble, but because she needs to move on for the good of the organization as well as herself.

Whether following these principles will steer a collectively-oriented team to success in the World Cup remains to be seen. But in my experience, and in the wider marcomms industry, empathetic leadership, skill training, team values and careful management of superstars is a more effective strategy than relying on the talents of a select few. After all, what happens when your star striker breaks a metatarsal?


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