Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Learning from Champions - Part Four

The ‘Mannschaft’ or Winning The World Cup Is Not a Coincidence

The World Cup is over and it has a new world champion: the German ‘Mannschaft’. And it was not sheer luck that got them there. Although, luck always plays a role too. The ‘Mannschaft’ is the visible masterpiece, yet, there is so much more to it.
Around the year 2000 German football was suffering its worst episode in history. Even though Germany made it to the finals in the 2002 world cup. Yet, it became painfully clear that something was going completely wrong. An organizational change was needed. A turnaround if you so will. Reinventing yourself.
Getting there required building a radical new foundation. Clubs, members of the German Football Federation, were required to have state-of-the-art training facilities. And the training beginning with the young and talented kids. Hence, finding those needed talent scouts for instance. In order to do that the criteria describing the desired players had to be determined. Also, the clubs had to be financially healthy.
And it still took until 2004 when Jürgen Klinsmann with his assistant Joachim Löw took over the national team. Then, finally, something happened. They had a different approach. A modern interpretation of leadership and training. For the DFB (the German Football Federation) this was nothing less than an earthshaking change. It was not just a reform the new leaders Klinsmann and Löw demanded. They wanted to build something new from the ground. As you can imagine they encountered a lot of resistance. Some of it open, most of it 'behind the scenes'. And that's when leaders are showing their true colors. Against all odds.
Building a new 'Mannschaft' was the goal. A ‘Mannschaft’ capable of consistently playing at the top level. A ‘Mannschaft’ capable of becoming world champions. And they made it clear that this would take considerable time. What makes things even more difficult is that players of the national team belong to their different clubs. First and foremost, these players are playing for their clubs and training with different trainers at these clubs. Clubs not only in Germany, but in England, France, Italy, Spain. Hence, as a trainer of the national team you have your players only for a minimum time available. A giant obstacle for any national team. Add to this that at each club different systems are trained and played.
If there was one thing the new trainers wanted to get done and over with, then it was what's called "Rumpel-Fussball". Playing with brute force and lack of skills. And defending the status quo, so to speak. It became clear that, contrary to the myth of the 10,000 hours training, without innate talent a player cannot get there. You cannot teach a frog how to fly ... not even spending a million hours on training him. It always requires both: innate talent and pretty hard work. Learning, training, practice.
Finding incredibly talented players turned out to not be so hard as it looked like. The better the organizational aspect worked, the new training facilities of the clubs described above, the easier it became to find them. Young and smart guys playing football like an art. The challenge now is to find the right mix for the team. The right mix of older and more experienced players with the young guys. The right mix of personalities and character. And then create a team. A team that can become the “Mannschaft’.
After the 2006 world cup Klinsmann left and Joachim Löw took over. The national team was in the top four at the world cup and finished third. They played football and enjoyed it. Yet, as the world cup performance had shown, there was still this naïveté in their game. Balance was missing and also the cleverness. And there were still some older players on their way out.
Four years later, and a couple of setbacks in between, in 2010 the new national team was basically formed. And they gave such a refreshing performance at the world cup scoring many goals. Yet again they finished third. The cleverness and balance was better though, but not there yet. Hence, they lacked the effectiveness and efficiency of a true champion.
Meanwhile though Joachim Löw had quite a pool of top players to select from. Over time his philosophy of how to play modern football got more and more ingrained in each player. That’s what training is all about. You get to point when what you are training becomes automatic, becomes a habit.
Löw’s emphasis was and is always the team. Players who understand each other blindfolded in a game. Players who know that they can rely upon each other no matter what. In other words the ‘Mannschaft’. The opposite of one ‘superstar’ and all others having to make him shine. Gary Lineker, a former top football player in England said something like this: Portugal has Ronaldo, Argentina has Messi, Brazil has Neymar, and Germany has a team … the ‘Mannschaft’.
Yet, make no mistake. Löw is indeed the leader of the team. A leader these top players respect. And the respect is mutual. The respect is earned. Also, within the team there are a couple of leaders, the ‘field commanders’ so to speak. Those making sure that the system, strategy and tactics are carried out flawlessly. That way not one of the qualification and preparation games towards the 2014 world cup was lost.
And then the 2014 world cup was coming up. And suddenly Löw had some big challenges to master. Key players suffered severe injuries before the tournament. Some of them couldn’t play at all and had to be replaced by others. Some of them had just overcome the injuries but due to that had a lack of training and fitness. That was the moment of truth. That was the true birth of this ‘Mannschaft’. It was their litmus test. The ‘Mannschaft’ is not just the 11 players onf the field. It’s the entire team of all 23 players plus trainers, coaches, doctors. And that’s how everyone felt now at the Campo Bahia. As the “Mannschaft’.
Löw had to improvise. Yet, he knew that he could do it. There was such a substance in the team of players. But the team spirit made the difference. The feeling together as the ‘Mannschaft’. The willingness of each one to put their ego aside and make the ‘Mannschaft’ the star. And one could see that in each and every match. Some matches looked easy. Some others were really difficult. The opponents were difficult to play against. Remember, those were the top teams of the world. Germany won the world cup and it was no coincidence. It was due to many years of preparation and training. The analysis of the data, the numbers show that in all clarity.
The world cup was an excellent example of what complex environment means, what uncertainty means. You cannot predict the outcome, but you can prepare for the outcome to the best of your abilities. You can be aware that, even though rare, black swan events can happen. And then you must be able to improvise. More often than not. For this you need training, training, training. And you need true leadership. Leaders creating the foundation for and building of what I call the ‘Mannschaft’ here. The ‘Mannschaft’ that consistently delivers results. That’s how championships are won.
What about your organization, your company? Do you have your ‘Mannschaft’? Honestly?

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Learning from champions - part three

The Crucial Components of a Team and the Difference Leadership Makes

There is no better place to observe teams than watching sports teams play and perform. And there is no better place to observe the difference leadership makes for a team than watching sports teams.
Since we are still in the football world cup my focus is on football. As a kid I used to listen on the radio to the world cup matches. 1958 was my first time. Ever since I paid a lot of attention to how the game evolved. 1966 I was glued to the TV and my Dad began to explain to me the important role of leadership in such teams. It was eye opener for me. And the beginning of my studying, knowing, and understanding of true leadership.
Roughly one can divide a football team into three main parts: defense, midfield, offense. Most people are looking for the offensive players, the strikers or scorers, their heroes. Yet, it is in the midfield where strategy and tactics are initiated. The true heroes are in the midfield. Execution starts here. Executing the strategies and tactics created by the trainer and coach together with his team. The trainer is the top leader of the team. And he needs his field commanders. Smart leaders able to read the game and execute on what has been trained so hard for.
“The offense is winning games. But the defense is winning championships.” a top football player summed it up. And it’s true. Championships not only are requiring a team effort. Winning a championship requires the ability to defend and hold the newly gained position. Only from this plateau the team can jump up to the next one.
As much as a trainer would want it, it’s impossible to predict the outcome. And trainers know that all too well. They understand complexity. Yet, that doesn’t mean that the trainer is preaching day in and out to his players that football is a complex game. A complex game in an even more complex environment. When a game is on and in full flow the team is required to function as a unit. And each individual player plays on the position he is best at. Choreographed and orchestrated by the trainer. Any situation coming out of the flow of the play is different. Mistakes are made. Passes not reaching the intended target. Hence, the players must know how to act and react properly. That’s what training is for.
Then there are the so-called standard situations. Free kicks, corners. And these standards can indeed be trained. Trained to the nitty gritty. Only then the players reach the precision they need to execute on the standard properly. Often, matches are decided through standards. As seen in this world cup. Mastering standards is a core skill of a successful team.
The offense, the strikers, are supposed to break through the opponent's lines. For that to happen they need spaces. But those spaces are blocked by the other teams defense. And it becomes very difficult to get close to the opponent’s goal, let alone to score. Unless …
That’s where the midfield comes in. The midfielders, executing on strategy and tactics, are, through their moves, creating the spaces the strikers need to break through. In order to be able to do that the midfielders must read the opponent’s game, system, strategy, tactics. It’s about deciphering what the opponent’s trainer had in mind. For that the midfield player must be quick. Quick in understanding the situation. And quick in executing the right move, the right pass that opens up the space. One second too long and you lose the ball. Worse, you lose your momentum.
That’s why trainers together with their teams study meticulously all the games the opponents have played in the past. Pathways of the players can tell you a lot, for instance. Most players behave in a certain and repetitive way. Their pathways become predictable up to a point. Few players remain unpredictable. Usually, those are intelligent ‘instinct players’. They have completely ‘weird’ pathways and yet seem to always appear in the right spot at the right time.
A strong defense is, of course, essential. It begins with the defending players. Specialized in interrupting the attacking players’ game. Stopping them, or forcing them to redirect their attack by blocking the space. With a great defense the goalie has not much to do. Yet, you always want to have a world class goalie keeping your goal clean. A great goalie distinguishes himself from an excellent goalie through his capacity to read the game and anticipate the attack and its direction.
Concluding, every part of the team and each member are important. Strikers alone can't do the job. They need a functioning midfield. And the midfield is useless without an excellent defense and goalie. Hence, what a trainer does is putting together a true clockwork.
Another aspect a great leader / trainer understands is that exchanging a player has immediate implications on the system, and on strategy and tactics. No one understands this better than Louis van Gaal, the trainer of the Netherlands' Oranje Team. There is a reason they are called 'Clockwork Orange'. They have consistently shown their ability to change systems 'on the go' in the middle of a match. A remarkable achievement.
Each opponent is different and thus plays different. And sometimes you face another team that is incredibly hard to play against. A tournament is long and a trainer must keep this in mind. Playing always beautiful is a surefire way into disaster. Dying in beauty. Efficiency is of the utmost importance. And Jogi Löw, the trainer of the German team, has this time shown his mastery.
What’s the learning for your team in your company / organization you might ask?
Take, for instance, a sales team. It’s not just a bunch of ‘strikers’ that get the orders in. Many years ago that might have worked somehow. Nowadays it doesn’t. Enabling the ‘sales strikers’ to strike requires preparation, requires a modern sales team. A sales team consisting, besides the ‘strikers’, of a solid home base. A home base able to create, initiate and execute on the strategy and tactics. Thus opening the spaces the ‘strikers’ need to score. And the home base also needs to protect the position. Hence, you can say that such a team has also defense, midfield, and offense. And above all it has leadership by a leader who is a trainer and coach.
Professional football has consistently shown over all these years that leadership is the decisive element for a top team. The top players know how to play excellent football. They master the techniques. They are physically and mentally in top form and thus able to pull off their very best consistently. Hence, you don’t have to explain it to them. The great trainers and leaders of the top teams have understood that all along since a long time ago.
The top teams of the world are very close with their abilities to play. The gaps, if there are any, are minimal. Hence, the difference makes excellence in leadership. Trainers and coaches that can bring out this often elusive 'play beyond excellence' or playing in the zone. Consistently.
Unfortunately, organizations and companies don't seem to get the crucial importance of such leaders and trainers. Their top leaders are unwilling to dedicate time on this. Why? Maybe they are the wrong leaders. Thus, to speak in monetary terms, they leave billions on the table over time.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Learning From Champions Part Two

The Parallels between Football Teams and Teams in Organizations / Companies

There is so much leaders can learn from sports teams. Staying with world cup football here are some more insights. Building upon last week's post "Learning from Champions" these are:
The Trainer and his co-trainer team
The trainer of a football team has other experts assisting. There are co-trainers, fitness coaches, and also an expert physician. The trainer is responsible for leading the team, for the system to play, and for strategy and tactics. Yet, he relies on the expert advice of these personally selected trusted people: his trainer staff. Contrary to the belief of most people a great, exceptional trainer is not the ‘lonesome rider’. The opposite is true. Team playing begins at the top. Even though the final decisions are made by the trainer. For instance, the decisions who plays and who is reserve, what system is going to be played, and so forth. That’s his responsibility. That’s what leading is about.
The Team dissected into its parts
Individual Level:
A football team consists of 11 players and each one has a certain position in the team. A position where the player is best at. Great trainers have a highly developed sense of recognizing what a player is best at. Often better than the player himself. Top teams consist of top players. A-players who know how to play. They started already in their childhood. They are both: extremely talented and also hard workers. They understand the importance of training. They are not easy to lead. A trainer has to earn their respect and develop mutual trust. Each player has a different personality. And the trainer must be able to tune in into their frequency, so to speak.
Team Level:
A football team consists of three different parts: Defence, Midfield, Offence. In the early days of football this was easily recognizable. The offence, the strikers, were the heros. They were the more gifted players. The midfield always had the more intelligent players. The midfield was the link between defence and offence. The defenders were the most robust players in charge of stopping the opposing offence, no matter what. The entire game was more static. It had a clear role allocation. And clear, visible boundaries between the different parts.
That has gone through a dramatic change. Modern football has become incredibly fluent. The teams must play as a team in its entirety. Sure, there is still defence - midfield - offence. Yet, the boundaries almost disappeared, became fuzzy.
The brain of the game is the midfield. That’s the place, the linchpin if you so will, where the game is controlled. Highly sophisticated movements on the field are initiated here. It’s where creativity resides. Yet, it requires from all players, no matter what part, the intelligence to understand and anticipate, And it requires the highest technical level and talent to execute. The more accurate and speedy the passing of the ball becomes, the higher the ball possession.
Defence and midfield are creating the spaces the offence, the strikers, need to score. If they fail, scoring becomes very difficult. On top of this the players need the ability to read, understand, and anticipate the opposing team. The better they are at this, the higher the probability of success, of winning, becomes.
That’s in a few sentences what the trainer has to create and build. And playing in the champions league, playing at a world cup requires a lot of training and a lot of brain power. To reach such a level only a few trainers, true leaders, are capable of. And for that they need the best A-players they can get. In essence, the team must play like an orchestra. That’s what great leaders and trainers create.
The Role of Physical and mental fitness
Football is an exhausting game. A player gotta run 90 minutes … and then still must have enough strength for a possible extra time of 30 minutes. And the mental strength for a penalty shoot out after 120 minutes, if it comes to that.
Physical and mental fitness are of the utmost importance. Talent alone doesn’t do the job. The hard work is the daily training to build both, physical and mental strength. Part of that training is also to learn how to handle aggression against oneself. In the heat of the battle that happens. When you are fouled the 10th time in a row you might feel like retaliating, which is a surefire way to get a red card. Hence, keeping cool and having self awareness and self control is essential. One has to remember: when emotion goes up, intelligence goes down.
Another important part is that we are all human beings. There are days when we just excel in everything we do. And then there are these days when we just suck. It’s difficult for oneself to recognize these times, when we suck, before it actually happens. Hence, it becomes one of the most difficult tasks of the trainer and leader to see these subtle changes in the players. When he does, a decision can be made to let someone else play instead.
And that is another aspect the trainer and leader has to take care of. Only if physical and mental fitness of each one of the team is reached, readiness of the team can be established. Hence, besides the team playing you need always a plan B, need reserves.
Orchestrating the Play
Orchestrating the play is the trainers and leaders responsibility. The trainer decides the system to play. And the trainer decides which symphony. It depends a lot on the opponent one is facing. And it also depends on circumstances like the stadium, the weather, etc. And don’t underestimate the psychological advantage of a home game. The more data you have, the better your orchestrating becomes. And the more effective your training. Yet, great trainers and leaders understand that they can’t control most of the factors. Hence, flexibility of thinking of each player must also be trained.
Strategy and Tactics
One of the core tasks of the trainer and leader. For instance, when you are qualified for the world cup you have to, ideally, win 7 games in a row to become champion. That’s a herculean task given the fact that you have to play against the best of the world. Players get exhausted, physically, mentally, or both. Or they get injured. The trainer has to prepare for that, must have contingencies.
And then he has to play his system with a different strategy and different tactics depending on the opponent. You can’t play against Brazil the same way you would play against the Netherlands. Each opponent requires a different strategy and different tactics.
Sticking to the strategy and yet keeping the most flexibility in adapting to the evolving game is crucial. The only constant is change.
The overall goal in a world cup is, of course, winning it. Hence, your general strategy must take into account that your team must play consistently on the highest level. To ensure that the trainer must also know when it is convenient to slow down and only do what’s necessary. You don’t want your team to die in beauty. Never lose sight of your overall goal.
Executing the Play
The truth of the matter: executing the play. The trainer and leader can only do so much. The team is on the field and the team executes what has been trained for, They score or they don’t. Not the trainer. Yet, it remains the full responsibility of the trainer. Hence, each team has one or two field leaders. The team captain and his co. Picking the right field leaders is crucial for success. As Napoleon Bonaparte said: “Picking as your field commanders the bravest instead of the smartest always leads to blunder.”
Often, trainers feel that they should reward a great player with being the captain. That distinguishes great leaders from good leaders. They pick those able to accomplish this task on the field. And, for instance, as good as your goal keeper might be, he is not the right guy to become captain. You cannot lead a football team from behind. The ideal field leaders are capable of translating the strategy and tactics they trained into a smashing success. And they are also willing and capable of making their own decisions based on how the game is developing. And they know how to drive a game home.
Exceptional football teams always have great field leaders. And they know one thing: it ain’t over until it’s over. In other words they never, ever give up. That fighting spirit, that character is what makes a team standing out, makes them champions. That’s what great trainers and leaders are capable of creating and instilling in a team.
There are striking similarities between football teams and teams in organizations and companies. My aim with my description above was to raise your awareness for that. On top of that I want to trigger your own thoughts and how your teams compare to these champions.
Times have changed for football. And times have changed for everything else. Exceptional leaders are leading, training and coaching their teams. And exceptional leaders have also their own trainers and coaches. People they trust completely and that provide them with honest feedback.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Learning from Champions

It’s this time again. Football World Cup. No, I am not talking about American Football, which, by the way, is played mostly with the hands. I am talking about the real thing. The championship where the best national teams from all over the world meet. And there is a lot to learn for leadership by closely observing football teams.
Football is a great example of a complex environment. The teams have to deal with ambiguity, volatility, and uncertainty. All the time. Different opponents. Different climates. Different playing fields. The influence of the weather being it sunshine, rain. wind, heat, humidity, cold, even snow at times. The changing behavior of the ball depending on its spinning, the airflow around it influencing the flight path, or a sudden wind gust. Physics plays a big role. And the opposing team doing everything to disrupt your play and get into ball possession. And it’s never easy to score. How about that for complexity?
The role of the trainer and coach
The trainer of the team is also their leader. The trainer makes the difference. The difference of making the team soar or making them go down. The trainer builds the team. The trainer selects the players for the team. What kind of system to play and what strategy and tactics to use is the responsibility of the trainer. And one of the core tasks is to put the best player on the most important position. For that you must know and understand each one of your players. You must know them better than they know themselves. You must be able to see the individual potential and then make it count. When it comes to the top teams, also the top national teams, you have certainly to deal with A-players. Players that belong to the illustrious group of the best of the best. And they know it and are proud of it. Players that have big egos. Players that want to only play together with the best.
Being the trainer and leader of such players is quite a challenge. Hence, only a true leader, a leader with character and personality, can lead such a team by earning their respect. The respect of a top player recognizing the greater experience, knowledge, know-how, and skills of the trainer. Only then, when the trainer is perceived and accepted as the leader, the team is able to pull off their full potential.
What distinguishes a top football trainer and coach?
  • The ability of knowing and understanding the essence of the game and focusing on that.
  • The ability of translating this knowledge and understanding into a winning system on the playing field.
  • The ability of knowing defeat, learning from it, and using it to become even better.
  • The ability of knowing and understanding each player’s strength and weaknesses better than they themselves do.
  • The ability to build a world class team consisting of the top A-players and lead them to sustained success.
  • The ability of enjoying every bit of his work.
  • The ability to know the right time to relinquish his job and leave, because he has given everything to the team and there is nothing more left he could do.
Hence, when you are leading a team, understand that you are also their trainer and coach. Leading is a very demanding task. It doesn’t stop. It’s 24/7. Take the perspective of a football trainer. Build a world class team. Inspire them and be inspired by them. Train and lead your team for each game to come. Train them and lead them to win. Train them and lead them to the champions league, to the world cup. Whatever that might be in your business. And enjoy the ride together with them.
Training and leading the team
Above I mentioned above the complex environment. Yet, this is not something a top trainer would waste time with explaining it to the players. He knows that he has the best players. And A-players that know exactly what they are doing. It would be like explaining to fish what the substance called water is, they are swimming in. It wouldn’t make them better swimmers.
Likewise, with a football team there is no need for a complete and deep understanding of complexity.  And let’s face it: most people don’t understand complexity in depth anyway. Physicists do and for their work it’s essential. For all others understanding certain effects in such an environment is good enough. In other words football players know how to kick the ball to hit a certain area. They don’t need to understand the exact physics of the spinning of the ball.
A football trainer creates a playing system the team is supposed to play. Football is a game that is constantly evolving. The way it’s played nowadays is different to the way it was played 20 years ago. It’s influenced by so many factors. Cultural background of the players plays a big role. The game is interpreted differently depending what nation is playing it. That makes it so diverse, challenging, and exciting. Hence, the system to play is extremely important. And you need to have the right players for the system to be played.
Training and Practice
The task of the trainer is to bring out the best in each one of the players. And the trainer must also assign to each one of them the positions they are best at. For instance, you wouldn’t take a field player and make him goalkeeper. A striker is usually not a good defender. Knowing whom to put in what position is crucial.
Once the team is assembled it’s all about training. Learning, training, practice. In the game it’s then the teams responsibility to play the system as required and trained for. It’s called flawless execution. That’s what a trainer and leader expects. All the time. And there is some more. A great trainer and leader expects his players to put their lives on the line, so to speak. And that’s what A-players do.
What is it football teams are training from dawn to dusk? Standard situations. The players must be able to play the standards blindfolded. Often, that seems boring repeating it over and over again. But then it becomes automatic, becomes a habit. They don’t have to think anymore about it. They just know.
And then the trainer has to prepare them for the unexpected. Prepare them for those difficult situations that no one wants to have. But they are happening. A player is injured. A penalty against you is given. You thought you were winning and suddenly you are a goal behind. That can be nerve wrecking. You have to prepare your team for that. Overcoming adversities. Turning the game around. Mental strength is important. Character and attitude make the difference. And it begins with the trainer and leader.
The Essence of the Game
What’s the essence of the game? How do you win a game? You must score. Must score more goals than your opponent. Or, as the players say it: “Football is simple. Always score more goals in front, than you receive in the back.” Simple indeed. Yet, sometimes it seems that it’s not understood. Ball possession is very important. Yet, don’t fall too much in love with it and die in beauty. Ball possession is not an end in itself. It must lead to score. Otherwise it’s useless.
When you lead your team think about all that. Don’t bother and bore them too much by inviting ‘experts’ who talk about how incredibly complex the environment is. It won’t help them. And A-players won’t listen to that anyway. They know how to play. Instead, train and lead them to score with concrete measures. Train the standards with them, prepare them for the unexpected. Have a strategy and the tactics worked out. And have a system to execute on it. A great system allowing for flawless execution. Great systems are simple. Mediocre systems are complicated and creating system-immanent errors. Lead them to win and focus on that what get’s them there.
The similarity between football and what companies and organizations are facing is striking. Top teams have also top trainers and leaders, who are training and leading their teams. They want one thing and they want it no matter what: playing in the champions league, playing in the world cup and win the cup. And your job as the leader is to get them there.

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