Here’s What CEOs Can Learn from Football’s Best

It likely didn’t occur to you, but footballers and CEOs have much in common, and today's business leaders could learn a great deal from the pressure and expectancies world class football professionals face every time they step foot on the pitch.

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Here Paolo Gugliemini, CEO of MSC Software, reveals what CEOs can learn from professional athletes around the world.

My time as a youth footballer in Italy opened my eyes to the important parallels between sport and business, and how many of the skills of an athlete are transferrable to the corporate world. Team-based sports teach us how to motivate workers, bring diverse multinational teams together, dissolve silos and empower each employee to realise their unique potential. Here are some of the things that football can teach us about how to run successful companies.

Create a common purpose

For footballers, the knowledge of an approaching fixture helps collectively focus energies and concentrate minds. Imposing tough targets, from product launch timelines to specific growth targets, can similarly be a powerful way to motivate employees. Demanding deadlines incentivise preparation, just as successful athletes turn fear into fuel and train twice as hard for an important match.

However, employee targets should be used to provide a broad objective rather than a prescribed set of routes to achieve it. Businesses should set common goals but give employees the freedom to achieve them through individual creative endeavour just as players are given the freedom to use their own initiative.

Businesses should set common goals but give employees the freedom to achieve them through individual creative endeavour just as players are given the freedom to use their own initiative.

Use competitors as inspiration

Multinational, multi-lingual teams often bond together through a common drive to win, and creating a collective corporate ‘mission’ can likewise help diverse workforces coalesce into a tight unit. A common desire to succeed against competitors helps transcend differences and ensure everyone pulls in the same direction.

The desire to win also motivates players to measure and refine their skills against those of their rivals, and businesses should similarly use their competitors as inspiration to refine their own offering. Understanding its competition helps a business understand itself. Just as goalkeepers will refine their technique by studying videos of a striker right down to where he places his penalties, successful business leaders must study every aspect of their competitor’s strengths and weaknesses to find and refine their competitive advantage.

Build a team of entrepreneurs, not employees

The best football teams are both diverse and cohesive because they treat each player as an individual empowered to play to their own strengths while working within a team. Both football and business require you to craft a complementary and cohesive unit from an array of different skillsets. A successful business must treat employees as a group of unique individuals and not a faceless mass. Employees should be empowered to achieve their goals in their own way and play to their own strengths. This can include setting flexible working hours to accommodate employees’ preferences, for example. Employees should be given personal development goals and the company should help each worker to identify and hone their strengths.

But this should go much further, empowering each employee to think and act like an individual entrepreneur. Businesses should create flat, democratic, non-hierarchical structures which empower rank-and-file workers to contribute new strategies and ideas. C-suites should be open to creative new thinking from across the workforce and junior employees should be encouraged and rewarded for contributing successful ideas. A secretary once came up with a new idea that helped transform our manufacturing processes across several factories. In response, we put her in charge of her own project, capitalising on her initiative and encouraging ownership of the work.

Break down corporate silos

There are no silos in sport. Everyone from the defender to the coach work and socialise together to create a team bond. Businesses should similarly break down boundaries between different specialisms and nationalities.

For example, when visiting overseas divisions our employees bring a gift of food from their host country and share a meal together. Removing physical boundaries between the C-suite and the employees is an important symbolic act to inculcate a democratic workforce structure open to new ideas from everywhere. My favourite player, Gianluca-Vialli, won several trophies with Chelsea as a player-manager and I similarly choose to sit and work amongst my employees rather than being in a separate office.

Creating communal shared spaces such as open-plan offices and all-hands meetings are a good way to show that every employee and their ideas are valued. This open, integrated workforce structure should be extended into enterprise and industrial processes too. Companies should use collaborative software tools to unite different roles and create connected workflows that bring together everyone from engineers and designers to executives.

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