Five Lessons for Managers from the Best World's Best Soccer Coach

Five Lessons for Managers from the Best World's Best Soccer Coach

Photo credit Brad Tutterow

Pep Guardiola is probably the best active soccer coach in the world. He led FC Barcelona to more than a dozen trophies, and then Bayern Munich to seven more. In his second season in charge of Manchester City the team is on track to lock up the title faster than anyone in Premier League history with a record number of points and by a record margin*.  Rory Smith's recent profile of Guardiola in the New York Times offers five lessons for all managers: Build something that will outlast you; An organization needs a story; It takes a team; Trust your experts; and Success is about hard work, not magic.

His approach will outlast him

As at Bayern, City expects Guardiola’s work to outlast him…Thiago Alcantara, one of his midfielders at Bayern, said after Guardiola left Germany that the coach had “changed the concept of German football…”

Machester City was good before Pep Guardiola got there, and he has the luxury of enough money to sign just about any player in the world he wants. Other managers in similar situations can win a trophy or two, and then move on while ignoring the infrastructure necessary for a team to continue to grow and succeed after the manager is gone. But Guardiola doesn’t just manage teams, he builds institutions.

The best managers outside of soccer do the same. They know that their legacy will not be the next quarter’s numbers or the revenue growth in year one.  They know the best managers succeed in the moment and build organizations that change their industry over the long term. Man City isn’t about Pep, and your organization shouldn’t be about you.

An organization needs a story

More than just forging a team spirit, though, Guardiola saw that his players needed a story to bond them to their club, and the fans needed something to bond them to their team.

If you play for Man City odds are good you can play anywhere. It is easy to see yourself as talent wearing the jersey of the moment, with no more ties to the team than an actor has to a script. But players need something more than a paycheck to be the very best. And their customers – ticket and shirt-buying fans – need to believe the team cares as much as about the fans as the fans care about the team. Manchester City Football Club was founded in 1894. A lot of the current fans grew up with parents and grandparents cheering for what was until recently a largely mediocre side. For those fans it is about much more than who happens to be wearing a light blue shirt on any given Saturday. It’s about an identity and about what it means to support a team that spent a lot of years in the long shadow of local rivals Manchester United. Being a part of that larger story makes City’s players better and more likely to win (to say nothing of selling more tickets and replica jerseys).

Many top managers are like top players. They get recruited to go from one VP job at one company to another VP job at another. Corporate offices look largely the same, and business class travel tends to be business class travel, regardless of what logo happens to be on the luggage tag. But the best companies are about towns and families. They stand for an idea, and customers expect those who work at the company to embody that idea. Being tied to something bigger than an office park makes managers and staff work harder and do better, makes the company a better place to work and thus able to attract better talent, and increases sales and customer loyalty.

It takes a team

[Guardiola] has worked painstakingly on imbuing his team with a sense of identity. He has encouraged the players to take to the field together before games, and to leave as one afterward. It is striking, and deliberate, that City’s whole team celebrates goals together.

Soccer is 90 minutes of systems thinking in action. Players move as a unit forward and back, left and right. A defensive error may lead to the opposition scoring, but a midfielder or forward allowed the opponent to start the play. A piece of individual brilliance may result in a stunning goal, but that brilliance wouldn’t have been possible had the rest of the team not put the player in a position to score. It is easy to marvel at Zlatan’s are you kidding me goal in his debut for the LA Galaxy, but had the defender behind him not headed the ball toward Zlatan and had the Galaxy’s game plan not forced the LAFC’s goalkeeper into hitting long balls the goal never would have happened. At Man City Guardiola took a group of high-paid, big-ego, exceptionally talented individuals and forced them to work as a single team. The result is a group that works and wins as a unit.

The same is true in organizations. If your staff views their job as showing up on time and hitting their individual metrics, you will have a bunch of individuals who more or less show up on time and hit their individual metrics. But organizational success requires your staff viewing themselves as a group with a mission that can only be realized by working together as a team. A successful pitch requires a brilliant individual presentation, but that presentation itself relies on a good product, good materials, good people with a proven track record of doing the promised work, and so on. The best organizations move as a unit, with everyone working for and with everyone else to succeed.

Trust your experts

As his willingness to listen to his grounds staff showed, Guardiola was impressed by the professionalism he found when he arrived at City.

Among the first people with whom Guardiola met when he arrived in Manchester was the grounds keeping crew. They talked about the right length of grass for the stadium and the practice fields. The grounds keepers persuaded Guardiola that what worked in Barcelona and Munich wouldn’t necessarily work in the colder, rainier, Manchester. Guardiola and the crew agreed on what would work best for the result he wanted. Guardiola knows about the playing surface from the perspective of a player and manager, not from the perspective of someone whose job it is to make sure the surface looks and acts as a player or manager wants it to. So Guardiola explained what he was looking for, his past experience with what that meant, and deferred to the subject matter experts about how to best make that happen.

The best managers do the same. Managers are often subject matter experts in one area, but if they're any good they surround themselves with people who are better than they are in every other area that matters. As such, the best managers articulate what they are looking for, indicate what that might look like, and rely on the relevant experts to ensure the best outcome.

Success requires work

None of that [success] has happened because Guardiola is a magician. He did not arrive at Manchester City and transform it with a sprinkle of stardust. It is all the result of unstinting, unending work, a quest for perfection, a determination that everything should be just right.

Guardiola sweats the details. From the length of the grass (19cm) to his commitment to an appraoch to the game, he is focused and works to instill that focus in his players and staff. If winning were simply a matter of a magic formation or special pre-game meal everyone would have done that by now. That Guardiola wins year after year is a clear sign that he isn't just doing better things than other coaches, he is doing those things better.

There is no end of good advice for managers (as this website and the forthcoming Soccer Thinking for Management Success prove). But not even the best advice or insight will help without hard work. Managers cannot just announce a new system and wait for the success and glory to roll in. They have to pursue their ideas, hire and fire the right people, motivate and direct, and on and on. Managing is hard work, and without hard work the best management ideas mean little.

For more lessons for managers and organizations from the world's game, pre-order Soccer Thiking for Managment Success today and look for it in bookstores in July.

* I know City looked hapless against Liverpool and folded like a cheap suit against ManU, but they remain well clear in the Prem, and Guardiola has only failed to win a trophy in one season as a manager.

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