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The World Cup and missional business: what can we learn?

Friday, July 20, 2018
world cup 2018 teams

The World Cup is played every four years and is probably the only sporting event that truly enraptures the entire world; and it is “football” at its best. Nations big and small prepare to compete for a chance to be on the big stage. Soccer powerhouses like Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Spain, and France, are almost always there, but there is also opportunity, as in 2018, for tiny nations like Uruguay, Panama, Iceland, Switzerland, Croatia, and Belgium.

Every four years there are millions of people who marvel that the big nations are sometimes beat up by small nations. It would seem obvious that nations with 50 million inhabitants or more should have a pool from which to select their 23-man squad and automatically have a winning chance. But, not necessarily so!

In 2018, some very small nations were very successful, like Croatia (4 million) making it to the final, Belgium (11 million) to the semi-finals, and Uruguay (4 million) and Sweden (10 million) to the quarter-finals. In fact, the second and third place teams were Croatia and Belgium. How come?

The answer does not lie with population, nor with politics, nor with the rich nations. The factors that make the difference relate not only to World Cup soccer (football) but to business startups and scale-ups and include factors such as:

1. Culture: This is the social behavior and norms found in human societies and organizations - and it is learned by its’ members, not inherited. An example would be the rule-based countries of the west and north as distinct from relationship-based countries of the east and south. Time is important in the former and less so in the later. This is a cultural distinction. Countries which have strong winning soccer teams have a culture of soccer, no matter how small or how poor. The United States, China, and other countries do not. Canada’s sport culture centers around ice hockey; it does not place a priority on soccer.

Golden Ball winner (best player of the World Cup) Luka Modric of Croatia represents a personal culture which pre-dates his teen years in war-torn Croatia. He like many young boys lost family members in the 1991-95 War of independence. Modric was a refugee for 7 years, but he found way to escape the horrors of the bombs falling on his city by turning to a culture of football. Not only one famous player but an entire country, Croatia, has a culture of football as their identity.

To be successful a business must have a culture based on distinctive values. I just reviewed a 60-employee business in China which has a culture of accountability for integrating faith values with profitability. Built into their values fabric is a care for the families of employees. Their culture is unique, measurable, visible and valued. It takes time to build such a culture and it requires intentionality. Every company should take time to list the values they desire, and then take steps to formulate the desired culture.

2. Preparation looks different in every soccer team and sometimes teams devalue certain factors taking the chance they will not need a certain quality. Croatia demonstrated a mental toughness when they were down 1-0 in three different games, but kept strong with high energy; and composed organized and disciplined play – a credit to their training. In contrast my son texted me after the Brazil loss stating, “20 shots to Belgium’s 8! Wow! So sad! They had their changes – but they just couldn’t finish.”

That’s right, in business also “you gotta finish” and you finish if you are prepared. Coach Gareth Southgate of England missed his penalty shot in the 1996 Euro semi-final, knocking them out of contention for the World Cup. Now in 2018, he was determined to be prepared and they were - for the shootout with Colombia propelling them into the quarter-finals. It was the result of careful planning and hard work focusing on the skill and psychology behind penalty shootouts, all of which included studying team penalty profiles, and past performances, where players positioned the ball and individual strength needed to perform under pressure. Leaders like Southgate research the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in front of them. Preparation pays off.

A client of IBEC’s who is still in business after many years of struggles in Asia, lamented, “I wish I had been better prepared before I started my business.” Such a statement is not only valid for someone who is finishing well, but for the many who have thrown in the towel. One of the things I learned early on in IBEC’s history was how to effectively use the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) in analyzing a business situation. Ken Leahy was a master at using that tool and we used it repeatedly in several countries.

3. Strategy and Tactics: In short, strategy defines long-term goals and provides a path toward achieving the mission. Tactics involve the smaller steps and shorter timeframes along the way. About 2,500 years ago, Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” In the world of soccer, for example, some teams are known for strategic team play, others regularly feed high-profile strikers. These and similar strategic decisions are made and discussed in the locker room. Tactics have to do with specific actions on the field by specific people who are usually aligned with the strategy.

In the well-publicized case of Belgium, manager Roberto Martinez changed the strategy by playing a never-before-used lineup, using multiple persons playing out of position and benching players, making inexplicable substitutions. His move from the established 3-4-3 to a 4-3-3 worked out brilliantly against Brazil. “You need to get a tactical advantage when you play Brazil… and the execution of the tactics was magnificent…I couldn’t be prouder. We had to be brave tactically. It was a big gamble to change things and we needed the players to believe,” said Martinez.

Such courage was true of Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic, who moved captain and star Luka Modric around for the final games, and Modric rose to the occasion. Strategy and tactics need to work together. Strategic thinkers and practitioners need to work together. And they did for Croatia.

I visited Outland Denim in Cambodia earlier this year. As a freedom business they state, “Our circular business model allows our seamstresses, staff and customers to participate in creating a better world not only for themselves but for the next generation by stopping the cycle of abuse, exploitation and poverty through opportunity and personal empowerment.” Such a strategic map allows them to reach their goals.

In addition, I also saw tactical decisions demonstrating the integrity of the Outland Denim. For example, they send buyers to Turkey to ensure they have ethically sourced denim. They want to be socially responsible in every aspect of the business, and it involves tactical decisions in the supply chain, HR, marketing, sales, and the empowerment of the employees.

4. Talent: Both Croatia and Belgium realized they had an “outstanding talented generation of players” and credited their small talent pool as an advantage. The players basically know each other before the training for the national team. Agent for tiny Iceland, who qualified for the tournament, stated that a big advantage is that the guys have played together since they were young. “Our team are like brothers,” said Magnus Magnuson. Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic said, “We have big hearts and we fight for our people back home.”

An outstanding talented generation like Croatia and Belgium have this year, does not always come along, but on the other hand it does not just happen. Intentionality, talent scouting, and managerial decisions go into finding and developing talent.

The same is true for a business. We have to hold our standards high, hire only the best, and provide the incentives which will drive success. When the Barrington Group set out to start their own factory in China rather than outsource to suppliers, they set out to find the best managers, and they did in Kirk Parette and Ben Briggs. Both men set the direction for a business which integrates kingdom values, social concern and personal care, with profitability and job creation. They live what they believe.

5. Coaching: We have already referred to Manager/coach Martinez (Belgium) and Dalic (Croatia) as strategic coaches. Coach Southgate (England) is a credible, respected leader because he has been in the players shoes; he knows what is going on in their heads and he understands the challenges they are facing. As an inspirational leader, each of the 23 players respect his experience. He has bounced back from failure and learned to focus on the end goal, and he is a man with empathy and heart, even for the opposition. How can we forget his effort to console the Colombian midfielder Mateus Uribe after he lost the match for Colombia with his missed penalty kick?

Start-up missional businesses need coaches and consultants. Large Fortune 500 companies need coaches. Wise managers realize the importance of coaching. IBEC started in 2006 because of a comment by a startup owner returning from Asia with the comment, “I wish I had some coaching as I began my company, as it would have saved me a lot of pain and wasted time.” That is why we exist. Our coaches have experienced failure, like coach Southgate, and have seen the pathway to success. They have life and business lessons which can be shared to empower others.

Long-time IBEC board member, consultant and former Director of IBEC, Ken Leahy, after a project completion, or a business closure, or seeming failure, would always say, “Let’s set a time to talk about ‘lessons learned’. Leaders learn from the past. A company we coached in Central Asia failed to make a transition and the owner shut it down. One of our biggest disappointments was the closure of a company in Indonesia, but there was an interview with the owner and then with IBEC consultants. It was important to understand the “lessons learned.” That’s what coaches do. And that’s how teams win and businesses succeed.


Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures

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IBEC Ventures -- Consultants for BAM/Business as Mission