A business fan's guide to football

Reflecting on the World Cup, Faisal Butt finds surprising parallels between a football squad and an org chart.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 22 Aug 2018
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Down to business

The recent World Cup in Russia has left me inspired. But being more of a ‘business nut’ than a ‘football nut’, I can’t help but try to draw the parallels between the two. Football, like the world it exists in, can be as beautiful, or as ugly, as complex, or as simple as you want it to be. Like business, it requires strategy, grit, determination, humility, and smarts.

The Business of Football

The charm of football is that it’s mesmerisingly simple (a far cry from test cricket): there are players whose mission is to score goals; those who stop others from scoring, and all-rounders who link it all together.

As I watched national titans fall and underdogs rise this summer, the recurring theme that emerged is the importance of a balanced team, and not relying on one or two superstars.  A football team has some eerie parallels with a business org chart. The strikers are the salespeople, trying to score deals. The midfielders are the ops guys. They link everyone together as the backbone of the team and make sure things are running smoothly.

The defenders are your finance department; they are the sensible heads that keep things steady and try to minimise the leakage. The goalkeeper is your Finance Director, the last line of defence. The football manager is your CEO. All blame and glory ultimately falls on his or her shoulders. When things go wrong, they are expected to answer for all mistakes.  When things go right, the pressure is eased slightly, but the job is a gruelling existence, teetering on a knife edge, only one defeat away from your position being in jeopardy. 

Sporting Leadership

Managing a football team is all about dynamism, having the soft skills to inspire and motivate when morale is low and the toughness to crack down when there’s a lapse in execution. The manager’s team must believe in his or her vision. This is no different to the CEO of an early stage business. We take risks and watch them play out for the world to see, with nobody to blame in defeat but ourselves.  We have to hire able characters and discover what makes them tick. We have to push them, but withdraw if we feel we have pushed too far.

Sir Alex Ferguson is regarded by many as one of the greatest football managers of this century. He was a master at man management, and kept some extremely fiery characters performing at their optimum year after year. Motivating world-class talent requires intuition and empathy, and having a natural ability to read and understand people. It’s not something that can easily be mass-produced; the approach must evolve with each character you are trying to keep motivated.

The entrepreneur CEO’s role is no different – the top priority is getting performance out of a top team. The best players are easily bored, need to be constantly challenged, and are often borderline arrogant. It is often a challenge to ensure the team members stay put and don’t get lured to greener pastures (more money, a better chance of winning etc.). The CEO must talent scout like a good manager – they must be able to recognise talent when they see it, know it’s worth, invest in it, and, most importantly, hang on to it.

Team Sports

Business and football are both team sports. Trophies are won not by individual star players, but by well-balanced teams working seamlessly together as a finely tuned machine. The ego in top performers often drives them to put their own perceived performance over the greater good of the team, but sadly the end result too often is garbled and inept.

The short-lived journeys of Neymar’s Brazil and Messi’s Argentina at this year’s World Cup are a case in point. Both stars played well within teams that woefully underperformed. Croatia, on the other hand, displayed superb teamwork, surprising their compatriots and the world as they emerged out of oblivion and into the glory of the finals. I try to bring this sporting mentality to building start-up teams. Am I looking for stars? Absolutely. But more so, I’m looking for balance, chemistry, teamwork, and values.

Final Thoughts

The semi-finals this year delivered heart-thumping suspense to millions of fans the world over. Would England embrace coach Southgate’s tactical passing football or go back to their old ways? Would Croatia’s aggression finally break through our well-trained defence? This was an edge-of-your-seat contest at its very best, taking us back to the days when Roman gladiators would be surrounded by an arena of blood thirsty revellers.   

There’s a proverb that goes, ‘Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did’. This young English team worked hard to get to where they did. Not unlike a start-up, they should be braced for a lot more hard work – and failure – before they cross the chasm of success. Like many of the start-ups I back, this is a team with the raw ingredients for victory, and one I’ll be watching closely from the side lines. But what do I know? I’m just a ‘business nut’.

Faisal Butt is the CEO of Spire Ventures, a property focused private equity boutique, and the Founder and Chairman of Pi Labs, Europe’s leading proptech venture capital firm.

Image credit: Pixfly/Shutterstock

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