Strategy, Execution and Success — Lessons from World Cup 2014

Germany demolished Brazil at the semi-finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. While some may have anticipated Germany’s triumph, few would have guessed that the victory would be so utter and the defeat for Brazil to be so humiliating. Even a non-soccer fan like me knows that a 7-1 defeat is something astounding — more so when the vanquished are none other than Brazil, a football superpower. What does this teach us about success?

For one, it teaches us that success is planned for, patiently nurtured and comes as a result of determined execution of strategy.

Bloomberg Businessweek featured an article by Brendan Greeley on 08 July on how Germany reversed its fortunes following its debacle at the European Championship 2000. What emerged after their failure was a simple plan executed brilliantly and diligently.

So, what can businesses learn from this episode?

Without repeating the article here, let me highlight three points that business leaders know, but seldom act on for various reasons:

  1. Success is not the result of individual talent.
  2. Strategy is patient.
  3. Committed execution turns strategy into success.

football - soccer ball in goal

Success Is Not the Result of Individual Talent

“National programme… leave nothing to chance… too precious to leave unfound”

These words in Greeley’s article reveal the secret to Germany’s success. Unlike other teams that relied on star players, Germany developed a core competency that ensured that nothing was left to chance. It is the core competency of spotting, developing and maturing talent. What is a core competency? Core competency, according to Gazelles International, is something an organisation develops over many years that gives it a distinct edge over its competitors. It is something so carefully nurtured over a period of time that it is hard for others to copy or to beat. Core competency is also the engine that helps you to consistently deliver on your unique selling points.

The Germans developed a system to continuously raise good players to international level, so it never has to rely on one or two superstars. What should happen if a star gets hurt? Or switches loyalties? With an entire system backing up your success, the chances of victory are higher. You cannot afford to leave anything to chance, so core competencies are critical to ensuring success.

The stars in Germany’s victory are therefore not just the players, but those who committed themselves faithfully over the years to make this talent development system work. In my opinion, the coaches, talent scouts and club managers who supported the programme wholeheartedly and put in their best to make the system work are as important to the success of the team as the players.

Lesson: Develop core competencies, not superstars in your business.

Strategy is Patient

Germany waited fourteen patient years to see the fruits of its strategy. Fourteen years in any business venture is a long time, but strategy takes a long view of things, as compared to tactics, which are short-term. Yet, too often, strategy changes because of short-term issues. This is because business leaders, being human, react emotionally rather than act intentionally. Yet, the whole idea of having a strategy is to prevent knee-jerk reactions that cause confusion to staff and waste resources; strategy keeps your eyes focused on the long term.

Whenever something happens, it is good to remind yourself “What is my strategy”? Focus on the long-term goals you want to achieve, and determine if what is troubling your company now will derail you from those goals. In our business coaching programme, we emphasise the concept of setting a BHAG — Big Hairy Audacious Goal as taught by Jim Collins. This BHAG is a goal that is at least ten years in the future; something you can’t attain at the moment that will stretch your abilities to achieve it. The BHAG is the intersection of what you are passionate about and what you do best. For businesses, it is also based on your profit engine. Without passion or an overcoming belief in what you do, you will burn yourself out. Without setting your BHAG at what you do best, you can’t keep up. And if it does not factor in your profit engine, the business will go broke.

That is why it is important to have a team of wise individuals in the business (what we at Gazelles International call the “council”), to evaluate and recalibrate strategy whenever challenges arise. This council’s job is to give an objective assessment on whether urgent issues confronting the business require a shift in strategy or staying on course.

It takes nerve to stay on course. We see all too often strategy being sacrificed for short-term or immediate KPIs. This is because people are by nature seduced by short-term gains. But if short-term victories are not aligned to longer-term goals, these short-term successes are often detrimental to your long-term goals.

Lesson: Accept that strategy requires patience. Your patience and commitment will be rewarded. Like the Germans.

Committed Execution Turns Strategy into Success

How often have we given up halfway because it was too difficult, too expensive or we got distracted by something easier to attain?

The Germans committed people and resources — everyone from the senior administrators who decided on this strategy, down to the talent scouts who spent their days watching eight-year-olds play, and large amounts of money, to make this work. They committed €85 million a year to sustain this talent development programme, including getting every first and second class club to run their own soccer high school. All these require commitment and faith that the strategy will work. They kept doing it for fourteen years, patiently waiting to see the results, pumping in resources and executing their plan without fail even though no results were guaranteed. What if some clubs stopped supporting the plan halfway? What if there were doubters? Or what if Germany decided to switch to some other sport where it was easier to win medals? Or what if Germany resorted to taking the easier way out like mass importing athletes from third world countries to “buy” medals?

In Gazelles terms, we call it executing with clarity and focus. There must be clarity in what to execute, so that resources can be focused on the action taken. Execution is always goal-oriented and solution-focused in order not to waste time and resources. There is no time to waste pondering why the country did badly in 2000. Look forward, set goals, and execute ruthlessly.

Lesson: The good thing about committed execution is that along the way, core competency is built. This enables long-term, sustainable success that can be replicated.

Conclusion

If the Germans did not do badly in 2000 during the European Championship, would they have devised such a crystal clear strategy and executed it with discipline and commitment? We will never know. But as business leaders, we always need to have a strategy, so why wait till we encounter great pain in our business before we devise one? The golden rule is to build your strategy when times are good, not when you are in pain. This way, you will have a better frame of mind and lots more resources to tap on.

Don’t wait. Ask yourself today, “What is my strategy and how should I execute it?”

If you need help, I’m just an email away!