Soccer lessons

Soccer players celebrating

Diversity, communication, and other learnings that companies and higher education can take away from the World Cup.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup tournament is taking place in Russia from June 14 – July 15 and England is bringing the most diverse team it has ever taken. England has players ranging in age from 19-32 and nearly half of its players are black or of mixed identity.

Bringing together 32 nations with players speaking more than 20 languages, the World Cup is celebrated for its diversity and multiculturalism. While billions of people will watch the matches to see who will be declared winner, there is something else that businesses, in particular, should pay close attention to — team diversity and culture.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review notes that a strong culture is implicit, pervasive, and enduring. Senior executives and HR professionals know this well. According to Deloitte Insights, 87 percent of organizations cite culture and engagement as one of their top challenges. Creating a diverse workplace with a strong shared culture is hard to build, but the rewards are far-reaching.

Avid soccer fan Ikechukwu Odum says the World Cup is his favorite sporting event. Having traveled to Brazil for the 2014 matches, he said what he enjoys most is the competition, the talent, and learning about the players’ backgrounds. “The World Cup means so much for the players and for the countries, communities, and the people they represent. Every player brings different abilities and talents, but they come together and try their best to win.”

In this way, FIFA soccer teams resemble the modern-day workplace, where different groups of people must work together to outperform the competition and reach a shared goal.

Diversity not only brings different experiences and skills to a team, but it also drives team performance. England midfielder Dele Alli said, “We’re all confident in ourselves and the team we have. We have a young, very talented squad…we just have to play as well as we know we can.” The same spirit of teamwork and collaboration should be present in the workplace.

Shideh Almasi, Director of People at Feedvisor, an algorithmic commerce company, said, “Teams at work function quite similarly to sports teams. They need to be diverse, they need to be adaptable, and they need to work together. You, of course, need the technical skills, but it’s the skills like communication, leadership, resilience, and interpersonal skills that help teams push forward to reach their goals.”

And CEOs, much like head coaches, must embrace soft skills like empathy to help guide employees to achieve success. Former Starbuck’s CEO Howard Schultz was well-known for his inspirational and touching messages to employees, driving big wins for the global company.

German soccer coach Joachim Low has a similar success story. During the 2014 World Cup championship, he told player Mario Götze, “Show the world you are better than Messi and can decide the World Cup.” Götze went on to score the game-winning goal for Germany.

Talent is the prerequisite, but the interpersonal skill of communication is what set Germany apart from the competition. Soft skills for both players and coaches prove to be crucial, driving results and positive outcomes.

Reflecting on the victory, Götze said, “…We can be happy that we have so many great and skillful players and a real good mixture of young guys and experienced players.” While there is no gender diversity among the all male soccer teams, the different ages, languages, and backgrounds make teams stronger, more agile, and more competitive.

The referees who govern the game are not exempt from using strong communication to work through language barriers and cultural differences. The 36 referees and 63 assistant referees were picked based on their skills and personality. Prior to refereeing the games, they were required to attend workshops and seminars.

FIFA Director of Refereeing Massimo Busacca said, “…the referee has to prepare himself in the best possible way in all areas…Knowing the different football cultures will help him in his performances.”

 Similarly, companies like Pearson offer employees ongoing training to help them develop a global mindset and understand cultural differences.

“It’s not always pretty if the teams aren’t organized or if there’s not a shared philosophy,” Odum says. “But you hardly see bickering or egotism, because the players know they represent more than the game.” Companies that take time to build their culture with diverse teams and shared values have employees who work effectively with others toward the mission and vision of the organization.

Almasi adds, “There’s so much you can learn by working with people who share common goals and values, but who think differently and maybe even look differently than you.” Soccer teams competing in the World Cup understand this and use diversity to their advantage. Businesses tuning into the World Cup may do the same and prioritize investing in a more diverse workforce. That’s a winning strategy — on or off field.

Robin Beck

Robin Beck

About the author

Robin Beck is a former teacher and a staff writer for Pearson. She resides in Atlanta.

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