June 26, 2020

How Soccer Made Me A Keeper in My Career

Our Product Engineering Manager Arun shares how he applies lessons from the soccer pitch to his career irl

How Soccer Made Me A Keeper in My Career

I started watching soccer (English Premier League, to be specific, and to prevent any American-British English confusion) in 2002 as it was part of the TV programmes package my housemates and I had subscribed to, as we began living apart from our families for the first time. As expected, it made for great drama and fun. But apart from the straight entertainment value, it provided a lot of fodder for the analytical side of my mind (though I have fared horridly for every time I have tried my hand at Fantasy Leagues).

Strangely enough, it also gave me a little something to add to my professional life: an outline to shape my very own Engineering Philosophy. As a team sport, soccer functions similarly to a product or project team. All parts on the field have to move together in sync, otherwise, the moves break down. If you do not defend it well enough, the opposition can get through the leaks to score goals against you. The team is only as strong as their weakest link, for any sign of weakness can lead to imminent exploitation by the opposing players. Also, it’s often evident that the same set of players perform at very different levels under different managers. I could go on all day about the countless other similarities, but here are some of my best takeaways.

1 on 1’s are paramount

Every individual is different and needs to be handled differently. In a team, there would be people with diverse backgrounds, unique needs, at different places in their career, and working for different motivations. A manager’s role is to identify these differences and harness them to make sure the entire team moves forward like a well-oiled machine.

There will always be 10X players which need to be handled with care to make sure they feel special and stay in the team for a long while. A classic example would be how Ferguson handled his mercurial players like Cantona, Beckham and Ronaldo. Given their status, they were high maintenance, and it was important that they felt well supported so they could continually and effectively contribute to the team.

Au contraire, there would always be journeymen or water carriers who would give their all to the field and make sure everyone also behaves as professionally as possible. As an example, Makele has given rise to a position which now bears his name.

Each individual needs to be appreciated differently in terms of what they bring to the team and told so.
Photo Credit: Sky Sports

Diversity: The Differentiating Factor Between Good and Great Teams

A good team should be as diverse as its fans. Source

Aim to balance the team’s needs against the individuals’. A team needs to have people at different stages in their careers, as each stage brings different qualities to the team. If a team has too many people just starting out, they are likely to make mistakes for short term gains, and the lack of experience could limit their perspective. Barring the infamous “You do not win anything with kids” line from Alan Hansen, every success has demanded a lot more people in the prime of their career. With too many veterans, however, the team might be too slow to react to changing environments.

So here’s what I’ve uncovered: diversity makes the dream team. You need the youth to bring forth new perspectives and energy to challenge the impossible, balanced against the experienced players, to ground, guide and prevent costly mistakes.

Developing one’s value to the team over time

Every individual has to learn to adapt with age. The key skills one possesses will evolve over time. An up-and-coming young player is given the opportunity to roam around the field. With time he would earn his place as a box-to-box midfielder, running both defence and attack. Later on in his career, this same person will sit deep and control the game, not with the pace of his body, but with the speed of his thoughts.

A classic example would be someone like Roy Keane, who adjusted well to changing times and roles. The onus is on the manager to let players know what specific value they contribute, at every stage of their career development.

Always be on the lookout for great talent

Game recognise game. Source

The manager has to learn to continuously evolve the team. Staying static is the biggest mistake any team can make. Often you can find teams that do great for the first half of the season, but then fall flat in the second half. What happened? While they continued to play the same way, all the other teams have wisened up and adapted to their style, and by the second half of the season — they’re ready to hit back harder. This is a learning point for managers: every now and then, you have to change up the style and adjust your team dynamics.

There would always be team members who will move on. When this happens, don’t be too quick to replace each individual who is leaving with another individual who is exactly the same. The team needs to be reassessed at every such junction: only when the missing pieces are clearly identified, then can the search begin.

Say, when Thierry Henry (and his astounding 30- goal record) moved on from Arsenal, Arsene Wenger did not try to replace him with another potential 30-goal striker. Instead, he divided the responsibility between his existing players on the team People who were once in the shadows were now brought forward, as the team moved to adopt a new dynamic.

It is absolutely essential to inject fresh blood and ideas in the event of a change, or even during a successful period, to keep the team energised.

Remove obstacles for teams to perform at optimal levels

Gotta dribble round them obstacles. Source

It is about balance at all times. A manager has to balance the needs of all parties, players, investors, fans, owners, and club management while making sure the team has everything it needs to perform at its optimum.

This involves making hard decisions, conveying them — sometimes accepting what is given, while other times pushing through with his/her own ideas and plans. It is a delicate balance to handle all these parties, but alas, what it ultimately comes down to is the performance of the team. A manager needs to balance these needs — letting it run smoothly in the background — so that the team can focus on their ultimate goal.

A good example would be Arsenal’s building of a new stadium and progressing club to a new level while also maintaining its success on the field, long term financial viability, and quality on the pitch.

Root Cause Analysis & Resolution Make a Solid Foundation

No one will ever get it right all the time. There are too many variables, and however hard you try, some of them would be uncontrollable. A single bad day, week or season should not deter you from doing what is right. Every crisis is an opportunity in disguise and one should learn how to utilize them to make the team better. Every time you get it wrong is a chance for you to try to learn from it, ensuring that the mistake is not repeated.

Just like how Ferguson brought in extra firepower with Berbatov (and Van Persie a few years later for similar reasons) after losing the title on a goal difference. Or how Liverpool is training extra hard this season to perfect their moves after losing out last year to a minimal margin.

To err is human and mistakes happen — all we can do is to live and learn, do better if we are given the chance.

Be Respectful to Everyone

There are multiple ways to the top. There is no single mantra of how a team can succeed and there are a thousand ways one can make a successful team. One should always keep their mind, eyes and ears open, and be ready to accept new ideas.

It is essential to identify the gaps at every juncture and fix them. Sometimes evolution works, sometimes revolution, and it is important to identify what is likely to work in the given situation. Hard work, dedication, agility, focus and professionalism are always a given, but a little bit of luck may be required for things to succeed. Having these traits gives you the best chance to succeed when luck opens the door.

A good example would be the recent surprise Leicester success or how a team like Burnley has maintained their PL status for the last few years.
Photo Credit: Bleacher Report

Attitude and Culture over Talent

Despite the need to adopt new strategies and dynamics along the way, a team still has to always move forward in one direction. Management of mercurial talents is essential, but at the end of the day, everyone on the team has to align with the same goals. If that is not possible, they have to be moved on so that the team can move ahead as one (e.g. Beckham).

Some good examples would be the comparative lack of success during RM’s Galactio era or PSG’s lack of European success, as opposed to Liverpool’s success this year.

For this to happen, every team needs individuals who are willing to put everything on the line in the name of a successful team. When it comes to their professional lives, one’s priorities should be as such: Company, Team and then Individual.

Arun (top left, in green) and his Product Engineering Team bonding over dinner.

So there you have it, the Engineering Management Philosophy that I have, amazingly enough, acquired from my years of being a soccer fan. Score! Talk about a work-life balance, huh? If you enjoyed this piece and share my vision of how I use these strategies to lead a robust team — be sure to check out what we have to offer at Circles.Life (And yes, I’m always down to geek out and discuss soccer further if you’d like!)

This article was written by Arun Puri, a Product Engineering Manager at Circles.Life who is as passionate about his career as he is football.

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