Mandy Flint & Elisabet Vinberg Hearn: Team success the German way

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Much has been said and written about the massively successful German football team in the football world cup in Brazil this summer. And rightly so; after 24 years they were able to raise the trophy again as proud world champions!

Their success is a worthy one, as it is not chance that have put them there, nor is it luck or circumstances. No, their success is one of planning, of patience and of determination. And of true team spirit, but we’ll come back to that later. And it seems to have been triggered by set-back, which is interesting as it is often said that we learn most from our failings, mistakes and setbacks. After coming last in the 2000 European Championships, the German football team/organisation took a long hard look at their approach to creating a championship team and started working on a long-term plan.  They had a plan and they took their time perfecting the execution of that plan. Many teams, and we are no longer just talking about sports here, fail because there is rarely a clear plan and the focus and consistent follow-up are just not there.

Let us reflect on teams in the workplace and see how applicable some key components of the German football team strategy are in organisational life. The content of their strategy is not new, it’s not rocket science – in fact, it is largely common sense. And yet, it is not necessarily common practice. Or as it is sometimes described – the problem with common sense is that it’s not that common!

Continuous development

Unless you are part of a project team that is only coming together for a very short period of time, there is a need to think through and plan ahead for the type of development that each person needs in their current role (and future roles inside or outside the team). No one is ever fully developed, thankfully, so this needs to be an ongoing practice. You need to think about how each person can best contribute; what are their strengths, how/where can they develop further (to be able to perform their role)?

You also need to think about what resources the team will need in the near future and beyond. What skills will be needed, what knowledge, what behaviours, what qualities? This should be an ongoing point for reflection and discussion by both the team’s leader and the members of the team. Development doesn’t happen overnight, it involves a good portion of patience, or as the saying goes “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.

And let’s not overlook that this kind of development focus is both for each individual as well as the team as a whole (considering how does the TEAM and its practices need to develop).

The German team started 14 years ago, to develop all the skills and qualities that would 14 years later earned them the gold. They invested more heavily in youth football than before, knowing that this kind of development takes time.

Listening and feedback

To be able to develop, you also need to be open to feedback, to keep an open mind and recognize that you never have all the answers. What you always have however, is the ability to listen to others’ input and ideas and be willing to try new approaches as appropriate. The most successful people and teams will listen to learn; they will listen and be open minded in order to listen without judgment. An example of this would be how someone while listening is not thinking “I hear what you are saying but that won’t work”. They are listening while thinking “I hear what you are saying and am open to go out and try that approach”.

As the German football team is more focused on the team than the individuals, as we will discuss in a moment, this could have made it easier for them individually to take on feedback to be able to learn, develop and ultimately deliver for the team. As we all probably know, taking on feedback sometimes becomes very personal, as the focus is on myself and it’s then hard to be objective and truly open to the feedback and the value it can add. If you are working for the good of the team, feedback works more effectively.

Belief in the team

Successful teams know each other well and they have faith in their ability of delivering together. They are not arrogant and think they are better than everyone else, but they believe in the fact that they can be very successful together.  This comes from spending time together, getting to know each other, doing things together, working together and as a result seeing how it all comes together. An example of this could be a team that jointly works out how to work together, while getting to know each person’s unique contributions to the team.

The German team has been recognized as being modest while still having endless faith in its own ability as a team. This could be seen throughout the tournament when they would seem to stay calm and humble even when they were in the lead; they never seemed to get arrogant or brash about it. It seems to have been at the core of their mentality throughout the competition.

Mental Strength

Having belief in one self and one’s team is also very closely linked to the mental strength that goes with high performance. You could argue that people only have control over one single thing and that’s their own mind and their own thoughts. The best performers keep control over their own thoughts and don’t let thoughts of worry run away with them. They keep focused on outcomes and can view setbacks with objectivity so that they can quickly brush themselves off and move on. In a team setting you can make this happen by staying focused as a team, openly sharing setbacks and inviting regular feedback to have a complete picture of your performance. The feedback can be positive and constructive. You can then also start to notice how setbacks lead to learning and better performance and therefore be calmer and more confident even when things go wrong.

An example with the German football team was how they were slightly surprised by the total collapse of the Brazilian team after their star player was badly injured. The German response is more likely to have been one of “let’s care for our friend, work together and keep focused on our task, we can do this together”. They wouldn’t have allowed themselves to panic.

Team Spirit

This kind of thinking is also an expression of team spirit.

It’s a term often used in all areas where teams exist, but not always one that is easy to pinpoint or create.  Team spirit was embodied by Alexandre Dumas’ famous story of The Three Musketeers. Their motto was “All for one and one for all” and it is as relevant today as it was in the 1800’s when the book was written. If you look closely at the German football team, they also epitomize this kind of team spirit, as great teams put the team ahead of themselves. There is no one star that the team stands and falls with. The fact that everyone plays an important role, coupled with the faith that exists that great results can be achieved together, is at the centre of said footballers’ team spirit. This means that even if one of their best players would be missing, the team is still as strong. This is interesting as this is not necessarily true for most teams, where some team members have a perceived or real “higher status” than their teammates and others therefore feel inferior and potentially less valuable and important, and the star’s absence at best worries and at worst cripples the team’s performance.

With great team spirit everyone will be willing to “sacrifice” themselves for the team. They know that their shared mission is bigger than their personal agenda.  And they know that they have a responsibility towards their team members to always behave in a manner that is conducive with their target mission. In a work example that may mean that a team member cancels a meeting with a senior mentor, even though that would be helpful for his/her own career, in order to step in for a team member who has been taken ill or fallen behind for some reason. Team goes before the individual and as a result the team has greater results and success which ultimately also means the individual has greater success.

Matrix Teams

Many organisations have people belonging to different teams at different times; there can be functional teams, project teams and cross-functional teams (just like a national sports team where the players belong to different league clubs where they may play a different role depending on the team mission and dynamic). The challenge with this is that team members need to be able to find their place and adjust into different teams at any given time. The key here is clarity; clarity of mission (what are we here to do), clarity of roles and responsibilities (who’s doing what), clarity of operation (how will we work together to deliver on our mission and goals). The clearer this is, the easier it is for the members to quickly reform into new or temporary teams.

Summary

We have all been gifted with the endless ability of learning and developing. Taking time to regularly assess where we stand (individually, as a team, as an organisation) provides opportunities for new strategies and tactics and of skill building.

Success is rarely down to chance or luck or circumstances. It is instead rooted in planning, focus, determination, follow-through and flexibility in mind and action – and we can all increase our success by putting in the work that’s needed, as is suggested in the observations above.

So why not take a look at the German football team and be inspired by how far this approach can take us – all the way to the top spot.

Written by Mandy Flint and Elisabet Vinberg Hearn, award-winning authors of “The Team Formula: A Leadership Tale of a Team Who Found Their Way”

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