Q3 · 2018Be a winner – by focusing on the team

Successful business leaders and top performers are regularly confronted with one fundamental question: Is my performance primarily about being successful as an individual, or is it primarily about the wider success of my team and my company?

While the first attitude («I focus primarily on myself») can lead to a decent team performance, it would be a mistake to be too confident about that. If everyone focuses on themselves, it does not automatically follow that the group will achieve great success.

Champions are aware that their own top performance is a fundamental responsibility to the team. But they also know that extraordinary performance as a group is only possible if they commit themselves, first and foremost, to the overall objectives of the team. Which is a challenge.

It requires key players for teamwork

Yann Sommer, goalkeeper for the Swiss national football team, exhibits this attitude. As his performances at the recent World Cup in Russia impressively proved, you will have the best chance of victory if you put your team first.

I have been working with Yann for nine years now. For four years he has been the first-choice goalkeeper for the Swiss national team. He plays for Borussia Mönchengladbach in the German Bundesliga, and before that he was Swiss Champion several times, played in the Champions League with FC Basel and was voted Swiss Footballer of the Year. This year’s World Cup was a particularly important tournament for Yann, as it was the first World Cup where he was Switzerland’s number one goalkeeper, a great achievement.

The World Cup is a highlight for any professional footballer. It gives them the honor and privilege of playing for their country. It also provides them with a global stage – with two key audiences: first, they can demonstrate their talent to the public, and secondly, they can impress the ‘football industry’, including their clubs, officials and the media. When the best players in the world compete at the same tournament, it becomes obvious who reaches the highest performance standards.

The focus for many players is to use the stage of the World Cup to literally «sell» themselves. It means that many players – although they wear the same football shirt as the rest of their team – have their own agenda. Besides tactical issues, the coach must cope with the challenge of aligning the players to achieve a shared commitment to the team’s objectives. The team really only has a chance to win if the players are willing to make up for each other’s mistakes, tackle and run for each other, and support each other with unselfish, well-timed passes. The coach needs key players within his team, therefore, who display a collective team spirit, a common desire for victory and a genuine solidarity with each other. Yann Sommer is just such a player.

I supported Yann before and during the World Cup in his role as a goalkeeper and as a key player. My objective was to allow him to achieve his own best performance in each match, while also supporting the team to reach its objectives. When I asked Yann for his most important objective for the World Cup he answered: «For my team to reach at least the quarter finals».

Give equal space to individual needs

Yann brought this spirit into the team and strategically addressed his teammates with clear guidance. He prepared detailed conversations and speeches before matches, so that he would maximize his impact. He considered the individual needs of different players to ensure they were included and help build team spirit.

The results were very good, with Switzerland playing with focus and teamwork to progress to the last 16 teams. It was not until the final stages of the ‘Round of 16’ match against Sweden that misfortune struck: a shot from a Swedish forward was deflected by a defender, leaving Yann no chance of getting his hand to the ball. Sweden scored to win the match, and Yann’s objective for the team was narrowly missed.

But what happened next was really interesting. Yann was so disappointed at missing the team objective that he could not feel pride or happiness at his own excellent performance, despite several journalists and soccer magazines around the world voting him the best goalkeeper of the World Cup’s first leg, and among the top three goalkeepers of the whole tournament. Earlier, the German soccer magazine «Kicker» had also voted Yann as the best goalkeeper in the Bundesliga in the second half of the season. But none of this meant anything to Yann in the aftermath of the World Cup – because the team had failed to reach its objective.

However, I looked at this with him from a different perspective: I showed him how he was a winner, by focusing so unselfishly on the team! By doing so, he had not damaged his own personal performance or reputation, but had enhanced it.

What can business leaders learn from Yann Sommer?

For a true champion, the team’s objectives come first. The personal best performance is the permission to act as a leader. In times of massive pressure and intensity, instead of having a detailed personal agenda – to look good and succeed with their own ambitions – a true champion has the empathy to connect with the other people on the team. They have the ability and genuine interest to include everyone based on their individual needs. They do it in a way that generates positive energy and focus on the team objectives –laying the foundation for extraordinary collective performance. This doesn’t mean their ambitious objectives for the team will always be reached, but they will end up as a winner anyway.

I wish you every success with your objectives.