The high performance soccer club

soccer team

The sport sector is of great value to society. Not only is it economically speaking one of the fastest growing sectors in the past decade, but it also fulfils an increasingly important role in the strive for a better health.

In the sport sector, soccer has a special place as it is by far the most popular sport worldwide with most participants, television exposure and viewers. In fact it can be stated that, commercially viewed, soccer is the biggest business of them all.

It is therefore of the utmost that sport administrators strive for excellence, both in the soccer organisation (which includes the first team, the youth education, trainer staff) and the management organisation which supports the soccer organisation (commerce, finance, marketing etc.).

What are the factors that make a high performance soccer club? Surprisingly, not much research has been done into this topic. As I had undertaken a 10-year study into the characteristics of the high performance organisation (HPO), I decided that I would apply the resulting HPO Framework on soccer clubs, to evaluate what makes a soccer club great, both on and off the pitch.

To make this possible, I first had to develop a definition of the high performance soccer club. Based on a questionnaire which was sent to seven Dutch premiere league soccer clubs and the association of Dutch Professional Soccer Coaches and subsequent interviews with representatives of those clubs and the association, I came up with the following definition: ‘A high performance soccer club  is a soccer club that is financially and sportingly stable for an extended period of time’. This means that a soccer club doesn’t have to become national league champion every year or win the Champions League regularly, and certainly not at all costs as this is financially not sustainable.

The scores on the questionnaire and the interviews clearly indicated that my original HPO Framework could also be applied to describe a high performance soccer club (HPSC):

  • Management quality. Quality of management is the foundation of an HPSC. As one of the interviewees described it: “The first team is the outer tire, inside is the rim which makes the tire roll. This tire constitutes the organisation of the people surrounding the first team. These people must be of the highest quality.  Looking at the soccer team, the trainer functions between the tire and the rim to get the first team on the correct pressure.” Managers in a HPSC are constantly looking for people who (potentially) are better than they are themselves: “I always look for people who somehow function better than I do. The Head of Sales must be a better sales person than me. The Back Office people must be better in keeping records than I am. As manager I’m constantly busy improving people and giving them room to excel in that which they are good at. It also saves me a lot of time when I employ the best people in their field.”
  • Employee quality. Next to the quality of management the quality of employees is seen as another foundation of an HPSC. Employees of an HPSC are highly committed to the club, which is seen in the way they put the interest of the club above their own interest. An HPSC appoints new employees with the thought that these persons will raise the quality level of their functions and ultimately that of the club. This way employees are busy earning back their salaries. Before they get a fixed contract, employees at all levels  have proven themselves in a trial period. “As a soccer club we try to continuously improve ourselves by encouraging people in the organisation to become better and better. The employees who started in the club these past few years were all highly educated and ambitious. We select mainly on potential and development perspective. And we give temporary contracts so the new people have to and can prove themselves.”
  • Continuous improvement. An HPSC looks carefully at its own identity and strengths and propagates these to the region where the club is established. The identity of the club dictates for a large part the way in which soccer is offered to this region and (potential) sponsors and supporters. All the while, the club is searching for new strategies in which the core product of soccer can be experienced, and manners in which sponsors and supporters can be offered more so they feel stronger ties to the club. “You can create a lot of goodwill by actively encouraging players to make contact with groups in the society that have difficulties. And it is always good as a club to give back to society.” In addition, employees are encouraged to develop new services in their area. Innovation not only shows in new marketing campaigns for further strengthening ties with sponsors and supporters, but also in continuously optimizing current processes.
  • Openness and action orientation. Within an HPSC a ‘top sport culture’ can be found. This entails a performance-driven culture in which everybody strives to become better, help others to improve their results, and just plainly delivers results. It is a culture where people state: “You have to be here because then you can excel.” This culture originates from role model behaviour, not only from management but from everybody, from the receptionists, administrators, commercial staff, lawyers, medical staff to the players. This role model behaviour in turns originated from a shared performance-driven mindset. In this culture giving and receiving open and honest feedback is the norm. “You don’t address someone seriously about his bad performance in public, you take that person aside to speak one-on-one, so the person doesn’t losses face.” Feedback comes quite naturally in an HPSC: “Positive feedback is the flywheel of improvement.”
  • Long term orientation. Long term orientation starts with the managers of the club who commit themselves for a long time to the club. Then, the club sees to it that the working environment for employees is safe in the sense that they have job security. If dismissal has to take place it will be done in a proper way such that ex-employees can leave the organisation with their heads held high. An HPSC makes sure it has good relations with stakeholders. Long term partnerships are entered into with third parties like suppliers, municipalities, and the police. An extended network is maintained with different societal groupings so strong ties to the local communities with their supporters and sponsors are created. An HPSC is continuously looking for ways to create added value for their sponsors and supporters. The management of an HPSC is good at focusing in a disciplined manner on the things that are crucial for long term success by developing and maintaining a long term vision.

Looking at the above, the argument could be made that the finalists of this year’s Champions League have “bought their place in the finals on credit” as they have taken on huge financial debts to buy football stars who don’t necessarily have an emotional tie to the club. It will be interesting to see whether the Financial Fair Game programme of the UEFA will make any difference in the coming years. Hopefully it will as this is going to level the playing field (no pun intended), giving other clubs (and countries) also a honest shot at the title. Well, in the mean time – until Ajax wins the Champions League for the fifth time – we hope for a decent performance of our national team in Brazil.

Bt Dr. André A. de Waal, MBA, Academic director Center for Organizational Performance, Associate professor Maastricht School of Management.

Would you like to know more about HPO?

Join Dr. De Waal’s workshop “Creating the High Performance Organization” at the Taste of Knowledge event at SBE on 5 June.

The results of Dr. De Waal’s HPO research are described in the book What makes A High Performance Organization: Five Validated Factors Of Competitive Advantage That Apply Worldwide (Global Professional Publishing, 2012). Many articles on HPO are also available on The Maastricht School of Management and the University of Maastricht are organising an executive programme on HPO in Maastricht (September 10-12), Hannover (October 16-18) and Nanjing (November 17-19).


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