Thirty years is a long time. A very long time. Finally, though, Liverpool FC have delivered their promise. The league title, famously their first in the Premiership era, has been secured. It looked for a while that a global pandemic might achieve what the remainder of the cream of English football could not and halt the team’s inevitable journey to glory. But in the end, in the footballing sense at least, victory has been achieved.
There are a number of reasons for the team’s success. A fine group of players driven, in a relatively injury free season, by a common goal, a decline in standards outside the top two, inconsistency hitting their main rivals, Manchester City, a stunningly brilliant front three, the bedding in of a much needed world class defender and goalkeeper, a midfield that works tirelessly and selflessly – other, perhaps more talented midfielders might note – for the team. But more than any of that Liverpool’s success can be attributed to the management style of their charismatic leader, Jurgen Klopp.
A Leader for Any Team
Most football fans would, in moments of non-partisan honesty, admit that they too would run through solid brick walls for the man, such loyalty does he invoke. But what is it about Klopp that makes him such a serial winner? His clubs are not the wealthiest in the world. Dortmund and Liverpool certainly do not sit among football’s paupers, but equally neither can they access the multiple hundreds of millions that the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris St Germain or, domestically, the Manchester clubs can find.
The answer is both frighteningly complex and ludicrously simple. Klopp is a brilliant manager. There are others who can lay claim to such an accolade; great man-managers who can get the most out of their players – the cliched 110%; managers who build excellent teams around them; those who possess tactical genius and the ability to change games; brilliant analysts, spotters of outstanding talent. Klopp, though, possesses all of these skills, and more.
Skills that hold resonance not just in the world of professional sport, but business as well. By digging deep into the German’s approach to management, we can learn lessons which we can apply to our own situation, promoting increased success in our own fields.
Klopp’s vision reflects his own personality. That’s important, because delivering our vision is a much more achievable task if we communicate it naturally. Klopp said in 2015, when he first arrived in the North West of England, ‘I believe in a playing philosophy that is very emotional, very fast and very strong.’ Anybody who watches the team press his players produce, the speed of passing and movement, the pure endless energy of his full backs, can see that passion in operation. But by simply glancing at the touchline seeing Klopp live every moment, head every cross, celebrate every goal it is immediately apparent from where that passion derives. Few of us are lucky enough to watch him regularly in training sessions, but it is hard to believe that these occasions are not just as full as positive energy. Though we are not all blessed with his hyper energetic emotions, that does not matter provided our vision is delivered through methods which come from ourselves.
Some of us are quieter, more reflective. Other leaders like to do their best work behind the scenes, not so recognisably at the centre of the action. And Klopp’s success tells us that is fine, provided our goals reflect who we are.
Yet we should also remember that Klopp’s vision has been shared through the team he built around him. Switching that idea to business, it becomes clear that no new business leader can, or should try, to do everything. A vision is best achieved if expertise is brought in to address those areas in which the leader is less strong, thus enabling him or her to concentrate on their own particular strengths.
Visions are not delivered overnight. The best start-up founders recognise the stage their business is in and seek external consultancy to help them build their sales and commercial teams. That leads to new sales opportunities and allows them to scale their business up.
The best managers keep things simple. That way, it is easier to concentrate on what is going well and identify issues which are not. One of Klopp’s undoubted strengths is his ability to replicate the successful aspects of his teams in all of his players; decision making, pace, energy. But also, he identifies those aspects of his team which need to improve. When he took over in 2015 Liverpool were already a very good side, having been just an unfortunate slip away from securing the league title the season before. Despite this, Klopp identified the limitations of his new team. By the 2018 Champions League final, not one player from that defeat at Chelsea remained a first choice. A habit of leaking goals was addressed; in came the unheralded Andy Robinson and unknown Trent Alexander Arnold. But a leader was still needed, and Klopp knew who that should be, waiting patiently for Virgil Van Dijk to become available. Next, a weakness in goal was spotted, and overcome, through the acquisition of Alisson. Liverpool’s fast playing style often needs to begin with rapid and accurate delivery from the back. Alisson is one of the finest goalkeeping proponents of this art in the world.
So, Klopp teaches us to keep it simple; to build on strengths and identify and address weaknesses. Not an earth-shattering concept, but a highly effective management tool.
If we translate Klopp’s philosophy to sales, we emerge with a strategy to which I concur completely. He searched for a wide range of possible answers to his problems, just as a business will search for their customers. Once identified, he began to focus on getting those answers to fit into his team and finally he scaled up the process, ensuring that all problems had been addressed, just as a business will scale up their sales activities, once all other elements of the process are in place.
Search, focus, scale. The simple, yet effective method to achieve the next stage of growth.
Success does not come overnight, either in professional football or professional life. Klopp’s delay in acquiring Van Dijk demonstrates the importance of not rushing. No doubt, he could have improved his team with another central defender, but he knew that to get the effect he wanted, he must wait. Liverpool’s results since the defender’s arrival speak for themselves.
The same is true in business. It is understandable that a founder will want to drive their SaaS, or other, business fast. But going too quickly, cutting corners to achieve short term targets, can lead to long term problems. Opportunities will come along; new sales markets appear; top executives do seek new challenges. Taking second best, using stop gap methods, is never a long-term answer to addressing our business needs.
As a business leader it is during the times of patience required in the start-up stage of our companies that we can take advantage of the opportunity to bring in a commercial facing partner or consultant, there to advise on the construction of the perfect sales team to meet the demands of our sector, or even to offer them the remit of leading that sales team themselves.
Create an Environment Where Failure is Understood
Put another way, the best managers inspire trust and belief in their teams. Players who are not afraid to take a calculated risk are the ones who achieve the most, even if occasionally their plans do not work out. Where Klopp can teach us a lesson is that he accepts that sometimes errors occur, and he backs those who make them. Provided, and this is key, that they learn from those mistakes. And, of course, the personal development they achieve through that learning makes them less likely to repeat errors in the future.
The key point here for start-up businesses is that there is no one size fits all growth strategy. We cannot take a growth strategy off the shelf, direct from ‘Growth Strategies R Us’, and expect it to work. There has to be experimentation, risk – we have to allow our teams to follow paths that might lead us in the wrong direction. Of course, for young, start-ups, such risk is, well, risky. Taking advantage of an experienced consultant who can bring in expertise and skills our company might not yet have can mitigate that risk.
Manage People, Not Organisations
Without doubt, Jurgen Klopp inspires those around him. A part of that comes from his enthusiasm, but other management styles can promote similar levels of self-belief. A quiet, reflective manager encourages people to know that decisions have been reached after thorough consideration; a good delegator shows faith in his subordinates. Indeed, Klopp once said ‘I know I’m good in a couple of things. I need experts around me.’
Such humility inspires colleagues, helps them to build the self-confidence they need to succeed. But Klopp recognises that each member of his team is different. Some will be high in self-belief and might need to be guided to improve their collaborative working. Others will lack faith in themselves and see their confidence crumble at the slightest difficulty. Such people require explicit support to build their self-esteem and resilience to take risks and cope with outcomes that might fall short of their aspirations. Some members of a team will be great friends, others remain no more than colleagues. The allegedly fragile relationship between two of the magnificent Liverpool front line, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, is a case in point.
It does not matter, provided a shared purpose is achieved. Look after people, grow them into the experts every organisation needs, and success follows. Focus just on the bigger picture, forgetting that a team is made of individuals, and that picture becomes pixelated, dissolving into many dissolute parts.
Of course, not every leader is effective at man management, but the best leaders recognises this, and surround themselves with people who can address the part of the job with which they struggle most.
People who can hold regular, maybe even sometimes difficult, face to face conversations which will help individuals to grow. Experts who can help start-up leaders reflect regularly on the continuous improvements necessary to make their company a success.
Once more, this is where hiring a business growth consultant makes sense, one who can help to steer the people in the organisation in the right direction. Under, of course, the leadership of the founder.
Hold Ambition…And Deliver
Last, and certainly as important as the other aspects of his management skills, Klopp set ambitious targets. And delivers on them. OK, he promised the league title within four years, and it took him five. But his Liverpool have also been both runners up and winners of the Champions league and provided a year on year improvement in their league position.
Klopp holds other talents, of course. He is an expert in football coaching; he manages the media superbly, ensuring that they are onside with his own ambitions and challenges, thus reducing pressure that comes from a negative press. His record, plan and its subsequent delivery has ensured that he remains in favour with his bosses, making it easier for him to secure what he needs.
But in business, just as with Klopp at Liverpool, while those ambitions might be led by one person – the CEO, owner, boss, founder – whatever we choose to call them – they are shared throughout the team. Put bluntly, revenue targets won’t succeed unless responsibility for them is shared throughout the team. Klopp understood, and acted on, the problem that whilst possessing a superb front three was great, it would not deliver Premier League and Champions League success unless all other parts of the team had the skills and commitment to deliver that shared goal.
Klopp recognised that he needed help getting that shared goal across – hence his multi-disciplined back room team. A SaaS start-up, or other fledgling business, will rarely (if ever) operate on the scale of a major Premier League football team, but still by bringing in external expertise, support can be gained in spreading the CEO’s ambition across the company.
A Lesson for Me, A Lesson for You, Lessons for Us All
But the real, overall talent of Jurgen Klopp as a leader is one into which I buy, whole heartedly, in my own consultancy and sales coaching role. Change is incremental. Leadership is multi-faceted. It is not one major gamble that delivers a business’s goal, but a clear picture, well communicated and supported by numerous building blocks which creates the staircase to those ambitions. My own expertise lies in helping companies, especially tech-based start-ups, develop their own business, driving sales and creating footholds in new markets. That is how I can help a business to achieve its goals. If this is the gap you see in your own set up, I can help to close it.
Because, as Jurgen Klopp demonstrates, great leaders are great leaders. In whichever field they happen to work.