By Dave Wakeman
I’m heading to London in a few weeks and while I’m there, I’m going to catch a bunch of Premier League matches. My team, Tottenham Hotspur, has had an up-and-down season—changing coaches in November, and then getting a new manager, José Mourinho.
As I was thinking about my travel plans, I also started thinking about how managing a soccer team is a lot like managing a project. And, to take it even further, I started asking myself what we can learn from some of soccer’s best managers.
As I mentioned, Tottenham had to change managers this season. In switching from Mauricio Pochettino to José Mourinho, the team found itself working under an entirely new system. Pochettino was known for speed, pressing and intensity. Mourinho was known for being more tactical, controlling and playing a style of soccer that many don’t feel is pretty.
The challenge for Mourinho is that he came into the team in the middle of the season, so he needed to adapt to the team he had—not build the one he wanted. That meant his Tottenham team has been a lot less defensive oriented, and a bit higher scoring than a typical Mourinho-coached team.
This reminds me of projects where we don’t always have the time, resources or skills that we would hope to have. In these cases, we need to be flexible. Is there a way to shift the timing of certain parts of the project to fit your schedule? Can you manage all the different stakeholders with their different styles of communication and their different goals?
In soccer, you deal with complex situations that don’t lend themselves to simple or rigid solutions. When managing a project, we see the same situation occur. This means that we have to understand where we are going and be able to adjust on the fly when the situation changes, so we can get to our destination.
I think communication is one of the key skills that coaches and project managers share. I’ve always said 90 percent of a project manager’s job is communication and 10 percent is everything else.
In watching soccer managers, I have a sneaking suspicion that the same ratio applies. Like project managers, they have to have a great deal of technical skill, but they also have to be willing and able to delegate and let other folks deliver their vision.
In other words, it is difficult to do everything yourself. And being the public face of the project or team requires the leader to deal with key stakeholders like the media, the sponsor and the team.
In both scenarios, communication is more than just answering questions or giving orders. Both managers spend lots of time listening to other people so that they can make decisions or adjustments, and so they have a finger on the pulse of the teams they are leading.
Success Isn’t Guaranteed
This should seem obvious, but every project comes with a bit of risk. The same goes with managing a soccer team. Just saying that success isn’t guaranteed isn’t nearly enough. But knowing that failure is a possibility impacts the way that we all approach our jobs.
Project leaders spend a lot of time thinking through risk management, risk mitigation and change management. Similarly, soccer managers are thinking about how their formations will impact the game, gaps in talent and a multitude of other factors that could be the difference between success and failure.
To me, this concept gets interesting when you think about success. It requires us to do all of the same things, like understanding risk, being flexible and willing to change and communicate effectively.
These are only my top three ways that a soccer manager is like a project manager. What would you add? Let me know below!