Sports are often a tool through which we can learn critical life lessons and skills. However, sports teach more than just teamwork and good sportsmanship, it can also provide a lens through which we can view the path to and expectations of CEOs.
On June 14th of this year, the FIFA World Cup will kick off in Russia. The World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world by quite a distance. It is estimated that more than half of the world’s population consider themselves soccer followers. With more than 4 billion fans worldwide, it dwarfs any other sport in terms of global appeal. Even more impressive, at any given point, there are an estimated number of 265 million active soccer players, which equals about 4% of the world’s population.
Meanwhile, the 2018 Formula One racing season is in full swing. The nexus of speed and technology, exhilaration and excitement, Formula One speaks to the imagination of an ardent and growing fan base. It is also an iconic sport where a very select few have the opportunity to compete for the coveted world title. Each year, no more than 20 drivers are allowed to participate in the Formula One Championship, two drivers for each of the 10 racing teams in F1.
Jozef Opdeweegh, CEO
While it may seem surprising, the experiences of a soccer player and race car driver are quite illuminating on the trajectory and journey of CEOs. With nearly two decades of business leadership experience, Jozef Opdeweegh explores the similarities between reaching success in the athletic and business worlds.
Many of the world’s greatest soccer players had very humble beginnings. The Brazilian legend, Pele – who is universally recognized as one of the greatest players of all time – was too poor to afford cleats or even a soccer ball growing up. He used to make a ball using his parents’ socks filled with paper to play the game in the streets.
Soccer is a sport with virtually no barriers to entry. It is inexpensive to play. The game can be played on any open patch of grass, sand or concrete. Successful male soccer players range in height from 5 ft 6 to 6 ft 2. No less than 95 percent of the world’s adult male population fit within that range (to contrast this with other sports, professional basketball and American football players for instance require levels of strength and height that exclude over 90 percent of the adult male world population).
Simply put, success on the soccer field is available to almost anyone.
The $8 million price tag of access
Race Car Drivers
Becoming a Formula One driver is no easy feat. In fact, there may be not be a smaller or more elite group of athletes in the world. There is a recommended path for racecar drivers whose ultimate ambition is to end up in the most prestigious of all categories. It typically starts with karting. Those who are very successful at karting may evolve to one of the entry-level racing categories to subsequently try their luck in Formula 3 or 2. Very few ultimately make their way to Formula 1.
Are they the most talented drivers? They most certainly are better drivers than you and I. But what separates them from the pack is a very large wallet. It is estimated the path to a Formula 1 seat comes at a price tag of at least $8 million dollars. And while there are driver traineeship programs to promote very talented youngsters, even those come at a steep monetary price.
Best versus good
To excel at a game with more than 260 million active players and become one of the game’s 50,000 or so professional soccer players, you have to be exceptionally gifted. The sample size is so large that it may be concluded the most successful soccer players are also the most talented soccer players. In a game with universal access and appeal, it is virtually impossible for a hidden gem to go undiscovered. In the world of soccer, “best” truly equals best.
Conversely, while a Formula 1 champion is undeniably a very good driver, he (or she) is almost certainly not the best driver on this planet. Countless are the people out there who unknowingly have tremendous potential as a racecar driver but shall forever remain anonymous. Without the monetary means, they simply will never be given the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of a racecar. In a sport with very high barriers to entry, it is virtually impossible for the biggest gemstone to ever be discovered. “Best” equals (very) good, in Formula 1.
Cleats or a racing seat for the CEO?
The path to becoming a CEO is arguably more akin to the story of the race car driver than it is to tale of the soccer player. Certainly, being a good CEO requires a combination of relevant education, experience and skills to handle the role with success. But good fortune undeniably plays a major role in whether a qualified professional ever gets a shot at the top job. Being in the right place at the right time is very relevant to the opportunity of being selected in your very first CEO position. And once you have been chosen to run a company, you will quickly become a proven commodity and your next job will very likely also be a CEO job.
Much like the race car driver though, there are many people who would make excellent CEOs but never get a chance to demonstrate their talent for running a company. In any organization with a sizable workforce, it is a near certainty that there are one or more employees who are intrinsically better equipped at running the business than their CEO. But despite their efforts and their talent, they don’t rise to the top, often due to office politics, shortfalls in talent recognition and development or a predisposition to recruit outside the organization. Consequently, these professionals often leave the organization to try their luck elsewhere, thus depleting the company’s talent pool.
At social functions or industry conventions, you can’t help but overhear CEOs explaining to their peers how they carefully, step by step, crafted their path to the leadership job. They will lay out in excruciating detail how they realized from a very young age that they were destined for success. Without taking anything away from their professional journey, the reality is that these CEOs simply had a healthy dose of plain luck on their side.
Given this reality, CEOs not only are bestowed with luck but immense responsibility. A responsibility to deliver on their good fortune and hard work through thoughtful leadership, a commitment to doing what’s right and a focus on creating value – for shareholders, employees and the community at large. A rare opportunity to truly make a difference.