An Alternative World Cup

For the last month, the eyes of the sporting world have been fixed on a Middle Eastern Emirate, one-tenth of the size of New York State. In what has been the most political FIFA World Cup to date, the litany of controversies has, at times, threatened to overshadow the spectacle. Like most fans I’m thankful that sport has ultimately shone through; but like many others, I’m left uneasy at the wider context and particularly our willingness to wash over issues that we would not tolerate at home.

From media coverage in the run-up to the finals, I was surprised to learn that Qatar is effectively a modern creation, gaining independence as recently as 1971. It’s a ruling system, however, is nearer to medieval. The Emir (Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani) holds all power, appoints his own government, controls the courts… and no doubt sanctioned the bribes that allegedly secured the World Cup finals in the first place. In a country with a population of 2.5 million, fewer than 320,000 are citizens, enjoying a per capita income that’s the fourth highest in the world.

The quid pro quo for these native Qataris is the sacrifice of their freedom. They are caught in the classic position of a ‘complicit elite’, knowing their country is out of step with modern values but fearful that change would harm their privileged position. And so they — and to some extent, we too — live with the absurdity of hosting the showpiece of a sport that promotes diversity, inclusion, and opportunity in a tin-pot nation-state that does precisely the opposite.

Of course, not every nation in the World Cup finals has a liberal system of government. Of the 32 countries, less than a quarter are classified (albeit extremely toughly) as ‘full democracies’ by the longstanding Economist Intelligence Unit survey. More positively, the Freedom House Index would rate around three-quarters of free societies in the broadest sense. Notwithstanding the variance, there are a number of participants from what are clearly authoritarian regimes, including the hosts, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Thinking about all this, I began daydreaming of an alternative format in which the games were decided on values rather than goals. In my imaginary world, FIFA stood for the International Federation of Freedom and Association — with contests that matched the countries on their human rights and democracy records, playing extra time with political engagement, empowerment of women, or lack of corruption. How might the teams do then I wondered, and who would reach the round of eight, semis, and ultimate play-off?

Looking at the various indices for democracy and freedom you could be forgiven for feeling depressed. Whole swathes of the world’s population live under repressive regimes or what is euphemistically described as ‘hybrid’ systems. The Middle East — except for Israel — is wall-to-wall autocracy; Africa has a few beacons of hope but is otherwise pretty bleak. And let’s not be complacent about those closer to home — to my mind, one of the greatest sadnesss of this century has been the retreat of democracy in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and the majority of the Balkan States. 

But if this paints a gloomy picture, there is brighter news from my fantasy alternative…

For in fact, the results would not be that different to those which played out. In the real world England thrashed Iran and drew with the USA (seems about right?), Argentina beat Mexico, The Netherlands trounced Qatar, and Saudi Arabia failed to make it through the group stages. I’m cherry-picking here of course, but with a few exceptions (Canada and Switzerland really ought to have done better) and recognizing that there has to be victors, it’s been a strong World Cup for values.  Morocco has been the surprise and perhaps outlying team (they rate at best mid-range on most indices) — let’s hope their success on the field acts as a fillip for their country’s freedoms too. 

In many ways, these results should be no surprise. For there’s long been a proven correlation between liberal democracy and the unleashing of talent. Some — me included —would argue it is more causal in its nature. The very act of freeing people from restraints turbocharges the abilities and creativity we all possess in some measure. And from these richer pools of opportunity emerges, ultimately, the flair and genius that we see in Messi and Mbappé. Does anyone seriously think they would have been as likely to flourish in Russia?

This capacity transcends wealth too. Qatar and the middle eastern emirates are a-typical outliers in that other long-standing correlation — the one between freedom and prosperity. They may have the cash to build stadiums but until they change their systems, they’ll never have the capital to compete. In contrast, consider the progress of Croatia, a far from perfect or affluent nation, but it seems to me, one determined to look forward not back. In six World Cups, they’ve been runner-up twice and bronze medalist once. Don’t tell me that’s nothing to do with their history and struggle for independence.

And so to the final. For all that I am European by descent, I was neutral in the values stakes. On the one hand, we had France – arguably the cradle of modern democracy; on the other Argentina, a nation that, despite many issues, has transformed itself from the days of dictatorship and military juntas. It ranks second only to Uruguay in the Southern American democracy index. I was indifferent too on sporting grounds; may the best team win, I thought as the game kicked off. 

How appropriate then, that what followed was perhaps the greatest ever final — the old and new guards of footballing genius slugging it out over ninety minutes, the extra time, and eventually penalties. So good was the game, that in the end, for neutrals at least, the result was almost incidental. Because what had really won, was not just a team —and certainly not Qatar as a host — but the sport as a whole, and most importantly, the values it stands for. 

That is something for us all to celebrate.

Nurturing talent — and navigating the road to success.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I gave an interview in which I reflected on the importance of building talent across our company, the need for structures that facilitate career progression, and most of all, a supportive culture which allows talent to thrive by learning from our mistakes as well as our successes. There are compelling reasons, I said, for investing in talent, and on that point, I guess few business leaders would disagree. But as with many organisational challenges, while the way ahead might be obvious, sticking to the path isn’t always so straight forward.

Let’s start with some guiding principles.

Talent is vital to making good decisions. With talented people, and talented teams, we not only perform better today, but we enhance our strategic vision and tactical planning. The short-term advantage and the sustainability of that success go hand in hand. Look at any successful sports team and you’ll see their stars on the field — with the occasional genius among them — but always on the bench are the next generation, pushing for places, eager to learn, encouraged by their mentors.

Talent thrives best in open and supportive cultures. For colleagues to flourish they need to know that in taking the next step they’ll receive support, some space for learning, and the confidence to know they can be themselves. That last point is important — because true talent management isn’t about the rote learning of skills and procedures, it’s about nurturing a diversity of unique and valuable contributions to the overall goal.

And lastly, talent is a responsibility we all share. Sure, the People Teams often take a lead in coordinating training and development programmes and the like — and rightly so. But for talent to truly thrive, we need leaders at all levels to see that bringing on the next generation is part of what make for a sustainably better business. Finding opportunities to give some trust, providing tools and resources, as well as spotting the talent gaps — and occasional blockages — are just as vital a skill for managers as hitting their sales or cost targets.

But if that much is straightforward — what is it that gets in the way?

Fear of failure is perhaps the biggest constraint, especially if it leads to us avoiding risks. For without some unpredictability — to ourselves as well as the organisation — progress isn’t possible. Effective leaders learn from mistakes and making them is a key part of a continuous improvement ethos. So we need a culture that empowers us to make decisions, and an environment that helps enhance the quality of the choices we make. Inclusive, interactive teams help to grow talent by sharing perspectives and considering possibilities — in so doing. While individuals can thrive, the outcomes can be shared by others too. Putting it another way, constructive risk taking isn’t about jumping blindly off cliffs — it’s about weighing up the options and then acting with focus and commitment.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Resistance to change is an obstacle too. Indeed, it is often the biggest blocker to talent, and one of the most cited reasons why ambitious people leave otherwise good organisations. If ideas and ingenuity are stymied, then stagnation and attrition surely follow — and guess what, talented people can smell it a mile off! The result is a drain on knowledge and a creativity void that ends in a vicious circle of yet more fear and failure. Like with risk, embracing change doesn’t mean an unquestioning drive to revolution; positive change blends evolution with bold decisions that move us forward at pace. By working this way, we nurture talent in tandem with the opportunities we pursue.

And lastly, we need clear measures of success. For without these it’s all too easy to misrepresent progress or excuse the lack of it. Of course, nurturing talent isn’t as objective as math, but neither is it some enigmatic quality that resists common sense assessment. That’s why we need talent driven KPIs throughout the organisation, working to agreed outcomes and focusing resolutely on their achievement.

So how best do we navigate our way to success?

In my own organisation today, we have core values that keep us on track. We’re creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, where colleagues can be themselves at work, and the opportunity to develop their careers is encouraged and celebrated. Our values of trust, fairness, creativity and openness are a sort of compass, guiding our decisions to ensure we make the most of our individual and collective potential.

And we’re backing this up with investment in training and communications, despite a pressure for savings in tough markets. For me, this is part of our duty as leaders; we have a responsibility to all our stakeholders — be they colleagues, customers, shareholders or lenders — to ensure the organisation is fit for the future, and that’s not something we can put on hold. Nurturing talent is fundamental to building a sustainably better business, and if at times it can feel like a complex jigsaw, we should remember that it’s when the parts come together that the bigger picture emerges.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

As the first measures of our progress I expect to see succession routes for all key roles, with training plans for our high potential colleagues, and a map of the talent gaps we need to fill. Alongside this should be a more empowered culture with broad levels of authority, sharing success but also learning from its mistakes through post mortem analysis based on a zero-blame approach. In truth, there are many more indicators we should expect: cross functional working, creative thinking, reduced duplication… I could go on.

But isn’t it also true that genuine progress needs to be widespread and self-evident? Just as we can all recognise talent in sport or science or the arts, so too we instinctively know when it’s present in the workplace. The ultimate goal is therefore that nurturing talent becomes part of our DNA, a virtue we pass from one generation to another, with care for its continuity, and a sense of creating something bigger than ourselves.

Why Trust matters in the workplace — and why we should care

Newspaper on Fire: Jos Opdweeegh on Trust in the Workplace
Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

Across much of the developed world, faith in institutions is rupturing. Modern day politics, with a regrettable tendency to provide impulsive, populistic solutions to problems of extreme complexity, contributes to an undercurrent of skepticism, which in turn feeds further unease and polarization, undermining confidence. In a host of democracies, leadership is variously described as broken, dysfunctional and unrepresentative. Little wonder then, that survey after survey reveals public trust to be at all-time low.

Regardless of one’s political opinions — passions even — this is deeply corrosive. For trust is essential to positive human relationships and one of the most valuable tools in building progressive societies. Without it there can be no exchange, no collective endeavor, no promises relied on…. and worse, no dreams shared, or secrets confided. Trust, in its broadest sense, is so ubiquitous that we seldom give it a thought. And yet, a moments reflection reveals its criticality to all that we are and achieve together.

There are obvious parallels to the business environment. It will be no surprise that trust is the single most important value associated with successful brands. When we’re working together in our businesses, we count on each other as surely as mountaineers rely on their partners to hold the rope. In my current organization — along with thousands more — we call out trust as a core value in our working practices, our relations with customers, and care for each other.

Workers in an office : Jos Opdeweegh on trust in the workplace
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

And that word ‘care’ seems essential to maximizing trust’s potential. We can cooperate with individuals and institutions for their utility — because, through experience, we have learned there is more to be won than lost — and we should never diminish the importance of this fact. But to view trust entirely as a profitable exchange, risks turning it into a sort of game theory, a slightly Machiavellian approach in which we weigh up possibilities and strategize to maximize our advantage.

‘Trust as care’ is something infinitely more powerful.

To trust because we care not only for the outcome, but also for the person or the process, creates a deeper, and stronger bond. When a master craftsman gives his trust to a young apprentice, he’s saying something that no invoice or profit and loss account ever could. And what’s more, the trainee knows it too! All of us who are business professionals, will have experienced equivalent moments, and be able to recall the boost to our self-esteem; the growth in confidence it gave us.

Confidence of course, is intimately linked to trust. Search any thesaurus and the two words will be listed side by side, along with faith, reliance, dependence. But trust is a verb as well as a noun. In trusting we making an active choice, the exercise of which is essential to allow others (and ourselves) to flourish. In other words, trust is something we give; confidence — and all that comes with it — is what is received.

Institutions and organizations ignore this insight at their peril. For no matter how attractive the alternatives may seem, in the long run, people care if their politicians lie, if their faith leaders are hypocrites; if the media invents its own news. And for those of us in mainstream commerce, the lesson is much the same. Customers no longer judge a business only by its products: they want to know how well we treat our people, whether we act responsibly, and if we pay our taxes.

In a mirror image of the virtuous circle I described earlier, if companies fail to engage with these concerns, then trust will be withheld and belief will die in its turn.

Simon Sinek’s recent book, The Infinite Game talks of the need for leaders to trust and care beyond the moment. Millennials — who soon will represent 50% of the workforce — are long-term thinkers; they want to belong and contribute to meaningful roles, and they want to work in cultures that allow for self-expression, that value their contribution and allow for risk-taking without fear of retribution. Leaders, Sinek asserts, have a special responsibility to set the tone in creating an atmosphere of trust and cooperation.

Colleagues supporting each other — Jos Opdeweegh on Trust and Care
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

While Sinek’s position is something I believe we can intuitively subscribe to, it doesn’t require a management guru for us to learn this simple truth. Most of us know, as a matter of common sense and experience, that when teams show trust and care — when colleagues have each other’s back — then performance, motivation and retention, surely follow. Just as we know that organizations which fail to nurture their people will lose talent, commitment and ultimately, any meaningful purpose.

Furthermore, I’d argue it doesn’t require formal authority to make a difference. Whatever our circumstance or seniority, individual actions can and do have an impact. We can give trust — and show we care — by something as simple as passing the ball, waiting our turn, or listening respectfully to a colleague’s opinion. Trust, as we experience it, is a bi-lateral transaction — all it needs to flourish is two people, doing the right thing, by and for each other.

And hopefully we can all agree that a world with more trust is a better and more joyful place.

Jozef Opdeweegh – Six Factors for a Top-Notch Sales Team

No matter the industry, there seems to be one consistent impetus of enterprise value: growing revenue and cash flow faster than competitors drives a positive impact on the fair market value of the business. However, achieving a superior rate of growth requires putting in place the right talent, culture, and tools for your sales and marketing department.

Tapping into his nearly two decades of business leadership experience, Jozef Opdeweegh shared his view on the key factors that create a top-notch sales and marketing team.

Jozef Opdeweegh

1. Recruitment

As is always the case, human talent is paramount to success. It is hard to overstate the importance of recruiting the right professionals – perseverant and energetic, smart and independent, and most importantly, naturally aligned with the corporate culture and core behaviors. A company’s most valuable asset is its human talent. Talent recruitment and development should, therefore, be at the forefront of its strategic initiatives.

Regrettably, most companies do not spend enough quality time with prospective candidates before offering them a position. The assessment of cultural fit especially requires repeated interaction with a number of team members, placed in different situations and settings.

2. Compensation

Great sales people have unwavering confidence in their ability to sell. They appreciate the opportunity to earn outsized compensation in exchange for truly stellar sales numbers, and consequently, should not require steep base levels of compensation. A compensation structure with a large success-based component will allow you to attract the right sales team, always hungry for the next customer win.

The success of the sales team should not only be measured in terms of new revenue but should also hinge on the profitability of the sale, the overall customer retention levels and the Net Promoter Score. Furthermore, the variable salary component should be easy to calculate, measure and track. For a new member of the sales team, it may be appropriate and fair to guarantee a floor in terms of variable compensation for the initial stages of his or her employment until he or she has been able to build a book of business.

3. Everybody is a sales person

There is an important cultural component to creating a company that excels in sales and marketing. It is the notion that every single associate is a representative and a sales person for the company. As we are all keenly aware, when a prospective customer interacts with the company, every facet of that interaction can make or break the deal. All associates should live and breathe the concept of customer centricity and embrace the notion that the customer is at the heart of the company’s right to existence.

4. Support

In order for a sales team to excel, it requires quality support on a number of levels, including:

  • Effective marketing strategies;
  • A competitive value proposition;
  • Innovative product or service design;
  • Recurring sales training;
  • Accurate daily reporting tools on the most relevant KPIs (key performance indicators).

Additionally, executives play an important supporting role in customer acquisition and retention. In most sales driven organizations, executives regularly accompany the sales force on its visits to prospective and existing customers. These executives participate to assist in closing the sale or to listen firsthand to the concerns and requirements of the customers with a hard commitment to address these issues expeditiously.

It is a proven best practice to assign a number of key accounts to each executive, even if they are not directly related to sales. In this model, the IT leader, the Chief Legal Officer and any other executive would be a lead account manager for a number of key accounts – creating greater connection and line of sight between the executive and sales teams. And naturally the most important business development role is reserved for the CEO, who should spend a significant part of his or her time on sales and account management.

5. Sales playbook

The sales playbook is the translation of the overall sales and marketing strategy, tailored for the individual sales person. It is a prescriptive set of processes and procedures that guide the sales person in his or her daily task of convincing new customers and retaining existing ones, all while preserving or enhancing the contribution margin of the sale. The sales playbook describes the relevant KPIs, the performance against those KPIs, the required numbers of interactions per unit of time with prospective customers, the proportionate time to be spent on customer retention, how to protect gross margin, what the return requirements are on a sale, and many other factors and processes. The sales playbook is an accountability tool that guarantees a consistent approach to business development across the organization and that rolls up to the strategic business development plan of the enterprise.

6. Pipeline measurement

The key to any mature business is forward visibility into revenue and cash flow. A crucial component of that forward visibility is a reliable perspective on new sales, customer churn and gross margin differences. To that effect, it is recommended that the sales and marketing group, assisted by the financial planning and analysis team, devote the right amount of time and resources on developing a probability-weighted new business pipeline, that analytically maps the quantum and probability of future sales. The process of arriving at a high-quality pipeline is likely an iterative process, where the post-factum determination of the accuracy of prior predictions continually feeds into further optimizing the quality of the new business pipeline.