Archives for posts with tag: Germany

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WSJ’s Jason Gay published a brilliant column yesterday (see below), titled “It’s ok to root for Germany.” In some ways, it reflects my own emotions as a born German. I never rooted for the West-German team growing up. Other teams, like Brazil, played more entertaining football, my country seemed so messed up with the Wall and the discovery of our horrendous past. When you find out as a teenager what happened between 1933-1945, you look at pictures of your grandparents differently: “What did they know and do?”

After years of Holocaust educations programs, after the Wall came down, after Germany became a more multi-cultural and open country; suddenly, I started rooting for the team. I still don’t care to sing the national anthem and find it odd when Americans put their hand over their heart or my kid pledges allegiance to the flag. We used to boo the German anthem. I still don’t understand how people can be proud to be from a nation. I was never proud to be a German. Should I be proud to be white?

But I’m proud of the journey Germany has taken. From a country where darkness was visible to a nation that’s headed in the right direction.

Until 1952, the German anthem began: “Germany, Germany above everything. Above everything in the world.” Since then, the words were changed to: “Unity and justice and freedom for the German fatherland.” Amen.

A very strange thing happened the past two weeks as I traipsed through Poland covering the Euro 2012 soccer tournament.

There I was oohing over the latest Mario Gomez goal for Germany, salivating over the way Mesut Özil quarterbacks the German attack from the middle of the field with grace and calm, and screaming “SCHWEINSTEIGER” inside my head (there is no better name in sports right now) each time the steely midfielder plants for one of his lightning strikes at the goal.

And don’t get me started on the Germans’ dashing, Zen master coach Joachim Löw—the George Clooney of international soccer, only better looking, and seemingly more humble and philosophical.

To understand just how weird a development this is, understand that for Jewish-Americans of a certain age (I’m 42), rooting for Germany isn’t how our fathers, grandfathers and Hebrew School teachers raised us.

Growing up in the 1970s, the wounds of World War II were still raw. I have friends whose parents were Holocaust survivors. They almost never talked about their experiences, but their silent memories hung in their homes. One of my parents’ closest friends spent the war first in the Lodz ghetto in occupied Poland, then survived a concentration camp by lying about his age. His father, mother and brother were killed there. Every so often a local temple would circulate a flier inviting people to come hear another talk from a survivor. “Never forget,” we were told.

For most Americans, the Soviets were the great enemy on the playing fields of international sports during this era. We Jews felt this, too. The Russians hadn’t been very nice to us either, driving so many of our grandparents and greatgrandparents from their villages in Eastern Europe and making it difficult for those still there to practice their religion.

But for young Jewish-Americans, the athletes from what was then democratic West Germany remained a group we met with deep suspicion. Something about the pressed uniforms, the perfect physiques and the trademark efficiency of their performances made them a little scary, even if their political leaders garnered our admiration. Pulling for Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl was fine. Rooting for Karl-Heinz Rummenigge wasn’t.

And yet, 30 years later, here I am feeling downright giddy at the prospect of the Germans winning their first European title since the 1990s. They play Italy in the semifinals Thursday.

For starters, they are a wonder to watch. While Spain’s “tiki-taka” triangular passing style remains the game’s intellectual apotheosis, the Germans are nothing short of thrilling, combining creative passing with lightning speed and astounding athleticism. If the essence of quality soccer is the “one-two,” the equivalent of basketball’s give-and-go, the Germans have become the masters of the one-two-three-four-and-five.

Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger (say it loud! With your best German accent!) wins the ball with a perfect slide tackle. He feeds Özil in the midfield, who passes to a cutting Sami Khedira, who touches it to Jerome Boateng overlapping on the wing, who sends a cross in to Gomez, who heads the ball to Lukas Podolski, who volleys into the net.

No team can deliver the ball from their own end to the back of the opponent’s net so often with the speed of the Germans.

It wasn’t always this way. For years, the Nationalmannschaft, as the team is known, was a pillar of organization and fairly boring soccer played by a homogenous group.

Now the Germans feature a lineup that includes Özil, who is Turkish; Boateng, whose father is Ghanaian; Gomez, who is of Spanish descent; Podolski, who was born in Poland, and Miroslav Klose, who is half-Polish.

Since 2006, this diverse group has been molded together by Löw, the subject of my embarrassing man-crush. Wearing his dapper tailored slacks and open-collared shirts, he celebrates goals with the joy of a child, his hair flopping over his forehead.

Then, just when the Germans appear they are becoming a too predictable and efficient machine, Löw sends out a lineup for the quarterfinal against Greece with three of his stars—Gomez, Podolski and Thomas Muller—on the bench. “We needed to be unpredictable,” he explained. “It’s OK to be cheeky.”

Löw somehow manages to come off more as a supportive parent than a cocky national coach declaring superiority. “I thought we were wonderful tonight,” he said after the win Friday over Greece. He appears the antithesis of all those top college and professional coaches in the U.S. who seem to use their jobs as a means to building a personal brand and gaining $100,000 appearance fees to motivate corporate sales forces.

And yet, there is a part of me that is stricken with guilt about this. Somewhere Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof” is telling me some traditions must not change. After all, a major part of international soccer—especially European soccer—is the bizarre way it brings up the old geopolitical rivalries from the middle of the 20th century. That can be scary, too, as when Russian fans unfurled the massive banner of a warrior against words “This Is Russia” before the match against Poland earlier in the tournament.

With that in mind, I shared my guilt-ridden admiration for the Germans with my father, who knows nothing about soccer but a lot about history. To my surprise, he said he felt this generation of Germans has earned our forgiveness, and even our support in sports. They had decided to build an education center and monument about the Holocaust on some of the most expensive land in Berlin. That was the turning point for him.

In other words, make room on the German bandwagon. I want a seat.

Sort of.

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Throughout the World Cup, I received many emails and tweets congratulating “my team”, Deutschland, for their great tournament and playing really exciting soccer (Fussball, as I call it.). Reading German newspapers and magazines, I experienced a lot of self-congratulation for the new, exciting German soccer game, how suddenly the world loves Germans and the multi-cultural faces that played on the team. Oh yes, and 3rd place was lovely.

Enough already.

We’re talking German soccer here. We’re supposed to win each time. Sure, we won’t, but any tournament we don’t win is a loss. Period. Did you ever see the Lakers or Yankees fans celebrate a second place? Or a good loss in the Division Final? Of course not. On paper, Germany’s performance in the last 3 tournaments looks outstanding: Third place World Cup 2006, 2nd place Euro 2008 and 3rd place World Cup 2010. Great. But, where’s the trophy?

Match it up with all that nonsense talk when the US tied England in a group game and people started to celebrate it as a victory. That kind of talk will get you nowhere. Very, very quickly.

Winning organizations are like “A” students: They expect to get an “A” each time they perform. Whenever they get a “B” or worse, they’re disappointed and work hard to get back to the “A” level. Mediocre organizations are like “C” students: They get a “B-” and high-five each person they encounter. They are still not as good as the slip-up of the “A” organization but they’re ecstatic because for once they’re out of the “C” cellar. Just to slip back into it again very, very soon.

We all worked with “A” people before. They might fail, maybe even often, but they always give everything they have. They believe something can be done when others think it can’t. They can solve problems others consider unsolvable. They don’t believe in expectation of others, they have their own expectations. And, we all worked with “C” people. They might talk a big game but their actual work is sloppy. Mistakes. Not failures. Laziness. No high standards. No inner push.

If your organization does things that everyone arounds you thinks you can achieve, then your organization is just a “B” student, not pushing everyone hard enough. I’m not talking about pipe dreams, I’m talking about Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. Rationally, you will achieve your goals when you meet certain metrics. But, that’s not fulfilling, organizational achievement. Real accomplishment and achievement comes from pushing everyone, including yourself, to the limit. Beyond the place where everybody else thinks you could ever go. As a “C” organization, you need to push for constant “A” scores. It might take a while,  a lot of “B” scores, but as long you keep up an air of excellence, deeply rooted in your organization, you are on the way to become an “A” organization.

An interesting thing happens on the way: The people that didn’t believe in you and your organization in the beginning, will be starting to believe in you. And these people will do everything they can to make you even more successful. Nothing in your balance sheet might have changed, you still employ the same people, deal with the same stakeholders – a mindset of excellence will change everything.

My kid’s Karate teacher said to the class a few days ago: ” When you want to tear a piece of paper with your hand, you don’t aim for the paper. You don’t aim for a small space behind the paper. You aim for a place 2,000 miles beyond the paper.”

Shoot for the stars.

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The World Cup is upon us and as a lifelong soccer fan and player, I reflected on a few insights that the soccer game taught me that can be applied to small and large businesses.

1. Embrace and live your culture

I started playing soccer when I was 5. We practiced twice a week and played each Saturday. Raised in Germany, our practice consisted of 90 minutes running and 30 minute playing time. Fairly insane when you think about it: forcing 5-year-olds to run for 90 minutes through the forest or doing laps after laps. But that’s the German culture for you. We were no masters on the ball but my team could outrun anyone. We won 90% of our games in the last 10 minutes because we never tired. (I hope there’s more balance in today’s practices in Germany, though)

Each country has a specific soccer culture: the playfulness of Brazil, the physical intimidation of England, the defensive discipline of Italy, the exuberance of African teams. While you need to embrace and live your culture to be successful, you shouldn’t fall in love with it and be always open to change. Brazil wasn’t a dominant force in the 70’s and 80’s because they focused too much on playfulness and not enough on execution. Once they added execution into the mix, matches and World Cup’s were won again.

2.) Hire entrepreneurs

Most soccer coaches last only for a few years. It’s a tough job to gather all your players from clubs all over the world, fight internal bureaucracies and deal with the press. Coaches, just like players, are superstars. They have to take huge risks in order to succeed and most of them fail. Just to rise on some other bench to try it again.

Soccer is a team sport but individual decisions make or break a team. The collective approach to soccer will always fail. Both coach and player are entrepreneurs, and the more creativity they display, the more leeway they are given. Coach and players have two different tools of influence to impact the outcome of the game.

The coach can create a cohesive, yet competitive culture that rewards creativity and innovation, build team spirit and nurture team culture. He has strategic tools at his hand (formations, substitutions, etc.) but his input won’t lead to innovation or moving the game to a new level.

This is done by 22 feet of 11 individual players. Players innovate on a daily basis to get a small but significant competitive advantage. They need to surprise other players with new ways of dribbling, moving, passing and reacting. The coach is there to create the right environment for players to innovate. Daily. With every move.

3.) Dramatic innovation is rare. Daily innovation a must.

As a soccer aficionado, it’s very interesting to watch games from the past and compare them to today’s sport. The game was much slower, formations not as fluid as they are today and positions have been redefined over the years. But, what’s even more intriguing is that these changes take years to really come to life. Franz Beckenbauer perfected the position of “Libero”, the “sweeper” before the goal-keeper, freeing him from marking a direct opponent. (Rather revolutionary, if you think about it: Instead of marking a person, you’re defending a zone.) He played his first World Cup in 1966, not really filling the position of Libero yet. In 1970, he showed massive improvements on this new style of play but it took him until 1974, when he crowned his career with a World Cup win and a performance that showcased his evolution from support player to innovator.

Innovation didn’t happen in one game. It happened over more than a decade. And influenced generations to come.

4.) Don’t blame technology. Don’t worship technology. Just use it.

Each time the World Cup comes around, there’s a lot of talk about the new ball. Some people fear it, some embrace it. Most players don’t care. The ball is just a tool they use to accomplish a task. Because it’s new, players will have to find the challenges/dead spots when handling or shooting it. Introducing a new ball right ahead of the biggest sporting event seems wrong. But it is a great way to determine the best playing team and the team that answered this challenge with a strong creative approach. There’s nothing to fear. And a lot to explore.

5.) Play. Hard.

I could write about the beauty of soccer, get all poetic and philosophical. But the real beauty of this sport is that’s it’s still a game. When players have a creative thought, they can implement this idea immediately. And fail. Or succeed. At the heart of American Football is strategy. Creativity is not rewarded. At the heart of soccer is creativity. (Based on a foundation of technical excellence, supreme conditioning and mental toughness.)

Tomorrow the World Cup begins. A clean slate. For all we know, North Korea might win it this time. Or South Africa. History exists only in the books and in our heads. On the grass, there’s no history. Just opportunity. Possibilities. The best playing team will win the tournament.

And, that’s the most important lesson soccer can teach business: Business is a game that reinvents itself each and every day. The basic rules remain the same, your team defines how to play with these rules creatively. As an executive, it’s your responsibility to assemble the best players, to lay down the rules and develop plans. At the end of the day, the players have to play to move your business. Let them play. And enjoy each moment of it.