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What soccer can teach HR about staying competitive in a volatile world

Sherzod Odilov is Associate Partner in Korn Ferry’s Strategy, Culture and Change practice.
Sherzod Odilov
Sherzod Odilov is Associate Partner in Korn Ferry’s Strategy, Culture and Change practice.

Soccer is nothing short of a global phenomenon. With its heart-stopping moments that induce worldwide competition, it’s no mystery why the World Cup is one of the most-watched events every four years. Every team that competes aspires to take home the gold, but even making it to the tournament and competing at this level requires immense dedication. But soccer isn’t just a spectator sport; it’s an invaluable business lesson in its own right.

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After all, when 22 players have to come together under immense pressure, think on their feet and make split-second decisions while keeping an eye on both short-term success and long-term goals, they’re essentially doing the same thing that any organization needs to do to thrive. It’s an amazing feat of human cooperation that has much more value than just providing entertainment—and there are five things in particular HR leaders under immense pressure in today’s business environment can learn from this game.

  1. Strike the right balance between offense and defense.

The most effective soccer teams must find the right balance of offense and defense to win games. It’s important to have an aggressive offense, but teams must also be aware of their opponents’ abilities and develop a defense that can shut them down. The same is true for organizations; they need to strike the right balance between taking risks and playing safe to succeed. Understandably, the first thing many organizations do in uncertain economic times is start slashing costs—often without looking at the long-term implications of their decisions.

Sure, budget cuts and austerity measures are sometimes necessary; however, there’s no substitute for investing in activities that will help your business grow and become more competitive in the long run. Playing “offense” may require taking some calculated risks, but the rewards could be huge. Investing in new technologies, critical talent or expanding into new markets could pay off big time when the economy rebounds.

According to recent data, organizations that doubled down on excessive job cuts during the beginning of the COVID crisis had more employees leave voluntarily later on. Playing it safe with defensive tactics alone can stifle innovation and eliminate any potential for creativity and new ideas to surface. Without the ability to experiment and break out of the mold, especially during times of disruption, organizations risk becoming even more stagnant and falling behind their competitors. There’s always uncertainty, so don’t let that keep you from playing to win.

  1. Learn to adapt like never before.

Soccer is a fast-paced game, and teams must be able to quickly adapt to changing circumstances on the field to gain an advantage over their opponents. In one of the dumbfounding upsets in the 2022 World Cup, the Croatian team defeated Brazil—who were not only five-time world champions but also the tournament favorite—to reach the semifinals. When Brazil finally scored a goal late in the game, Croatia quickly adapted tactics and answered with an even later goal. After a penalty kick shoot-out broke the tie between both teams, it was clear that Brazil would be headed home.

Organizations, led by HR, need to be just as adaptive to stay ahead of their competition; they have to be willing and able to change tactics and strategies when necessary. Organizations that are most successful in adapting to change quickly and effectively often have very mature change muscles. Leaders understand that change is constant, and it involves continuous evaluation of mindsets, abilities, systems and structures. While some may look at change as a top-down mechanism, the truth is that it needs to be approached from all angles—top-down, bottom-up and peer-to-peer—to be effective. That way, everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute their ideas, and the organization as a whole can benefit from the collective knowledge and experience of its members, just like in a game of soccer.

  1. Practice “radically human communication” to foster true teamwork.

Famed Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo has long been viewed as one of the greatest soccer players of all time. He is a masterful dribbler, an unstoppable goal scorer and a living legend. However, despite his countless individual accolades, he has often been criticized by his coaches and teammates for not being the best team player.

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Similarly, organizational success isn’t a one-person show; it takes an entire team of players to make it happen. A CEO might be the face of the organization, but they’re just one piece of the puzzle. It takes a diverse and talented staff working together to create something truly special. The key is to foster true collaboration and communication among all employees to reach the collective goals of an organization, which Korn Ferry calls practicing “radically human communications.” It’s communicating with empathy, compassion and humanity as a business imperative.



In the age of information overload and attention scarcity, we need inclusive storytelling and experiences that meet people’s needs as human beings and not just employees create strong teams. Being able to communicate effectively with employees is crucial to keeping them around. Korn Ferry data shows that 68% of employees who say they will stay with a company for five years or more feel that the company is open and honest with its communication. Effective communication creates strong teams.

  1. Celebrate success no matter how big or small.

Every successful soccer team knows how to celebrate its wins! The World Cup is internationally renowned for the passionate, emotional outbursts of players after each goal or game is won. it serves as a source of inspiration that keeps players going even when they’re physically exhausted. Similarly, HR leaders at organizations that are effective in achieving transformational changes often spotlight early wins, no matter how small, and make the aspirational future feel a little more achievable.

This amplification of every win allows people to hear about or experience a new idea from multiple touchpoints in a short period, and some combination of interest, peer pressure and fear of being left out pushes them towards exploration. The flurry of interest and activity becomes difficult to resist, allowing organizations to achieve a tipping point at which a new idea, mindset or behavior is adopted by enough people that the change becomes self-sustaining. Studies show that if an organization can get 10% of employees to convert to the new way of doing things, then 100% of the time that new way of working will become mainstream in the broader company. Celebrating wins is the fuel that keeps your organization’s engine running.

  1. Practice makes perfect.

The best soccer players practice constantly to stay sharp and develop their skills. A 15-year study of elite soccer clubs showed that teams who had more pre-season training sessions incurred fewer injuries during the regular season, making them much more effective. Organizations should also take the time to regularly practice balancing offense and defense, develop muscles to be more adaptive, foster radically human communication and constantly celebrate wins. Waiting until the pressure is on to start utilizing the tactics that will help them stay competitive in a rapidly changing world is often too late. The key is to embed these mindsets into the organizational culture, which Korn Ferry defines as an organization’s behavior at scale. That way, when times get tough and stress levels rise, organizations that have already established these mechanisms can more easily move forward with confidence in alignment with the organization’s long-term strategy.

We live in an era of unprecedented change, disruption and economic volatility. It’s no longer a surprise when the status quo is upended; it’s part of life. Organizations need to take the time to develop a culture where their employees can practice and perfect the necessary skills to stay competitive. As world-class soccer teams demonstrate, regularly practicing offensive and defensive tactics; communicating with empathy, compassion and humanity; and celebrating successes of all sizes, all the while embedding these tactics into the organization’s DNA through practice, help organizations achieve great things—no matter the challenge.

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