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Learn about company culture from Messi, Guardiola and FC Barcelona

Damian HughesDamian Hughes·

Great group chemistry is mysterious and elusive: certain groups have it; others don’t. But is that true? Or can it be built?

Here’s something I observed while writing my latest book The Barcelona Way: Unlocking the DNA of a Winning Culture, healthy cultures are obsessive about small courtesies. I’m talking really small stuff: holding doors open, taking time to ask about family, getting everybody a cuppa before meetings — the kind of stuff that can be easily overlooked.

This is usually seen as a moral quality — they’re just being nice to each other. But it’s not just moral; it’s neural. Because they have aligned their interactions with a basic evolutionary need: when it comes to belonging, our brains are either all in, or all out.

Here are a few easily replicable observations I’ve observed during my work within high performing cultures such as in FC Barcelona.

Type less, talk more: Taking the extra time to have a face-to-face interaction is always worth it, especially when dealing with anything important. For example, groups I visited tended to hand their phones in before meetings to stop distractions. It’s harder to do — and that’s why it builds relationships. 

Focus on the first few minutes: The first few minutes of any interaction are when our brains are deciding whether they’re in or out. Making the most of them through body language and expression isn’t just being polite; it’s essential. 

Tidying up: this sounds trivial, but it’s true. Cleaning up a shared space sends a powerful message of belonging. 

Overthanking: When you work inside a group, it’s easy to skip thank-yous (after all, you’re supposed to help each other). But in the successful groups I visited, I saw the opposite. They overthanked each other all the time.

Group chemistry isn’t random magic. It’s a process, an ongoing exchange of signals that send a clear message: we share a future. We are connected. 

Cultural legacy

The term ‘culture’ is an abstract one when, in reality, it simply means how people are expected to behave within a particular environment. Research indicates that when done correctly, it can offer a significant competitive advantage. In the world of elite sport, where talent, fitness, and skills tend to equal themselves out, this is an area which can be hugely advantageous.

Let me explain by highlighting the five different types of culture which traditionally emerge within any club.

One type is a culture referred to as the “star” model. Real Madrid’s galactico policy where they made it an ambition to bring in the best players every summer is a great example of this approach. When it works, as the last three Champions League trophies attest, it is spectacular. When it goes wrong, as it did at the same club during the mid-2000s, when they endured their longest drought since the 1950s, the consequences are equally spectacular.

The second category is an “engineering” model. Teams with engineering cultures don’t have many individual stars but are populated by people with great technical skills and abilities. Think, for example, about the policy pursued by Arsene Wenger over the last decade at Arsenal.

The third and fourth categories of companies included those firms built around “bureaucracies” and those construed as “autocracies.” In the bureaucratic model, cultures emerged through thick ranks of decision makers.

An autocratic structure is similar, except that all of the rules, job descriptions, and organizational charts ultimately point to the desires and goals of one person, usually the founder or CEO. Roman Abramovich’s 15 years – and thirteen managerial appointments – at Chelsea is a great example of this.  

I believe this same cultural model was pursued by ex-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson after the 2005 takeover when his importance to the new American owners, the Glazers, was never more evident.

Clues to this change are conveyed in the subtle changing of his words from his previous mantra, ‘No one is bigger than Manchester United” to “no one is bigger than the manager of Manchester United.”

The final category was known as the “commitment” model, which is driven by a clear sense of purpose and decisions taken in accordance with the trademark behaviors laid down. In every study of this area, this is the only culture producing consistent winners.

Hands down, a commitment culture outperformed every other type of management style in almost every meaningful way.  Creating a commitment culture is exactly where “doing good” and “doing well” coincide.

This is the topic for which I interviewed Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, two of the strategic architects at FC Barcelona who appointed Pepe Guardiola as manager in 2008.

When Guardiola was appointed as head coach he immediately imposed three behaviors on his charges which informed them how to act.

  1. Humility
  2. Hard work
  3. Putting the team above your own self-interest.

There is a myriad of tales to illustrate how this manifested itself, including one story relating to his long-serving assistant Manel Estiarte, who was charged with observing these behaviors at all times. He would watch the reaction of players sat on the substitutes bench.

Those who didn’t react to the game’s ebb and flow were deemed to be sulking and were swiftly told to FIFO: Fit in or F… off.

At a coaches meeting, Guardiola once asked Ferguson the question: if you get to a situation where the balance seems broken, what do you do? Do you go or do you change players? Ferguson’s answer was succinct: you change players

Before Guardiola took over at Barcelona, the stories about the unprofessional behaviors of key members of the team were rife within the city.  

Even the teenage Messi had been implicated. Returning from one of gifted star player Ronaldinho’s frequent parties, he had an accident with a van in Barcelona. There were other stories of incidents in Barcelona’s nightclubs. The “Ronaldinho effect”, which had once rejuvenated the club was now having more serious consequences, especially for the next generation.

Ferguson’s advice was heeded. In his first press conference, Guardiola ruthlessly announced the end of the Nou Camp careers of the team’s star triumvirate, Ronaldinho, Deco and  Samuel Eto’o.

This allowed Guardiola to build the club around Mesi, Iniesta and Hernandez and Pique  – all products of its La Masia academy. He dubbed these his cultural architects, the ones who identified and would consistently role model the trademark Barcelona behaviors.

There was a neat illustration of this during a 2011 victory against a beleaguered Rayo Vallecano. After the fifth goal – in a 7-0 victory – the scorer Thiago, making an early first-team appearance,  began to dance the samba in celebration and was joined by his teammate Dani Alves.

The captain Carles Puyol trotted over to the pair and put a stop to it, directing them back towards the center circle. It wasn’t the samba which offended the defender but the lack of humility. Following the game, Guardiola issued a contrite apology, “That’s not the attitude of Barça players. It won’t happen again.”

This attitude pervades all of his teams. When they score, note how the scorer will always seek to point and acknowledge the role of the person who created the chance. It is a small but telling example of how he seeks to rid the culture of egotists and instilling a sense of the team coming first.

It is, after all,  the Barcelona way.

Main image: Barcelona FC’s Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola (now manager of Manchester City). Source: CNN.com

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