“I had fourth-division feet and a first-division head”, said a younger Jurgen Klopp in the days when he was managing Borussia Dortmund FC. And since his managerial career began in 2001, he’s shown just what that first-division head can do. He secured promotion to the Bundesliga for Mainz 05, won consecutive league titles for Borussia Dortmund – upsetting German top dog Bayern Munich – and, most recently, took Liverpool to a 2018-19 Champions League title, as well as to victory in the 2019-20 Premier League - the club’s first win in this competition.
There’s no denying the man’s managerial prowess - but what is it that makes him so successful? Here, we’ve spoken to two Vistage chairs (and football fans) to find out what business leaders can learn from Liverpool’s “Normal One”.
EQ, not IQ
Berkshire Vistage chair (and Liverpool fan) Nigel Seear says it’s Klopp’s ability to truly connect with people that makes him shine as a leader. “He brings all the stakeholders together”, he says. “Not just the team, but the board, the fans - even bigger rivals who, through gritted teeth, admit that they want what Klopp brings to the club”.
That connection, though, is not about intelligence (although there’s no denying that Klopp is a clever guy). It’s about how he connects emotionally with those involved in the club - a tactic which works in any business setting.
“A winning business leader has a high EQ (emotional quotient), not necessarily a high IQ”, says Nigel. “He (or she) can be surrounded by high IQ individuals, but needs a good EQ to get the most out of those on the team”. This EQ means that Klopp can truly understand players and what inspires them to their maximum performance - and it’s an approach he’s used when signing new players, too.
"He’s believed in young talent."
While he has made some big-name signings - the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Mo Salah, for instance - Klopp has also spent team funds on bringing in many players that Nigel describes as “unfancied”. “He’s delivered performance out of players who could have been quite ‘average’ footballers”, he says, “and he’s believed in young talent”.
In a post-Premier League winning interview, Klopp said, “if you would give me now a list of five million players, I would love to pick these 25, 30 boys and say I want to do it with them. Because they are so incredibly close, because they understand how important it is to be self-confident on a high, high level but not overly confident that you think you are more important than others.”
Klopp recruited for cultural fit and EQ above skill sets and financial value, understanding what inspires his players to reach their very best. After all, who would have thought, back in 2017, that £8m defensive signing Andy Robertson would be named by Phil Neville as “the best left-back in the world”?
“Getting 100% out of someone who’s good is better than getting 50% out of someone outstanding,” says Nigel. He cites Manchester United’s signing of Alexis Sanchez as a key example: a player signed in early 2018 in a deal worth £14m a year after tax, and who didn’t live up to his Arsenal standards, leading him to be sent to Inter Milan on loan in August 2019. “Signing players in this way compromises the culture of the club,'' says Nigel. “It drags the rest of the team down”.
The same applies in business, too. Would you rather recruit a new hire who has all the skills but doesn’t fit with your company culture, or who is good (rather than outstanding), but whose personality and approach is fully aligned with your company values?
Connecting with fans (customers)
“Klopp connects with his fanbase in a very real way to understand them emotionally, not just logically”, says Nigel. “He has true passion: he leads from the front, he delivers the experience that the fans want. He has an enthusiasm, passion and respect for the club that’s fully aligned with its supporters”.
And he showed this true passion when, in an interview with Sky Sports after clenching that Premier League title, he had to walk out when he broke down in tears.
Klopp is a manager the team can relate to - something to which many business leaders aspire. He makes himself fully accountable for any mistakes. While Mourinho used to take attention away from his team’s poor performances by bad-mouthing others, Klopp - with his strong personality - can tackle such situations with either humour or genuine emotion. “He wears his heart on his sleeve - he’s honest and transparent. Everyone can relate to him,” says Nigel.
And let’s face it - honesty, transparency and showing your human side are vital whatever your business.
Evolution, rather than rapid change
Since Klopp took over the reins at Liverpool in late 2015, their season-ending league positions improved from 8th to league champions. It may not have been the sudden improvement that many fans were hoping for, but that’s not Klopp’s style.
In a press interview in his first week at the helm, Klopp expressed his hope that everyone was “patient enough to be successful.”
His success certainly didn’t happen overnight. Five years on, Klopp’s ethos, mission and values are clear, and bringing him the success he deserves. “He’s taken things slowly”, says Nigel, “essentially coming up with his proof of concept, planning his journey in the right way to succeed.” He clearly already shared the club’s values - and with his desire to make the people happy and his quick wit, he’s been described by many as “a modern-day Shankly.”
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“He started by pleasing fans,” says Nigel, “and then his style evolved. The next step in pleasing fans was to win something, so this season has been more balanced - not the ‘heavy metal’ football of last season. He’s connected with the heritage values of what the club is all about, and re-energised that.”
The club looked for a manager that already shared its values - and vice versa. Pep Guardiola may, on paper, be a better all-round coach, but his style simply wouldn’t work at Liverpool. The same goes for Jose Mourinho - as demonstrated by his time at Manchester United. And again, this can apply to any business. “People tend to hire recruits who have a reputation for doing something great elsewhere, but who don’t necessarily have that cultural fit,” says Nigel. “If you imprint something with a new and different culture, you can lose some of the great culture that’s already there”.
Challenging the “group think”
It’s not just Liverpool fans who can appreciate Klopp’s management style, either. Arsenal fan and Warwickshire Vistage chair Bankie Williams applauds Klopp’s approach to ensuring diversity - and applies it to his own work, too.
“Klopp looks carefully at the extent to which his team allows different personalities and behaviours to shine,” says Bankie. “His passion and his enthusiasm are clear to see, and are reflected in both his players and Liverpool’s fanbase. There’s a virtuous circle: his energy, enthusiasm and commitment drive those of everyone else involved in the club, and theirs, in turn, drive his”.
"You need that diversity in the room."
But as much as Klopp is happy to let his own personality shine through, he doesn’t let it create a damaging 'group think'. "Klopp has brought together a great diversity in talent," says Bankie, "rather than a team that simply reflects his own personality, behaviours and desires. I had the same challenge when selecting my Vistage group, as a member: did I want to choose one based on my own preferences, and risk the danger of a group think? You need that diversity in the room."
Active or passive?
The final point that Bankie brings up is more of a question than a definitive trait that all business leaders should aspire to. “It’s interesting to see which coaches sit quietly in their seats on the sidelines, and which intervene actively during the game,” he says. “The likes of Klopp and Sir Alex Ferguson are known for their high energy, for ranting and raving, for trying to actively coach during play”. He compares this with other coaches, whose approach is more “I’ve done my work during the week, now the rest is down to the team on the pitch”.
In some businesses, this passive, hands-off style may work better. In others, a more active, constantly encouraging approach may bring better results. Essentially, it’s up to individual business leaders to establish what will work best with their team.
When compared with Mourinho on signing for Liverpool, Klopp’s response was, "I am 'The Normal One'. I am a normal guy from the Black Forest. I was a very average player. I don't compare myself with these genius managers from the past." There may be no right way to manage. But by staying loyal to your own characteristics and choosing a company whose characteristics align, as the German manager has done, you’re far more likely to succeed.
At Vistage, we enable leaders to achieve more. If you’re keen to become the Klopp of your industry, join your local group.
Picture credit: Flickr (public domain)