Guardiola or Mourinho: who’d be the best tech startup leader?

You couldn’t get a greater contrast in leadership style than Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, a fierce football rivalry currently being broadcasted daily to the world from Manchester. It’s a deeply personal rivalry that encapsulates the best of and worst of modern football as they locked horns recently for the twentieth time in their careers in the Manchester derby.

Pep has the edge over his Portuguese foe with ten victories, while the ‘Special One’ has four wins, with six ending draws. Guardiola has learnt quickly from his first season mistakes with City, his squad have grasped his exacting demands and he is on course to deliver the title playing captivating football. Mourinho has brought a winner’s mentality back to United, but looks unable to thwart Guardiola’s direction of travel.

Mourinho and Guardiola worked together at Barcelona between 1996-2000, when Mourinho was a coach and Guardiola a player, but have been rivals since. In the summer of 2008, Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola was appointed as manager of Barcelona. He was young and inexperienced, fresh from a successful period leading their B team. Not exactly qualifications for taking the reigns of one of the most iconic sports teams in history, but he went on to win 14 titles in four years.

Pep may not have been the expected choice, but he had new ideas for a team stuck in old ways. Most importantly, he had the courage and the discipline to make those ideas come to fruition, following the ‘total football’ vision of his mentor, Johan Cruyff, who gave the gangly, slow-footed, Guardiola his first opportunity as a youth player.

But it’s not enough to just have new ideas. You need the discipline to follow through when you’re going through the fire. And that’s what both men have: single mindedness, self-belief and mental toughness to do things their way, and simply ignore the brickbats thrown at them.

Guardiola lost his first Spanish League match of 2008, dropping the big named players whilst giving a young Messi his debut. But after the opening week loss, the team racked up a twenty game undefeated streak en route to their first Spanish title since 2006. The highlight of the campaign was a 6-2 victory over rivals Real Madrid, in Madrid.

Guardiola established his philosophy of tiki-taka, despite the dwindling appeal of possession football. By artfully advocating a playing style based on possession, short passing play and attack in which the ball is played forward from defence all the way to goal by means of pinpoint combination play, Barça captivated the footballing world.

He was a perfectionist, he studied his rivals and focused on small details. He used risky tactics to surprise and outwit. His leadership style has evolved to that of being very personal – emotional, motivational and yet also authoritative. Pep has crafted an aura of passionate thinking, discipline to a philosophy and warmth to his team.

Mourinho contrasts this with an abrasive and sometimes sulken attitude that the world is against his, that he’s an animal corned to fight. Mourinho is also a perfectionist, equally passionate, buy is pragmatic and plays to win rather than be overly concerned with style. He isn’t above overt public criticism of his players either.

Their rivalry hit a new level in 2010, when Mourinho was appointed Real Madrid boss. During the next two seasons, as the pair vied for domestic Spanish and European honours, their relationship turned ugly. Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid in La Liga fixture at Camp Nou is the greatest of humiliations in Mourinho’s management career, and put a clear marker down.

Following his departure from Barcelona on a year-long sabbatical, Guardiola resumed his skirmish with Mourinho in August 2013, when Bayern Munich met Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup. Bayern won, and Guardiola scored another victory over his long-time adversary. That’s not quite how Jose saw it though: The best team clearly lost. They just scored one more penalty.

So, both have enjoyed stellar success, leading several teams, but how transferable are their leadership capabilities to other industries? For example, who could make it as a tech startup leader? Who is the more perceptive and innovative strategic thinker? Who would develop the startup culture and talent best? Whose leadership philosophy offers more potential for long-term success in the maelstrom of the startup environment? Let’s consider the key qualities of a startup leader, and assess each.

1. Growth philosophy As beautiful as it is bold, Guardiola has not wavered from his determination to play firmly on the front foot, ignoring the critics who argued that his philosophy was not transferable to the hurly burly of the Premier League. Stylistically, Mourinho has suffered from constant comparison with Guardiola, purists have bristled at some of his perceived negative tactics. Guardiola’s way of playing is now so established that players can be rotated and there is often no discernible difference.

Guardiola and Mourinho may have very contrasting beliefs about the best way to go about achieving success but they share the same obsessive desire for winning and there is little doubt both have overseen marked improvements. But for me, theirs is a one-sided rivalry – where one has moral courage the other shows only fear in putting in the type of structure that looks to enhance his players’ attacking qualities.

Organisations are now becoming more aware of the need to identify the fundamental reason for their existence or their “why”. Guardiola has taken this further by taking a belief system and aligning it to the mission objective, of playing reputation for playing with flair.

Mourinho’s philosophy is to minimise the risk of defeat, Pep’s is to win with confidence and self-belief. For a startup, you have to be bold and push out from your comfort zone into the learning zone to get ahead of the competition and take your own performance to new heights. Best fit: Pep

2. Talent development Guardiola’s skills as a coach have born fruit this season with many of his squad showing huge signs of improvement, younger players such as Sterling and Stones, and established players too, notably De Bruyne, whose game is at a new height. Mourinho has done a similar job in this regard, with the stark improvement from more modest talents in a less naturally gifted squad, and brought about a sharp upturn in performance levels from his tough love.

Regarding youth development, then this is a stick with which Mourinho’s critics have liked to beat him but the irony is that it is the Portuguese who has demonstrated greater willingness to give Academy graduates meaningful game time whereas Guardiola, has, for all the City hierarchy’s eagerness to promote youth, appeared at times to pay little more than lip service to it.

Mourinho has given 1,382 minutes to Academy Graduates compared to Guardiola’s 1,141. Mourinho has maintained United’s 80-year tradition of naming an academy player in every match-day squad; getting regular playing time remains a serious challenge for City’s youngsters.

Yet Pep’s emotion, manhandling and yelling at his players until they see the light of his thinking, is one that would bring more success in a startup. You can’t be a spectator in a startup, you have to be leading the charge on the front line. Pep’s on the pitch in his head, you can see his engagement with the team at an individual level. Jose is more standoffish, less emotional, lacks warmth, and maybe as a consequence, hasn’t created a winning culture to help foster a unified team vision. Best fit: Pep

3. Emotional Intelligence Guardiola is a perfectionist – but no more so than Mourinho – yet has stronger emotional intelligence. Mourinho is more outspoken about individual players, pointing out their shortcomings in public. Pep is an idealist focused on process of playing beautiful football, Jose is a realist simply focused on results and winning football. Pep is emotion, Jose is passion.

The secret of leadership is insight into human potential and understanding of the individual, and Pep is known for understanding the ambitions and personality of each player. Lionel Messi, the world’s best player was called up by Argentina to play at the Olympics much to the disappointment of Barcelona who didn’t want to risk their best player getting injured.

Pep went against the wishes of the club and supported Messi playing at the Olympics because he knew how important this was to Messi and the loyalty he would receive in return from the player. Pep nurtures and huddles with his players, you sense Mourinho creates a more hierarchical ‘master and servant’ relationship. When asked about this kind of situation Guardiola replied We’d never start telling them off. If the game’s going badly you only earn credibility by correcting what they’re doing rather than shouting about it. Best fit: Pep

4. Self-awareness Startup leaders live in a state of discomfort, constantly restless about improving – and are comfortable with it. When running a startup, life is constantly in a state of flux – one key hire or departure can make or break a team, one key customer sale can set the month up for success, one flaw in the technology could be a six-month setback.

Recognising this and pressing forward anyway takes a tremendous amount of tenacity, but also self-awareness, being able to take intrinsic and extrinsic criticism with a grain of salt. There’s no doubt that Pep has a stronger jaw for criticism, although he can bristle, and has developed a healthier balance of paranoia and confidence compared to Jose wounded animal personality.

When things are not going well it’s difficult not to allow your emotions to overtake you and influence your decision-making. Your focus needs to remain on want needs to happen to correct performance and the diagnosis of how and why the situation happened and what can happen later. Your influence has to be to add value, not criticise.

Guardiola took a debut season of his own self-doubt and has grown a near-perfect second one. Just twelve months ago Guardiola was at his lowest ebb as City boss, but has carved a near-perfect team from his own self-doubt. He doubled down. Rather than adapt, he was going to go the opposite direction, and apply his principles to the fullest degree possible.

He has placed even more faith in himself. He was even more determined and focused and was ruthlessly decisive. I don’t get a sense of this critical self-awareness and the need for more determination to make it happen from Jose. You sense he’d walk away from the situation. In a startup, you can’t walk away, you simply have to dig in Best-fit: Pep

5. Use of resources Guardiola has built a reputation for helping players raise their game, but he also has a habit of spending more money than his rivals every season. He has already splurged £400m+ since arriving at the Etihad in July 2016. It is irrefutable that he has been able to buy success, working at three clubs, which have been in the world’s five richest by income and spending during his time with them.

He’s not so far from becoming a transfer market £1bn man, laying out £896.6m since starting out at Barcelona in 2008. Mourinho – whose £1.1bn expenditure exceeds that of any other manager – and Carlo Ancelotti, who’s shelled out £970m, are the only two who have spent more. The Catalan has laid out £99.6m a year on average, compared with Mourinho’s £65m.

Meanwhile, after the 2-2 draw with Burnley, Jose was bemoaning his £300m spend at United wasn’t enough to compete with City Best-fit: neither – both work with monopoly money, could they do it with the meagre resources of startup funding?

Mourinho is undoubtedly a successful leader, but not someone you warm too and doesn’t create a sense of loyalty and camaraderie in the team. Mourinho talks a lot, but is he really just saying everything he wants you to hear? His overtly intentional mind games and media distraction strategies have often dogged him. He’s strong, but can be self-indulgent, belligerent and dogged, becoming an isolated figure without affection.

Contrast this to Pep, always ready to motivate, his emotion and connection to his players from the touchline during the game is inspiring. He has successfully turned the team’s formation, tactics and training approaches on its head within a short period of time.

City play the Guardiola way with discipline, clarity and purpose. That would not have been possible without him first sitting his players down and helping them understand what he wants from them and he wants to play. The success they are currently having probably started at the lunch table and not on a football pitch. Creating this understanding, togetherness and trust are the essentials of effective startup leaders. I think Pep’s got it.

How to win in business like FC Barcelona

Despite being recognised as the best club side in world football, Barcelona showed they were mortal in the defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League this week, and today there are strong rumours that Pep Guardiola is to step down as coach. Regardless of this, the intelligent way in which Barça play the game has led to several studies of their strategy and tactics which offer insights into what has made them the most admired football team for many years. Amidst the passion and energy of football, what business lessons can we take from Barça, in terms of their approach to building a successful team, competing with intensity, and ultimately winning? After all, it’s more than 90 minutes. Here are some thoughts.

Pressure on the ball
Before Barcelona played Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley last May, Alex Ferguson said that the way Barça pressured their opponents to win the ball back was breath-taking. That, he said, was Pep Guardiola’s innovation.  Barcelona start pressing (hunting for the ball) the instant they lose possession. That is the perfect time to press because the opposing player who has just won the ball is vulnerable.

He has had to take his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception, and he has expended energy. That means he is unsighted, probably tired. He usually needs two or three seconds to regain his vision of the field. So Barcelona try to dispossess him before he can give the ball to a better-placed teammate. The Barcelona player who lost the ball leads the hunt to regain it. But he never hunts alone. His teammates near the ball join him. If only one or two Barça players are pressing, it’s too easy for the opponent to pass around them.

From a business perspective, when one prospect is lost, get your head back up immediately and focus on the next opportunity. Don’t spend time licking your wounds or trying to find excuses, simply react and respond and fight back. Refocus, keep pressing yourself to achieve, and get everyone around you to do the same.

The five-second rule
If Barça haven’t won the ball back within five seconds of losing it, they then retreat and build a compact ten-man wall. The distance between the front man in the wall (typically Messi) and their last defender (say, Puyol) is only 25 to 30 metres. It’s hard for any opponent to pass their way through such a small space. The players stand there and say, in effect Try and get through this.

It’s easy for Barça to be compact, both when pressing and when drawing up their wall, because their players spend most of the game very near each other. Xavi and Iniesta in particular seldom stray far from the ball. Barça win the ball back so quickly because they don’t have to run back more than 10 metres, as they never pass the ball more than 10 metres.

In business it’s all about being agile, both in your thinking and doing. If stuff isn’t working, don’t carry on doing the same thing on the hope that it will work. Be reflective and proactive, do something different that enables you to regroup, but with a focus on moving forward again soon.

More rules of pressing Once Barcelona have built their compact wall they wait for the right moment to start pressing again. They don’t choose the moment on instinct. Rather, there are very precise prompts that tell them when to press. One is if an opponent controls the ball badly. If the ball bounces off his foot, he will need to look downwards to locate it, and at that moment he loses his overview of the pitch. That’s when the nearest Barcelona players start hounding him.

Successful businesses are hungry, alert and attentive to their market and customers, seizing the opportunities and want to make a difference. Fresh thinking, fresh perspectives puts them in a place to spot opportunities to grow and win new customers. Keeping on your toes and being on your mettle at all times is a winning mindset.

The 3-1 rule If an opposing player gets the ball anywhere near Barcelona’s penalty area, then Barça apply what they call the 3-1 rule: one of Barcelona’s four defenders will advance to tackle the man with the ball, and the other three defenders will assemble in a ring about two or three metres behind the tackler. That provides a double layer of protection.

Simple! Work as a team, look out for each other, and have a plan – and work it. Working together precedes winning together, building a cohesive team is an essential part of a winning strategy.

No surprise When Barcelona win the ball, they do something unusual. At that moment, the opponents are usually out of position, and so if you can counterattack quickly, you have an excellent chance of scoring.  But when a Barcelona player wins the ball, he doesn’t try for a splitting pass. The club’s attitude is: he has won the ball, that’s a wonderful achievement, and he doesn’t need to do anything else special. All he should do is slot the ball simply to the nearest teammate. Barcelona’s logic is that in winning the ball, the guy has typically forfeited his vision of the field. So he is the worst placed player to hit a telling ball.

This means that Barcelona don’t rely on the element of surprise. They take a few moments to get into formation, and then pretty much tell their opponents, OK, here we come. The opposition knows exactly what Barça are going to do. The difficulty is stopping it. The only exception to this rule is if the Barça player wins the ball near the opposition’s penalty area. Then he goes straight for goal.

In business, it’s about having a plan and then executing it consistently, with flair and ingenuity tactically, as each circumstance is different. Go with passion to achieve your goal, but keep hold of the advantage once you have it, once you’ve crafted an opening, why throw it away by being rash?

Possession is nine-tenths of the game Keeping the ball has been Barcelona’s key tactic. Most teams don’t worry about possession. They know you can have oodles of possession and lose. But Barcelona aim to have 65% of possession in a game. Last season in Spain, they averaged more than 72%; so far this year, they are at about 70%.

The logic of possession is twofold. Firstly, while you have the ball, the other team can’t score. Secondly, if Barça have the ball, the other team has to chase it, and that is exhausting. When the opponents win it back, they are often so tired that they surrender it again immediately. Possession gets Barcelona into a virtuous cycle.

Be different. Operating in a market with a different set of values and ways to engage with customers gives you the opportunity to create your own market space. Stand out from the crowd, and craft your own strategy.

The one-second rule No other football team plays the Barcelona way. That’s strength, but it’s also a weakness. It makes it very hard for Barca to integrate outsiders into the team, because the outsiders struggle to learn the system. Barcelona had a policy of buying only Top Ten players – men who arguably rank among the ten best footballers on earth – yet many of them have failed in the Nou Camp.

Guardiola explains the risk of transfers by what he called the one-second rule. The success of a move on the pitch is decided in less than a second. If a player needs a few extra fractions of a second to work out where his teammate is going, because he doesn’t know the other guy’s game well, the move will usually break down. A new player can therefore lose you a match in under a second.

Barça has an all-star team as opposed to a team of stars. You cannot necessarily achieve success in football by waving a cheque book and Barcelona, realising this, prefers to develop talent in-house and promote from within. Barça has no prima donnas and the club plays as a genuinely collective unit – a team in name and truly in practice.

Management Style Barça’s management style is consistent with an admired theorists, Boris Groysberg, an Associate Professor in the organisational behaviour unit at Harvard Business School, a strong supporter of growing stars as opposed to buying them.

He conducted an interesting study of over 1,000 Wall Street star analysts who switched firms. Published in his book, Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and The Portability of Performance, the study revealed that company-switching analysts saw an immediate and lasting deterioration in their performance. The results prove that the success of star analysts was as dependent on teammates and co-workers as on their own talents. Most stars who switch firms turn out to be meteors, quickly losing their lustre.

Barça believes in developing its own, home grown talent and this leads to effective succession planning for the club. Eight of the team’s leading players are graduates of its football school, La Masia, founded in 1979. This list includes the Argentinean Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, as well as Iniesta, Pique, Xabi, Puyol and coach Pep Guardiola.

Developing a clear, consistent management style and evolving your own talent strategy are proven to be key elements of successful businesses.  Taking a long-term, investment perspective in building your human resources, delivers sustainable success.

The current season may end up disappointingly for Barcelona, and even conclude with the exit of Guardiola, unable to bear the frustration of set-backs in the final months of the season, in the games that mattered. Any philosophy contains its risks, but recent years have shown that Barcelona’s can work. Brilliantly, too. Being a Barcelona fan is the best thing there is, they are not going to turn their backs on it now.