What business can learn from sports regarding Talent Management

October 31, 2022

Alexander Thiel, Partner and Leader of McKinsey’s Sporting Goods Practice, discusses the deeper lessons businesses can take away from football clubs’ development and succession practices…

I recently had an enlightening conversation about an element of professional sport – in Europe, particularly football – that, in my view, holds significant value for business and is often overlooked. This area is Talent Management.

To my surprise, professional football clubs closely follow a systematic talent development and management approach that we at McKinsey would call “Talent to Value”. This includes four best practices directly translatable to success in the business world:

1. Define the exact talent needs for each position.

From FC Barcelona’s probing passing game to Liverpool’s action-oriented, free-form attack, there are near limitless ways to play football, just as there are dozens of successful business strategies. However, great teams like FC Barcelona know their style and the exact requirements of each position. Consequently, they find and train players to execute that vision. Similarly, companies must think about which parts are most critical for their value agenda and build a detailed view of the profile needed for each. They must then find the right talent based on that description.

2. Align your internal development journeys with business needs.

For every position, you need to understand the required skills, but just as importantly, how to systematically find and develop those skills. In football, club-owned academies scout players from an early age and set them to fit the team’s playing style, strategy, and requirements. By the time Lionel Messi joined FC Barcelona’s starting 11 in 2005, for example, he had been involved with the club since 2000 —long enough to understand the club’s vision and role within it. Great corporations also have systematic, transparent, and meritocratic talent development pipelines to develop future executive talent.

3. Identify gaps early or in advance.

Players retire, and so do managers and executives. These departures are predictable — even with unknown specifics — and can be prepared for by developing a deep bench of available, properly skilled talent. Football teams like Bayern Munich have been successful for years because they are rarely surprised by gaps in talent and have “the next man up” ready for a given position. Corporations, too, need a strong succession plan to prepare the next generation of leaders and avoid being surprised by future talent gaps that may arise as role and skill needs evolve.

4. If gaps exist, reskill, upskill and search externally.

Free agency is a boon for professional football teams because sometimes the best talent must be bought and not developed. The same is true in the corporate world, and if the right candidate doesn’t exist internally, recruiters should target talent from another team.

When Liverpool realized it lacked an elite centre-back with superior aerial skills in its talent pipeline, club executives scouted Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk and ultimately poached him from fellow Premier League side Southampton. He became a vital pillar of the team’s success this year and was awarded “Premier League Player of the Season.” In the business world, companies must also look externally if it becomes evident that a critical talent gap cannot be filled internally. If talent needs to evolve, reskilling and upskilling must become targeted instruments for talent development at a large scale.

Through this approach, there is a strong focus on developing individuals to the best of their abilities while always putting the team first – and taking the overall culture and values into account. In sports and business it is important to keep teams and individuals in mind and add the elements of culture and value.