Lessons from the Locker Room: Liverpool's Return to Glory
It’s a story I’ve waited a long time to write. I don’t normally write in the first person or mix much of my personal life into my work, but in this case I’m willing to make an exception because there is a great deal every leader can learn from this story.
I have been, for the last 15 years, a massive fan of Liverpool FC. But around the time I became a fan of this great sporting institution, it went into a period of decline under bad ownership, Poor management and a sense of morale that was, to put it lightly, deteriorating contributed greatly to strife around the club. Within a few years, it was in the depths of crisis, with supporters of the club protesting in and outside of the stadium with regularity.
This was a club that was once regularly at the peak of the soccer world, but had failed to win a domestic league title for the better part of two decades at that point, a streak that would include a third decade before it finally came to an end.
On the field, results didn’t help and in 2010, on the verge of bankruptcy, the clubs then owners were forced to sell to Fenway Sports Group (FSG). And immediately the club’s journey toward a new era of greatness began. How it happened holds lessons for everyone in business and in human resources, as nothing has been at the center of the club’s recent success more than the people it has brought on board.
Fenway’s ownership of the club instilled important ideals. Chief among them was a reliance on data informed decisions. Whether that has been in regard to players they were going to sign, how they managed the players they have, the number of seats to expand the stadium by or the type of commercial partners they would link the club to, data and a team of data scientists has played a pivotal role in reshaping the club’s fortunes.
FSG’s head and the principal owner of LFC, John Henry, is a man whose belief in data and analytics is well known among American sports fans through his ownership of the Boston Red Sox. He made his fortune using data to trade corn and soybean futures and has taken that love of how the science interacts with human driven markets and organizations with him in whatever projects he tackles ever since.
But as a fan, it’s sometimes difficult to care about a lot of that. All we want is to see results on the field and the early years under Henry and his partner, FSG Chairman Tom Werner, were difficult. The two came in not knowing much about the game and it showed as their early high level management appointments didn’t improve the club’s standing much.
And this leads to one of the things that many fans have come to respect about Henry and Werner’s guidance. Though relatively hands off – they do let the experts make the majority of decisions and rarely interfere in day-to-day matters - the pair have taken ownership of and accountability for every misstep along the way. Whether that was a bad hire, money misspent, ticket price increases that sparked outrage from the fans or the recent decision to pull back from furloughing staff, the owners and their staff have not only owned their mistakes, but taken steps to rectify them when they did.
It would be easy to fire managers and point fingers, but they’ve chosen to take it upon themselves to own the state of the club and align their own visions for it with the history that shaped its identity.
In that sense, they have been the perfect stewards of a club like Liverpool. They revamped the stadium and expanded it in a way that suits the club’s identity and keeps it at its historic home. They’ve upgraded the facilities to be first class for playing and coaching staff. They’ve brought the club back to commercial appeal where it once lived in the shadow of its rivals. They balanced its books and have even made it profitable, a rare thing in European soccer. But they couldn’t deliver their initial aim alone. What they really needed to achieve their ultimate goal of ending the club’s ongoing league title drought was a man in charge with a vision.
When FSG settled into life as Liverpool’s owners, they appointed a man in Kenny Dalglish who was popular with fans and who represented what the organization’s history was all about. But they always had their eye on something different. They knew the club needed someone with a long term plan and a vision befitting Liverpool’s stature.
Their initial appointment nearly delivered that after just one season. Brendan Rodgers, whose lengthy dossier on his own philosophies had convinced Henry to hire him, came painstakingly close to winning the club’s first title in almost 25 years in 2014. But it didn’t happen and as it turned out, the season was more of a fluke than dawn of a new age. The next season, the team was once again mediocre and fans had lost hope again.
In truth, FSG had secretly always had their eye on one man, but to that point, he’d never been available to take the job. Once his circumstances changed, they quickly began courting Jurgen Klopp, a charismatic German who had his own philosophies and a core of beliefs about not only how the game should be played, but how teams should be built and managed.
The press conference around his hiring in 2015 spoke volumes for what was to come. And life under Klopp has inspired more posters that could adorn your office walls than a library of landscape photos.
“It’s not important what people said when you come in, but what they say when you leave. If we want this could be a special day,” Klopp said at his first press conference. “Players must believe they can reach the expectations of the fans, so if somebody wants to help, they have to change from doubters to believers. Sometimes you are not satisfied because you don’t see all the big steps in development, you think about all the money that is spent. So stop thinking only about money.”
It was a markedly different tone for everyone in the organization and immediately, Klopp began developing a relationship with the fans. He would spend the next four years getting them behind him and the team, building trust in ways no manager had done in the previous three decades. He met with fan media sites as if they were regular journalists, he made public appearances at fan events and he spoke candidly with traditional media as if to always be speaking directly to the fans, creating an image around the organization that we are all in this together.
A big part of who Klopp is his instance on his normalcy. He openly admits he’s not an expert and that he relies on the work of others to make his decisions. When the head of his data team told him to sign Mohammed Salah, Klopp wasn’t interested at first as he already had his sights set on another player. But the team insisted and Klopp listened, signing the player for what now seems like a bargain price. The next season Salah set the all-time record for goals scored in a single season and has been instrumental in the club winning major trophies in each of the last two seasons.
His players know him to be an arm around the shoulder off the pitch and a stern voice in their minds on it. He’s known for his hugs and his exuberant smile and but he’s also known for demanding a great deal from the people who work under him.
Klopp openly admits to not being an expert on everything and that he doesn’t have all of the answers all of the time.
“I need experts around me,” he says. “It’s really important to have empathy and give support to the people around you. That’s what leadership is, have strong people around you with better knowledge in different departments than yourself. Don’t act like you know everything, be ready to admit that I have no clue in the moment.” (Full interview below)
It’s here that he shines as a leader, trusting experts to do what they do. It has led him to signing some of his best players for fees well under what modern players of the caliber he requires cost.
Many of them have done things they couldn’t have imagined. Andy Robertson is a quintessential Klopp player. A little known Scotsman playing at smaller clubs who wasn’t on anyone’s radar, but had something Klopp values highly, character and a will to succeed. He was signed for a mere 8 million pounds, a fee considered to be a pittance in terms of modern player transactions. Now, he’s widely considered as one of the top players in his position in the world.
In other instances, Klopp has made one assertion and then gone in a different direction. Spending a world record amount of money on a goalkeeper in the summer of 2018 was one such scenario. At first, he resisted. But in consulting with front office staff, the data team and ownership, he changed his mind. Why? It comes back to another of his underlying principles.
“Did I change my opinion? Yes. That’s true. But it’s better to change your opinion than never have one.”
A key facet of Klopp’s tenure is the culture around the club. When he said we must turn from doubters into believers, he meant it. He has spent time cultivating not only his own relationship with the fans, but the players’ as well, often encouraging them to thank the fans after matches and to be open to interacting with fans at public engagements.
When the club tours America, every member of the staff is available to interact with fans. When the players need a break, he’s keen to provide it and often speaks of changes that need to be made to the sport’s structure in order protect the players’ physical and mental health. What Klopp has therefore become is a highly regarded figure in and outside of the club and one who always takes responsibility for what happens on the field despite the fact he never kicks a ball.
What he has instilled is not only a sense of direction or even identifying a clear path toward it, but an absolute faith that if every piece of the puzzle comes together, then we will all get there together.
After the team lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid in 2018, it would have been easy for heads to hang, natural for doubt to set in. But Klopp was seen the next morning dancing and reassuring fans that it’s only the beginning. And sure enough it was. The next season, Liverpool won the Champions League (Europe’s biggest prize) and the team set a club record for points in a domestic season, only to lose the domestic trophy to eventual champions Manchester City. This season they have won that prize in response to that failure and are on pace to set the all-time points record.
What this speaks to is a willingness to accept failure in the pursuit of success. Last season with his team trailing the mighty Barcelona 3-0 in the Champions League, Klopp looked at his team and said something that the players took with them into a game where they completed one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sport.
“If we can do it, wonderful. If we can’t, let’s fail in the most beautiful way.”
It’s been one week to the day since Liverpool were crowned champions of England for the first time in 30 years. It’s unknown what comes next for the club as there are big decisions on players to be made and the weight of heavy expectations that are often coupled with success.
But with a data driven team behind personnel and operations, owners who believe in the process and a manager who understands and develops the human capital side, the club are in good hands. The culture around and within the club hasn’t been this joyous in my 15 years of supporting it and like every other Red around the world, I can’t wait to see what our collective future holds.
For the HR professional and, in general, any leader, there are important lessons in Liverpool’s story. Chief among them, trust your teams, build around people’s character rather than around their qualifications or costs, admit you don’t know everything, be open to changing your mind and finally, be willing to accept failure as a step toward success.