How the appointment of Jürgen Klopp started up Liverpool again
A startup is sometimes associated with a rather rigid set of ideas. These usually range from young people busying themselves in garages to the application of some sort of digital technology. Then, there is always a road trip involved, venturing to find capital as they say.
But perhaps the time has come to broaden this term in the context of old, heritage institutions as well. When these undergo dramatic transformations, thanks to a change in leadership, the coming together of the appropriate team, and the adoption of the right strategy, these organizations can appear to be completely new, revitalised entities.
The term ‘startup’ should perhaps no longer be considered only a noun; it could represent a verb as well. It could stand for a renewed and rejuvenated way of functioning.
And to kick-start this conversation, one need look no further than what has happened at the, over-a-century-old Liverpool Football Club, over the last few years. This is a story that culminated in Liverpool winning the English Premier League title after 30 unbearably long years. Or has it just begun?
Let’s examine some key milestones along that tale of reinvention a bit more closely.
Editorial credit: Vitalii Vitleo, Shutterstock.com
The hiring of a true outsider
A lot of what Liverpool has achieved of late can be traced back to one event: The appointment of Jürgen Klopp, as their manager, mid-season in 2015. This was an interesting decision in itself. For one of the quintessentially British clubs, to appoint ‘an outsider’ to the top position was a bit of a rarity.
Only two of their previous 10 managers had been from beyond the British Isles. Klopp is also German (enough said).
There might have been initial skepticism about how this decision might have gone down with the Liverpool faithful. But the injection of a truly distant and detached perspective was precisely what Liverpool required. There needed to be a clear distancing from the glory days of the past. New ideas around how to play the game were badly required to enter the conversation. And Jürgen Klopp ushered in all that and more.
Often startups and organisations, after having come a certain way, find the necessity of having someone new at the helm, just to look at things completely differently. Past success has put in place barriers, which prevent anything but infinitesimally incremental changes.
But an evolving marketplace often demands quantum shifts. This is where an outsider’s point of view always brings much needed vision and clarity.
The appointments of Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai to the top positions at Microsoft and Google are is a case in point to how even mega conglomerates need to adopt a more global, inclusive perspective, going forward.
Sometimes companies need people at the top who come from a different culture, quite literally. The outsider is often in the best position to hitch the organisational cart, to ride the waves of change. Try doing that from inside.
The focus on process before results
One of the interesting things Klopp said at his first press conference as Liverpool manager was they would win the title in four years. This not only lowered the demand for instant results, but also indicated his thought process.
He knew he would have to begin work from the very basics. He wanted to introduce a new playing style, away from what the club was used to, a style he believed in and that had worked for him previously at Borussia Dortmund.
That style -the ‘gegenpress’ (loosely translated ‘players collectively hunting for the ball after losing it’) - would require enhanced fitness levels, some new players joining, and a total change in team mindset. Klopp knew this would take time. But if the right process was fully embraced, results would follow.
Coming from companies like Yahoo and Warner, Jeff Weiner as CEO helped codify the culture at LinkedIn. He had conversations with his leadership team around the kind of company they wanted to build. He helped put in place ways of functioning that would provide direction for a workforce cobbled from various other organisations.
This involved spending quite a bit of time articulating values and beliefs, and bringing all employees on board. Time, which many thought, should be spent increasing day-to-day numbers. But when it was done there was clarity in thought, purpose, and action. Under his reign, LinkedIn’s membership grew a staggering 20-fold worldwide. Surely goes to show that if one invests in the right way to do things, the right results just click.
The prioritisation of ‘unglamorous’ signings
The transfer news in modern-day football is monopolised by gossip around the ‘glamour players’. These are usually those who play in attacking positions -forwards, deep-lying midfielders, truth-seeking wingers, you get the drift.
Three of the signings, Klopp will be most known for in the future were all in defensive positions - a goal keeper (Allison), a central defender (Virgil van Djik), and a defensive midfielder (Fabinho). From the outside, Klopp could see Liverpool’s problems were all about keeping clean sheets.
Prioritising those who would do this ‘dirty work’ well, away from the spotlight, ensured Klopp could build all his ambitions from the strength of a strong spine. Liverpool never looked back after that - pun intended.
When teams in startups are being put together, a lot of thinking effort goes into who will take on the more sought-after roles. The leadership mulls over those showmen who will be client and media-facing; they ponder over those geniuses who will design and create the app and so on. But frequently positions that are away from the spotlight do not get as much consideration. “Just fill them in” is the attitude many companies adopt.
The case of Southwest Airlines is truly instructive in this regard. Putting the spotlight when hiring on every single employee in their value chain -from the people who book tickets to the pilots - Southwest not only ensures a consistent brand perception, it also helps keep those seen performing in ‘non-critical’ functions motivated and pulling strongly in the team’s direction. That is a sure-fire recipe for a company to truly take off.
The victory of the team over the individual
In many ways, Liverpool’s recent triumphs come as a breath of fresh air for the sport in itself. Once considered the ultimate team sport, football of late finds teams completely overshadowed by individuals playing in them. Fans obsess over star players. Many times the needs of the star seem to far outweigh the needs of the group (to paraphrase an iconic line from the Star Trek franchise).
But, over the last few years, the Liverpool narrative has been a cohesive and collaborative one. Klopp substitutes and rotates just about every player. No one takes precedence over the others. And while there are star performers, the perception is this is a team pulling strongly in the right direction, even if it is going around in ‘Klopp circles’.
Startups often get primarily associated with the founders. It is when that perception travels beyond a name to an organised setup purring along, real progress is made. It is interesting to observe how much MNC behemoths like Procter & Gamble and Unilever have moved beyond the association with their founders. It is even difficult to see them as startups though they once surely were.
Companies were always meant to tap into the collective potential of people working together under one banner. While centuries might have gone by since the inception of this seminal idea, there is still no turning the ‘tide’ on that one.
The enlisting of the faithful
Everyone does better with their fans cheering them on. This has always been true in sport. But it was never truer than on an incredible night at Anfield, when Liverpool managed to turn around a steep deficit against Barcelona from the first away leg in the semifinal, and managed to create history en route to winning the Champions League in 2019.
The fans knew their team was up against it that night. They pitched in with their fierce passion, creating the proverbial ‘twelfth man’ on the pitch. This establishment of a ‘citadel’ at the club’s home ground has been one of the cornerstones of Liverpool’s recent success. And Klopp has worked ceaselessly at keeping the fans engaged and involved in helping build it.
Modern-day business today has transitioned beyond the acquisition of a valuable customer. It endeavours to create a passionate fan; one that will embrace the brand as a part of her own identity and simply swear by it. This is evidenced in how brand fans evangelise their faith in the outside world, often creating content and marketing the brand on their own.
Digital media has helped greatly in transforming a delighted customer into a passionate advocate. Every startup needs to put considerable thought into how its offering can move from being liked to being loved. Love makes all people do strange things, even customers.
It was at those Apple Mac conventions all those years ago, where fans got together and felt a sense of community, even though it was a fledgling brand taking on giants, that the seeds of the phenomenon we know today really were sown.
Charismatic leaders can kindle the spark even in age-old organizations. They can start them up once more - to coin an expression. Jürgen Klopp did just that at Liverpool. In doing so, he added a fresh layer of invention and excellence to the narrative of one of the world’s greatest clubs. And the coat he applied was one of bright, passionate red.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)