Leadership & Culture, Performance | Apr 13, 2021
Views from the worlds of Red Bull, Mercedes-Benz and the New York Giants.

“‘What are we doing wrong in football?’”

By John Portch

That was the question that Dietrich Mateschitz, the Austrian Co-Founder of Red Bull, posed to Ralf Rangnick, as he told an audience at the 2019 Leaders Sport Performance Summit in London.

In the summer of 2012, Mateschitz approached Rangnick to offer him the head coach’s position at Red Bull Salzburg. The rationale was plain to see: Rangnick had earlier that year led German side Schalke 04 to the semi-finals of the Uefa Champions League and, perhaps more pertinently in the case of Red Bull, had previously taken TSG 1899 Hoffenheim – who hail from a village of little more than 3,000 inhabitants – from the German Regionalliga Süd (III) to the German Bundesliga.

Rangnick’s ability to create an instil a culture, when ably supported by the front office, stood out for Mateschitz, who sought to establish Red Bull Salzburg as his homeland’s preeminent club, while also developing his RB Leipzig project across the border in Germany.

RB Leipzig were playing in Germany’s regional leagues but Mateschitz, recognising their potential, was ready to support the club in its ascent of the German football pyramid towards the Bundesliga. He was, however, at something of an impasse.

“He had just won his third consecutive title in Formula 1 with Sebastian Vettel,” said Rangnick of Mateschitz, “and he just didn’t understand in football, with the clubs they had at the time, why they were not so successful.

“I told him, ‘to be honest, I would change quite a few things.’”

That summer, Rangnick became Director of Football for both Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig (having turned down the head coaching role with Salzburg), and later took the reins as Head Coach of Leipzig for the 2015-16 and 2018-19 seasons when called upon.

By the time he arrived onstage at Twickenham Stadium for the Leaders Performance Summit, he was serving as Red Bull’s Global Head of Sport and Development (a position that he left in 2020). Red Bull’s portfolio of teams had expanded to include the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer and FC Bragantino of the Brazilian Série A. Back in Austria and Germany, both teams had qualified for the Champions League for the first time.

The secret sauce?

Rangnick’s modus operandi was clear: in order to play the energetic and enterprising football he preferred, he needed squads filled with players willing and able to do the required work.

“Salzburg and Leipzig at the time had squads with an average age of 30-plus,” he recalled. “In a positive way, you could also call them experienced clubs. Most of the players at Salzburg, for example, they came from clubs like Bayern Munich, signing their last contracts, well paid, and it was pretty similar in Leipzig at the time. They had players who were playing first or second division before and had outstanding contracts at the time.” He felt it was not conducive to the culture he sought to instil and scale across both teams.

“So I told Mateschitz what I would change,” he continued. “The acquisition of players; try to get players who were signing their first or second contracts in their career. Then within three or four transfer windows you would have a completely different motivational setup and then players would play for very different reasons for the two clubs than they did before.”

Lars Minns, the Chief Human Resources Officer at Mercedes-Benz USA, told the Leaders Performance Institute that culture is elusive and so investment in people is paramount when sustaining and scaling an organisational culture. “The first thing we have to get right is: what are the ingredients that make up a really good culture?” he said. “Nobody really has the secret ingredient, nobody has the secret sauce.”

Minns had been speaking at the 2019 Leaders Performance Summit in Atlanta which, aptly enough, took place at the state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Just four years earlier, the organisation moved from New Jersey to Atlanta and took on a wealth of new recruits as it upscaled the size of its base of operations.

“You can certainly get exposure to many of the wonderful companies and organisations, sporting organisations or otherwise, that are represented here this week but nobody really has that one value proposition that would say ‘if you inserted this, this would lead to X, this guaranteed outcome’.

“So what we’re finding is we need to understand the ingredients, what are the things that people love about the brand and what is missing; that’s the first thing; we’ve measured that over the past few years.

“The second thing, we also have to understand just as importantly, after we try it, what is the feedback? What are our employees telling us? The third thing is: what do employees ultimately need? And I think they need a feeling of great challenge, great worth, the importance of building value; and that when you put it all together makes up a collection we call teamwork and it ultimately becomes the culture.”

The 500-piece jigsaw

Whether its automobiles or sport, talent development goes hand in hand with cultural evolution.

“From my experience of the last 30 years at professional clubs all the people are service providers,” said Rangnick. “Our job is to make sure that 25 players in the first team can develop in the best possible way. No matter if it’s the sporting director or the bus driver or the head coach, who is the most important person in the club, or the kit lady. Their job is to be service providers to make sure that the players can really develop and put their full focus on getting better.

“It’s difficult to plan success. To plan to win a championship, or more so a Champions League title, or winning a World Cup tournament. It’s difficult; I wouldn’t say it’s impossible but it’s difficult. But what can definitely be planned is the development of players.

“Suppose the development of players consists of a jigsaw of 500 pieces, we tried in Hoffenheim, Leipzig, Salzburg to have all 500 pieces in our portfolio. No matter how irrelevant at first sight they might seem; even if it’s only a small piece of that jigsaw we tried to have them available for the players and, in the end, its up to the players if they would take that little piece; if they are willing to invest in that or not.”

In this context, the value in signing younger players is obvious, but what of those jigsaw pieces? The increasing sophistication and high performance and the growth of multidisciplinary teams has changed the way Kevin Abrams, the Assistant General Manager of the NFL’s New York Giants, does his job, as well as the roles of those around him.

“I think it’s similar how my boss’ role has changed, the general manager’s job and the head coach’s job,” he told the At Home With Leaders podcast. Abrams is currently in a rebuilding cycle with the Giants under new Head Coach Joe Judge.

“So much of football operations used to be very siloed; coaches coached and personnel people evaluated. There wasn’t much to it besides that; you had a medical department, equipment staff, and a video department; now we’ve got so many more pieces everyone has to be a little more fluent in these subjects and topics so that we can make everything work together and take advantage of the different resources and expertise we have in the building, which can affect our ability to win and lose on Sundays.

“Everyone has to be able to have those conversations and every department, in our coaching staff, we have to have at least a bare minimum of technical and data fluency; it’s the same with our personnel departments and vice versa. We’re constantly trying to teach our support staff more about the game, whether it’s our video, data or IT. We want them to understand. They don’t have to call a game on Sunday but we want them to have a bare minimum understanding of the game that allows them to have and enter conversations with end users about what support they’re providing; those conversations have a great attraction and we get the solutions that are long-lasting and better than they would be otherwise.

“We’ve seen it operate the other way when the expertise is just limited to that area of expertise. Those conversations require interpreters; projects, efforts and initiatives tend to die on the vine a little bit and have to be restarted again after a season as opposed to being able to continue while we’re playing football.

“That’s the hardest thing about bringing new initiatives to a football department; we get so myopic during the season, whether we’re evaluating or coaching, and we don’t want to talk about the next initiative that can help us with our tech and our data. Those people that are working on those initiatives can’t do it without the feedback of people, the end users on the coaching and scouting departments. But as we increase the fluency around the departments, those projects can continue and develop and progress and meet deadlines because they can be worked on while those end users are busy doing what it is that they do.”

Download the latest Performance Special Report, Psychological Safety: The origins, reality and shelf life of an evolving high performance concept – featuring the athlete, coach and academic perspectives.

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