Leadership | Mar 23, 2016

Can a Playing Career Prepare you for Life in the Front Office?

Javier Zanetti, Vice President of Inter, says yes, while drawing on lessons from his time playing for the club and Argentina's men's national team.

In 19 years as an Internazionale player – 15 as captain – the right-back won numerous accolades, including a treble of the Uefa Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia in 2010 and appeared in a club record 858 games. He also represented Argentina at two Fifa World Cups and remains his nation’s record appearance holder with 143 caps.

By John Portch

Javier took his career in a different direction when he became Inter’s Vice President upon his retirement in 2014. He now travels the world as an ambassador for the nerazzurri, working with Inter’s directors, sponsors and fans as he seeks to expand the club’s global reach. Javier talks to the Leaders Performance Institute about his days as a captain, the challenges of trading the playing field for the front office, and how a playing career can prepare an athlete for administration.

What defined your captaincy on the pitch?

JZ: It was defined by respect. In 1999 I was chosen from among my teammates because I had earned their trust and respect through the manner in which I always tried to conduct myself on and off the field. In time they started to perceive me as a leader.

How did you work to maintain the captaincy?

JZ: Whatever the situation I strove to retain respect for everyone and set an example through my behavior. My teammates needed to see that everything I did was for the team’s benefit. Through my conduct I tried to embody the values and the traditions of such an esteemed institution. How did you work to ensure that all teammates bought into your work ethic in training? At every session I gave everything I had to reach my best level because one needs to respect their profession. I wanted training sessions that resembled game situations as closely as possible and liked the work we put in behind the scenes. Happily, my teammates adopted the same approach and we all worked to obey the club’s rules.

What are the challenges of being Vice President?

JZ: This role requires different skill sets so I am studying management at Università Bocconi in Milan. I want to improve my utility behind the scenes by learning new things, facing challenges, trying to innovate, meeting new people, and always thinking for the greater good of the club. When I was a player I seldom thought beyond the field but I now realize that there are parallel teams – finance, marketing etc. – working to make sure that the club can progress both on and off the field. In my short time as Vice President I have learned so much because I am surrounded by highly competent managers.

How did the President present his vision for the club?

JZ: The main idea was to connect Inter’s rich past with the future and with his in mind, and having served this institution for more than 20 years, I was the ideal candidate for the job. The directors placed an emphasis on the human element. They wanted to appoint someone who embodied the values of the club and could convey that knowledge and deep level of understanding to new players. They need to be aware of the value of being able to pull on the black and blue jersey. Ultimately, this human element is vital if the club is to keep moving forward.

Going back to your playing days, was it more important to lead by example or to impose your authority?

JZ: It’s always about presenting a good example – if I had tried to impose my authority I’d have lost my essence. A leader must stay calm under pressure and it was my job to ensure that the team maintained its focus in both good and bad moments. In this regard, setting a good example is surely the best way to lead.

What did your role demand of you in defeat?

JZ: It demanded tranquility because a club needs to make the right decisions going forward. I had to keep it calm when others started to descend into disarray. In defeat it is important to be calmer than ever to correct mistakes and maintain a focus on the path that leads to the ultimate goal. One cannot allow a defeat to derail the team.

Can you give examples?

JZ:  In 2008 we led Serie A with three games to go but lost the Milan derby 2-1. We then hosted Siena but drew 2-2. Our final game was a road match at relegation-threatened Parma where we needed to win to ensure the title and they needed victory to preserve their top-flight status. The first half ended 0-0 and our closest title rivals, AS Roma, were winning their match at Catania and set to win Serie A. Finally, in the second half [Zlatan] Ibrahimović emerged from the bench to score the two goals that helped us get the victory. 2-0. These were extreme moments but I worked as captain to ensure a degree of calm and eventually we prevailed because we did not abandon our processes.

How did you work to gain the respect of your teammates as captain? What did you do?

JZ: I’ve shared locker rooms with iconic players: Ronaldo, [Samuel] Eto’o, Ibrahimović, [Wesley] Sneijder, [Diego] Milito, [Diego] Simeone, [Gabriel] Batistuta, [Roberto] Baggio etc. I was able to demonstrate my desire to apply myself for the good of the club and my teammates followed my example.

How has your idea of leadership changed since becoming Vice President?

JZ: I have retained the same concepts, the same essence. I still emphasize teamwork because here there are no personal projects, only collective projects, we are all working for the welfare of Inter. Each person has to do their part and be aware of their capabilities.

What skills have you been able to bring from the field?

JZ: My capacity for group work, the way in which I prepare myself and my things. For a board meeting just like for a game, one must be informed about who is going to be in attendance and what the agenda will be.

Being a captain for a long time, does it reflect on the office?

JZ: Yes it does. Respect is the basis for everything. As they respect me, I respect them. The important thing is to create a capable group with clear goals that leaves aside personal issues.

In what way do you use your status as an Inter icon to inspire and communicate your vision? Examples?

JZ: By transmitting what it means to wear this jersey and to represent Inter. I have traded the jersey for a shirt and tie but I am still Inter. I have a deep understanding of the fans and I take great care to convey that to the coaches and the players. The fans are the most important element of Inter’s continuing growth. We must be ready to do the impossible on their behalf and retain our intimate bond with them as we embark on this new journey that we hope will end up with Inter being successful.

Further reading:

The Tricky Transition from Athlete to Administrator

Sign up to our newsletters

To ensure you’re keeping up to date with the latest intelligence, sign up (for free) to receive newsletters.


Become a member

Join our exclusive community of 600 leading global performance organisations and access insights, ideas and individuals that will challenge your thinking and maximise performance.

Become a member