The 2018 World Cup focused attention on how France, a team that crashed out of the previous two World Cups, was able to come good this time around. To find out if there are lessons for business in this story of soccer success, we went to the sources themselves: Ben Lyttleton talked to France’s head coach, Didier Deschamps, and James Eastham went to France’s team training headquarters in Clairefontaine, near Paris.
It turns out that France’s win at the 2018 FIFA World Cup was the culmination of a long-term strategy hatched and put in place by France’s soccer federation, the Fédération Française de Football. This, combined with the leadership of its head coach Didier Deschamps, helped create a young, motivated team that was successful and, by turns, pragmatic and entertaining. Deschamps, who was captain of France when it won the World Cup 20 years ago, has his own philosophy about the art of leadership and the importance of listening, authenticity, and trust. France’s soccer federation, which appointed Deschamps coach in 2012, also implemented a series of smart behaviors that any organization could learn from. Consider these five examples.
1. Identify and Measure Success
France decided back in the 1970s (before many other national teams) that developing young soccer players would be its benchmark for measuring success. Every year, the French soccer federation ranks the youth academies of French clubs on criteria including youngsters’ educational achievements, the number of players who go on to sign professional contracts, and the number of appearances those players make for their club’s senior side.
This league table of youth academies reinforces the prestige of talent identification and development. For example, Olympique Lyonnais has topped the table for the last six years and celebrates the achievement as it would winning a trophy. The club provided three of its academy graduates — Samuel Umtiti, Corentin Tolisso, and Nabil Fekir — to France’s World Cup–winning squad.
Businesses are increasingly aware that profit is not the only way to measure success: Opportunities for personal development, happy stakeholders who are emotionally connected, and an infrastructure that provides a balanced and fulfilled life can be just as important as the bottom line. Success can come in many forms; the challenge is to identify what success looks like for you and your business.
2. Leave Your Comfort Zone
Travel broadens the mind and, in the case of French players, accelerates learning. Nineteen members of France’s 23-man World Cup squad play or have played their club soccer abroad, and three of their on-field leaders — Raphaël Varane, age 25, Paul Pogba, age 25, and Antoine Griezmann, age 27 — moved abroad as teenagers.
During the tournament, the three all showed leadership skills usually associated with older players. A documentary on French television about the team, Les Bleus 2018: Au Coeur de l'Epopée Russe (The Blues 2018: At the Heart of the Russian Epic) showed Pogba, who speaks four languages, giving a series of stirring pre-match speeches in the locker room. (The French team is known as Les Bleus on account of its blue uniform.)
“I don't know how many matches we have played in our careers but this is one match that changes everything, that changes all of history,” he said before the final. “Today we are not going to let another team take what is ours…. I want us to go onto the pitch as warriors, as leaders.” At halftime in the same game, Varane and Griezmann also spoke up to help the team.
Out of Europe’s biggest five soccer leagues (Spain, England, Germany, Italy, and France), more French players (116) played as expatriates than any other nationality. This trend shows no sign of changing: Last season, almost half of the players in the France under-21 team (13 out of 30, or 43 percent) had already played for a foreign club.
Employees who are happy to get out of their comfort zone — by coping with different cultural and linguistic environments or pushing personal boundaries in other ways — equip themselves with the crucial skills of adaptability and resilience. This can help them handle challenging professional scenarios.
3. Maintain Intrinsic Motivation
Environmental factors are crucial in talent development. In the world of French soccer, under-19 matches featuring top academy players often take place on basic pitches at municipal multipurpose venues on the outskirts of towns. Locker rooms are sparse, entry is free, and anyone can attend. The stark surroundings help the team identify with its mission.
As a teenager playing for Lille’s youth team, Benjamin Pavard would emerge after his matches from brick changing rooms under concrete stands outside the city, curls matted to his forehead, shaking hands and chatting politely with fans. This is standard practice and happens throughout France. Pavard, now 22, started at right back for France’s World Cup winners and won the Goal of the Tournament for his stunning strike against Argentina.
England offers a stark comparison: Top-level youth matches at state-of-the-art training centers are often attended by invitation only. The facilities are flawless and security staff keep players isolated from outsiders. These conditions are set by clubs where players can enjoy premature financial rewards and train in pristine surroundings.
Such factors may appear minor, but if they create differences in motivation, they can be key to a player’s development. The latter approach, with riches and status at an early age, encourages extrinsic motivation, based on reward (like money or status) outside the individual. France’s no-frills approach encourages intrinsic motivation, which is more about the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the task, itself: In this case, the love of soccer.
Employers are increasingly keen to tap into the intrinsic motivation (pdf) of their workers. “The best places of work are the ones where you don't see it as work,” one soccer coach said. In France, you really haven’t made it until you’ve made it.
4. Keep Faith with the Philosophy
If it’s hard for an organization to find an identity — something that makes it distinct from the competition — then it’s even tougher to stick with it. A world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) can lead to short-term thinking and reactive decisions. It takes a brave leader to stick with the plan even when times are tough.
In the case of France’s national team, there have been a few: Between 2008 and 2014, France was twice eliminated in the first round of a major tournament, and the team never went beyond the quarterfinal round. The nadir was at the 2010 World Cup, when the team went on strike and refused to train. Still, the French federation stuck with its own view of how to play the game (if not the particular players).
While other nations looked to replicate Spain’s successful passing style of soccer or Germany’s harmonious relationship between its national association and club academies, France stuck to its own development philosophy. “The typical French player is complete in a technical, tactical, and athletic sense,” explains Hubert Fournier, the federation’s technical director.
For complete, you can read adaptable: France’s approach is pragmatic, forming soccer stars who have the ability and temperament to adapt and thrive in the hot-house finishing schools of the top European soccer leagues: the English Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, and Spain’s La Liga. These players can excel in one position for their clubs and in another for France, like Blaise Matuidi (midfielder for Italian club Juventus and left wing for France) and Pavard (center back for Germany’s Stuttgart and right back for France).
So how do companies know whether to stick with the philosophy or eschew it as a fad? Knowing when to give up on a poor strategy is as important as developing a good one. It requires asking the right questions: Has the approach worked in the past in the face of similar threats or opportunities? Does it fit the existing social, cultural, and commercial infrastructure? Does it represent the values and purpose you want associated with the business? In France’s case, a few bad tournaments did not mean the strategy was poor. In other cases, though, it might mean just that.
5. Invest in Discovering — and Nurturing — Talent
When it comes to international soccer, you have to work with what you’ve got. You can’t recruit a talent from another country. That limitation focuses the mind to improve what you have and underscores the importance of an extensive scouting network. The French scouts have discovered more than 100 soccer professionals including, from the 2018 squad, Matuidi and breakout star Kylian Mbappe.
Once at the Clairefontaine academy, the young intake — players enter at age 13 — is trained not just in soccer but in values and attitudes that will “fulfil their human and intellectual potential.” This focus on the person, as well as the employee, builds an emotional connection that helps improve performance.
“The role I have is about having a moral contract, creating a link based on trust,” national team coach Didier Deschamps says. “My choices are human investments: You have to get to know [the players]. They have different personalities and views on life. So you have to be able to tune in to their station.”
“The role I have is about having a moral contract, creating a link based on trust,” French team coach Didier Deschamps says. “My choices are human investments.”
Similarly, companies that offer personal development opportunities have better chances of retaining talent. High turnover of talent reduces cohesion in the group, and this can jeopardize success. Ben Darwin, an expert in sporting and corporate cohesion, argues that training up younger talent, which is more adaptable, delivers better performance in the long term.
The French soccer federation has implemented these five behaviors and holds the title of world champion for the next four years. France’s talent development pathway now operates so smoothly — and the current crop of its championship team is so young — that Les Bleus will be among the favorites to retain their crown at the next World Cup. Soccer is the most hot-housed and intense talent factory on the planet. We can learn from the lessons it provides.
- Ben Lyttleton is a consultant and the author of six books, including Edge: Leadership Secrets of Football’s Top Thinkers.
- James Eastham has worked as a scout in French soccer for more than 10 years and is working on a thesis about its approach to talent development.