Does culture beat talent (in the 90th minute)?

Those who know me well would know that I am an unusually enthusiastic football fan for having come from a country that calls it “soccer.”

So, last week, I was at Paris’ Stade de France, joining my fiancée, stepson, and future father-in-law in the raucous Iceland section as the country’s fierce underdogs slew the Austrians with a 90th minute goal.

What does this have to do with business communication?

In the working world, one is often reminded of the Peter Drucker quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Looking at Iceland’s performances, and also at last season’s ascendancy of unheralded Leicester City to the championship of the English Premier League, I am left with a slightly different question: “Does culture beat talent in the 90th minute?”

The business world continues its years-long “war for talent.”  But Iceland’s ability to deliver earth-shaking results with unheralded players raises some interesting questions about whether talent is prized (and priced) excessively relative to other potential performance drivers:

  • What is the value of team continuity and connectivity? – a hallmark of Iceland’s performances involved frequent, precise passing enabled by familiarity with each player’s pace and positioning patterns
  • What about team spirit?: does a lack of superstars and close connections with the fan (“customer”) base produce more engaged and less selfish performances?
  • Does manager autonomy enable better performance?: With fewer than 100 registered professional players in the 330,000-population country, Iceland Manager Lars Lagerbeck faces very little grief from the media about tactics or player selection.  Outgoing England Manager Roy Hodgson faced continual pressure from the media and the fan base for tactical changes following weak performances, and continuous agitation for the inclusion of rising stars and the deletion of older or less consistent players.
  • How do they do that “Viking” War Chant?  Watch here.

To be fair, there are some levelling factors in international football that need to be taken into account:  each team can only have 11 players on the field and countries can only field their own nationals.  But if teams like Iceland and Leicester can win with smaller talent pools and few if any superstars, how can enterprises connect and mobilize their current staffs in ways that can better help them win?