You Had One Job!

The elimination of the U.S. men’s soccer team from World Cup contention underscores the challenges leaders face.

The US men’s national soccer team figured a trip to next summer’s World Cup in Russia was in the bag after it rehired Bruce Arena to be its coach. After all, Arena had the led the team through qualification twice before. All that remained to qualify for an eighth straight time was getting a win or draw against tiny Trinidad and Tobago.

But as every soccer fans now knows, it didn’t quite work out. Arena’s team lost 2-1 this week, and the stunning defeat not only kicked the United States out of next year’s World Cup but created a social media stir against the coach. Many called for his firing. “Bruce Arena you had one job and it was to get us to Russia,” was a representative tweet. Arena resigned on Friday. 

Corporate leaders can find a lot of parallels in Arena’s situation. In soccer, as in business, the global competition is fierce, elite talent is in short supply, and change is rapid and continuous. “Trying to reposition a team during intense competition is a really tough challenge, in terms of getting the chemistry and leadership right,” said Jed Hughes, Korn Ferry’s vice chairman and global sector leader for Sports.  The same can be said for a legacy business trying to adapt to the realities of a social- and mobile-first world.

Failure, like success, is rarely an individual effort. While soccer has grown more popular in the United States, it still pales in comparison to the sport’s stature around the world. As a result, according to Hughes, American professional teams have not been able to attract high profile talent like Neymar, who this season signed a record-breaking $600 million contract with Paris Saint-Germain. Any CEO competing with the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook for engineering talent can surely relate.

Alignment, or the connection between all levels of the organization, from the board and CEO to executive leadership and frontline employees, is also critical to success. Not unlike many CEOs, Arena inherited an operation in trouble. The team had lost its first two World Cup qualifying matches and had fired its coach. Those actions go against two of the most important factors to establishing alignment: consistency in decision-making and cultural stability.

Still, at the end of the day, the buck stops with leadership. It’s an executive’s job to put all the pieces together to make the whole greater than its parts. And they don’t have a lot of time to do it—the tenure of both CEOs and coaches has been getting shorter and shorter. Small wonder then that sportswriters and soccer fans are already calling for Arena to be fired.