There was a new name in the UEFA Europa League draw when it was made in August: Östersunds FK. A small club based in northern Sweden, Östersunds was in the fourth division when Graham Potter, a former lower-league footballer in England with a university degree in leadership and emotional intelligence, took over as coach. Over the next six years, Potter turned an ailing club into a proud and vibrant community, winning three promotions to reach the Swedish first division, clinching the 2017 Swedish Cup, and beating European giant Galatasaray in qualifying for its first ever taste of European competition.
I spent time with Potter and the Östersunds club chairman, Daniel Kindberg, as research for my book Edge: What Business Can Learn from Football. The way these two men approached their roles provide clear lessons for a business environment. They developed a set of values that stands to this day, and showed a vision and long-term plan that all businesses can learn from.
Potter’s first step was to bring an element of joy back to the club. The focus had been outcome-based, on results only, rather than performance. Potter tried to create a new environment, one that recognised potential and was built on trust and mutual support. No more blame culture. It related to the values Kindberg wanted the club to espouse: Openness, Long-term, Sincerity and Honesty, Reliability, Professionalism.
“We have built a working environment based on hard-core values that we all have to follow,” Kindberg told me. “It’s a standard of how we look at each other, at people, at society and at football. In this environment, creativity, initiative, and courage blend with competing every day to be the best. The same is true if you are the striker or a clerk in the office. Everyone here is the same.”
The pair embraced the need to create an identity, practically from scratch. Potter carried out due diligence. He looked at the competition, studied what other teams in Sweden were doing, the culture of Swedish football, the recruitment patterns, looked at ways to compete, and possible advantages that Östersunds could find. If OFK competed on the same terms, they would fail because they had less money than their rivals. So how could they develop an edge?
“We wanted to improve careers here, and work on players as people too,” Potter said. “We used our location in northern Sweden as an advantage; it helped us create a tight-knit group. Swedish football was compact and physical; we looked for players who had different qualities, and came from different areas. This diversity also helped us. We wanted players who could control the ball, who were flexible [position-wise] and most of all, who wanted to improve.”
The universal principle of this is clear. Every business would like to create a unique selling point but it can only do so by understanding the market and the competition; only then can it harness advantages for the greater good. This can be as true for the individual as the business: Potter asked: “What is my distinction?”
The club could not compete with other clubs financially, so found different ways to challenge them. They taught the players to improve their social conscience, and take responsibility for themselves. They put on a series of cultural projects to take them out of their comfort zone: an art exhibition, an art/dance piece called ‘Strength through Diversity’, a performance of the ballet Swan Lake. Kindberg hired a cultural coach, Karin Wahlen, who has encouraged the team to set up its own book club. “Getting the players into culture takes them out of their comfort zone and make them braver on and off the pitch. When we are brave we can explore our creativity without being afraid of the unknown.”
Potter has developed a culture where players – and coaches – are comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. He believes that leaders have to be authentic rather than strong. And the results back him up.
This week, Östersunds, currently top of Europa League Group J, will face one of the more storied opponents in the competition: Athletic Club de Bilbao. One of the oldest teams in Spain, it is also one of only three clubs, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, to have never been relegated from La Liga.
I met with the Athletic Club sporting director, Jose Maria Amorrortu, whose job is not to buy the best talents from around the world, but to develop them from the local region. A club unique in world football, Athletic only selects players who are Basque; they see themselves not as a buying or selling club, but an ongoing development project.
“The culture here in the Basque country is a culture based on hard work, collaboration, common feeling, and of participation, of working together in a team, of a way of being,” Amorrortu said. “It is something transmitted down the generations in a spontaneous way. And from that, we can say we form part of a legacy that comes from our ancestors.” Amorrortu highlighted three factors central to Athletic’s success that are critical to businesses today. This is where we can learn from Athletic: its social purpose to represent the best qualities of the Basque region; the investment in talent as humans first, so they feel valued and in an environment where they can develop; and the importance of talent retention which, in Athletic’s unique case, overrides almost everything.
Ignacio Palacios-Huerta is the head of talent identification at Athletic Club. “We survive on tiny margins and we use data to find as much as we can to gain an edge,’ he said. “Our model is not about buying or selling. It’s about developing. And our culture, this social model, it’s the biggest part of that.”
Both Östersunds and Athletic Club have created a purpose for their clubs to flourish. They focus on individual development within the framework of a wider social purpose. Their players have a conscience, are engaged with the local community, and are educated beyond their comfort zones. These successful clubs are not only interested in creating footballers; they want to develop better people as well. That gives them an edge.