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In the spring of 2008, Futbol Club Barcelona was a big-name global brand that was losing its lustre.
The fortunes of the first team were in decline. Frank Rijkaard, a Dutch disciple of Johan Cruyff and a stellar former player, had helped them scale the heights, winning the league in 2005 and both the league and Champions League (formerly the European Cup) in 2006.
But the team – the most talented and expensively assembled crop in the club’s history – had faded, winning no major trophies in two seasons.
‘A five per cent drop in commitment creates problems,’ the then Barcelona CEO, Ferran Soriano, said, ‘and Frank didn’t know how to re-energise the group.
’ 1 Rijkaard, it was felt, had lost control of the dressing room. The ideas were running out, the competitive edge had faded, morale was low.
New leadership was called for. The board had a range of options, chief among them a serial winner whose record offered the closest thing to a guarantee of success in a game where, more often than in most other sports, outcomes turn on fortune’s tricks.
The authoritarian, charismatic José Mourinho, a coach with a spectacular record of success in his native Portugal, then in England and Italy, seemed just the man to cut big egos down to size and restore drive to a rudderless team.
Two board members were dispatched to Portugal to sound him out. Mourinho, who had cut his coaching teeth at the club a decade earlier, gave them a detailed PowerPoint presentation of what he would do to turn Barcelona around.
To the dismay of the majority of Barcelona’s 180,000 paid-up members, the board chose Pep Guardiola, a novice with one year’s coaching experience with the club’s lower-division B team and none in the game’s upper reaches.
Guardiola had been a great player and captain of Barcelona under Johan Cruyff, but in terms of the new responsibility on his shoulders and the uncharted waters he was being asked to navigate, it was, suggested the sportswriter John Carlin, ‘like Sony selecting the manager of a medium-sized regional office to take over as company CEO.’ 2 Nine years – and four coaches – later, Barcelona have established a Nine years – and four coaches – later, Barcelona have established a stranglehold over European football, winning seven league titles, three European Cups and three World Club Championships.
In the four years that Guardiola remained at the club, they won fourteen out of nineteen possible leagues and cups, a feat unequalled in the history of the game. Unequalled also are the five Ballon d’Or prizes, the award for the world’s best player, granted to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, who has continued to get even better and better. Barcelona have achieved something else, too, something more difficult to win than any official prize: the admiration of the sporting world.
The team have revolutionized the 150-year-old sport, while other clubs have peaked and faded from season to season. Coaches from clubs large and small make pilgrimages to Barcelona’s training camp, notebooks in hand, hoping some of the gold dust might rub off on them. Where did it all go right?
The starting point in answering such a question can be found on a single piece of paper, written on by CEO Ferran Soriano, Director of Football Txiki Begiristain (both now at Manchester City) and José Ramón Alexanko, the club’s head of youth football.
These three men were charged with the task of finding and appointing the next manager. ‘Think of Barcelona as a restaurant,’ wrote the Daily Telegraph.
‘Txiki Begiristain is the guy sourcing ingredients and deciding what goes on the menu. Soriano, meanwhile, is the one who’s already planning where they’re going to open their next restaurant.’ 3 What they were looking for was a head chef to combine these elements. They detailed the criteria their chosen leader would have to meet.
Significantly, of the nine-point checklist they employed, just two – the style of play demanded and a wide experience of European football – could be said to centre on the technical skills required to coach a leading football team.
What is particularly fascinating is how little the rest has to do with football and everything to do with the environment in which the players grew up and operated in.
The remaining criteria, including a match with the values of the club, the ability to develop leaders and the accepted behaviours, broadly aligned with the principles which Edgar Schein, the world’s leading corporate culture expert, outlined as the most important factors of a high-performing culture.
In The Barcelona Way, we will discover how successful organizations, with no connection to sport, also conform to these same factors.
Most importantly, we can learn how to replicate this cultural model and find the template to lead any successful organization. ‘To achieve success in any industry, it is vital to understand the logic behind it,’ concurs Ferran Soriano.
‘You need to go to the roots and put culture at the heart of your business. Combine this with hard work, use good management heart of your business.
Combine this with hard work, use good management criteria and apply lots of common sense.
Success has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with good luck but lots to do with a good culture.’
The appointment of the unheralded Guardiola was part of a coordinated plan to re-emphasize the cultural values of the club – values whose lineage can be directly traced back to Johan Cruyff – which had ebbed and flowed in the order of importance during the intervening years.
It was now decreed that it was time to go back to Cruyff’s drawing board.

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