Small changes can often have a much greater impact on a team than major upheavals. Hans-Dieter Flick, coach of FC Bayern Munich, does well to exemplify this argument. After poor results at the beginning of the 2019/20 season, he took over and managed to lead the struggling record champion, holding six titles by the end of the season. In the process, he managed to turn things around by winning the trust of the players and engaging in open dialogue instead of questioning the foundation of the team itself.
FC Bayern's incredible 2019/2020 season went into overtime with the FIFA Club World Cup in Doha in February. After winning five titles in six months, the Munich team's success story continued well into the new year. At the end of a season peppered with records, bests and titles, the team surrounding world player Robert Lewandowski and world's best goalkeeper Manuel Neuer earned themselves the World Cup title in professional soccer for the second time since 2013.
Looking back at the historic season of the German record champions, this seems almost surreal. When Hans-Dieter "Hansi" Flick took over as head coach of FC Bayern, a team which had gotten off to a miserable start to the season after a bitter 5:1 defeat in Frankfurt on the tenth match day, the club had lost exactly what it has now come to stand for more than any other German soccer team: success.
Together with Boris Groysberg from Harvard Business School, we have studied the behavior of head coaches in the German Bundesliga who were appointed as crisis managers over the course of the 2019/20 season. The results show that major changes are not always necessary to recapture success. FC Bayern Munich's historic title streak under Hansi Flick is an impressive illustration of this lesson.
Choosing continuity over change
What followed the defeat in Frankfurt was a miraculous turnaround. In August 2020, just 295 days after Flick took the helm, Munich climbed soccer’s Olympus and achieved the glorious triple for the second time. Six months and two titles later, FC Bayern Munich has won all six possible titles in professional soccer for the first time in conjunction with the FIFA Club World Cup and brought the historic "sextuple" to Munich.
So, what is the secret behind Hansi Flick’s success? Despite enormous public pressure to improve the team's performance immediately, Flick focused on continuity. Thus, he deliberately avoided the usual rebuilding attempts which newly appointed Bundesliga coaches often employ when trying to deal with a crisis.
When he took over in Munich, Flick made hardly any personnel changes to the coaching staff or the team. While the examined Bundesliga coaches appointed during the 2019/20 season replaced an average of 2.7 personnel, i.e., roughly half of the coaching staff, Flick only filled the open position as assistant coach with longtime Bayern assistant Hermann Gerland. Likewise, Flick dispensed with the previously employed rotation of players, which is common among coaches in the league. Flick altered the core team, consisting of the starting eleven and the three substitutes, in only three positions. Alternatively, other Bundesliga coaches studied made around 65 percent more changes to the core team after taking over for their respective predecessors.
Likewise, more than 70 percent of the turnaround coaches studied changed the basic tactical orientation and lineup of their crisis-ridden team in the hopes of getting it back on track for success. Flick, on the other hand, largely dispensed with changes to the team lineup during his race to catch up in the Bundesliga and subsequent triumph in the Champions League. Like his predecessor, he relied on the established 4-5-1 formation with plenty of speed on the wings to set up goals for star striker Lewandowski. Flick adjusted the tactical alignment less than ten percent of the time compared to any given previous game. This is a stark contrast to the rest of the coaches studied, all of whom adjusted the tactical formation in more than one of every three games.
Taking a leap of faith
Finally, new coaches often change the team structure. More precisely, they replace established players who are linked to failure. Not surprisingly, the average club tenure of the players used was reduced by about ten percent among the turnaround coaches analyzed. Flick, on the other hand, relied on the experienced players with strong knowledge of the processes and strong identification with the club to lead the team. Through Thomas Müller and David Alaba, Flick relied on two Bayern legends to guide the team, despite their symbolic embodiment of the crisis under Niko Kovač. Flick thus increased his team's average club tenure by 20 percent, i.e., to 5.3 years.
Not everyone can prove themselves as a crisis manager in the Bundesliga, but the turbulent times we are experiencing these days are increasingly putting the need for turnarounds on the agenda. What turnaround managers can learn from Hansi Flick, regardless of the industry in which they work, is that successful turnarounds can also be achieved through a few targeted changes.
The success story of FC Bayern Munich under Hansi Flick impressively shows that in a crisis situation, not necessarily everything has to be called into question. Rather, an atmosphere of trust and confidence should be created. This certainly includes having the courage to give the existing team the benefit of the doubt, regardless of their history.
Tips for practitioners
- You, as a new leader, should have the courage to take a leap of faith with the team regardless of the difficulty of the situation.
- Leadership should be seen as a team effort and shared responsibility.
- Leaders should be intentional about addressing the individual needs of team members to establish openness and dialogue rather than acrimony and blame.
- As a new leader, you should trust in the experience of long-time team members rather than replacing them as changes are implemented.
- Leadership means taking initiative and leading the way as an inspiring role model. You should therefore ask yourself daily, "What can I do for the team?"
- Groysberg, B./Schmidt, S. L./Flegr, S. (2021): How ‚Small C‘ Change Can Beat Large-Scale Rebuilding. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
Schmidt, S. L./Flegr, S. (2021): Was Turnaround-Manager von Trainern lernen können. Capital.
Professor Dr. Sascha L. Schmidt
Sascha L. Schmidt is Director of the Center for Sports and Management and Professor for Sports and Management at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management. He is also the Academic Director of SPOAC - Sports Business Academy by WHU. In addition, he is a member of the Digital Initiative at Harvard Business School (HBS), affiliated to the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard (LISH) and a Research Associate at Emlyon Business School Asia. Sascha is co-author of various sports related HBS case studies and one of the initiators and Senior Lecturer of the MIT Sports Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. His research and writings have focused on growth and diversification strategies as well as future preparedness in professional sports.
Sebastian Flegr is a doctoral student at the Center for Sports and Management (CSM) at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management. Sebastian does research on consumption motives and preferences of young generations, particularly in the field of eSports. Before his doctorate, he worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Company in various industries though his projects largely focused on digitization, advanced analytics, and the future of work.