5 Lessons in Talent Management from the German National Football Team

With a remarkable ability to produce star players and consistent appearances in major tournament finals, Germany’s national football team has been one of the most successful football teams in recent history. Who can forget the emotional moment in 2014 – when Germany won its fourth World Cup title and became the first European country to win on South American soil. With the arrival of Euro 2016, it’s not surprising that a quick Google search will find Germany as a top contender to win the tournament.

However, the German national football team hasn’t always performed well. Germany was ousted in the group stage of the European Cup in 2000 and finished in 14th place. In 2004, the team again met with the same fate. The disappointing performances led to an outcry of demands for change. The current dominance of German football is the result of a massive overhaul in talent management that involved institutional changes, tactical development and structure reform. 

So how did the German national team become the well-oiled machine it is today? And what talent management lessons can we learn?

Below are 5 lessons in talent management from the German national football team that can be transferred to the business world.

Develop talent from within

Following Germany’s dismal performances at Euro 2000, the German Football Association (DFB) initiated a series of fundamental changes to reconstruct German football from the bottom up. The focal point of change was youth development. With aging veterans and a lack of young talent to replace them, the DFB devoted vast resources to identifying and developing homegrown talent.

The Bundesliga became the main focus for domestic talent. The 50%+1 rule was established by the DFB, and required at least 51% of all German clubs to be owned by its members. This kept ownership of the Bundesliga local, and removed foreign investor influence from the national league. As a result, young German players were prioritized over foreign talent. 

In 2003, the Talent Development Programme was introduced with the aim of identifying promising youngsters and providing them with coaching at an early age. All 36 professional clubs in the Bundesliga had to build youth academies. 121 national talent centres were established, reaching the remotest areas of the country to provide 10-17 year olds with technical skills and tactical knowledge. The Talent Development Programme gave every child in Germany a chance for a proper football education.

Germany’s long term investment not only cultivated a talent development culture, but also produced a generation of gifted young players, such as Thomas Müller, Mario Götze, Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil, etc.

What the German national football team teaches us is, top talent is the most valuable asset in an organization.  When you invest in your employees, the skill and productivity of your workforce increases. When companies neglect to help employees develop their skills and shape their careers, dissatisfaction with employee development often lead to a loss of young talent.

Committing time and resources to talent development is the best growth strategy. Ambitious young employees want training. They want to gain more skills so they can contribute more value to an organization. Investing in employees also increases employee loyalty, and lead to higher productivity in the workplace.

As the German national football team demonstrates, companies have to identify skill gaps, and provide employees with the tools and training they need to strength their skills and knowledge. Only this way can companies produce superstars in the workplace and retain top performers.

Don’t be afraid to innovate

When Jürgen Klinsmann became head coach in 2004, his forward-thinking leadership included various innovative approaches. At the time, the German team was known for being a static, defence-focused team that relied on brute physical strength. Klinsmann and his assistant Joachim Löw initiated a more attacking-style of football, and shifted focus towards developing players’ technical skill and agility. Klinsmann also hired American consultants to improve the health and athleticism of the team. These radical coaching methods drew backlash from the public and the media. However, the team’s performances at the 2006 World Cup silenced critics, and Germany went on to place 3rd in the tournament.

The Footbonaut has also been a huge asset for the Germans. The training machine fires footballs to the player from varying positions, and the player must then quickly control the ball and deliver it into one of the 64 targets that lights up. The Footbonaut not only allows multiple players to train at the same time, but also records and saves performances into a computer database. With the machine, players can improve their ball-handling skills and coaches can implement tailored training programs based on performance reports. Many have credited the Footbonaut for Mario Götze’s winning goal in the 2014 World Cup.

Companies can apply innovation to talent management in several ways:

  1. Experiment with creative approaches to talent management.

If your existing talent management strategies need a face lift, don’t be afraid to try new ideas. Before Germany’s football reform began, the DFB travelled the world in search of the best approaches to restore the team. During the process, they discovered successful foreign management tactics and incorporated them to the existing German blueprint. If you are considering a strategy update, first determine the business goals you want to accomplish. Whether you decide to try out another company’s best practice or pioneer your own, get input from your employees and find the best approach by trial and error.

  1. Digitize talent management.

Germany’s utilization of the Footbonaut is a perfect example of how technology can improve performance. Companies have to be open minded towards technology in order to gain competitive advantage in talent management. HR softwares, such as HeavenHR can automate HR processes and reduce the burden of administrative tasks, so you can focus on more strategic tasks. Powerful employee analytics can also provide insights into the performance of your company, allowing you to make better, faster decisions. HR softwares make personnel management more efficient, and give you more time to build, train and develop the best team.  

Team mentality

The German national football team does not have a stand-out star like Messi or Ronaldo – instead, it consists of multiple talented players that play seamlessly together as a team. That’s not to say Germany doesn’t have star power; some of the best players in the game represent the nation. But rather than building a team around individual stars, Germany follows a collective approach that emphasizes team effort over individual performance.

When Joachim Löw became head coach in 2006, he set up the German team to attack, defend, and operate as a team. Players are positioned on the field to complement one another, and each player is aware of what they are expected to do. Responsibility is distributed among team members, and every player must perform to ensure team success. Due to this “team is more important than any individual” mentality, Germany is not reliant on a single or small number of players to succeed. This not only makes it harder for opponents to target specific players, but also alleviates the loss of players to injury. Great team work has been the key to Germany’s consistent high performance.

What the German team has demonstrated that can be transferred to the business world is that collective force is strong than individual stars. We need to ensure we get the best out of our top performers, but we also need to focus on building the team, and increasing the collective output by working to improve all players, not just the superstars. Over reliance on individual heroes will not incentivize your team to give their best efforts or enable them to fully develop. Employees are more inspired to perform if they feel their contribution is integral to the company’s success as a whole. Thus, distributing responsibilities among team members, and allocating tasks in alignment with the personal strengths of individuals in the team will keep employees engaged and increase productivity for your company.

Let new talents shine

In his ten years as head coach, Löw has not been one to shy away from bringing promising youngsters onto the German roster. He selected players not based on temporary form but on his assessment of their long term potential. While not all experiments may be successful, the best way to develop a player’s full potential is to give them the opportunity to step up to challenging situations. This is perfectly exemplified by Mario Götze’s winning goal in the 2014 World Cup. Löw gambled that the 22 year old’s play-making capabilities would disrupt a tired Argentina, and Götze went on to become the first substitute to decide a World Cup final. By giving young talents chances to demonstrate their skills, the German team has been able to quickly evolve novices into key players.

Companies alike can also benefit from taking risks on their best young employees. When you give employees ownership, you are showing that you entrust them with your authority and believe in their capabilities to deliver. This trust can inspire a desire to go above and beyond what is expected of their role. Young people want to advance their skills and make a difference, so making sure star employees are getting the right development opportunities will help to motivate and retain your employees. 

Embrace diversity

In 2000, the German government passed a citizenship law that inadvertently contributed to the success of the national football team. Under this new law, thousands of immigrants living in Germany became eligible for citizenship, and accordingly, gained the right to represent Germany. The talent pool enlarged overnight and enabled Germany to build a more ethnically diverse team.

Today, the German national team is impressively multicultural – and includes players with Turkish, Polish, Spanish, English, Albanian and African ancestry. Of the 23 players representing Germany at Euro 2016, almost 40% come from an immigrant background.  

It’s no coincidence that, as team diversity increased, so did performance. Members such as Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira have contributed significantly to the success of the German team. Different backgrounds allow players to bring unique skills that benefit the team as a whole. Özil, for example, attributes his technique and feeling for the ball to his Turkish side and his discipline to his German side.

Klinsmann and Löw also incorporated foreign styles of play into the existing German formula, such as tiki-taka, to improve the players’ ability to move and control the ball. By celebrating diversity, Germany was able to leverage a wider range of skills and tactical strategies to improve performance.

Diversity also increases productivity in the workplace. People from diverse backgrounds differ in the way they interpret and solve problems, and multicultural teams foster more creative approaches than heterogenous teams. An influx of new ideas can help companies spark innovation and make better decisions.

Embracing different backgrounds in the workplace also allow companies to serve a broader customer base. Employees with diverse language skills and perspectives can better interact with customers to address varying customer needs. In an increasingly globalized world, companies can gain valuable competitive advantage with a multicultural team.

Workplace diversity not only makes employees feel more comfortable at work, but can also establish a positive image for your company. By promoting a culture of inclusiveness, companies can simultaneously attract and retain more employees.


It’s important to remember change doesn’t just happen over night. For Germany, it took 14 years of rebuilding talent management from the ground up to reap rewards at the 2014 World Cup. However, the German national football team has showed us that successful and sustainable talent management can be achieved by investing in employees and embracing innovation and diversity. Companies that take the time and effort to nurture talent will produce top performers, increase retention and ultimately win the war for talent. 

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