How the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team Has Maintained Its Dominance
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You probably enjoyed watching the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s recent World Cup win, but do you know the tactics that the team used to win it all? To find out more about how the team has been able to create a dynasty of success and how those strategies can be applied to business, I reached out to USWNT legend Kristine Lilly and John Gillis Jr., to talk about their new book, Powerhouse: 13 Teamwork Tactics that Build Excellence and Unrivaled Success.
David Meltzer: I'm going to start with you, Kristine. What was the motivation behind the book?
Kristine Lilly: I played on the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team for 23 years, and it was such a successful organization. We not only won at the highest levels but also made a difference in the sports arena for women. Living it was such a great thing, especially since I get to share my experience and what the team went through.
John and I actually met when I moved to Austin, Texas. We were coaching our girls, and we proceeded to talk soccer, and then he shared some business ideas with me and suddenly John was like, "Wow, these are great stories that your team experienced. While you were successful in soccer, these would be great implements to any kind of organization.”
Our conversation continued and we decided to write a book, sharing the stories of our National Team with people and showing them why we were successful. And, hopefully, these 13 tactics we have in this book will add a little bit of insight into their organizations to help them be more successful, as well.
John, you know a lot of people have trouble translating the successes on the field to successes off the field. How does a corporate person see these strategies translate directly into things like leadership and teamwork?
John Gillis Jr.: Kristine opens every chapter with one of her amazing stories from the Women's National Soccer team. But when I go from company to company, doing consulting work and executive leadership development, and ask, "Hey, tell me about teamwork at your organization." Over and over again, they come back with a negative example.
They almost fear getting put on a team, and in this knowledge economy, we're working on teams more and more often. Yet, Kristine and her teammates sustained excellence at the highest level for an incredibly long time. There are so many things that they learned on the soccer field that I thought we should bring to the business world.
If businesses could incorporate this idea that teamwork is an advantage instead of a negative for employees, then their employees can all use their strengths, and they could become a high-performing team just like the US Women's National Soccer Team.
Kristine, as I look down the names of your former teammates, there are a lot of big personalities and diverse interests, where maybe not all those women would be best friends hanging out off the pitch. What tactics did you use to have the entire team focus, even though everyone had big individual personalities?
Lilly: Those personalities are all different, and I think that's what adds to the success of our team. But we also embraced it. It wasn't like, "Oh, you know Brandi's more flamboyant and she likes to be out there, talking to everybody. Abby's somewhat the same. Mia's more conservative in front of everybody else, but that's just a phase. And Julie's just passionate.”
I'm a little bit quieter, but we embraced each other's personalities. We accepted them because, in the big picture, we respected each other and we all had the same mindset. Our goal as part of this team was to try to be successful, to be the best, to leave the game in a better place than when we began. So there were a lot of things that were motivating us and it was never an individual thing.
Obviously, we needed the individual to be the best that they could be, but the bigger picture was about the success of the team. There's always some drama, but we all had a similar mindset and great leaders that set the tone and set the foundation, from our coaches to our captains.
We had very powerful leadership, and that set the tone for our team through the years. And when you talk about our team leader, this is not just a team that the same 20 players are consistently together. There was a constant cycle of players coming in and out, but the overall mentality and the strength of our team was consistent because of our leadership and the foundation that was set early on.
So all those elements made those personalities shine and they really were embraced by the media, by the fans, and really gave the face to our team.
In terms of a sports dynasty, the only team that I can think of that has rivaled your team’s success would be the New England Patriots, especially in terms of teamwork and self-regulation. Obviously, there are multiple players that come in with diverse personalities and talking to Patriots players, they say the same thing. "Well, there's really not that much drama over the years." John, as a Ph.D. who understands the dynamics of teamwork, where do you see the differentiators are as far as self-regulation amongst a team like the USWNT? How they were able to consistently create a spirit of excellence and perform at a high level for two decades?Gillis Jr.: That's a big question, and just going back to your previous comment about the Patriots, when we were putting together endorsements for the book, we had conversations about who would be the ideal people to endorse this book. And it's interesting that you named the Patriots because Tom Brady was one of our top targets. We were very, very appreciative of Tom Brady for endorsing the book, and I think the things you’ve mentioned about the Pats are the reasons we wanted to get an endorsement from their quarterback. Their success is very reflective and similar to Kristine and her experience with the Women's National Team.
I think the only difference between Tom Brady and Kristine is he could use his hands.
Gillis Jr.: There you go.
Lilly: Oh, exactly, yes. And the amount of money he makes. Let's not forget that.
Just remember Kristine that Tom's wife makes more than he does. So there's a humbling factor there as well.
Gillis Jr.: That’s so true. I actually have a pretty successful wife as well. The third author that's on the book, who we haven't mentioned, Lynette Gillis, brought in a lot of that research. When you look at Kristine's stories, it's great to bring in a business school dean or associate provost who is able to say, "What does research really say about teamwork in the corporate world?"
To be able to incorporate those components into the book, so it's not just a feel-good story about the Women's National Soccer Team, but it validates everything with research. We wanted an evidence-based approach to this, so companies could feel good about what we are saying and, more importantly, what they’re applying into their organizations.
When you look at the 13 chapters, there are really four sections and it's the acronym of TEAM.
"T" is for transform -- taking individuals and making them not just a group, but actually a high-performing team. Often, it's a team in name only, and it's actually individuals working side-by-side, but not working collaboratively.
"E" is for empower. Every team needs a strong leader. When we look at the Women's National Soccer Team coaches and captains -- and Kristine was one of them -- you start to see the empowerment that the leaders provide. We also have informal leaders on the team, such as Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm.
"A" is about achieving. How does your team work together? How do they communicate and handle conflict? How are they working together to achieve their goals? Goal-setting is a critical component obviously, and the Women's National Soccer Team's goal was to win the gold medal or win the World Cup. In the business world, we have all sorts of metrics that we need to achieve as a team.
"M" is for motivate, and that's really what's going to differentiate an average team from a high-performing team. It is that culture, that ethos, and that winning mentality to go out and say, "We need to beat the competition. We need to go out and not only meet but exceed our metrics."
Transforming, empowering, achieving and motivating are really the foundation. We're taking those four key principles to the corporate world, as well as the topic of the 13th chapter of the book, which what we call “doing the right thing." How do we handle adversity? Do we have diversity? And are we doing the right thing? Are we ethical on a day-in, day-out basis when we have to make the decisions? That's the key to the sustainability that the Patriots and the Women's National Soccer team both display.
I totally agree! And finally, Kristine, if someone was going to come and ask you what your favorite part of the book is, what part of that book would you send them to?
Lilly: That's like asking me to pick my favorite teammate, and that's impossible!
My favorite parts are the end of each chapter. I have interviews with my teammates and summarize their perspective of the different chapters. Carla [Overbeck], our captain, is a part of the chapter about leading the team, and her perspective is so incredible and it set the tone for what the National Team was and is.
But each chapter is about one of my former teammates or a business leader, like Marissa Meyer in chapter two, and then a firefighter in chapter seven. All of those additions to the ends of the chapters add perspective, and that is what gives the book life.
The examples that my teammates share really, I think are affecting people in many ways. So for me, just the end of the chapters really adds a flavor to all the research and business tactics that are emphasized and explained throughout the book.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.