Every two years, the world collectively stops what it’s doing to watch some of the best athletes represent their country in the Women’s and Men’s World Cup soccer tournaments. As a former—and impressively average—college soccer player, I love witnessing this sport’s ability to bring people together for a much-needed 90-minute breath of fresh air. Wearing my professional hat, though, I’m most taken with the goalkeepers—the crisis managers of the sport—and the lessons they can teach us as we professionally manage crises.
Before I dig too deep, let’s examine the best goalkeeper of this year’s World Cup: AB InBev. For decades, the Budweiser parent company has been a valued partner of the International Federation of Association Football, the governing body that runs the World Cup, and one of the organization’s largest corporate sponsors. So, when host-nation Qatar announced at the proverbial 11th hour—long after tens of millions of dollars worth of beer had already been delivered—that its stadiums would not be serving Budweiser, the company found itself in a good old-fashioned crisis.
In past years, we would expect something like this, a contractual nightmare for both AB InBev and FIFA, to be settled in court—and it may still be—with passive statements about how disappointed they’re in the decision or how they’re confident that their case has merit. However, Budweiser and AB InBev had to have known that this was a possibility, particularly given the host country’s religious practices and already-restrictive rules regarding alcohol consumption, and surely had a plan in place to mitigate the downside risk. Ultimately, whether planned or reactive, Budweiser received a phenomenal opportunity to demonstrate the ethos of the World Cup and capitalized on it, announcing that it would ship the unsold beer to the country that wins the tournament and host “the ultimate championship celebration.” Consider it one of the best saves of the tournament.
The plight of the goalkeeper is a difficult one: you’re called upon when everything else in the game has gone wrong, and, in that moment, you can either be a hero or a villain—there’s no in-between. It’s a position that requires attributes every company, like AB InBev, needs when facing their own crisis, like:
- A calm approach to the task at hand, ignoring emotional responses until the dust has settled;
- An analytical strategy, directing your teammates to avoid self-inflicted wounds; and,
- Extensive in-game experience, upon which you can better anticipate and navigate potential outcomes.
Each one of these attributes is shared by the best goalkeepers in the world and should be shared by the external advisors a company partners with to navigate critical inflection points. We’ve all seen these inflection points handled well, and not so well. But if a company retains advisors who are calm under pressure, analytical and strategic, with extensive experience in analogous situations, they’re doing almost everything in their power to protect against the worst possible outcomes.
But almost isn’t always good enough; it seldom is in managing a crisis, and rarely is for a goalkeeper. So, what’s the difference between doing almost everything in one’s power and doing absolutely everything? More often than not, it’s meaningful preparation and practice.
What we see in a World Cup match is 90 minutes of hard work, but what we don’t see are the hours spent studying your opponent and perfecting your strategy, the months training with your team to ensure conditioning, cohesion and alignment and the decades of learning and enhancing your craft. All of this comes together at game time to ensure fast and thoughtful responses to the scenarios you’ve planned for (and, ideally, you’ve planned for all of them). The same should be done in response to a professional crisis. Whether it’s an activist shareholder, a product recall or a hostile M&A foray, the best crisis responses over time all share this common thread—they’ve been prepared for and comprehensively address the issues at hand. I suspect this played a key role in Budweiser’s great form.
Planning for a crisis is, and always will be, the most critical element of effective management and response. At Sloane & Company, we encourage our clients to look around the corner, anticipate potential pain points and prepare for and practice responding to crises and critical inflection points, because it leads to the best outcomes. We believe every company, large or small, should do the same. If you’re looking for a goalkeeper and partner, Sloane & Company is ready to be your last line of defense.
TJ White is Managing Director, Head of Special Situations, at Sloane & Company.