News Stories · Leadership

Choose your goal wisely and work harder than everyone else, says Peter Schmeichel

The former Manchester United keeper, writing book about getting and staying on top, says, 'You are never a finished product.’
November 2020
 - IMD Business School

Posed in front of a giant picture of himself clutching a winning trophy, Peter Schmeichel could hardly have picked a better location to kick off IMD’s OWP liVe.

The much-decorated former Manchester United and Denmark goalkeeper’s action-packed past offered a valuable mix of advice and anecdote to inspire the virtual program’s more than 400 participants.

Drive, ambition and what he called ‘self-efficacy’ were his primary themes in a message underlining the importance of having clear goals that are ambitious, but not completely unrealistic.

Recalling a realisation at the age of just nine that he wanted to be a footballer, he advised: “Find out what you want to do. Once you’ve decided, you have to decide what you want to achieve with that. Then, most important of all, you have to ask: What are you prepared to invest in getting there?”

While talent was the key enabler, self-discipline and hard work were crucial corollaries. “I believe you have to take control of yourself and your setting. You cannot expect anyone to do anything for you.”

No matter how gifted a person is in sport or in business, no one can reach the top, and stay there, without immense effort.

“I never missed training. I always worked excruciatingly hard,” he recalled.

Moderating the session, IMD President Jean-François Manzoni agreed.

“It’s not fashionable,” he said. “It’s so much easier for managers to think, ‘Hey, I’m really smart and I fell in the magic potion when I was a kid.’ But in reality, being a leader, just like being a great goalkeeper or a great coach, requires lifelong learning, lifelong work and lifelong reflectiveness.”

Keep it simple as a leader

If searing drive and ambition were primary ingredients, inspired guidance came next. Even the brightest and best need counselling, whether from a coach, trainer or corporate mentor. Schmeichel identified eight during his sporting life, culminating in Sir Alex Ferguson, the hard driving Manchester Utd boss.

“I have always had a Sir Alex Ferguson. Someone older, more experienced, nearly expert at the level I was at, who could push me to the next level.” No matter how talented the individual, such outside vision is essential, he observed.

Keeping things simple was Schmeichel’s third recommendation. Great leaders are great simplifiers: they get to the heart of the issues and can articulate things simply. They can also create an integrated approach. Their ideas are integrated into practices, so we practice the key techniques and ideas again and again, allowing them to emerge “naturally” during the game

For any leader, an integrated approach meant walking the talk, aligning the structure, the processes and the rewards, and making sure all the signals sent reinforced the simple-yet-powerful underlying message

Whether a trainer of a team, a captain with colleagues, or a chief executive with a team of fellow leaders, success depends on trust. At the highest levels of sport, or corporate life, weakness, uncertainty or excessive self-doubt would be ruthlessly exposed – and potentially fatal given the danger of losing focus.

As a goalkeeper, one was viciously exposed. Successfully defending penalties required intense self-belief. “I would think I was invincible, the best in the world. The person kicking the ball was just wasting his time.”

But ego, of course, could also prove destructive if not channelled and put to a common effort with shared goals. “The best teams I played in, they had captains everywhere. On the pitch, all need to step up.” This ‘owner mentality’, in the words of moderator Manzoni, is also a key attribute in business.

“There’s eleven of us and, of course, a coach but each of us is somehow in charge and shows up,” Manzoni said.

No progress without mistakes and learning

Despite the self-confidence required on the field, Schmeichel recognised the importance of learning. Dwelling on problems during an intense 90–minute soccer game was definitely inadvisable, he said.

After the game, however, he emphasised the need to reflect on what one had done well and less well. Regarding aspects done less well, one must then identify other possible ways to do them and practice hard to improve. “If you’ve made a mistake, you need to move on immediately. If you start to dwell on it and feel sorry for yourself, the next mistake will happen.”

The trick is to endeavour to rectify matters after the heat of battle, whether by practice or other means. “I don’t think you can progress at all without making mistakes. I don’t see adversity as a negative, but as an opportunity to develop, as a positive”, he said.

Those words are a lesson for life. “If you want to stay on top, you have to keep up. Lifelong learning is just as relevant in sport as in any other pursuit. “It is a must,” Schmeichel concluded.