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Unlocking Success: What Talent Acquisition Can Learn from Professional Football’s Transfer Game

9 Jun

Unlocking Success: What Talent Acquisition Can Learn from Professional Football’s Transfer Game

Imagine yourself in the position of one of the owners at FC Bayern Munich. Last summer, your star striker, Robert Lewandowski, approached you with a desire to leave the team and seek a new challenge at FC Barcelona. Now, the question arises: How do you go about replacing perhaps the best striker in all of Europe? After careful consideration, Bayern Munich decided to acquire the services of Sadio Mané, a two-time African Player of the Year, Premier League top scorer, and Champions League winner, for a fee of €32 million. It seemed like a logical decision at first glance, as Mané possessed an impressive track record that could fill the void left by Lewandowski. However, fast forward one year, and Sané found himself isolated at FC Bayern. The German press, though not always fair, labels his transfer as a failure and a significant misunderstanding. How did this miscalculation occur?

To shed light on this question, Marvin Schuth from TU Munich, Prisca Brosis from KLU, Nicholas Folger from TUM, Gilad Chen from the University of Maryland, and Robert Playhart from the University of South Carolina conducted a study. Their research aimed to explore the conditions necessary to unlock the full potential of new players and identify influential factors. The study examined approximately 4,500 transfers that took place between 168 football teams in Europe’s top five leagues from 2008 to 2018. By analyzing this data, the researchers sought to understand how the team environment either facilitates or hinders the transformation of human capital into newcomer potential. While these findings are undoubtedly relevant to professional football clubs, they also hold valuable insights for recruiters in any industry.

Success planning requires perfect timing

The study uncovered a discrepancy in the performance of players acquired during the summer transfer period compared to those acquired mid-season in winter. Players who join a new team in the summer, prior to the start of the season, enjoy several weeks of preparation time and ample opportunities for socialization. Conversely, players who join their clubs in the winter experience only a brief acclimatization period lasting a few days. Statistically, it becomes evident that providing more time for onboarding has a positive impact on future performance.Another crucial factor influencing individual performance is the team’s previous performance. Young players who change clubs in the summer, benefiting from a more extended onboarding phase, thrive when joining high-performing teams. However, when it comes to winter transfers, the study highlights a negative effect on the performance of new players joining high-performing teams. In general, the better a high-performing team functions, the more challenging it becomes for newcomers to perform well. Conversely, individual talent tends to emerge more quickly in weaker teams. From the realm of football, we can conclude that extremely high-performing teams are often less open to integrating newcomers.

Furthermore, the number of new players joining a team during a transfer phase significantly impacts overall performance. The data reveals that onboarding becomes increasingly challenging with each additional newcomer. Especially during the winter transfer period, characterized by a shorter onboarding duration, performance tends to decline as the team welcomes more new players.

A less surprising finding confirms the value of acquiring newcomers with high human capital. While star coach Otto Rehagel once claimed that “money can’t score goals,” statistics prove him wrong. Investments in human capital consistently translate into improved performance by new players.

Recruiters can draw several conclusions from these findings:

  1. Allocate sufficient time for onboarding and socialization of new hires. It is recommended to implement a 90-day executive onboarding process, where certified coaches develop customized programs to guide both the hiring manager and the newcomer throughout the first three months.
  2. High-performing teams must cultivate openness to newcomers and provide support. Proactive measures should be taken to address any feedback from newcomers indicating a lack of necessary support during the onboarding process.
  3. If multiple hires are necessary, consider staggering their onboarding to ensure each individual receives sufficient attention. Hiring too many individuals at once can potentially harm overall team performance.
  4. Nowhere else is the impact of the right “hiring” decisions more evident than in professional football. Let’s return to our example of Bayern Munich. In the meantime, both Sporting Director Hasan Salihamidžić and CEO Oliver Kahn have been sacked, not solely due to their failure to replace Lewandowski. Who knows what would have happened if they had found a more successful replacement? The fact remains that FC Bayern will be purchasing a new striker this summer, most likely with a more generous budget. This once again confirms the adage: “Buy nice or buy twice!”

By applying these conclusions, recruiters can enhance their recruitment processes, improving the integration and performance of new hires. As the world of professional football demonstrates, the right decisions in acquiring talent can yield swift and tangible results.

Reference Material: Publication: Schuth, M., Brosi, P., Folger, N., Chen, G., & Ployhart, R. E. (2022). When new talent scores: The impact of human capital and the team socialization context on newcomer performance in professional sports teams. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0001060

More about the Author: Marco Müller currently serves as Senior Principal in the SpenglerFox Life Sciences Practice Group and is responsible for leading the search strategy development, delivery of projects, managing the relationship with existing clients and running business development initiatives. He works out of SpenglerFox’s office in Eschborn, Germany.

To find out more about SpenglerFox and how we can support your talent acquisition and succession planning, please visit our website  and get in touch with us.

Marco Müller

Senior Principal


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