Playing Ball with Trust

Yesterday for the first time in my life, I watched the Super Bowl.

The food was great; the ads were weird and funny; I had great company but most importantly I learned more than I thought possible about American football.

My greatest takeaway however was so much more.

I am a soccer fan-atic. I cried when my team FC Barcelona lost the semis to Manchester United in 2008. I yelled at the TV when we drew with Real Madrid this past week. In 2006, I was ill with typhoid but I somehow found the strength to go watch the Champions League Finals between Barcelona and Arsenal. I remember falling asleep from all the drugs and waking up every time someone yelled.  We won the title that night and winning achieved what all those drugs couldn’t.

Every time I watch Barcelona play, I am left amazed. How does every player know where his team mates are on the field? How are their passes so very accurate? It is truly a thing of beauty to behold. I thought the same thing while watching the Super Bowl yesterday.

It made me think about the concept of teamwork. A lot of times, we hear talk about how necessary it is to be a team player and know how to work well on teams. The thing that puzzles me is how no one ever talks about how hard it must be to build a great team.

At Barcelona, most of the players are Spanish, but there is Dani Alves who speaks Portuguese and is Brazilian. The team was once coached by Frank Rjikaard who is Dutch. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for these two as well as so many others to adjust and work with people who don’t speak the same language or have the same background. Or maybe I can. After all, here I am, millions of miles away from Lagos.

Business has become increasingly global and during my summer internship, I sometimes had phone meetings with people working in the UK, Morocco, and Lithuania amongst others. At Mason, we have over 30 nationalities represented and we all get to work together in different teams throughout the program. As business continues down this path of globalization, I think we can be rest assured that working on teams with people whom we might never even meet, let alone imagine their lives, is going to be the norm.

So how does Barcelona and various multinational corporations do it?

In FC Barcelona, we have a saying: ‘Més que un club’. It translates into ‘More than a club’. At Barca, we are more than just a club or a team; we are family and accepting of each other, flaws and all. We spend time together outside of work and the field. We get to know each other’s wives and families. We announce new births on our company webpage. We even sign on the babies of our players because we believe in them before they have ever held a football. We laud achievements and support each other when we fail. Victor Valdez, the goalkeeper is probably not one of the greatest goalkeepers. I can’t remember how many times he has let in a goal that even I (Yes, I play football!) would have stopped. Yet he has been with the club for more than 10 years and we wouldn’t trade him for anyone else.

In 2011, we won the Champions League. In a show of comradeship that I will never forget, we broke tradition and let someone other than the captain lift the cup. His name is Eric Abidal. He is a cancer survivor. He speaks French. He didn’t play for seven weeks that season. If you know soccer, you know that seven weeks is like a year.

We will probably spend more time in our work environments than we will at home. It is time we got out of our comfort zone and tried to know our team mates better. It is time we can close our eyes and throw the ball and trust that Rice will catch it. It is time we stopped looking for reasons why he might drop the ball on us.

‘He is too young.’

‘He grew up in New Rochelle and I, in Lagos.’

‘He can’t run as fast as Pierce can.’

The best teams I have worked on had implicit trust in every member, flaws and all. The thing about trust is that, almost every time, it begets greatness. If you chose to look for reasons why not to trust someone, they abound. If you however choose to close your eyes and pass that ball to Messi, even though he is Argentine and you are unfamiliar with his speech and mannerisms, you can be sure of one thing, he will score that goal.

It is time we learned how to trust and to play ball.

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Damilola Ashaolu

Damilola Ashaolu is a full-time MBA student at the Mason School of Business.

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