How Jurgen Klopp Transformed Liverpool’s Culture

Image from Sky Sports

I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels between sport and business, especially how activities off the field can dramatically impact the results on it. Over the last few years, I’ve been watching the change at Liverpool Football Club with interest. It’s not so much the success that intrigues me but more the change in culture that began with the arrival of manager Jurgen Klopp.

Over the weekend, I listened to a great analysis of Klopp’s leadership on the podcast Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat. After listening to the show I think there are two critical elements that have supported change at Liverpool and I want to share these with you today.

Inclusiveness

When he joined Liverpool, Klopp made the point of learning the names of all eighty employees at Melwood the clubs training ground. He lined them all up in the dining hall and introduced them to the players. Klopp explained to the whole group that they all had a responsibility to help each other achieve their best.

Creating a sense of inclusivity and family is critical to the Klopp approach. He works hard to make the players and staff feel valued, which creates inclusive energy that can sustainably engage people.

A study found that 74% of engaged employees believed senior leaders had a sincere interest in their well-being. While in a similar sample of disengaged employees, only 18% felt their managers genuinely cared about their well-being. The study suggests that leaders can increase employee engagement by expressing emotion and creating bonds that unlock better performance in colleagues.

This raises the question of whether engagement is Klopp’s secret weapon to delivering better results on the pitch?

In an analysis of 50 global companies, consulting firm Towers Watson found that companies with low engagement scores had an average profit margin of just under 10 percent. But those firms with high engagement had a slightly higher margin of 14 percent. The superstar firms with the highest engagement scores had an average profit margin of 27 percent.

I think the same is happening at Liverpool. By Klopp expressing interest in employees, he is dragging up their engagement and connection to the cause, giving everyone a sense of shared purpose.

Psychological Safety

We’ve seen how creating connection, engagement and shared purpose can lead to greater success, but this benefit could be quickly eroded without creating psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It’s characterised by mutual honesty, honesty of the team with the boss and the boss with the team.

Klopp creates safety by encouraging his team to take chances. He would tell his players he would rather see them shoot and miss, than not try at all. He famously will not criticise technical errors and instead consoles and then encourages players when these are made. Ultimately psychological safety is about letting players know they won’t be blamed for giving everything they’ve got.

Klopp also reinforces psychological safety by how he deals with mistakes. In 2018 Liverpool were beaten 3-1 in the Champions League final after two shocking mistakes made by Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius. However, in an interview after the game, Klopp never blamed the goalkeeper. In contrast he complimented him, saying he was a fantastic individual who would recognise the errors.

Although Karius left Liverpool shortly afterward, the way Klopp treated him as a person is to be admired. It demonstrated to others they would always be respected and treated fairly at Liverpool.

If we want our teams to be creative, we can’t punish them for mistakes. Klopp goes out of his way to show that no one will pay the price for making mistakes.


It will be interesting to see if Liverpool can repeat their successes in the coming seasons. Building a self-sustaining organisational culture is a challenge that has eclipsed all but the best leaders. It will be interesting to see if Klopp can prevent the burnout seen at other clubs who have gone through a shift in culture.

Whatever happens in the future, I think Klopp’s success is best measured not by football results but how he is seen as a human. I will leave you with this quote from defender Virgil van Dijk which I think encapsulates Klopp’s success best.

“He is a fantastic manager first and foremost, but he is also a fantastic human being as well. How he handles us as players at the games and outside the games is outstanding. It’s a pleasure to work with him and with all the staff that work at Melwood. It’s an amazing environment to be in. I’m very proud and very glad that he wanted me to play at this beautiful club.”

Whole Selves

Workplaces have traditionally encouraged people to show up with their “professional” self and to check all other parts of themselves at the door. This strange personality separation can lead us to some pretty bizarre behaviours.

We sometimes forget that our actions at work can have a profound impact on others lives outside of work. And equally, peoples lives outside of work can severely impact their time at work.

We need to create workplaces where people can bring their whole selves, and we understand how our actions impact people holistically. Opening our organisations to wholeness is how we can develop tighter bonds and help each other achieve our true goals.

Why Product Teams Can’t Work in All Companies

To have true product teams requires a new leadership and organisational paradigm not seen in most companies.

@oligibson

Last week, I tweeted this in response to Marty Cagan’s recent article on Product vs Feature teams. My comment seemed to resonate with some people, but it’s very generic, so let’s explore this topic in more detail!

What are Organisational Paradigms?

An organisational paradigm is a stage of development determined by the perspective, point of view, or world-view of an organisation. This perspective dramatically affects the way of working within the company. 

In his work on organisational development, Frederic Laloux defined five paradigms, red, amber, orange, green and teal, that describe the major stages of organisation development. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I’ll focus on just three of them:

Amber:  At this stage, organisations strive for stability. They have clear roles and ranks within a hierarchical structure. Leadership is command and control with stability and order enforced through rules and processes. Innovation is not encouraged, and competition is viewed with suspicion.

Orange: At this stage, organisations see the world as a complex machine whose inner workings can be investigated and understood. Leadership changes from command-and-control to management by objective generally focused on competition, innovation and performance.

Green:  At this stage, organisations strive for harmony, tolerance and equality. They usually keep a hierarchical structure but focus on empowerment to lift motivation and to create great workplaces.

Many governments and large organisations today operate from either the amber or orange paradigm, and this has a significant impact on their ability to manage product teams.

Why do Product Teams Require a Different Paradigm?

Empowered product teams are cross-functional; measured by outcomes, and empowered to find the best way to achieve the results they have been asked to achieve. These teams must be allowed to make decisions and take responsibility for them, yet in many organisations, product teams are not empowered to do this. 

The reason these teams lack empowerment is ultimately down to the paradigm the entire organisation operates within. I believe it’s impossible to have genuinely empowered product teams within organisations that work at either the Amber or Orange paradigm because the leadership model is based on principles that contradict the trust, autonomy and collective responsibility required to enable teams.  

How Can Organisations Shift Paradigm?

Consciously or unconsciously, leaders put in place organisational structures, practices, and cultures that make sense to them and their way of dealing with the world. As far as we know, there aren’t yet any organisations that have evolved beyond their leader’s stage of development. A switch in paradigm requires leaders to either pull the organisation toward their stage of consciousness or push it back to a previous paradigm.

To demonstrate how leadership can shift the organisational paradigm lets look at an example from Reinventing Organisations. 

Let’s say I am a Product Manager who naturally operates hierarchically, telling team members exactly what to do and how they need to do it. Now imagine a new leader arrives who urges me to empower the employees that work for me. Around me, I see other product managers giving their teams decision making power. Then at my quarterly review, I receive feedback from my team telling me how well I’m doing on empowerment and how much they enjoy working in this way. 

Within a dominant context of culture and practices, my management skills and behaviours will likely shift. The environment has pulled me up, and perhaps, over time, I will genuinely integrate into that paradigm.


To have genuinely empowered product teams, I believe you need organisational leaders that operate from a paradigm that encourages autonomy, self-management, collective ownership and, above all, trust. 

In many ways, having leaders that could create an environment suitable for product teams is actually about creating a product organisation. Undoubtedly, this is a much more significant undertaking than relabelling delivery teams as product teams, but ultimately, it is essential if you want to gain the value that comes with a genuine organisational paradigm shift.

Four Books for Leaders

I think books are still one of the best investments you can make. Books are extraordinarily affordable, and their contents can challenge your views, develop your skills and give you a new outlook on life. Over the last few years, I have read a lot on leadership and organisational development. I’m fascinated by finding new ways of working and leading. The following books have been influential on my journey so far, and I hope they may help you also.

Good to Great – Jim Collins

Based on a five-year research project that tried to find the universal distinguishing characteristics that cause companies to out-perform their competitors and the market. Good to Great walks the reader through the alternative management approaches, strategies and practices these companies used to get great results. This book provided the data to back up my views on leading.

Turn the Ship Around – David Marquet 

The true story of how David Marquet transformed the USS Santa Fe from the worst performing submarine in the fleet to the best by challenging the U.S. Navy’s traditional leader-follower approach. The book follows Marquet’s journey as he struggles against his instincts to take control and instead finds a more powerful way of leading aboard his ship.

It Doesn’t have to Be Crazy at Work – Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

I see this book as a manifesto for an alternative approach to work. The authors walk through the strategies they have used over the last twenty years at their company Basecamp, to try and create the ideal company culture. The book challenges the prevailing notion that long hours, aggressive hustle, and “whatever it takes” are required to run a successful business today. I found it a refreshing and inspiring read!

Reboot – Jerry Colonna

In this book, Jerry takes the methods he uses to coach start-up CEOs and opens them to all of us through his writing. I believe that to improve as a leader, you must start by looking to understand ourselves, then work to improve. This book helped me reflect on myself, learn how to build healthier bonds, and to become more compassionate in my approach to leading.

There are so many other great books out there, but these are four that had a significant impact on me this year. I’d love to hear any other recommendations you have!

Conditions for Change

You can’t make people change but you can create the conditions where people choose new actions.

People’s choices are voluntary. Change is made when people see new opportunities and new options.

Worry about what you can control and create the right environment for change. Trust people will identify the opportunities when they present themselves.

Sticking to Your Principles

“We put our employees first” is a great principle. I’m sure nobody would disagree with this but words are easy, sticking to your principles is hard.

It is in the little decisions, away from the public eye, where you really demonstrate or undermine your principles. In those moments where it’s tempting to compromise, you often hear phrases like, “we need the business, we normally wouldn’t do this” or “we just need to get this done, I’m sure it will be ok”.

But is it ok?

You might get away with it once, maybe twice, but trust me, people will notice. They will see the difference between what you say and what you do. They will judge you on your actions, not your words.

Principles that we suspend during difficult times aren’t really principles. Principles really count when they’re difficult to maintain. The hard work involves being willing to make the tough calls.

Leading with Facts over Opinions

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

Jim Barksdale

In late 1940, as the second world war was raging, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill set up a small working group to investigate how to create a central statistical office. The office would be outside the normal chain of government command with the sole aim of feeding Churchill with continuously updated, unfiltered and brutally honest information. Churchill, who was known for his unwavering vision and strong charismatic personality, relied heavily on this information throughout the rest of the war. He famously said “I have no need for opinions, just give me the facts”.

It’s not just Prime Ministers that need a central statistical office to feed them information. In my work helping organisations develop and operationalise their strategy the first hurdle we almost always encounter is the lack of accurate, up-to-date and easily digestible data that can be used to understand the current reality and the progress being made against existing objectives.

In the absence of this data, opinions roam wild.

To be clear, I’m not against opinions, but if the basis for your decision making is opinion it’s statistically only a matter of time before you’re wrong. On the path to achieving breakthrough results organisations almost always need to make multiple good decisions and execute effectively upon them so as leaders we should be looking for ways to increase the number of good decisions we make and reduce the bad to increase our chances of success.

This is strongly backed up by research in the book, Good to Great, which discovered companies that outperformed their competitors overwhelmingly infused their decision making process with the brutal facts of reality. These high performing companies found if they started with an honest and diligent effort to find out the truth of the situation, the right decisions often became self-evident.

So what is stopping so many organisations integrating data into their decision making? Well, getting good quality data can be difficult, expensive and time-consuming but I believe it’s more likely to do with the personality types that lead many organisations.

Strong, charismatic leaders are great at developing and selling opinions but they can all too easily push their opinions so strongly that they become the de-facto reality that drives the company. Without the data to keep these opinions in check employees can become more worried about what the leader thinks than the external reality that the company faces. Indeed without making data available to all within the organisation, the reality may not even be visible to those tasked with making decisions.

Churchill understood the liabilities of his strong, charismatic personality. He knew that without the facts, his personality could prevent others from keeping his opinions in check. He also knew that to enable others to make good decisions they needed to have the facts to do so. The central statistical office was how he made data easily available for those within the government and I would advocate that many companies could learn from this approach to enable anyone within their organisation to see what’s happening, internally and externally.

How could you create a central statistical office within your team or organisation to share the information that will enable people to make decisions based on fact, not opinion?