World Cup fever is here again and I’m more excited than ever — especially because this year I can catch the live games on my smartphone and laptop. The games are expected to get more online coverage than any major sporting event, and while fans across the planet are going ballistic monitoring matches, results, and statistics, I can’t help but think: why can’t work be more like this?
I’m not talking about the obvious good stuff — the energy, the teamwork, the camaraderie — I’m talking about the way the World Cup works. The event, like all athletic activities, represents a meritocracy at its finest.
Soccer is the most popular and widely participated sport in the world; making it into a top league is harder than in any other sport. Making it into a country’s World Cup squad of 23 is harder still! Millions of aspiring players from around the world are out kicking the ball from the time they are three, practicing their skills, honing their talent, and bettering their game enough to stay in it and avoid sitting out on the sidelines. Unfortunately, for all their effort, most players will still wind up watching from the bleachers. Those who do succeed get a chance to play in one of 700 professional spots scattered across 32 international teams. Of these, only the most skilled and hard working get to take home the Cup.
This acceptance of meritocracy, which is so assumed and so essential in athletics, doesn’t always carry over to the world of work. This doesn’t make sense to me. Can you imagine Brazil, Spain or Argentina letting someone who didn’t train, or didn’t perform, stay on the team and play at the World Cup? Sure, someone can have a bad game or even a bad season as an athlete and still remain on the team, but there is an understood rule in professional sports: it’s about sheer performance.
With sports, there’s no entitlement on the field. It’s about numbers. It’s about results. It’s about outcomes. Players must perform at every practice and every game in order to keep their position. They must always be voted onto their team. This meritocracy is achievable because of defined metrics and measures that are entirely transparent. All players know what they are working towards and whom they are competing against — intelligence that allows them to dramatically improve their games.
When it comes to work, there is a fear factor around meritocracy. People are afraid of being openly judged. However, when you know what you are being measured against, it’s empowering. It makes common sense to be managed by results and it’s freeing to know you are in control of your own destiny. I’m so passionate about this because I have seen how merit-based judgment has helped create individual successes and yield a better system for everyone. At eBay, I loved seeing meritocracy in action. The people who were the best sellers — those who knew how to select, market, and ship the best products, and those who had integrity — were chosen by the marketplace and became the most successful.
The most direct path to achievement whether you’re an entrepreneur, a company executive, or a pro soccer player is to be a great performer and a great team member. This is also the secret to a meaningful career and self-fulfillment. Every time we get voted on to the team, we win individually and we win collectively. That’s what I’d call a perfect match.