Sales Lessons from Iceland’s Unexpected World Cup Appearance

Iceland is a tiny island nation about the size of Tampa Bay, Florida in terms of population (just over 330,000). Yet, they accomplished the remarkable in not only qualifying for the 2018 World Cup for the first time in history, but drew Argentina, one of the tournament favorites, 1-1 in the opener. There’s numerous lessons to be learned from this plucky, upstart squad that can benefit sales professionals.

  1. You don’t have to be big to be successful.
    Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup (the second tiniest is Trinidad & Tobago, which qualified in 2006 with over four times Iceland’s population at approximately 1.3 million – or about the size of San Diego, California). In tying Argentina, one of the titans of soccer and host to the great Lionel Messi, Iceland showed you don’t need to be huge to compete with the major players. As a point of comparison, Argentina has a population of almost 44 million, and the capital city of Buenos Aires alone is over 8.5 times the population of Iceland at 1.89 million.As a sales organization, you may not have the sexy prestige name of a Fortune 500 company or a massive advertising and PR budget to raise your public profile. Your sales teams are probably also smaller and fewer in number. But you can still be successful and close high dollar deals, even as a lesser-known firm.
  2. Efficient use of your time and investment in development are critical.
    As you might expect from a country that’s close to the Artic Circle, Iceland has long, harsh winters, where the average amount of daylight is just four hours. In response, the national soccer body built its first indoor facility in 2000 (seven now exist), and secured investment from HatTrick, a program designed by the European soccer association, to have more than 100 all-weather artificial fields built in schools.There was also a massive coaching investment. As of 2003, no Icelander had a continental coaching certification. Now, over 800 do, and players are taught from the age of 4 years old. As a result, all of the country’s national team members play for club teams abroad, including 8 in the prestigious English and German domestic leagues.The lesson here for sales is clear – investing in the right supporting technology, and more importantly, committing to training, coaching, and developing sales reps from Day 1 of their career will reap the benefit of an experienced, skilled team that can handle even the toughest customers and selling processes. Our philosophy has always been that great sales people aren’t born – they’re trained, coached, and developed. And Iceland’s dividends from investment verify that – logically, a team from a tiny island country has no business competing with, much less beating larger, vastly more populated nations. But they do. Sales teams can do the same.
  3. Leadership (or lack thereof) sets the tone for everyone.
    In October 2007, Iceland’s national team lost to Liechtenstein – a country of just 37,000 people! – 0-3. It was one of the lowest moments in Icelandic football history. As one player put it, “It was more of a vacation… the whole team would go out after the first game and get wasted.” The team was also heavily influenced by Eidur Gudjohnsen, striker for high-profile clubs Chelsea and Barcelona and a bigger than the team celebrity rock star compared to the rest of the squad, who at that time were mostly part-timers who played soccer in Iceland’s top league around their day jobs. So what Gudjohnsen said went – and frequently that meant partying.In 2011, capitalizing on the success of their youth team built by the facilities and coaching investment outlined above, Iceland’s soccer association lured Lars Lagerback, a Swedish coach with proven success helming Sweden and Nigeria’s national teams, to coach the Icelandic squad. Lagerback immediately instituted an air of professionalism on the team, hiring medical staff and sports psychologists. He also instilled a culture based on team spirit, discipline, and work ethic, rather than the star-centric one of the Gudjohnsen era.

    The move paid off huge dividends, as Iceland shocked the world in making it to the quarterfinals of the 2016 Euro competition. By that time, Lagerback was co-manager with his former assistant, Heimir Hallgrimsson, a dentist. After the 2016 Euros, Lagerback stepped down, leaving Hallgrimsson as sole manager and ensuring continuity for the eventual 2018 World Cup qualification.

    The striking differences between the two ages of Icelandic football highlight the importance of your sales team’s culture and leadership. While you may have one or two top performing reps, if their influence is a bad one, the rest of the team’s performance suffers, and having that star rep might not be worth it. But if you have a cohesive, tightly knit team that focuses on collaboration and mutual support, your sales reps will achieve far more than they could as individuals.

    Notice also that the leaders set the tone for the team – whether a star player or the manager. If a sales manager shows professionalism and models the correct way of behavior, their direct reports will fall in with that atmosphere. If, on the other hand, a top sales rep dominates the team, the sales manager’s authority and ability to lead is undercut, and the hierarchy is disrespected. Team members listen to the star rep rather than the manager, and as the literature constantly notes, being a top-performing sales rep and a great sales manager are two completely different things that call for vastly different skillsets.

  4. Unity matters.
    We’ve touched a bit on this above with leadership, but compelling things about Iceland stand out – as former goalie Ingvar Kale noted, “If an English or Italian player makes a mistake, the press will kill him… but if that happens to an Icelandic player, everyone remains supportive.” He also added that while the country doesn’t have the best players in the world, they have the best team spirit.Secondly, the tie with Argentina was watched by an unfathomable 99.6% of all Icelanders, breaking a record for the most watched sports event in a nation’s history (and second overall to the 100% achieved by a New Year’s Eve 2016 televised event).That type of cohesion and support unifies a nation, or in the case of sales, an organization. When everyone is united on common goals and working together, they can achieve great things.

    Iceland’s improbable World Cup run is illustrative of the benefits of investment, coaching, development, leadership, and a tight-knit culture of unity for sales organizations. Those teams that hit high marks in all areas will be successful no matter their size or starting ability.