Peter Vermes: I’m committed to being here
They allotted 35 minutes for the keynote speaker.
They should have known better.
Dressed in a blue suit, Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes walked across the stage, a guest for the Rockhurst University Young Alumni. The weeknight audience consisted of entrepreneurs. Business owners. Financial analysts. A collection of recent graduates simply eager to learn.
The longest-tenured coach in Major League Soccer ignored the lectern used by the preceding two speakers, instead pacing the stage. In his right hand, he toted a Power Point clicker.
“This is about culture and leadership,” he began the recent presentation inside a lecture hall on the Rockhurst campus. “It will take a funny ride.”
Over the next 65 minutes, he documented stories from his decade with Sporting Kansas City. Used them as examples for things that worked and some that didn’t. Quoted them as the anecdotes that have defined his coaching career.
Here are the standouts:
• Upon his first tap of the clicker, a video popped up on the screen behind him. The clip is nearly a decade old. A former sports anchor is spouting off about Sporting Kansas City’s rebrand in November 2010.
“I don’t know if this is gonna fly,” the anchor says. “I did not receive one positive comment.”
Vermes literally smiles as it plays. Nine years and four major trophies later, he remains motivated by the 10-second segment. The challenge of proving people wrong is his greatest fuel, the same as it was as a player, when he would rattle off a list of doubters in his head as he rode the bus to a game.
• Vermes emphasizes the importance of the details. The logo. The precise wording of a soccer franchise’s mission statement. The reasoning for TVs in the stadium bathrooms.
It sets up his main offering: Culture.
It started on Day 1, he explained. After taking over as the then-Kansas City Wizards interim manager in August 2009, he spoke to the team for the first time. He encountered something he didn’t expect.
“I have a little bit of intensity, and in this meeting, I can feel it — I’m getting a little intense,” he told the crowd. “The amazing thing is what I can see is there are three groups in the room. There are the guys over here who were drooling because all the things I was saying, they were like, ‘Finally.’ Then I had this group all the way on the right, and they were like, ’Come on, this guy, he’ll be fired at the end of the season.’ And then there was this group in the middle, and that group was, ’Show me.’
“Those three buckets, they’re exactly what culture is all about. You have this group that’s in it; you have this group that doesn’t want to be in it; and you have this group that’s waiting for you to show them.”
So what did Vermes do with the group that appeared disengaged?
“You gotta get rid of them,” he said. “And you gotta get rid of them quickly. You’re not going to change their mind. You cannot waste your energy on those guys.”
• In 2011, as Sporting Kansas City is waiting on the completion of Children’s Mercy Park, its first 10 matches are scheduled to be on the road. Days before the season, Vermes lands what he believes will be a big splash, center back Julio Cesar. Along with an assistant coach, Vermes travels to the Kansas City Marriott Downtown to meet Cesar in person for the first time.
During the conversation, Vermes informs Cesar that the first 10 games will be on the road.
“He says to me, point blank, serious look on his face, ‘Why did I come here? You guys will be fired,’” Vermes recalled.
“I said, ‘Julio, I’ll outlast you, buddy. I’ll be here longer than you will be.’”
Vermes turns back toward the crowd.
“I don’t know if I believed that or not. But as leaders, you have to take risks. You have to put yourself out on a limb sometimes.”
• A slide on the power point: Be diligent when opportunities to reinforce your culture arise.
Vermes cycles through a trio of examples. The highlight: In 2013, Sporting KC loaned its leading scorer, Kei Kamara, to English club Norwich City. Upon Kamara’s return to Kansas City, Vermes noticed a difference in his attitude. “I could tell he was a different guy, and he was a problem. He wasn’t team-first anymore.”
Coming off his best season, with Kamara playing a central role, Vermes sold his top scorer to Middlesbrough. Four months later, Sporting KC won MLS Cup without him.
“When you see opportunities in front of you to show one player is not above your culture, you have to take them,” Vermes said. “You get so much respect from those decisions and so much more buy-in from your players than you could ever get by just explaining something to them.”
• The presentation focuses on stories of the past decade, but they are applicable to today. Inside his office, Vermes stores a binder of past practices and matches, with some notes he took along the way. He references it frequently.
During the Rockhurst lecture, he mentioned those struggles in 2011, when the team had just one victory in the 10 road games. He praised his staff’s ability to remain resolute in its belief that the culture in place would outlast the losing streak, even as reporters asked if he feared he would be fired.
On Sunday, Sporting KC enters its home match against defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta mired in a six-match winless streak. This is the point of the speech, he explains. To establish a set of core values and stick to them. Even when things don’t go right. No, especially when things don’t go right.
“Nobody wants to be in this position we’re in right now — the job isn’t always great. The reason why we’re here is we have to find ways to get through these types of things,” Vermes said. “I can’t tell you where we’re going to come out on the other end. All I know is we’re not going to take what we’ve been doing all along and throw it in the trash. I will evaluate things. We’re always tweaking it. Always changing something here or there. But those staples of who you are, those don’t change. You always have rough patches. It’s how you get through them that defines you.”