Mariel Koerhuis, international director of the Johan Cruyff Institute, explains the future challenges for the institution and the values and characteristics that make it different
Mariel Koerhuis has a Bachelor in Business Administration and a Master in Business Administration (MBA) from ESADE Business School. She arrived in Catalonia from the Netherlands 26 years ago and, after a long nourishing journey both personally and professionally, she now runs the Johan Cruyff Institute internationally, and has been doing so for a little over a year.
Her first contact with the education sector was at ESADE Business School; there she developed plans to improve the teaching staff from the dean’s office, to later become associate director of Executive Education, responsible for the open programs and international positioning, working in collaboration with other universities in the US and Latin America to create joint products.
That was when Mariel came in contact with the Johan Cruyff Institute and was hired to undertake the academic coordination of the first Master in Sport Management held in Barcelona, a job that she did for five years. Her next step led her to also get to know the public education sector, being responsible for the strategic plan of the foundation of the Universitat Politécnica de Cataluña (UPC) and ‘in company’ training, before returning to the Johan Cruyff Institute in order to position the Institute in Barcelona. For a little over a year, she has directed the institution internationally.
In this interview, Mariel discusses the future challenges facing the institution and the values and characteristics that make it different. “The footprint of Johan Cruyff is very present in the way we conceive education”, says Mariel. It’s time to defend this ‘slogan’.
The institution was founded in 1999 as a project of Johan Cruyff to train athletes in the world of management. What has been achieved in these 16 years and how has the institution evolved?
We have evolved not only in number of regional branches and number of training programs, but we have also diversified in our areas of knowledge. We started in Holland with an official degree in sport marketing for elite athletes, and over time we have expanded to be able to offer a Master in Sport Management (which encompasses all areas of the functional areas of a sport organization or entity), Coaching programs (from the point of view of leadership development), and Football Administration and Management. Our purpose as an institution is, first, to ensure the future of athletes by giving them the opportunity to have a proactive life and training for reemployment once their careers are over and, second, to professionalize management in the world of sport. Since that first class of 35 students in Amsterdam, more centers have opened in the Netherlands –5 Colleges and 3 Universities in total– and in 2002 the Johan Cruyff Institute was created which, unlike the colleges and universities, has the ability to develop its own knowledge, offering masters, postgraduates and specialized courses to a wider audience. At the same time, we are committed to internationalization, with a presence in the Netherlands, Barcelona (where our international head office is), Mexico, Peru and Sweden. And in 2003, we took an important strategic step in offering the entire portfolio online, making it possible for students to study with greater flexibility and from anywhere in the world. Now, there are 23 members in the management team, we have a relationship with about 150 academic collaborators (from guest speakers to teachers of specific subjects), and we have a community of 6,000 former students. We have grown substantially in 16 years.
How are the next leaders of the sport industry trained at the Johan Cruyff Institute?
All the training we offer is focused on the student, following European-level criteria. That means that the student is responsible for his own learning process. They develop their general skills (personal development at the professional level), technical skills (application of tools they may need in management in general) and very specific skills (like sport marketing, financial management, project management, management and organization of sport events or facilities). We give special emphasis to the development of the skills of each student. We also work on the development of personal competencies, which would be the management skills required to carry out a job or business project successfully: public speaking, defending your project, working with and getting to know the other members of your team, leading a group, writing appropriately and convincingly, etc). It is a growth that goes from a very pragmatic and applied knowledge of what is taught to personal development.
What differentiates them from other academic institutions?
Johan’s footprint is very present in how we perceive the training: applied, dynamic, ahead of his time, a little rebellious, nonconformist, someone who sees things from different perspectives that are not always the most obvious. These traits are incorporated into the way we teach. We’re not talking about classes of a hundred people; they are small groups where the students receive very personalized monitoring. Not only in the on-campus programs where it is easier to achieve, but also in the online training. Being part of the ‘Cruyff family’ is to know that we won’t leave you hanging when you have some important event or personal or competition commitments that force you to miss classes. We offer you a personalized itinerary to continue studying with us. Our way of perceiving the training is not classic or conventional, or passive; it is unconventional, advanced, participatory, action-oriented. Students have to resolve their doubts themselves and be responsible for their learning process, resolving these doubts through discussion, thinking, working together. That is different from a more classic training where teachers transmit their knowledge to students. Here students have to create and, using different sources, enrich themselves intellectually and personally.
What values does the institution promote?
The same values as those of our founder. He takes nothing for granted, for him everything is still to be done, he’s entrepreneurial, ahead of his time, a total advocate of teamwork for the good of the group, a defender of being extremely self-demanding and exceeding oneself in order to achieve goals, authenticity … those are the values that Johan transmits to the entire organization and which are reflected in all the initiatives undertaken. We always seek collaboration with other ‘partners’ in our growth, because we understand that we cannot do it alone, and we have to do it with a social motivation. We also understand that with our work we contribute to greater professionalism in the world of sport, we help the athletes to achieve a productive work reintegration for themselves, and high self-demand is in everything: quality of service, teaching staff and dedication to students. We want to do things right, with a very clear objective and in accordance with the values that identify us.
What is the student profile at the Johan Cruyff Institute?
In higher vocational training and university degrees in the Netherlands, the student profile is 100% athlete; at postgraduate level, in the Institutes and the online part, we have a mix of three profiles: (ex)athletes; professionals, mostly graduates who are working in other areas and want to make a leap in their career to the sport industry; and people who are already working in the sport industry (in federations, clubs, sport entities, sports retails) and who need training or to consolidate the skills they have acquired more informally with a more pragmatic and solid study plan. There is an amalgam of profiles coexisting in the Johan Cruyff Institute and it is a challenge for teachers, but very enriching for students because everyone brings their own perspective, their own experience. For company people, it is very useful to see how athletes view things, and for athletes, it is also very valuable to know what it is like to work in a company in the sport sector. They feed off each other very well.
Working in sport has very often been associated with the concept of fun, but the sport industry should be considered a business and every business requires professionals. And that is the work of the Johan Cruyff Institute, to train the next leaders of the sport industry.
Exactly. There are studies that really show that the sport industry represents a considerable percentage of GDP. The business of sport is important and the innovations that are being implemented in other sectors are also being implemented in ours, and even at a very fast pace because it is a very dynamic sector. Management really applies in all sectors. If I think about my experience in consulting, banking, the metal industry…in all sectors there exists management and the classic functional areas, finance, human resources, production, logistics, marketing, communication … everything is interconnected. And this model of team management you also find in the world of sport, with one addition: the people who work in sport have a greater perception of teamwork, they have good experience because the work is directly related to emotion, passion for something that goes beyond pure management in itself, which you rarely find in other sectors. There is nothing better than to work in something you love because you have everything. But one very important part is to recognize the value of the sport industry for the economy of a country and the management of this business should be completely professionalized. And professionalism is achieved with experience, but also, and above all, with good training.
What are the future challenges?
Right now we are finishing the last phase of the strategic plan 2016-18 and we have great challenges ahead. Broadly speaking, this year we have finalized a collaboration agreement with the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), which will mean the accreditation of the Master in Sport Management from the academic year 2016-17, for those students who already have a previous qualification and need an official title. We will create further synergies in the area of research; we are developing a professorship in collaboration with the UAB to find ways to improve the career transition from a career as an athlete to a business career and there are many initiatives in development to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and talent from the university to the world of sport. It is very important for our institution to complement our skills and practical knowledge of the sport industry and the connection with sport organizations, with the great content and academic credibility from working together the leading university in Spain, according to the ranking of The Times.
Another challenge will be to further improve the services for alumni, and for this we plan to launch the ‘International Alumni’ in the coming months. It is a challenge because it encompasses different languages, cultures, backgrounds, but it is important to maintain membership in the ‘Cruyff family’ and that we recover those students who have passed through the institution, because they are a great human asset to the sport industry. Another major challenge is internationalization: continuing to be present in emerging countries where we can make a big contribution to professionalizing the sport industry in the country. We would like to extend our model in Latin America of having agents in several countries to other continents; for now we are looking at Asia, because it is a replicable model. We have also proposed to maintain the level of innovation and quality at an academic level: technological innovations are continuous and it is a challenge to keep up with the pace of the technological field. Promoting internationalization among our teachers, who can teach in English and Spanish fluently, is an essential condition in a globalized academic organization like ours. Our teachers are professionals who work in the industry as consultants, managers or directors, and also have a teaching vocation: it is a perfect combination that we require of our faculty. Our teachers must share the values of the institution itself, namely to give classes in the way in which we perceive teaching, and also be able do so in different places and in different languages. We have a very interesting, and also very challenging, strategic roadmap.