Analysis: Lessons in leadership from the All Blacks
Even before they won the 2015 Rugby World Cup final on the weekend, they were regarded as the most successful professional sports team in history. In the history of rugby union they have won 77% of test matches. However in the professional era they have won a staggering 84% of their matches. From 2010 through until 2015 the number is 89%. They just keep getting better. I refer of course, to the team of the moment, New Zealand’s own All Blacks.
In observing this team from the outside there are plenty of lessons for business. Here are a few of them.
- They set long-term goals. At the conclusion of the victorious 2011 World Cup they set the ultimate objective of being the first team to win back-to-back world cups. Four years out is a long time in sporting terms, and yet they set the aspiration early and focused on it.
Lesson: Be clear about what you are trying to achieve.
- There is absolute clarity of purpose across the entire organisation. Everyone knows what the group is trying to achieve and how they are going to go about it.
Lesson: Make sure your people know what you are trying to achieve.
- Everything they do is done in a manner that is consistent with achieving the ultimate goal. That includes getting off-field behaviours right and making sure that any celebration is done out of the public glare.
Lesson: Always act in a manner that is consistent with your aspirations.
- They set mini goals along the way. The Rugby Championship, Bledisloe Cup and Grand Slam tours all become part of the process on the field. There are off-field goals too, such as enhancing a likeable brand or creating positive role models. All are consistent with their ultimate goal, and form part of the building blocks to their success.
Lesson: Break the big goal down into smaller steps along the way.
- They have a solid leadership group of core people sitting alongside the coach and captain, sharing the responsibility, contributing to the ideas bank and ensuring that nothing gets missed.
Lesson: Build a support network around key leaders.
- They get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off it. They put their faith in the people they have selected and give them the time they need (within reason) to perform, recover from injury, and adapt to changes. They are slow to release trusted team members but quick to eliminate those who don’t fit the culture.
Lesson: Get the right people on the bus.
- They have strong and regular communication so everyone knows what is happening every step of the way. This even extends to include those people on the fringes of the team who may be called upon in the future.
Lesson: Communicate, communicate, communicate.
- They build depth of talent outside the immediate on field team. This enables them to develop new approaches based on different skill sets, and to cope with departures, retirements and injuries quickly and without interruption to the overall plan.
Lesson: Constantly look for new talent, particularly new skills and innovative thinking.
- The culture is bigger than any individual. As a result they can bring back an international sporting star like Sonny Bill Williams, who is happy to play a bit part off the bench, whilst also successfully introducing an inexperienced newcomer to the big time, like Nehe Milner Skudder. And all within the same environment. The superstar and the newcomer both accept their positions and each contributes equally well.
Lesson: No individual is greater than the sum of the whole.
- They have continuity of leadership. Even after the relative disaster of losing in the quarter finals in 2007, they bravely retained the coach and captain who learned from their mistakes, set new targets and galvanised the organisation to create a different future. Many of those people are still there. When the captain retires, we know who will replace him, and they already talking about who will take over as coach in 2017.
Lesson: Once you have the right people, back them unconditionally.
- They have an on-field leader who leads by example every time they go out. If Richie McCaw were a sales director, he wouldn’t be doing long lunches or picking the kids up from school. He would be out there leading by doing. Acting in the manner he expects of the team around him.
Lesson: Don’t ask your people to do what you don’t do.
- They are constantly striving to improve. They come off the field after a big win and talk about the things they need to improve before they go out and play again. They talk openly about taking the game to a new level, a level that no other team has played at. And then they achieve that lofty ambition.
Lesson: You are only as good as your next deal.
- New team members are introduced to the team regularly, to keep things fresh, bring new skills and help with innovation. They are immediately expected to align with the organisation’s values and disciplines. They are buddied with experienced members of the team who show them the ropes.
Lesson: Take care to induct new people, ensuring that they understand the culture and aspiration of the group.
- They don’t always get it right. Failures are treated as learning opportunities and moments for review.
Lesson: Well-intentioned failure is okay as long as you learn from it.
- They focus heavily on the processes required to be successful at every stage of their quest toward the ultimate goal, rather than the outcome of each match. “The successful outcomes are a result of getting the processes right” they are often heard to say.
Lesson: Don’t confuse poor process with underperforming personnel.
- Everyone in the team environment – including management – is very clear on their role and how that contributes to the success of the team and the achievement of the ultimate objective.
Lesson: Your people must understand their role in successful execution.
- They celebrate each triumph along the way but they don’t allow those victories to distract them from the ultimate goal. How many times have we heard them say something along the following lines? “We are very happy with the outcome, and we’ll have a good night tonight but tomorrow we will put a full stop behind that, and start building for next week.”
Lesson: Celebrate small wins but not at the expense of the main goal.
- Finally, they care about their people. Not just the ones who are on the road with them but those left behind who may be needed in the future. They use words like ‘family’ to describe their relationships and their care for each other.
Lesson: Average organisations will always lose above-average people.
It is often said that there are lessons in sport that attach to business and vice versa. There is something special about a team from a small country of 4.5 million people that can boast the best winning record in professional sports. They might just be worth copying. Just look at some of the points above and think about your business.
I am yet to see a business that does half of these things as well as this particular sports team. They are not only a beacon for other sporting organisations, they are an outstanding example for business.
We would all do well to learn from their behaviour.
Bruce Cotterill is a five-time chief executive, company director and keynote speaker who advises business leaders on leadership, performance improvement, management and governance. He blogs at www.brucecotterill.com