What we can learn in the corporate world from the All Blacks Rugby Team – It’s all about heritage, values and the “Tenths”

Think of truly great sports teams and you immediately think in football terms about Barcelona, Brazil, Holland, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Spain and West Germany. In the USA, they will typically talk about the Barcelona Soccer Teammen’s Olympic basketball team or NFL teams such as the Green Bay Packers, the Dallas Cowboys or more recently the New England Patriots.  In cricket, you’ll often be drawn to the West Indies or Australian test teams. Canada has its legendary ice hockey team. While in gymnastics you’ll reference the Japanese men’s team. In rowing the Great Britain quad team are often cUSA Basketballited as a true centre of excellence. Yet as brilliant as all these teams are they have often experienced significant highs and lows in terms of performance. Many have endured a decade or more of dominance only to subsequently experience a loss of performance and in some cases, extreme crises. An aging team, the loss of key players, a change of coach, a clash of egos or a reinvigorated competitor has often resulted in significant downturns in performance. Yet there is one team that surpasses all the above and which has managed to consistently succeed, decade after decade, at the very highest level.

The world’s most successful sports team
By any measure the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team are the world’s most successful sports team.  Famed for starting any game with their highly dramatic and culturally symbolic Haka – a traditional, Maori warrior challenge to the playing opposition, they have amassed a track record that is truly unequalled by any other sporting team. In more than a century of playing, the All Blacks have won more than three quarters of their 538 plus matches to date. In the recent professional era of rugby, they have a win rate of over 86%. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, they have won an incredible 72 out of the 80 matches they played, with a win ratio of 90 per cent. Such is their track record it is often said that the All Blacks remember their defeats more than their victories!

Despite New Zealand only having a population of some 4.5 million people and their financial and playing resources being dwarfed by the likes of other key nations such as England and France they have dominated the rugby world for over a century. As a playing team, they are renowned for their ability to constantly re-invent themselves and have today revolutionised the way the game is played. Long gone are old established stereotypes of how forwards and running backs should physically look and play. The current All Blacks team comprises fifteen highly skilled, world class athletes, each of whom, is individually capable of making key decisions and actions that can dramatically change the course of any game, at any time. To use the current jargon of the corporate world they are the epitome of the self-organised and empowered, high performance team.

Contrast this approach to many of their many opponents who continue to play a very stylised and robotic, over-managed “game plan”. For the All Blacks, it’s all about winning but they also play with real invention and style and consistently set the bar for everyone else to reach. They are endlessly adaptable and creative yet also have a ruthless streak that means even if winning by 80 points with just 5 minutes left to play, they will still seek to win by 100 points.

How they sustain this level of performance
To attain this level of performance they combine an immense focus on their history, values and identity with innovative and forward looking thinking. They consistently apply what people in the Formula One world call the “Tenths”. A forensic obsession with detail. To seek and identify anything that can provide an edge in terms of playing performance. In Formula One it’s obviously about finding tenths of a second improvements in engine performance, material weight or aerodynamic design. It’s an approach that has been much copied by the UK Olympic winning cycling team; who at one stage were looking to see whether bone injuries to cyclists could be surgically repaired in such a way that it would subsequently provide a bio-mechanical advantage to the athlete!! The philosophy is that when you compete with the best in the world it is in the minutiae and detail that games are won and lost.

For the All Blacks, it’s about looking at all aspects of how they sleep, eat, train and play. It’s about being incredibly brutal on critiquing performances from both an individual and team point of view with no stone left unturned in the pursuit of excellence.  As former player and captain David Kirk; who won the first rugby World Cup in 1987, says, the team try to possess a sense of “divine discontent.” The rare poor performance they ever do give, are viewed as a “missed opportunity” to improve and excel, which is always their overriding mission.

One of the unique features of the All Blacks long history is that even when they have experienced a rare downturn in performance it’s not too long before they are back to their winning ways. Not for them decades of being subjective to humiliating defeats and huge introspection. Recently retired All Black captain and legend Richie McCaw used to keep a notebook for his own development and on any test match day the first page would always read “Start Again”. Every game is a fresh start with the need to yet again prove yourself as worthy to wear the black jersey. Complacency is a word that is clearly absent from the All Blacks dictionary.

Winning is expected
As a Welshman and being on the end of regular All Black beatings for decades I do recall recently asking a New Zealand supporter if it ever became boring winning all the time? The reply was an immediate and emphatic “No!” For New Zealand winning is simply expected; it’s business as usual. With such huge and enduring long term success you would expect an air of arrogance to accompany the team but this is not so. At the end of any victory the All Blacks always show respect to the opposition – never a derogatory comment or sarcastic remark just a sense of humility and honour in playing and doing their best to represent their famed jersey in the best possible way. Instead of arrogance or brashness you get a sense of quiet confidence and a belief that they can always do better the next time.

Yet a grounded sense of humility and character
In a world where money and over inflated egos have fast eroded many traditional sporting values and ethics the All Blacks continue to enjoy enormous global success with their grounded sense of humility and character. One of the most dramatic illustrations of this was at the end of this year’s rugby world cup when New Zealand beat Australia 44 points to 17. At the end of the game the All Blacks, Sonny Bill Williams, one of the world’s best athletes presented his gold winning medal to a young fan, Charlie Line, who had somehow managed to get onto the field and was being tackled by security guards. Feeling sympathy for the youngster, Williams commented 'Rather than have the medal hanging up at home, it’s going to be hanging around that young fella’s neck. He can tell that story for a long time to come.' Williams then posted on his Instagram account: 'Only takes one thing to change someone's life. Enjoy it Charlie bro.' Players are driven not to become a good All Black but a great All Black and Williams actions both on the field and off it illustrates that perfectly. It was an amazing moment that made many spectators around the world ask themselves “would I have done that if it were my winner’s medal?” To many, Sonny Bill Williams was simply doing what a great All Black always does – something that is unique and special!

A talent factory to be envious of
Such is their success as an organisation the All Blacks consistently enjoy the contributions of some of the world’s most talented players. The Talent FactoryThey have an amazing talent factory whose conveyor belt of output would be the envy of any corporate organisation. It remains the dream of most young New Zealanders to become an All Black. Their sense of belonging and identification to the team is also deeply shared by their key stakeholders, their fanatical supporters, who typically comprise most of the New Zealand nation. Indeed, any cursory discussion with an All Blacks fan will reveal a remarkable understanding of the history and values surrounding the team.

It is about the team and it’s identity
Significantly the All Blacks team culture is one that always puts the team before any individual, no matter how talented they might be. It is this obsession with the unity of the team that makes them an awesome winning unit. Not for them the individual tantrums of overpaid superstars that accompany many other sports. All ego is subsumed by an overriding respect and commitment to the team and the legacy of the black jersey. It is said that within the team there is a mantra that says “no dickheads”. People who get ahead of the team will not be tolerated; everything is about the team and its identity rather than the ego of any individual. Yet the All Blacks consistently have some of the best players in the world, so ego is present, but it is never allowed to mutate into petty squabbling or prima donna type behaviours.  The sense of honour and respect for previous achievements and holders of the jersey dictates the code of behaviour for the next team in line. The All Blacks say “Better People Make Better All Blacks” and they clearly emphasise the importance of character both on and off the field.

Symbols are important
The Powerful SymbolThe Maori’s, from whom the All Blacks draw a lot of their heritage and tradition, have a word for treasure called, taonga and for the All Blacks their famed black jersey is taonga. The jersey is the symbol for all that the team represents and has taken on an almost mystical quality.  The great Welsh player and legend Gareth Edwards once said, “There’s something about the blackness in an All Blacks jersey that sends a shudder through your heart’. The current team manager Steve Hansen once said that the jersey “is something that you have for a period of time but you don’t own it”. The notion of custodianship is a huge part of the All Blacks culture and psyche as the jersey with its famed silver fern represented an epic history of success as well as being a symbol of the New Zealand nation itself. Such is the power of the jersey that when a few years back it was announced that the team were changing major sponsors for the jersey it made the headline TV news in New Zealand! Not for this team ever changing colours and constantly changing corporate logos. The jersey steadfastly stays black and players are consistently reminded of the legacy of the jersey and the responsibilities that come with wearing it. The surrounding organisation culture is one that then pushes all players to constantly see how they can enhance it by their behaviours and actions. Ali Williams a former great All Black commented that “You have to leave the jersey in a better place”. Whilst former captain Sean Fitzpatrick argued that when he played he was always “trying to make it a better team to pass onto the next generation” and to continue the legacy of winning!

What can we learn for the corporate world?
When looking at high performance teams in the corporate world we can learn much from the All Blacks with their huge sense of respect to their past and their immense capacity to live their values and culture. Whilst many in the corporate world are quick to rubbish or deride the past the All Blacks see it as key to their success. They use the past to inspire and drive the behaviours of the present team. Their ability to combine their unique heritage and beliefs with new thinking and techniques makes them an exemplar for any team discussion. It is their consistent and relentless ability to bring great talent together and to deliver excellence in every respect that sets them aside. Underpinning all of this is an immense focus on the importance of values and an incredibly powerful sense of team purpose and identity. Whilst other teams have more financial and player resources it is the culture and values of the All Blacks that truly sets them aside as one of the world’s greatest ever teams.

What we can learn in the corporate world from the All Blacks! –

1. Forge a powerful sense of purpose and identity - built on a strong history of success and respect for the past. Use the past to channel and guide future behaviours. Pose the question “Are you as good as your predecessors?” “Are you living up to the behaviours and achievements of what your predecessors have achieved?” The All Black show the real power of respecting the past and heritage.

2. Use symbols to guide behaviours – It’s not any team that has the huge history and lineage of the All Blacks jersey but by creating symbols that guide behaviours you can make things happen. For the All Blacks the jersey and what it represents is far bigger than any individual, no matter how good they are! What symbols could you use for your team(s)?

3. Always subordinate Ego to the Team – make team identity and unity the defining standard above all else. Develop an aversion to promoting or pandering to egos and star performers. The All Blacks are full of world class performers but no one is ever allowed to get ahead of the team. Contrast this to the deference that is paid to some of today’s egotistical “I” “I” and “Me, Me” leaders who believe they are responsible for the entire success of huge organisations.

4. Build an atmosphere of Trust and Cohesion – without real trust no team can win big. The all Blacks empower every player to make decisions independently; they can all change the play of the game at any time. This takes enormous levels of trust and cohesion as mistakes will inevitably be made and without trust and a real sense of team cohesion mistakes can become corrosive. The All Blacks try very hard to eliminate all playing errors but at the same time they are entirely comfortable when things are going wrong as they know their sense of team cohesion will mean someone will step up and restore control.

5. Create a team where everyone is a leader – Only by empowering everyone in the team to act and make key decisions will world-class success be achieved.

6. Focus on the “Tenths” to create a culture of success – attend to the details and promote a culture of “divine discontent” in the search for excellence. Leave no stone unturned in the search for improved performance. Make criticism a force for good rather than a negative act. Master the ability to harness conflict as a force for learning and growth as opposed to a destructive act.

7. Change or lose – excellence is a habit and to master it, any team must constantly learn and evolve, not just in bad times, but especially in the good times. The All Blacks personify this approach: no matter how great their performance or victory they are always looking to improve the next time. Not for them the complacency and arrogance that so often accompanies success. They are ruthless in their desire to stretch and grow their capability as a team.

Should you want to find out more about how the PPI network supports teams developing contact Gerry Buckley at gbuckley@theppinetwork.com.

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About the Author

Mark Thomas: Leading International Expert on Business Partnering

Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is an international business consultant, author and speaker specialising in business planning, managing change, human resource management and executive development. Prior to working with PPI he worked for several years with Price Waterhouse in London where he advised on the business and organisational change issues arising out of strategic reviews in both private and public sector organisations.