First XV – lessons from the All Blacks

England blew the Six Nations title race wide open as they fought back to edge one of the great Twickenham battles, beating Ireland 13-10 on Saturday. Owen Farrell landed the conversion after Danny Care’s try, before a titanic last quarter saw both teams reduced to stumbling exhaustion by the relentless pace.

With both teams attacking in waves against remorseless defences, Ireland could not work the break they needed as the seconds ran out. It meant there would be no happy ending for Brian O’Driscoll in his 139th Test, on his last appearance at this stadium, and no Grand Slam to garland his final season.

England are shaping up well ahead to the 2015 World Cup, but the peerless All Blacks stand in their way – and three tests in Auckland, Dunedin and Hamilton on June 7, 14 and 21 this summer will show how close to the World Champions we are.

The All Blacks have lost once in their last 35 games. Undefeated in over 75% of their international matches over the last 100 years, what sets them apart is their consistency – their ability to win and keep on winning. But how do they do it? What’s their secret? What is their competitive advantage?

The All Blacks’ values-based culture is evidence that team culture is a key driver of success, a conclusion from James Kerr, who accessed their inner sanctum and produced Legacy – a compelling book that delivers 15 pragmatic and powerful lessons for today’s business leaders from studying the All Blacks:

How do you create a high performance culture? How do you maintain world-class standards? How do you handle pressure? What is the secret of sustained success? What do you leave behind you after you’re gone?

Why 15? Because a rugby team has fifteen players who work together towards a common purpose, to win, and the principles outlined in Legacy work in the same way for business.

The First XV

I Sweep the Sheds Never be too big to do the small things that need to be done

Before leaving the dressing room at the end of a game, some of the top players in the team – including Richie McCaw and Dan Carter – stop and tidy up. They literally and figuratively ‘sweep the sheds’. It is an example of personal humility, a cardinal All Blacks value.  Though it might seem strange for a team of imperious dominance, humility is core to their culture. The All Blacks believe that it’s impossible to achieve success without having your feet planted firmly on the ground.

Humility is taught in all things. It is an attractive but uncommon virtue in business.

II Go for the Gap When you’re on top of your game, change your game

It is the philosophy and focus on continual improvement and continuous learning environment that is at the core of All Black culture. When you’re on top of your game, change your game. Adaptation is not a reaction, but an everyday action.

A winning organisation is an environment of professional and personal development in which each individual takes responsibility and shares ownership. Build the ability to change your cultural and commercial processes. Even when at the pinnacle of success, look to regenerate

III Play with Purpose Ask ‘Why?’

When Richie McCaw got his first All Blacks shirt, he spent a minute with his head buried in the jersey. The person with a narrow vision sees a narrow horizon. The person with a wider vision sees a wider horizon.

Better people make better All Blacks is the core belief, and understanding Why? identifies the purpose of being an All Black. Our fundamental human drive comes from within, from intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations. The power of purpose galvanises individuals, and alignment in group behaviours. What’s the purpose of your business?

IV Pass the Ball Leaders create leaders

Central to the All Blacks belief is the development of leaders and the nurturing of character off the field, to deliver results on it. This involves a literal and metaphorical handing over of responsibility from management to players, so that by game day the team consists of one captain, and 15 leaders.

Ownership, accountability and trust. Shared responsibility in your business means shared ownership, a sense of inclusion means uniting individuals, and more collaboration means advancement as a team.

V Create a Learning Environment Leaders are teachers

Former head coach Graham Henry made pre-match time the team’s own, as part of his devolved leadership plan. He left the players alone as a group to do what they had to do.

Mastery, autonomy and purpose are three drivers of All Blacks success, where success is defined as modest improvement, consistently done. For the All Blacks, leaders are learners, are teachers, as Jack Hobbs, former captain said: Get up everyday and be the best you can be. Never let the music die in you.

VI No Dickheads Follow the spearhead

In Maori, whanau means ‘extended family’. It’s symbolised by the spearhead. Though a spearhead has three tips, to be effective all of its force must move in one direction. The All Blacks select on character over talent, which means some of New Zealand’s most promising players never pull on the black jersey – because they don’t have the right character, they’re considered d*******s, their inclusion would be detrimental to the whanau. Like all the great teams the All Blacks seek to replace the ‘me’ with the ‘we’. No one is bigger than the team. The team always comes first.

Individual commitment to a group effort is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilisation work. You need to build and maintain a high level of trust in your business, so that individuals connect together and strive towards a common goal. If that is lacking, the competition will punish you.

VII Embrace Expectations Aim for the highest cloud

A culture of expectation enables the asking and re-asking fundamental questions, in order to achieve clarity. Humility allows us ask a simple question: how can we do better?

Go Forward! Recast your challenges into proactive goals. You have to be pro-active at all times, taking risks and responsibilities is one of the many skills you learn from rugby. This sounds militaristic, but in its core it is true, rugby, at the end of the day, is a contest of strength, skill and intelligence.

Judge yourself against the best, create for yourself a narrative of extreme, even unrealistic ambitions and benchmark yourself to the ultimate. Make it an epic of what is possible.

VIII Train to Win Practice under pressure

Brad Thorn’s mantra, Champions Do Extra, helped him become one of the most successful players in rugby history.  The philosophy simply means finding incremental ways to do more by preparation and practice. There’s a Maori saying: the way the sapling is shaped determines how the tree grows.

All foundation for success on a rugby field is built in training. You win games in training. The ugly truth is that in most cases you get the results of your weekly training efforts and commitments in the game at the weekend.

The All Blacks run on individual integrity. This means total accountability, and by actions not words. No one is ever late for training, players set their watches ten minutes fast. A collection of talented individuals will fail without personal discipline. Ultimately character triumphs over talent, and for the All Blacks it is about training to win, practising under intensity to replicate playing conditions.

In business, training is often seen as a soft option, a day out of the business. Make practice your test, make it intense, it should be central to your culture. Training with intensity accelerates personal growth.

IX Keep a Blue Head Control your attention

One minute can decide the outcome of a game, as it can the outcome of a business situation. Avoiding poor decision making under pressure is vital.

Pressure is expectation, scrutiny and consequence. Under pressure, your thinking can be diverted. Bad decisions are made because of an inability to handle pressure at a pivotal moment.

In 2010, founding partners of Gazing Performance, Ceri Evans and Renzie Hanham, assisted in mentally preparing the All Blacks, providing a framework to think clearly and correctly under pressure:

  • Red Head is a state in which you are off task, tight, results oriented, panicked and ineffective.
  • Blue Head, on the other hand, is an optimal state in which you are on task and performing to your best ability, expressive, calm, in the moment.

In moments of pressure, the All Blacks use triggers to switch from Red to Blue. Richie McCaw grasps his wrists and stamps his feet, literally grounding himself. Using these triggers, the players aim to achieve clarity and accuracy, so they can perform under pressure.

To act rather than react, move from volatility and an ambiguous space to having mental clarity, control your attention. Clear thought, clear talk, clear task is McCaw’s mantra.

X Know Thyself Keep it real

Honesty drives better performance for the All Blacks: Honesty=Integrity=Authenticity=Resilience=Performance

Often attributed to Socrates, the phrase know thy self, is a key tenet of the All Blacks philosophy, believing that development of the authentic self is essential to performance.

High performance teams promote a culture of honesty, integrity, authenticity. The All Blacks’ socials deliberately hark back to the local rugby culture each player came from, reminding them of why and how they came to be here. No international superstar status, they simply keep it real. Better people make better All Blacks, is an All Black credo.

XI Sacrifice Find something you would die for and give your life to it

Focus is vital for the All Blacks, and there is no paradox – play to win, don’t play not to lose. Don’t be a good All Black, be a great All Black.

As highlighted earlier, Champions do extra, give everything you have – then a little bit more. What do you offer the team? What are you prepared to sacrifice? Champions give the extra, discretionary effort and sacrifice it takes to do something extraordinary. Give your best, treading water is drowning. What is the extra that will make your business extraordinary?

XII Invent your own language Sing your world into existence

There is a ‘black book’, which was for a time, for All Blacks eyes only. Its collected wisdom in the form of aphorisms still informs the culture:

  • No one is bigger than the team
  • Leave the jersey in a better place
  • It’s not good enough to be good, it’s about being great
  • Leave it all out on the field
  • It’s not the All Black jersey, it’s the All Black man
  • Front up – or fuck off!

It was a system of meanings that everyone understood, a language and vocabulary, a set of beliefs that bind the group together. These have subsequently evolved to Humility, Excellence, Respect as the three words at the core of the All Blacks ethos.

Apple under Steve Jobs had the same approach to developing a credo:

  • Stay hungry stay foolish
  • Why join the navy when you can be a pirate
  • Insanely great
  • Think different

Develop strong resonant values using a common language in your business, it connects personal meaning to the business vision of the future.

XIII Ritualise to Actualise Create a culture

A key factor in the All Blacks success was the development of the new haka, Kapa o Pango. Rituals reflect, remind and reinforce the belief system to reignite their collective identity and purpose.

In business, team spirit, pride and respect create effective relationship bonds. Building a great team requires individuals who enjoy a deep degree of trust in one another, the trust that colleagues are not just dedicated but also up to the task.

Au, au, aue bā! – It’s our time! It’s our moment! the final line of the haka.

XIV Be a Good Ancestor Plant trees you’ll never see

The All Blacks task is to represent all those who have come before them, and all those who follow.

There’s a fundamental Maori spiritual concept called whakapapa – the rope of mankind, an unbroken chain of humans standing arm in arm from the beginning of time to the end of eternity. As the sun shines on you for this moment, this is your time, it’s your obligation and responsibility to add to the legacy – to leave the jersey in a better place.

In 1999 Adidas ran a commercial starting with Charlie Saxton, then the oldest living former All Blacks captain, pulling a jersey over his head and is ‘reincarnated’ as Fred Allen, the greatest All Blacks captain and coach. In chronological and successive jerseys it crated a lineage of leadership to the then captain, Taine Rendell. The legacy is more intimidating than any opposition. This captures the essence of leading for sustainability.

Take stewardship of your business as responsibility to add to the legacy. Be a good ancestor, this is your footprint, your time in the business.

XV Write Your Legacy This is your time

When a player makes the All Blacks, they’re given a small black book. The first page shows a jersey from the 1905 Originals, the first tour. On the next page is another jersey, that of the 1924 Invincibles, and thereafter, pages of other jerseys until the present day, and pages with principles, heroes, values, the ethos, the character of the team. And then the rest of the pages are blank, waiting to be filled. By the player.

Those organisations that know what they stand for – and most importantly, why – consistently outperform those who are just going through the motions. They create better commercial results, generate more sales, deliver higher shareholder value, attract better talent, and retain it.

The First XV shows how the All Blacks hold a values-led, purpose-driven high-performance culture and use the power of storytelling to give it personal resonance. The result of this extraordinary environment is extraordinary results.

In business, if we align our people, resources and effort around a singular and compelling central narrative, and reinforce that story through communications, resourcing and training, the results will come.

If your leadership focuses on culture, vision, identity – the ‘who are we, what are we really all about, and how do we live that with integrity’, you will create a special business – the competitive and the collaborative. The desire to achieve and the desire to be part of something bigger.

It’s easy to be cynical about the soft stuff – story and values and vision and purpose – compared to shareholder returns or sales figures. Often the numbers people win because they have hard metrics. However, the All Blacks narrative proves that the soft stuff delivers hard results. The culture creates competitive advantage. By focussing on story and purpose and vision and the human aspects of your business architecture you’re able to deliver better business – and better people.

Better people make better All Blacks – but they also make better businessmen, fathers, brothers, and friends.