How NASA recruits astronauts: lessons for building your startup team

We stand at a pivotal moment in space exploration. Humankind is making plans to further extend
its reach into the solar system, and NASA is leading the way.

Their orbiting outpost, the International Space Station (ISS), is home to a crew of astronauts from across the world conducting research
and learning how to live and work in space. Their robotic explorers probe diverse regions of the solar system, and they are preparing for a challenging
mission to capture and redirect an asteroid for human

All of this is a stepping-stone to future human exploration of
Mars, and as part of this, we are also witnessing the birth of a new commercial space industry, with two tech entrepreneurs getting involved – Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s startup, Blue Origin, is a JV with Boeing building a space taxi, to deliver astronauts for NASA to the ISS. There is a budding rivalry with Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies – SpaceX. Both men have been moving aggressively to stake claims in manned exploration and new rocket engines. SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded to revolutionise space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

NASA’s long-term goal is to send humans to Mars. Over the next two decades, they will develop and demonstrate the technologies and capabilities needed to send humans to explore the red plane. So it’s against this backdrop that as of today, 14 December, NASA is accepting applications for the position of astronaut.

This is very poignant to me, just 34 years too late for my ideal career. Accountant, Actuary and Astronaut were the three career choices my Careers Officer at school suggested – she was a bit lazy when reading the ‘A to Z of Careers’ book. Well, I say suggested, she gave me the book and I didn’t get beyond ‘A’ and convinced her there was an entry for ‘Astronaut’. Only 536 people have been to space, only twelve have walked on the moon. I feel I’ve missed out.

The Apollo space programme has always resonated with me, I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I can still recall the black & white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year.

So if you’ve always dreamed of being an astronaut, you’re in luck – NASA is recruiting. Think you have the right stuff to be an astronaut? What are the requirements to apply?

Those interested in applying must be US citizens and have a degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics. They must also have three years of professional experience or 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. Candidates must also pass the long-duration spaceflight physical.

There are also specific physical attributes in the job specification, for example distant visual acuity: 20/100 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20, each eye; Blood pressure 140/90 measured in a sitting position; height between 62 and 75 inches.

NASA will accept applications from 14 December 2015 to February 2016. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you can apply for the job online. The starting salary is $65k, rising to $100k with experience. There will be lots of travel away from home, all expenses paid travel, with overnight allowances.

NASA recruits on a timeline based on a future launch programme, and it’s a 22-month recruitment process was announced in November, and applications close February 2016. These will be reviewed and assessed by September 2016, with informal interviews in December 2016.

Thereafter, medicals and orientations take place (April 2017), short list confirmed (May 2017), and further interviews undertaken until the astronaut class of 2017 is announced June 2017, and they start August 2017. They may get into space between 2019 to 2022.

Whilst professional background, qualifications and physical attributes are important, perhaps it’s surprising to learn that the most extensive evaluation and analysis in the process is of candidates’ soft skill sets, in a framework developed by Charles Pellerin, called ‘4-D’, based around four dimensions, with intuitive and sensory skills on one axis, and logic and emotional the other. This is given a 40% weighting of candidate fit and suitability to the role.

In the 4-D framework, Pellerin developed a 2×2 matrix:

  • Emotional & Intuitive skills: authentic to others, shows mutual respect; respects shared interests; energises collaboration – categorised as ‘Green’ people;
  • Emotional & Sensory skills: authentic and aligned, includes others, keeps to their agreements, high trustworthiness – ‘Yellow’ people;
  • Logical & Intuitive skills: 100% committed and a strong, ‘in the moment’ thinker; expresses reality based optimism, sustained and effective creativity – ‘Blue’ People;
  • Logical & Sensory skills: shows clear accountability and authority in the role for achievable expectations; resists blaming others, is outcome focused – ‘Orange’ people.

The astronaut cohort are thus recruited against these attributes and traits to provide a balance of ‘people types’, as well as their functional expertise – people, teams, ideas and systems are the four key dimensions:

  • ‘Greens’ are people builders, care deeply about people and create strong loyalty. Their roles are training, coaching and leading complex teams, cultivating people and their needs;
  • ‘Yellows’ are team builders, seeking harmonious teams and work with difficult and complex situation to unite them. They lead large, complex teams and create trustworthy relationships;
  • ‘Blues’ are idea builders, fonts of creative ideas, demand innovation, and typically have roles in research and early stage projects, visioning the best possible;
  • ‘Oranges’ are systems builders, disciplined, focused on control and process, skills for managing late phase projects, directing and organising people.

In many ways launching a new business parallels launching a space mission. There’s so much that can go wrong and there’s always the chance that the start-up could fail. According to Bloomberg, 80% of new businesses do fail. In the early days of shuttle launches, the risk of having a catastrophic event – that is, death – was 1 in 9. According to an astronaut saying, There is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse, which is a positive mindset to take into your startup.

Astronauts are trained to be expert pilots, but it is their soft skills ability to perform while living on the edge, and knack for succeeding in doing what others say is impossible, which NASA see as what truly sets them apart.

Successful entrepreneurs possess many of these same character traits.  They devote themselves to their business goals and work tirelessly to achieve the necessary momentum to launch their new business.  Launching rockets and new businesses require great skill to guide the projects into an unknown realm. Close examination of human space exploration may provide strategies to help make a new business ‘take off and stay in orbit’.

Successful entrepreneurs are focused on the speed at which they launch their business. They recognise that success comes with patience and hard work too.

The astronaut’s story of sheer persistence, tenacity and of taking pleasure in the journey speaks to anyone who goes into a business for the sake of purpose. The description of the preparation for the launch, the excitement around the possibility of being in space and then awe in being weightless is a great metaphor for building a business and realising a dream, zeroing in on what’s important. Their combination of vision, conviction, and stubborn tenacity make them unstoppable visionaries.

So, think like an astronaut, look to the future, and adopt this state of mind. Think about what the future is going to be and how you can help create it. Just like an astronaut, work on things no one else is working on and be willing to take risks to make discoveries. It’s clear that high soaring embody many of the traits that epitomise high soaring entrepreneurs. One thing for sure, neither is a journey for the meek and timid.

Talent makes capital dance is a phrase I’ve coined to recognise the pivotal importance of talent in a start up, and the people-teams-ideas-systems theme from Pellerin is a useful framework to consider when thinking about your startup team. So what insights can we take from NASA for building breakthrough startup teams? What can entrepreneurs learn from astronauts?

  • Define the importance of human capital in your startup business model
  • Create a long-term road map for talent acquisition and development
  • Remember, you are curating a team for the future, not recruiting individuals for today
  • Don’t treat hiring staff as an admin process, recognise the strategic business value of talent acquisition
  • Have a high regard for soft kills – emotional, logical, intuition and sensory
  • Recruit people who show a desire for learning, who are curious for knowledge curation and development
  • Recruit on attitude, potential and aptitude – skills can be developed by training
  • Ensure there is a cultural fit, everyone is team oriented
  • Appreciate the scarcity of the right talent for your business model, but don’t compromise
  • Understand it is an investment, not a cost
  • Recall NASA’s view – missions fail because we have the wrong people, not the wrong technology – make your startup people centric, not product centric

One perspective is to have a hipster, a hacker, and a hustler on your founding team. Dave McLure has described this combination as the minimum viable team, where he sees attitude and mindset as the key enablers of startup success.

The first couple of months for a startup are a bit like the big bang at the beginning of a rocket from its Launchpad. Lots of key decisions with far reaching consequences get made in a short period of time so at this stage it’s important that the team is both supporting and challenging, stressing the importance of strong characters who can work together.

Everyone in the founding team should test and probe thinking, operate as a sounding board to each other, helping with the emotional challenges of startup life, responding positively to pressure when things don’t go to plan. Certain people thrive in a startup atmosphere, while the unpredictability can drive others crazy. Finding the right blend of ingredients in the perfect startup team isn’t easy.

An individual, who when strapped to a 4.4 million pound bomb being propelled at 7,500 mph from the launch pad, with the responsibility of billions of pounds worth of equipment and years of peoples’ dedicated time on their shoulders, still manages to keep their heartbeat in the 70-90 beats per minute range – the same beat range us mere mortals experience during a brisk walk to the local shop for a pint of milk – that’s when you need an astronaut in your startup. It’s not rocket science, it’s people science.

Richie McCaw: thinking correctly under pressure

New Zealand reached their second Rugby World Cup final in a row at the weekend due to their experience, discipline and composure in the second-half, beating South Africa 20-18 in an epic slog in Saturday’s semi-final. The All Blacks were five points behind at half-time with a man in the sin-bin as four penalties from Handre Pollard cancelled out Jerome Kaino’s early try.

As coach Steve Hansen said, We had moments where we had to keep that self-belief. Then in those moments it’s just about the process. It becomes the norm. It’s a learned skill and self-belief is massive.

The All Blacks, aiming to become the first nation to retain the Webb Ellis Cup, trailed 12-7 at the break. They returned to the pitch five minutes early for the start of the second half, and captain Richie McCaw led an on-pitch discussion in a team huddle. The television cameras showed it was an intense talk from McCaw, animated, direct and composed. McCaw’s eyes were filled with passion, concentration and a facial expression that simply said, follow me. It was one of the most important team talks of his life.

Immediately Hansen’s team tightened up, as the immaculate Dan Carter’s 45th-minute drop-goal rolled momentum in their favour to set up a brutal second-half encounter. The game swung in the 20 minutes after half-time, New Zealand beginning that period five points down and with Kaino off the pitch, but ending it five points up and with Springbok wing Bryan Habana in the sin-bin instead.

A five-point deficit at the break, nine penalties conceded, a key man in the sin-bin. All other teams would have worried at that point. Most would have felt a little shiver of panic: we’re not going to mess this up, are we? What happens if this stays the same and we can’t knock them backwards? This All Blacks collective is not most teams. When you have lost just three games in four years, panic and self-doubt is not your immediate thought.

So it was once again. Out they came, into the torrential rain and cold of a proper English autumn evening, and went at the problem with the poise of men who simply knew what they had to do. The psychology and discipline of thinking was again summed up by Hansen: We talked about it at half-time. We talked about keeping composure and talked about winning the first 10 minutes. With 14 men.

Dan Carter’s decision-making and kicking was once again peerless, his curling a conversion through the downpour and over the posts from an angle that offered him almost nothing was the moment for me that you knew this was their day. In that twenty-minute period from 40 minutes to 60 the game was wrestled away from the Springboks.

The second-half was a masterpiece of the little things done well, the Forwards hanging on to a slippery ball under pressure, Backs running intelligently, sucking in one defender and drawing another before off-loading with a simple, safe pass to hands.

And the composure in the crescendo, still the right decisions made with the noise deafening in the stadium and the anxiety of the occasion ramping up as the Springboks clawed their way back to within two points.

It was the decision-making, following good habits and knowing what to do under pressure that showed clearly the All Blacks were the masters of their game. When Carter chased back half the length of the pitch to snuff out the threat created by De Allende’s sharp kick deep into the All Blacks half, never appearing to hurry even with Pietersen bearing down on the ball, not diving on it in desperation or hacking it straight into the stands but clipping it away on the bounce as if the pitch were dry and this just another game, that made you realise they are champions.

It was there in the Forwards punching their united physicality into the Springboks’ guts with perfectly-timed sets and drives in scrums, rucks and then mauls to dissipate any South African momentum. And it was there in the final 10 minutes, the lead still so slender, never losing possession, never ceding territory, never giving a sniff. Just thinking correctly under pressure.

New Zealand made sure the last twelve minutes passed with no further scoring, and a shot at becoming the first three-time champions. Under slate-grey skies and in unrelenting rain, with just two points between the sides as they went toe to toe for the final 10 minutes.

Having spent half-time regrouping in the rain under the grip of McCaw, they showed grit to go alongside the guile that has led many to call this All Blacks side the best ever. Great teams have to come from behind sometimes. Great teams need great captains.

Everyone faces those pinch-point situations when the heat is on – from making a critical decision in-the-moment at a meeting, to keeping a cool head in the rugby scrum – those times when you need to function correctly under pressure. The reality is that most people fail in extreme situations. They choke, they get stage fright and their astute, high-wire decision-making skills fail them.

The All Blacks regrouped at the start of the second half due to captain Richie McCaw’s mentality and call to arms. Regarded as the greatest rugby player of all time, his debut for New Zealand was against Ireland in 2001, aged just 20, and despite his first touch of the ball resulting in a knock-on, he was awarded Man of the Match. He was subsequently selected as New Zealand’s first choice openside flanker for the 2003 World Cup and became a regular selection, only missing a few games due to reoccurring concussions.

In 2006 he was appointed All Blacks captain. After defeat in the 2007 World Cup quarter-finals, 18-20 versus France, his captaincy came under criticism. It was New Zealand’s earliest exit from a World Cup. An emotional McCaw could not hide his disappointment at the after-match press conference: If I knew the answers we would have sorted it out. We will be thinking about it for a long time. He was accused of not inspiring his team, lacking the ability to change when plan A was not working and not providing leadership on the field.

But he learnt from his mistakes and during the 2011 World Cup tournament, McCaw inspired his teammates and the nation, playing on virtually one leg after suffering a debilitating ankle injury. On 23 October 2011, McCaw led his team to the World Champions title, beating France 8–7 in the final.

In 2012, after the win against South Africa, McCaw became the first rugby union player to win 100 tests – while having only lost 12 games. McCaw, quite incredibly, achieved 100 test wins out of 112 tests played, a staggering 89.28% winning ratio – he has been on the winning side in 9 out of every 10 tests he has played. He’s also the most capped All Blacks captain.

McCaw’s record is as astounding as it is remarkable. His leadership is unquestionable, his playing ability is envied and judged to be the epitome of an openside flanker. McCaw is always there in the mix, leading by being there right on the shoulder of a teammate in the thick of the action.

Being captain in the frenetic and unrelenting pace of international rugby, demands discipline, clarity and focus as we saw at the weekend, so what are McCaw’s key attributes and traits as captain that we can take as leadership attributes in today’s commercial environment?

Mental strength & emotional discipline The captain needs to remain focused and alert whilst thinking and making decision under pressure during a game, so that he makes the right decisions at the right time. This requires considerable mental fortitude.

Some decisions will not be clear-cut. It is during critical situations that your team will look to you for guidance and you may be forced to make a quick decision. As a leader, it’s important to be lucid. Don’t immediately choose the first or easiest possibility, and be emotionally disciplined. Fire in the belly, but ice in the brain is a useful maxim here.

Emotional discipline is important. As a role model, the example set by the captain must meet every expectation he has of the players. For example, if the captain becomes angry with the referee and constantly questions his decisions, then he cannot expect his players to accept refereeing decisions themselves. A loss of emotional control will affect timing, co-ordination and the ability to read the game.

A leader creates individuals and defines the team A team executes plays as a unit, they should function as one. The captain exerts the effort to organise, reminding teammates their respective roles in the team. He studies his teammates’ skills, he recognises what they are capable of doing and utilises his teammates’ abilities. He ensures the right people are in the right seats on the bus.

Leading the charge from the front is one aspect of leadership, but success is ultimately down to teamwork so it is essential to creating an organised and efficient business team via delegation. If you don’t learn to trust your team with your vision, you might never progress to the next stage. It’s a fine balance, but one that will have a huge impact on the productivity of your business.

A leader should be visible to the team. Visibility clearly shows that you care and are approachable, it enables you to always know what is going on and it lets teammates know that you are ready to join in and help if needed, and be part of the team – but delegate, don’t hog the remote control!

The leader creates the team spirit A team can only work as one effectively if they maintain an environment free from individual tensions. Your ability to get everyone working and pulling together is essential to your success. Even the greatest leader cannot lead in a vacuum.

Harnessing and channelling the energies of a coherent and dedicated team is the only true path to success. A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.

Positive mind set and winning attitude: lead by example Morale is linked to success, and it’s your job as the team leader to instill motivation by positive energy and attitudes, and a winning belief, especially when times are tough. A leader is a dealer in hope – keep the belief.

Good teams have to come from behind sometimes. They know what to do. There may be times where the future looks rough and things aren’t going to plan. Part of your job as a leader is to put out fires, assure everyone that setbacks are natural and get focus on the bigger picture. As the leader, by staying calm and confident, you will help keep the team feeling the same. Remember, your team will take cues from you. Inspiring your team to see the vision of successes to come is vital. As McCaw shows, a great leader’s courage to fulfil his vision comes from passion, not position.

This wonderful All Blacks team has plenty about them in terms of talent, skills and tactical nous, but so much more besides in terms of mental toughness, resilience and the ability to turn up when it matters as they showed in the semi-final. It is undoubtedly in them all, but in that moment of potential crisis, it took McCaw’s leadership to remind them and give them a clear head. He was utterly relentless against the Boks at the weekend. When it comes to drive and desire, his levels are off the scale.

Nothing gives you more advantage in the heat of competition as to remain unruffled and think clearly. Composure is the product of an ambitious mentality envisioning the outcome we would aspire. It requires persistence, vision, self-belief and patience. Being persistent requires constant thinking and developing an agile plan to accomplish our goals as the situation changes – a plan doesn’t require detailed steps, rather it guides our actions to ensure we are always progressing towards accomplishing our goals.

As in sport, it’s the same in business, the ability to remain composed is vital, the capacity to make the right decisions when under pressure differentiates leaders in good times and bad. Composure is a telling factor in performance whether it contributes to the scoreboard or the bottom-line. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm, but in the frenzy of the storm, holding your nerve, keeping focus and stopping the blood rushing to the head enable you to put your training into practice.

I’d love to know what McCaw said at half-time as the team stood in the pouring rain, a man down and losing 7-12. I’m pretty sure the four points of his leadership attributes I’ve detailed above were vital elements of his call to action. McCaw shows a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. Their responsibility is getting all the players playing for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back.

Next Saturday afternoon, 4pm, put yourself in that dressing room, as the referee knocks on the door, game time gentlemen. The World Cup Final. For Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, next week’s showpiece final against Australia may signal the end of the international road for all four of them as they retire at their peak. They will all look to McCaw as he leads the team out. I’m sure he will set the call: make it count, and take control where it matters most: inside your own head.

Enabling high performing individuals to power high performing teams

A thumping for the Northern Hemisphere in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals – match winning performances from Juan Imhoff, Julian Savea, Fourie du Preez – and the absence of Paul O’Connell – showed the impact of high performance individuals on a team game.

Ireland’s defeat to Argentina was unexpected, and the loss of captain Paul O’Connell was keenly felt. However it ends, I’ll feel lucky O’Connell once said about his career, but his forced international retirement due to a hamstring injury was a huge blow. He was their talisman and leader.

Whether playing for and captaining Munster, Ireland or the British Lions, O’Connell has been a dominant presence at the heart of the scrum, the lineout and as a leader of every team who have followed him out of the tunnel. Much like Martin Johnson, O’Connell is a galvanising force when the spirit of those around him looks as if it might dip or flag.

Having lead Ireland to successive Six Nations championships, he is Ireland’s third most capped player, the twelfth most international capped player in rugby history. Not bad for someone who only started playing rugby at 16.

O’Connell has never given in without a fight. It is his defining quality. His lineout prowess, ferocity of his scrummaging, his octopus-like stretching arms over the maul, his work-rate, his rugby intellect – all marked him out as a key player in any team. It is the fierce, elemental nature of his play that sets him apart. That has been ‘Paulie’, uncompromising, committed, a colossus.

Another milestone at the Rugby World Cup was the 100th cap for the explosive All Black centre Ma’a Nonu. He has built a reputation as a beautiful passing centre, a blockbusting runner able to break the line, off-load the ball and set up or score scintillating tries.

On a cool Friday night in Newcastle, he ran out first onto the field versus Tonga for the 50,000 crowd to acknowledge the achievement. At the final whistle, brother Palepoi hung ula’lole around his neck, blindside Jerome Kaino lifted him on his shoulders through the player’s tunnel, and Richie McCaw presented the tasseled silver cap recognising a century of appearances, only awarded to only five other men before him.

Despite Richie McCaw’s absence due to injury, there were a historic four centurions in the All Blacks team – Tony Woodcock (118 caps), Dan Carter (109) and Keven Mealamu (129), joined Nonu. McCaw has a staggering 145 caps. Mils Muliaina is the other centurion on 100 caps, retiring in 2011. Sadly, injury to Woodcock saw his international career end on the night.

It’s a fantastic achievement to gain one cap for the All Blacks, let alone a hundred, and whilst many claim great teams operate to the maxim ‘there is no I in team’, there is no doubt that successful teams are comprised of high performing individuals like O’Connell and Nonu. If you crush the individual character and spirit of those who form your team, how can your team operate at its best?

The strongest teams don’t neutralise individual tendencies, they leverage and harness individual talents, not stifling them – the All Blacks clearly show this with over half their team being the best in the world at their position. Yet, with great individual talent to hand, why is it hard to get teams to realise their potential? How can people work more effectively in teams?

Key business dilemmas such as these were researched by Mark de Rond, in his book The I in Team. Combining social and psychological research with stories from team sport and high performance athletes, de Rond tested many popular notions about teams. His findings advocate a new way to view team potential as a path to business advantage, and shows what team leaders can learn by focusing on the individuals within them.

His overriding conclusion is quite stark and unexpected: Performance should take precedence over teamwork because over-emphasising the harmonious nature of a team can have a negative impact on performance. The assumption is that team harmony is somehow a cause or precursor for performance – a lot of the evidence points exactly the other way.

So the maxim There is no I in Team turns out is only half true. It ignores the fact that great teams have great individual members, and high performing teams are not always easy places to be – de Rond acknowledges that with few exceptions, the qualities that make individuals gifted can make them wearisome as team members, and that powerful teams are made up of individuals who have chosen to work as a team.

In his research, de Rond tackles other realities of teams:

Everyone is not equal In high performance teams, star performers increase a team’s overall effectiveness but only to a point. If the proportion of stars versus average members exceeds 50%, you begin to experience diminishing returns.

Emotional intelligence plays a part de Rond reports that ‘If someone is strongly disliked, it is almost irrelevant whether or not he is competent. By contrast, if someone is liked, her colleagues will seek out every bit of competence she has to offer, meaning that a little likeability has far more mileage than competence in making someone a desirable team member.

Too much harmony can hurt team performance Without internal competition, teams may underperform. A healthy level of internal competition can help get the best out of high performers. While we want everyone to be on the same page, people have different versions of reality.

Productivity tumbles with size de Rond shows that productivity and team size is less an issue of coordination, and more a problem of contribution. Team members are more likely to optimise their performance when faced with slightly fewer members. Larger teams were inclined to seek consensus rather than explore novel ideas – de Rond describes this as ‘social loafing’.

Teamship de Rond’s research highlighted that the most effective teams are unsurprisingly comprised of consistent membership. In a group of ten, where six members have been together for six months or more, this is the tipping point where socialisation of new members is manageable and doesn’t impact productivity; beyond this, the imbalance of existing and new team members is dysfunctional and has an adverse impact on performance.

Complimenting de Rond’s research, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational team failure, identifying the five dysfunctions, where a team becomes silos of individuals.

  • Absence of trust
  • Fear of conflict
  • Lack of commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results

Having these concerns, the key challenge is to ensure team cohesion and that high performing individuals fit into this dynamic process, building the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of goals and objectives.

We have seen star teams do extraordinary work. For example, it took just 600 Apple engineers less than two years to develop, debug, and deploy OS X, a revolutionary change in the company’s operating system. By contrast, it took as many as 10,000 engineers more than five years to develop, debug, deploy, and eventually retract Microsoft’s Windows Vista.

The blockbuster movie Toy Story – one of the most innovative and top-grossing films of all time – wasn’t the product of one visionary filmmaker. Rather, it was the result of an often prickly but ultimately productive collaboration among Pixar’s top artists and animators. If you have world-class talent on a team, you multiply the productivity and performance advantages that stand-alone stars deliver in terms of sheer firepower.

Take another sport, cricket, where the individual performance matters and there are star performing individuals, but always, for the greatest impact, it has to be channelled towards the collective end. Individuality alone is insufficient – a batsman may continually hit centuries, but if bowlers and fielders don’t perform, the team won’t win.

Contrast James Anderson and Kevin Pietersen in terms of attitude and behaviour. Anderson a world-class performer who is committed to the team and whose authenticity and humility are self evident, it was instructive to find the telling remark made to Kevin Pietersen, a similar ‘solo’ performer to Anderson but who is disruptive to the team, was made by his former England colleague Matthew Hoggard, that ‘maybe team sport’s not for you, Kevin?’

Pietersen is a highly gifted cricketer, a unique batsman, a fearless seat-of-the-pants player capable of transforming a match. To a great extent he has done so by marching to the beat of his own drum, for which, while he was at his peak and delivering awesome performances, allowance was made for his maverick tendencies.

Having been acknowledged as England’s primary batsman, guaranteed to deliver, his England career decline coincided with his decision to seek riches elsewhere, lauded for his talent as an individual performer, notably the IPL. These mercenary tendencies manifestly began to intrude on and take precedence in his thoughts.

He opted out of being a team player and playing for himself. He sought rewards for his personal performance as a bat-for-hire, hawking himself around the franchises of the cricket world, playing mediocre cricket by his standards. Playing for the England team became secondary on this agenda.

It is also noticeable that this focus on himself and not the England team career coincided with his public conflict with the team management, and tension with his teammates. Pietersen had little respect for the team cohesion. As a result, he will not play for England again and to suggest otherwise is just delusional.

The implication is that leaders should look to assess an individual’s attitude around the ‘I in team’, specifically ensuring that team members are clear about and happy with team goals that have been identified. Appropriate action should be taken on developing team communication and shared responsibility – developing the ‘we’ mentality, that it would appear Pietersen lacked, but O’Connell and Nonu have in spades.

So considering all this research, what attitudes and behaviours should you look for in high performing individuals when building a team? For me, there are three primary considerations to consider high-performing individuals:

A sense of humility & equality Humility is critical to developing and maintaining positive working relationships. An individual whose ego is so self-inflated with their own self-worth will quickly run into trouble. Everyone in an organisation contributes through assigned roles. While high-performers will potentially deliver more impact, everyone on the team deserves to be treated with respect.

Authentic and collaboration Authenticity and collaboration are critical to both individual and team success. High performers who are team players are active participants. They come prepared for team meetings and listen and speak up in discussions. They’re fully engaged in the work of the team and do not sit passively on the sidelines simply focused on their own agenda.

Share positive, contagious energy Emotions are contagious and infecting a team with either positive or negative energy. You can be a germ or a big dose a Vitamin C. When you share positive energy you infectiously enhance the mood, morale and performance of your team. Remember, negativity is toxic. High performers with high egos are energy vampires and sabotage teams.

Both O’Connell and Ma’a Nonu shows that if you want a winning team, you need to ensure that each individual team member is responsible and committed to contributing to the team, and accountable for their performance and behaviour, no matter how much of an individual performer they are.

Effective teamwork is critical to an organisation’s success. We are better together than we are apart said Richie McCaw. When you score a try for the All Blacks, you do it for the team, because the silver fern on the front of the shirt, and the shirt itself, are more important than the name on the team sheet.

No one can whistle a symphony, it takes a whole orchestra to play it. Individual commitment to a group effort – that’s what makes a great rugby team work, a company work. Many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us, but when you have an individual like Ma’a Nonu or Paul O’Connell in your team, it makes a difference.

Thoughts from the early stages of #RWC2015

The competition for the 2015 William Webb Ellis trophy is now well underway, although England’s weekend defeat by Wales certainly put a damper on things in our house. But unlike the football world cup, there aren’t many flags outside houses, pubs or on cars. I guess rugby union doesn’t have the mass appeal of football.

Of course, rugby doesn’t really mean much to most of the population, and utter cluelessness will abound over the complexity of rules in what most see as men running around looking to knock each other over and engage in a bun fight, wrestling for an egg-shaped ball. Let’s face it, if you weren’t brought up on rugby union, you just don’t get it.

Most first time observers will notice that everything in rugby union is oblong. The field is oblong, the players are oblong, and consequently, the shirts are oblong. The shirts are the sort of thing that once no longer able to absorb the mud, water and yanking on the field, you can wear to wash the car in, or indeed, with.

So, let me explain some of the history, rules, formations and etiquette of the game.

What they play in the rugby world cup is rugby union, a 15-a-side game containing amorphous huddles of large, oblong men who step on each other. Rugby league, on the other hand, is a 13-a-side game, in which large, square men run full pelt into each other. These differences are vital.

Rugby union is the game they play in heaven, and yet the most painstaking study of either Old or New Testament is unlikely to reward the reader with any reference to Jesus, St Peter or the Archangel Gabriel scrummaging on the 22m line.

The game split following a meeting in The George Hotel in Huddersfield in 1895, driven by the authorities seeking to enforce the amateur principle of the sport, preventing ‘broken time payments’ to players who had taken time off work to play rugby.

Northern teams typically had more working class players (coal miners, mill workers etc.) who could not afford to play without this compensation, in contrast to affluent southern teams who had other sources of income to sustain the amateur principle (check out Downton Abbey). As a consequence, rugby league is stronger than union in the North of England.

A rugby team consists of Forwards and Backs.

Among the Forwards – the hearty muscle men – are such positions as the Props (2), a Hooker, the Second Rowers (2), Flankers (2) and the Number Eight. These are the real blokes who do all the work, have punch-ups and bully the backs (see below) in training, the dressing room and when out socialising. The Forwards stick together as a ‘pack’, and you’ll hear them running like the sound of a stampede of deranged wildebeest.

Lurking behind the Forwards are the Backs, who include: Scrum-Half, Fly-Half, Inside and Outside Centres, two Wingers, and a Full-Back. No scientific research has ever revealed what they do other than run with the ball, fall over with operatic drama when get tackled and give yet more work to the Forwards. The Backs dive around a lot trying to look good.

Backs are clearly distinguishable from the Forwards by their obvious over- use of men’s beauty products and visits to the dental hygienist, fear of getting dirty – they leave the field with shirts unblemished whilst the forwards are typically ripped to smithereens and covered in mud, blood and sweat – and drinking fresh coconut water in the bar, whilst the Forwards get stuck into the beer. And then get stuck into the Backs.

You want your daughter to marry a Forward, not a Back.

The game goes for two halves of 40 minutes apiece, plus injury time. This is about the only rugby rule you’ve got a chance of understanding if you didn’t play the game at school.

The team in possession of the ball (egg-shaped, 15cm x 30cm) is seeking to score a ‘Try’, by putting the ball down across the opposition try-line (there’s the clue.) So a bloke runs with the ball until tackled, and then everyone sort of gets giddy, jumping in together into a shapeless mass, highlighted by a spirited form of folk-dancing in which they attempt to sink their boot-studs into the nearest deposit of opposition soft tissue.

By the way, this is for the Forwards, the Backs stay well back for fear of getting a chipped fingernail in the melee.

Every so often, the referee blows his whistle, apparently out of pity, contrariness, or boredom. This will usually result in either:

A scrum: a vital attacking and psychological tool. The scrum takes place after certain infringements. The Forwards pack down as a unit, link arms and immediately group-head-butt their opposite numbers while frantically kicking at their ankles and trying to out-grunt their counterparts and win the ball to teammates behind them, using their feet only.

How dominant the Backs are in a match, and how much space and time they have to work with, is determined by the dominance of the Forwards and the scrum.

A ruck is the phase of play when one or more players from each team are bound over the ball, which is on the ground between them. The aim of the ruck is for the players to roll the ball with their feet to their teammates behind them.

A maul is similar to the ruck, except the ball is not on the floor but is the hands of one of the players.

The line-out takes place after the ball has left the field of play. Here players from both teams form lines, a player throws the ball between them and they jump up to catch it, and then feed the ball to the scrum-half. It is a combination of a ruck and ballet, in that players are allowed to propel their teammate by grabbing a fistful of crotch and/or buttock and launching him skywards at the incoming ball.

Line-outs and scrums sometimes resemble mayhem, in that the players often don’t get it quite right, prompting the referee to get flustered and angry and eventually award a kick to one team out of exasperation.

Every time the ref interrupts the general pandemonium by blowing his whistle, he shouts out in a booming Brian Blessed-type voice what decision he has made, and despite the testosterone physicality of rugby, you’ll see 100% respect for the referee and his decisions – no petulance, answering back or heckling like you do from footballers.

Talking of football, rugby is a game played by men who spend 80 minutes trying not to look injured and play the game honestly; football is a game played by men who spend 90 minutes trying to look injured and not play the game honestly. Just my opinion!

Scoring – a try is worth five points. A conversion, which comes after a try is scored, two points. Three points for a penalty, which results from a successful drop-kick going over the cross bar. So nine times out of 10, the team with the most tries wins.

So, that’s a quick guide to the game, and now 10 days into the competition, who will be champions?

In reality, there should only be one winner, and that is holders New Zealand, who, quite staggeringly since they won the trophy on home soil four years ago, have won 38 of 42 matches, drawing two (both against Australia) and losing only to England (2012) and South Africa (2014).

They are ranked number one and were you to name a world XV you would be obliged to pick nearly half the All Blacks team – Julian Savea, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick – you quickly realise that you cannot leave too many of them out.

But rugby is a team effort, not just individuals, so what lessons can we take from the world cup about building successful business teams?

Mental resilience is vital to winning the game It’s not often in business that you get as immediate feedback as you do in a game of rugby, the scoreboard tells it as it is in the moment, there’s a really clear distinction between success and failure. Of course the game isn’t won or lost until 80 minutes are on the clock, so you have to be mentally tough when losing or avoid complacency when winning to keep going. This applies to business, you have to keep an eye on performance and result, but play to the final whistle, don’t take your foot off the gas or give up, keep going.

Never underestimate an underdog After Japan’s stunning victory over South Africa it is clear that the underdog advantage should not be underestimated. Business giants may have financial dominance, marketplace clout or a brand reputation, but they can also fall into the trap of complacency and become stagnant.

Big businesses often don’t take notice of their smaller competitors, which enables the David v Goliath strategy of the underdog to not play by the same rules. Japan recognised they could not compete with the physicality of the Sprinboks, they are smaller and lighter, and thus played a dynamic game relying on their fast runners and pace.

Change the focus from who lost to who won and why All the focus has been on why South Africa lost to Japan, and why England fell to Wales. Very little has been said about the Japanese and how they won, or the guile, courage and agility shown by the Welsh. We often focus on losses and highlight what went wrong and not what to do rather than what made a difference to enable the winners to win.

Set explicit standards
Sir Clive Woodward called these critical non-essentials, and Stuart Lancaster has continued with setting a culture of high expectations. He banned headphones and mobile phones from team meetings, only allowing them in players’ own rooms, and run on ‘Lombardi time’ – inspired by Vince Lombardi, famed coach of the Green Bay Packers – whereby everyone arrives at a meeting 10 minutes early.

The players set their watches 10 minutes fast so they are never late.

In business I see meetings regularly starting late, people answering phones during conversations, laptops up when other people are presenting.

Always learning, always growing Very much like Dave Brailsford’s principles of ‘marginal gains’ which has delivered outstanding success for both the British Olympic Cycling and the Sky cycling team, Stuart Lancaster’s focus is all about learning and finding incremental ways to do better. The focus is on continual improvement and creating a strong learning environment. Every business needs to be a learning organisation if it is to grow.

When you get knocked down, get back up straight away In Rugby, players prepare for a big hit – set backs are therefore planned for and overcome. The same attitude should be taken in business. Just because you are defeated in one phase of play does not mean that failure should be assumed overall.

The most successful individuals in business are those able to recognise their shortfalls in a defeat and use them as a learning to lead to future success. It’s crucial in business to bounce back and avoid that pitfall the next time.

So, come 8pm, 31 October, just pause for a moment and as England get ready to face the All Blacks in the final, reflect on the England XV, an outstanding team of individuals – not a team of outstanding individuals. Everyone will play their part. As Shakespeare said ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’. Come on England!






A team is many voices, but one heart

Wednesday last week marked 100 days until the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and the launch of the Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour to visit 300 events before arriving at the opening ceremony on 18 September. The full Trophy Tour schedule is here. The 100-day milestone also marks the start of the Festival of Rugby 2015 programme, which will run until to 31 October and match 48 of the tournament, the final.

I can’t wait. I’ve got tickets purchased for selected games, and planning the international food and drink festival to run alongside the schedule of televised games, together with a realignment of sofas and chairs in the front room to optimise viewing for a throng of visitors, and then the events planned at my local rugby club alongside this.

It brings back great memories of England’s victory in 2003, especially that that closing passage of play from the final – the lineout take from Lewis Moody, the break from Matt Dawson, Jonny Wilkinson standing in the pocket and Ian Robertson’s iconic commentary – He drops for World Cup glory. It’s over. He’s done it. Wilkinson’s last-gasp effort was all that separated England and Australia after 100 minutes of rugby and a dramatic extra-time finale.

On 22 November, 2003, captain Martin Johnson became the first player to lead a northern hemisphere side to the world title. I don’t think I’ve ever shouted at the television as much as I did that day, or been as emotional, almost shaking. Australia battled hard and were never out of the game but ultimately fell just short. Here’s what I remember of the game.

The Wallabies started strongly when Tuqiri out-jumped Jason Robinson to a huge Stephen Larkham bomb with just six minutes on the clock, but three Wilkinson penalties soon silenced the home support. In the pouring rain, both sides kept the ball in hand and the England pack began to dominate.

With just 10 minutes of the first half left, Ben Kay knocked on with the try-line beckoning. Minutes later, England silenced the doubters when Jason Robinson magically scuttled over wide on the left after a powerful midfield burst from Lawrence Dallaglio. Jason jumps up and punches the ball into the air. Queue mayhem in our house.

The men in white started the second half as they had finished the first. Johnson led from the front with a towering performance and Dallaglio and flanker Richard Hill out thought and out scrapped the Aussies down the middle of the pitch.  But just as England looked likely to pull away, two careless penalties allowed Elton Flatley to bring his side back within touching distance.

Lancastrian Will Greenwood knocked on inside the Aussie 22 and Wilkinson missed a drop goal as the match entered a tense closing quarter.  Runs from the powerful Stirling Mortlock and ebullient George Smith pushed England back, and as referee Andre Watson prepared to blow for full time, Elton Flatley slotted his third kick of the half to push the match into extra time.

People seem to forget the composure and mental-toughness Flatley had at that moment, ultimately lost in the euphoria of England’s victory, but it was an awesome kick under extreme pressure. Four times Flatley put the ball between the posts, a fine personal game from the inside-centre ultimately on the losing side.

Now the players looked understandably exhausted and when Wilkinson and Flatley again swapped penalties in extra-time, the match looked to be heading into sudden death. Then, just 38 second of extra-time remaining, and everything going to plan. Two breaks up field, then a long pass, Dawson to Wilkinson, who shapes up confidently, and with his non-dominant kicking right foot calmly bangs over the match winner. The World Cup winner. England, World Champions.

For the record:

  • 6 mins: Tuqiri try puts Australia ahead
  • 38 mins: Robinson scores a try after three Wilkinson penalties – England 14-5 ahead
  • 80 mins: Australia haul themselves back level with Flatley’s last-gasp penalty, 14-14
  • 82 mins: Wilkinson’s penalty gives England an extra-time advantage
  • 97 mins: Flatley strikes again to equalise at 17-17
  • 100 mins: Wilkinson’s drop goal wins England the World Cup, 20-17

England: J Lewsey, J Robinson, W Greenwood, M Tindall, B Cohen; J Wilkinson, M Dawson; T Woodman, S Thompson, P Vickery; M Johnson; (captain), B Kay; Richard Hill, N Back, L Dallaglio. Replacements: D West, J Leonard, M Corry, L Moody, K Bracken, M Catt, I Balshaw.

Rugby is a physical game – former England hooker Brian Moore once said If you can’t take a punch, you should play table tennis – but it’s not all about bashing and brawn, there’s plenty of guile and thought. At the margin, with 38 seconds to go, this win was about composure and planning.

In sport and business, self-control is essential, the capacity to make the right decisions when under pressure is a vital leadership trait. Composure is a telling factor in performance whether it contributes to the scoreboard or the bottom-line. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm, but in the frenzy of the storm, holding your nerve, keeping focus and stopping the blood rushing to the head enables you to put your training into practice, and that’s just what England did.

England had a phrase in the 2003 World Cup – T-CUP – Thinking-Correctly-Under-Pressure – for those pivotal crisis moments, taking it from the training ground into the heat of the game. When interviewed after the game, Wilkinson was asked if he’d been nervous, one swing of the boot and England were World Champions? Not really he replied, the last 38 seconds had been six years in the making.

Under Clive Woodward, England had a clear focus on preparation. They had a vision, and worked backwards from that, what did they need to do to be World Champions? Leaving nothing to chance, they prepared for the moment – in the last few minutes of the final, close to the opposition posts, scores level, what’s the move that gives us the opportunity to win?

Watch the video of the move – Johnson, Dawson, Catt and Greenwood all took the planning and learning from the training ground, and with discipline and composure, got the ball to Jonny. The move had been rehearsed many, many times over the last six years, and they made it count when it mattered most.

Composure is the product of an ambitious mentality envisioning and outcome to which we aspire. It requires persistence, vision, discipline, self-belief and patience. Being persistent requires constant thinking and developing the process to create the plan to accomplish our goals as the situation changes. A plan doesn’t require detail, rather it guides our actions to ensure we are always progressing towards accomplishing our goals.

Our mettle is tested as pressure-filled situations create doubt. Having doubt is a natural reaction, which we all experience. But being composed and having a direction and destination we believe in is what helps us to endure and overcome anxiety in the moment. Without having a direction, your head is filled with what I call a box of frogs leaping around, all sorts of stuff going off all over the place, and you’ve no chance of making the right decision. If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there. It wasn’t raining when Noah started building the ark.

From this vision, Woodward instilled a disciplined thinking into the players, detailing the individual and team development principles he thought essential for a successful team:

Teamship At Woodward’s first training session they did nothing but establish the teamship rules for being part of the squad. There were no rugby balls. Woodward took the time to establish what the team stood for, how it was going to work and what it wanted to be remembered for, before tackling the what, the why and the how of accomplishing the task.

Critical non-essentials Woodward identified a host of smaller items that on their own appeared not to be crucial to the team’s success, but in aggregate they added up. These included being in your seat ten minutes before a team meeting was scheduled to start, changing into new kit for the second-half (no matter the score, we start again), and specialist coaching where needed – this included getting RAF Tornado fighter pilot eye coaches for helping Jonny Wilkinson with focus and accuracy on kicking placement.

Talent & Teachability It’s the base you start from, but talent alone is not enough, it’s too unpredictable to create a winning team. Individuals have to become students, their willingness to learn and accumulate knowledge around their role will give them the awareness of what they need to do to continually. Talent without training is like an octopus on roller skates – there’s plenty of movement but you never know if this is going to be forwards, backwards or sideways.

Pressure Individuals have to have a warrior spirit, said Woodward, meaning they are able to perform well at the critical moment – hence the acronym T-CUP. It’s the job of the leader to constantly put their team under pressure. People aren’t born to perform under pressure, they need to get used to it because only the winners perform their best under pressure.

Practice Woodward created an environment where the team constantly went through hypothetical situations under time pressure to reach a decision. It’s about role-play, after role-play, working through every eventuality so that the team has already gone through the thought processes needed to overcome them. This reduces the chances of coming up against something unexpected in the real world, allowing the team to use the little time they may have to think through the problem. Don’t win against the odds.

Winning culture – the commitment to win. It’s all about attitude. Woodward broke this down into three parts:

  • Obsession with the task: individuals focus on attention to detail and have an uncompromising level of excellence;
  • Responsibility: a readiness to take on their job and ensure they are seen through;
  • Enjoyment: team members have to ask themselves whether their colleagues enjoy working with them, and why.

Beyond number 1 For Woodward, this focused on what he did once the England team was ranked number one in the world, how did he behave, what culture did he instil in the team and how did they continue to improve ‘beyond number 1’?  So when your team achieves its goals, what do you do next?  How do you stay one step ahead of the chasing pack, motivated to bring you down a peg?  How do you maintain a state of mind that avoids complacency?

Woodward’s insightful thinking was built on the platform of back-to-front planning – he started with his vision of winning the World Cup at the Telstra Stadium Sydney, 22 November 2003. He asked the question: What is that World Cup winning team going to look like? and worked it backwards. He didn’t start with the squad he inherited and work forward, building slowly, gradually, pulling the pieces to culminate to a magnificent climax.

Quite the opposite, planning backwards, he knew what his team needed to look like in 2003 when he was appointed in 1997.  Stuart Lancaster has adopted this approach for England’s 2015 World Cup campaign, he’s identified his XV will have more than 500 caps as his platform. Let’s take this thinking into a business context:

Where do we want to be? Where are we now? How will we get there? This is the building block approach towards identifying the winning requirements of your business. If you concentrate on winning in the here and now, your mindset would take you to building a team for today, so it’s about having the courage to focus on both at the same time – the business team of today, and the business team of tomorrow, meaning you’re working in the business, as well as on the business.

Backwards planning means thinking ahead. Thinking backwards changes the focus from whether something might happen to how it might happen. Putting yourself into the future creates a different perspective. Thinking backwards helps to discover and evaluate different scenarios for how the future might unfold. This stops you looking backwards, which I think is a good thing.

Create a team culture of winning. Everyone has to be comfortable with the expectation of winning. Woodward ensured there was no hiding place – don’t look to the person on your left or right, do it yourself; don’t just turn up, make a contribution. He made a winning ethic the team ethic. He identified those he wanted on his team – energisers, full of drive, fire, intensity, passion, spirit, and those he didn’t – energy sappers, who bleed, deplete, drain, erode, undermine the team.

A team is many voices, but a single heart. On that day in Sydney, England had the biggest heart in the world, underpinned by vision, discipline, clarity and focus. If you build these qualities into your business team, you can create a winning mentality and success for your business.

Now, with 95 days to go to the World Cup, I’ll be keeping an eye on the preparation of England and the All Blacks, my second team. I’m looking forward to the tournament where, as former England forward Gareth Chilcott once said, rugby is a game where you can have a quiet beer followed by several noisy ones.


Lessons from Clarkson & Pietersen for team cohesion

Jeremy Clarkson’s contract was not renewed by the BBC last week following his fracas with producer Oisin Tymon, bringing an end to his role in Top Gear. As the figurehead of the programme, he had a major impact in its global success, but can delivering success and achieving results for the organisation excuse an individual’s bad behaviour? What should you do if the ‘star’ of your own organisation continuously pushed the boundaries in an unacceptable way, breaching accepted standards and going against your values?

Pushing boundaries on camera for a TV audience is one thing, pushing boundaries inside the organisation by having a physical altercation with another member of staff is another. As a business leader, what do you do if you have a Clarkson in your team? Someone who gets incredible results but who doesn’t live the organisation’s values and whose actions negatively impact the wider team?

All too often, leaders may be tempted to turn a blind eye to the behaviour of their top or most important performers. They may let them get away with it because their results are so valuable. Leaders can be afraid to be tough even when it’s the right thing to do, the dilemma overwhelming them, but ultimately they let the incident pass.

In reality, for me it is a straightforward decision to remove a disruptive individual like a Clarkson from my team – no one is bigger than the team. I want a culture of team cohesion and values to be the framework of my organisation, and besides the fact he isn’t aligned to my moral compass, he’d also breached some basic employment law principles.

Leadership is about ethics and principles, shaped by your values. By making a morally correct decision and letting your ‘star’ go, may mean you risk losing revenue and face having them snapped up by the competition, but in the long-term, there will be a greater gain for the organisation and your brand.

Clarkson didn’t give the BBC many options, you can’t thump a member of your own team in a drunken, foul-mouthed rant – however cold the food. Clarkson was removed because ultimately no one individual is bigger than the organisation. This is an old adage from sport, where no one is bigger than the team. Take the complexity of cricket, where a whole series of contests, one on one, ultimately are embraced within a team context.

In cricket, the individual performance matters, but always, for the greatest impact, it has to be channelled towards the collective end. Individuality alone is insufficient – a batsman may continually hit centuries, but if bowlers and fielders don’t perform, the team won’t win. So in the same week as the Clarkson debacle, it was instructive to find that the most telling remark made to Kevin Pietersen, a similar ‘solo’ performer, who now wants to resume his England career, was made by his former England colleague Matthew Hoggard, that ‘maybe team sport’s not for you, Kevin?’

Pietersen is a highly gifted cricketer, a unique batsman, a fearless seat-of-the-pants player capable of transforming a match perhaps like no other of his generation. To a great extent he has done so by marching to the beat of his own drum, for which, while he was at his peak and delivering awesome performances, allowance was made for his maverick tendencies.

Pietersen’s England scorecard can almost be divided into two halves. In the first, in 45 Tests up until he lost the captaincy in 2008, he averaged 50+ and recorded 15 hundreds; since then, in a further 59 Tests, when he should have been at his peak, his average declined to 44 and only eight hundreds.

Whilst he has been hampered by achilles and knee problems, his England career decline coincided with his decision to seek riches elsewhere, lauded for his talent as an individual performer, notably the IPL. These mercenary tendencies manifestly began to intrude on and take precedence in his thoughts. He sought rewards for his personal performance as a bat-for-hire, hawking himself around the franchises of the cricket world, playing mediocre cricket by his standards. Playing for the England team became secondary on this agenda.

It is also noticeable that the second period of his England career coincided precisely with his public conflict with the team management, and tension with his teammates. Like Clarkson, Pietersen had little respect for the team cohesion. As Hoggard says, he will not play for England again and to suggest otherwise is just delusional.

With great individual talent to hand, why is it hard to get teams to realise their potential? How can people work more effectively in teams, and why is there conflict when a team’s intentions are aligned? Is that conflict harmful, or can it actually help the group dynamic? Key business dilemmas such as these were researched by Mark de Rond, Associate Professor of Strategy and Organization at the Judge Business School at Cambridge University, in his book The I in Team. The book address some key issues:

  • There is an I in team – and why that matters
  • The best teams rarely comprise the best individual performers
  • Conflict happens even as intentions are perfectly aligned
  • Likeability can trump competence in even technically sophisticated environments
  • A focus on interpersonal harmony can actually hurt team performance

Combining social and psychological research with stories from team sport and high performance athletes, de Rond tested many popular notions about teams. His findings advocate a new way to view team potential as a path to business advantage, and shows what team leaders can learn by focusing on the individuals within them. His conclusion is interesting:

Performance should take precedence over teamwork because over-emphasising the harmonious nature of a team can have a negative impact on performance. The assumption that many people make is that team harmony is somehow a cause or precursor for performance. A lot of the evidence points exactly the other way.

The often repeated phrase, ‘There’s no ‘I’ in TEAM’ it turns out is only half true. It ignores the fact that great teams have great individual members, and high performing teams are not always easy places to be – de Rond acknowledges that with few exceptions, the qualities that make individuals gifted can make them wearisome as team members.

Great team members are often perfectionists, paranoid, stubborn and extremely confident, but they do perform. Team leadership is as much about mitigating the risks of these traits as it is about exploiting their potential. David Whitaker wrote in The Spirit of Teams, ‘If you want an exceptional team, keep your eye on the individual. Teams thrive on individual choice and commitment. Powerful teams are made up of individuals who have chosen to work as a team.’

In his research, some of which resonates to Clarkson and Pietersen, de Rond tackles other realities of teams:

Everyone is not equal In high performance teams, star performers increase a team’s overall effectiveness but only to a point. If the proportion of stars versus average members exceeds 50%, you begin to experience diminishing returns.

Emotional intelligence plays a part De Rond reports that ‘If someone is strongly disliked, it is almost irrelevant whether or not he is competent. By contrast, if someone is liked, her colleagues will seek out every bit of competence she has to offer, meaning that a little likeability has far more mileage than competence in making someone a desirable team member.

Too much harmony can hurt team performance Without internal competition, teams may underperform. A healthy level of internal competition can help get the best out of high performers. While we want everyone to be on the same page, people have different versions of reality. Whether or not they are correct is less relevant than what their realities tell you about their priorities.

Productivity tumbles with size An interesting series of studies show that productivity and team size is less an issue of coordination, and more a problem of contribution. Team members are more likely to optimise their performance when faced with slightly fewer members than the task at hand requires. Larger teams were inclined to seek consensus rather than explore novel ideas – de Rond describes this as ‘social loafing’.

Leadership is about asking questions Understanding and managing humanity is key to leading teams. De Rond concludes, ‘And then, not by dispensing solutions, but by knowing what questions to ask and when.’

Complimenting de Rond’s research, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational politics and team failure. According to his research, the five dysfunctions are:

  • Absence of trust: unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
  • Fear of conflict: seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
  • Lack of commitment: feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organisation
  • Avoidance of accountability: ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behaviour which sets low standards
  • Inattention to results: focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

Underlying our thinking and experience about teams, is that attitude is everything. The late Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s hamburger chain when asked what had made him successful, said, “My MBA’ But he didn’t mean a graduate degree in business education, he meant ‘A mop-and-bucket attitude.’ In other words, no work task was too insignificant for him to tackle; he simply jumped in and got the job done. He built his business on this approach, recruiting team players who embraced his ‘mop-and-bucket’ philosophy.

So considering all this research, what attitudinal behaviours should you look for in individuals when building a team?

A sense of modesty & equality Modesty is critical to developing and maintaining positive working relationships. An individual whose ego is so self-inflated with their own self-worth will quickly run into trouble. Team members will reject and avoid them, productivity will suffer. Everyone in an organisation contributes through assigned roles. While there are different levels of responsibility in the organisational hierarchy, they still deserve to be treated with respect.

Active and authentic Authentity and integrity are critical to both individual and corporate success. You can spot insincerity a mile away. Good team players are active participants. They come prepared for team meetings and listen and speak up in discussions. They’re fully engaged in the work of the team and do not sit passively on the sidelines.

Collaboration and perseverance, and pitches in to help Collaboration and acting together to accomplish a job, effective team players work this way by second nature. They respond to requests for assistance and take the initiative to offer help. Great team players take the time to make positive work relationships with other team members a priority and display a genuine passion and commitment toward their team.

Work for the team The most powerful way you can contribute to your team is to use your talents to contribute to the team’s vision and goals. This means you have an obligation to improve so you can improve your team. You are meant to develop your strengths to make a stronger team. Be selfish by developing you and unselfish by making sure your strengths serve the team.

Share positive, contagious energy Research shows emotions are contagious and infecting a team with either positive or negative energy. You can be a germ or a big dose a Vitamin C. When you share positive energy you infectiously enhance the mood, morale and performance of your team. Remember, negativity is toxic. Energy vampires sabotage teams.

Trust them to put the team first Great team players always put the team first. Their motto is whatever it takes to make the team better. They don’t take credit. They give credit to the team. To be a great team member your ego must be subservient to the mission and purpose of the team.

Having these individual traits, the next challenge is team cohesion, a dynamic process reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of goals and objectives. Within this, there are two further dimensions of cohesion:

  • Task cohesion: the degree to which members of teamwork together to achieve a specific and identifiable goal.
  • Social cohesion: the degree to which members of a team like each other and enjoy personal satisfaction from being members of the team.

Both task and social cohesion were found to contribute to better performance.

The implications of these findings to avoid a Clarkson or Pietersen sacking is that leaders should look to assess an individual’s attitude around the ‘I in team’, and their team’s cohesion, and develop team-building strategies to improve team cohesion at every given opportunity, to ultimately improve team performance.

Specifically, leaders should work on making sure that team members are clear about and happy with team goals that have been identified. Appropriate action should be taken to ensure that players get on with each other and enjoy being part of the team, and then work on developing team communication and shared responsibility – developing the ‘we’ mentality, that it would appear Clarkson and Pietersen lacked.

I particularly like this quote from Saint-Exupery, that captures the essence of team cohesion: If you want to build a ship, don’t teach the workers to find the wood and saw it and nail the boards together; teach them how to love the seas.


Like England rugby & the All Blacks – does your organisation have a heart beat?

Saturday’s Six Nation’s final day was surely the championship’s most thrilling ever. The sight of Graham Rowntree shaking his cauliflower ears in dismay at the lack of English defence probably left the grizzled old retired prop secretly wishing someone would just stick the ball up his jumper and make a cautious three feet.

The stats: 221 points scored across the three matches, the most in a single weekend; 27 tries, run in from deep and wide and everywhere in between; England’s record score against France, Ireland’s biggest away win, the most tries Wales have scored in one championship half. This was glorious chaos.

At various points in the afternoon England were first in the table, second, third, briefly fourth, back to third and then finally into second again, another metre on a rolling maul away from victory.

And the crescendo began, go down our end and score, we go down your end and score. This just wasn’t Northern Hemisphere rugby, too predictable, too reliant on muscle and penalties. It was a wonderful spectacle, offloads everywhere, penalties tapped and gone before the sound of the whistle had reached your ears.

England’s anguish, despite a 55-35 win against France, left them reflecting that perhaps the championship should have been secured. They lost two line-outs on the French five-metre line when the opposition were spent, lost James Haskell to the sin-bin for a daft trip to cede momentum, and points and at the death seemed certain with a drive over the line only to lose control of the ball with the line under their toes.

There will be concerns about a lack of ruthlessness, a fallibility under pressure, a lack of precision, patience and discipline too in what became an utterly insane try fest, a post-mortem sounds harsh, but is this a team that can seriously make the most of home advantage and secure a second World Cup in 12 years? They can play some great rugby with a combination of power and pace, but are they clinical enough, robust enough and have a belief that anything is possible?

Small margins are important. These are the things that England will work on, but they can hold their heads high and go forward with real confidence – probably until we encounter the All Blacks, current World champions, who embrace a values-based team culture that evidences that above all the physical and mental toughness, team culture is a key driver of success.

Author James Kerr documented a year living with the All Blacks in Legacy, a compelling book that delivers pragmatic and powerful lessons for today’s business leaders from studying the All Blacks’ success:

How do you create a high performance culture? How do you maintain world-class standards? How do you handle pressure? Kerr created ‘The First XV’ – 15 All Black principles, based on the team being fifteen players who work together towards a common purpose – to win a game of rugby – and the principles outlined work in the same way for business.

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, all the players stop and tidy up. They literally and figuratively ‘sweep the sheds’, an example of personal humility, a cardinal All Blacks value. They believe it is impossible to achieve success without having your feet planted firmly on the ground.

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

The philosophy and focus on continual improvement and continuous learning leaves no room for complacency. A winning organisation is one in which each individual takes responsibility for both cultural and commercial outcomes, and even when at the pinnacle of success, look to go again.

III Play with Purpose Ask ‘Why?’

When current captain 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 a core belief, and understanding Why? identifies the purpose of being an All Black. 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

A central belief is the development of leaders and the nurturing of character off the field, to deliver results on it, so that by game day the team consists of one captain, and 15 leaders.

Ownership, accountability and trust. Shared responsibility means shared ownership, a sense of inclusion unites individuals, and 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 – 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’, 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 some 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. No one is bigger than the team. The team always comes first.

VII Embrace Expectations Aim for the highest cloud

A culture of expectation enables the asking and re-asking fundamental questions: how can we do better? Taking risks and responsibilities is one of the skills you learn from rugby, a contest of strength, skill and intelligence.

Judge yourself against the best, create for yourself a narrative of unrealistic ambitions and benchmark yourself to a ‘Personal Best’. Make it an epic of what is possible, literally reach for the sky.

VIII Train to Win Practice under pressure

Brad Thorn’s mantra, Champions Do Extra, helped him become one of the most successful All Blacks’ captains. The philosophy 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.

The 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.

All Blacks run on individual integrity, total accountability, by actions not words. No one is ever late for training. 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. The All Blacks have a framework to think clearly and correctly under pressure:

  • Red Head, a state in which you are off task, tight, results oriented, panicked and ineffective.
  • Blue Head, is an optimal state in which you are 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, triggers to achieve clarity and accuracy, so he 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, attributed to Socrates, the phrase know thy self, is a key tenet of All Blacks philosophy, believing that development of the authentic self is essential to performance.

The All Blacks’ socialising deliberately hark back to the local club rugby, 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 their credo.

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

Focus is vital, 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.

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 effort and sacrifice to do something extraordinary. 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’ 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
  • Leave it all out on the field

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

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, a Maori 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. In chronological and successive jerseys it created 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 heroes, values, the ethos. 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.

The First XV shows how the All Blacks values-led, purpose-driven high-performance culture uses the power of storytelling to give it resonance. The result of this extraordinary environment is extraordinary results. In business, if we align our people, resources and effort around a compelling narrative, and reinforce that story through leadership, communication and training, the results will come, shaped by the desire to achieve and the desire to be part of something special.

Often the numbers people win because they have hard metrics. However, the All Blacks narrative proves that the soft stuff delivers hard results. Culture creates competitive advantage – purpose, vision and the human aspects of your business architecture will deliver better business – and better people. Better people make better All Blacks – but they also make better businessmen, fathers, brothers, and friends.

The All Blacks remind us that We are better together than we are apart. If only we could capture this, and replicate Richie McCaw’s spirit of the All Blacks in our own organisations: When you score a try for the All Blacks, you do it for the team, because the silver fern on the front of the shirt, and the shirt itself, are more important than the name on the team sheet.

Many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us. England showed this on Saturday, the All Blacks show it in every game. Make sure your organisation has this heart beat too.

Breakthrough teams: life’s a shipwreck, but don’t forget to sing in the lifeboats

I spent a recent Saturday at the Moelfre Lifeboat Station on the east coast of Anglesey for their annual open day, when you can wander around the station, meet the volunteer lifeboat men, read the accounts in the log of rescues through the years, and pause to reflect on the bravery, heroics and humanity which the RNLI represents, from the old photos and press cuttings on the boathouse walls. I left inspired and humbled.

Moelfre Lifeboat Station, which opened in 1830, has a remarkable history of bravery, with its lifeboat crews awarded 37 medals for gallantry, four of which are Gold – the V.C. of the lifeboat institution. Gold Medals were awarded to Captain Owen Jones, volunteer lifeboat man, and William Roberts, second coxswain. The remaining two Gold Medals were awarded to the outstanding figure in the station’s history – Coxswain Richard Evans, one of the few lifeboat men ever to be awarded a Gold Medal for bravery twice.

Dic Evans became a crew member in 1921 when he was just 16. He took over as coxswain from his uncle, John Mathews, in 1954, himself a recipient of the Silver Medal. His father, and both his grandfathers had already served with Moelfre lifeboat by the time he was born. He earned his first Gold Medal five years later, during a rescue saving the crew of the stricken SS Hindlea in hurricane force winds. The second Gold Medal came in December 1966, when he helped save 10 men from the Greek ship Nafsiporos, adrift in heavy seas.

In 1969, the year before he retired, Dic received the British Empire Medal. He died on 13 September 2001, aged 96. A 2m bronze statue of Dic Evans, sculptured by Sam Holland is located at the Seawatch Centre, Moelfre, keeping a vigil over the sea. For sculptor Sam Holland it was a passion, as her grandfather served on the Moelfre Lifeboat with Dic Evans.

The RNLI has saved more than 139,000 lives since its foundation in 1824, at a cost of 600 lives lost in service. The charity was founded with royal patronage as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks after an appeal made by Sir William Hillary. Hillary lived on the Isle of Man, and had witnessed the wrecking of dozens of ships from his home. The name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854.

Today, the RNLI operates 444 lifeboats and provides Lifeguards on 200 beaches. Crews rescued on average 23 people a day in 2013.Most lifeboat crew members are unpaid volunteers. The RNLI is principally funded by legacies (65%) and donations (28%), with the remainder from merchandising and investment. As an organisation it has clear statements of purpose, vision and values, vital to give an organisation – and individuals and teams – an identity and focus:

Purpose: The RNLI saves lives at sea.

Vision: To end preventable loss of life at sea.

Values: Our work is based on, and driven by, our values. Our volunteers and staff strive for excellence and are…

Selfless: willing to put the requirements of others before our own and the needs of the team before the individual, able to see the bigger picture and act in the best interests of the RNLI, and to be inclusive and respectful of others. Prepared to share our expertise with organisations that share our aims.

Dependable: always available, committed to doing our part in saving lives with professionalism and expertise, continuously developing and improving. Working in and for the community and delivering on our promises.

Trustworthy: responsible, accountable and efficient in the use of the donations entrusted to us by our supporters, managing our affairs with transparency, integrity and impartiality.

Courageous: prepared to achieve our aims in changing and challenging environments. We are innovative, adaptable and determined in our mission to save more lives at sea.

In terms of what an organisation stands for, and in setting an RNLI life boatman’s personal compass, the above words are inspirational, full of vitality and purpose. Without doubt, the bravery, performance and contribution of the teams of voluntary lifeboat men can give us clear learning points to take into our business thinking about team work. RNLI teams achieve extraordinary results by fusing talented individuals into what I call a ‘breakthrough team’.

At the heart of any great organisational success, you will find an inspired team of individuals who have united to make something remarkable happen – a revolutionary, high performance team, energised, producing outstanding and innovative results by harnessing the individual talents to achieve team goals. The team is transformed from a collection of individuals into a single entity with a shared identity – team members become a plurality with a single-minded focus and purpose.

This team achieves a breakthrough – a ground breaking result, a unique achievement never realised before – and then goes on to make its mark with further notable performances and impacts. Examples of such ‘breakthrough teams’ include Steve Job’s Cupertino team at Apple, Kelly Johnson’s Skunkworks team at Lockheed in the 1940s, and the Apollo XI moon landing team under the guidance of flight director Gene Kranz.

Breakthrough teams differ from traditional teams along every dimension, from the way they recruit members to the way they enforce their processes, their culture and values, and from the expectations they hold to the results they produce.

The headlines from my research shows that breakthrough teams are fundamentally different from successful groups that most organisations have, in several ways:

  • Their working style has an unforgiving, frenetic rhythm and set of expectations; maximum effort is the minimum requirement
  • The team emanates a discernible energy and focus
  • They are utterly unique in the ambitions of their goals, the intensity of their conversations about their objectives, and their focus on results
  • Intense, yet personal and intimate, they work best when forced to work under strict time constraints, but retain a focus on the welfare of colleagues
  • Team members put a great premium on collaboration, there is authentic team-working
  • They focus on thinking correctly under pressure
  • Each team member has a personal credo of be the man that makes a difference; be relentless, be limitless

I’ve fond childhood memories of the RNLI station at Moelfre, I spent many happy summer holidays there as a child, sat on the pebbles eating fish & chips and watching the lifeboat launch, time and time again.  On my recent visit the cohesion of the team, their vibrancy, their single-mindedness, their intimacy and camaraderie were evident from their passionate talks and enthusiastic demonstrations.

There is something both uplifting and concerning about seeing a lifeboat crew arrive at the station and launch. As a young boy it’s the spectacle, as an adult its appreciation of the bravery as to the uncertainty waiting for them and what the result of their actions will be. Here’s a team where the results are genuinely a matter of life and death.

High-functioning teams are what make high-performing organisations like the RNLI click. High performing teams, like the RNLI lifeboat crews, aren’t the result of happy accidents, they achieve superior levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration because their members trust one another, share a strong sense of group identity, and have confidence in their effectiveness as a team. In other words, such teams possess high levels of group emotional intelligence.

A team, like any social group, is governed by shared attitudinal and behavioural norms, which, though sometimes unspoken, are understood within the group. Teams that enjoy high levels of group EI have established norms that strengthen trust, group identity, and group efficacy. As a result, their members cooperate more fully with one another and collaborate more creatively in furthering the team’s work. When you create a climate of trust and the sense that ‘We are better together than we are apart’, it leads to greater effectiveness.”

It’s also important to establish comfortable, group-sanctioned ways to express the inevitable anger, tension, and frustration that arise in a team endeavour and to positively redirect that energy. Inevitably, a team member will indulge in behaviour that crosses the line, and the team must feel comfortable calling the foul.

To have a great team, there is no easy recipe for success, but it resonates around collaboration, having people who understand each other and work well together. Having the right mix of trust, ambition, and team mind-set among your team members is crucial. Reflecting on this, here are my ten thoughts about teams based on my experience and research:

Mutual respect is a key element in relationship development, the catalyst for a strong team. Inevitably, the team will take shape and will discover common ground and mutual connections, and as the teamwork progresses and conflict arises – an unavoidable part of collaboration – the team that has respect for each other will be able to move past conflict towards resolution and ultimately work together.

Specialisation A rugby team shows that where players have different roles but combine effectively to win the game, good teamwork comes from members coalescing their special talents to achieve an end goal. Figuring out who works best where will come naturally as the team spends time together, but it’s important not to suppress individual talents. Allowing each person to make their own unique contributions will lead better outcomes.

Establish clear objectives If the goal of the team, whether short or long-term, isn’t clear from the beginning, many hours will be wasted in frustration, working that goes nowhere. The very first step should be to determine a clear outline of the aims and the end result. Change is always necessary along the way, but a clear focus at the outset is paramount.

Adaptability Being flexible is a key trait of any team player, confronting and resolving crises, rushing to meet deadlines, or working to face unexpected challenges all require adaptation. If someone on a team is unable to change gears and refocus, odds are more issues will arise to further impact the efficient workflow process.

No finger pointing When a mistake is made, it’s easy for members of a team to find a scapegoat and lay individual blame. This will only lead to distrust and low morale. It’s possible that if one person keeps making critical mistakes, they may not have the right skills. The entire team should accept responsibility for shortfalls and move forward together make sure it doesn’t reoccur, before resolving team membership issues.

Hold your hands up If a project has setbacks, it’s better to admit it and start over rather than giving up or presenting a flawed product. A good team will roll with the punches, recognise that each step is essentially an experiment, and stay positive even when facing serious setbacks.

Patience Working with others requires the most the most difficult trait of all, patience and tolerance. We all strive for it, but few people are truly unflappable. Patience will keep a team motivated and allay conflict.

Delegation A capable leader will know one of her primary jobs is to delegate responsibility. One or two team members should never be saddled with all the work, instead the workflow should be distributed evenly and each person given a reasonable amount of work to achieve.

Self managed teams A team doesn’t need a superstar leader to excel, but they do need a self-assured, trustworthy, ambitious leader that keeps morale high and knows when to rally the troops. From this, all team members should listen constructively, monitor the quantitative and qualitative results and maintain good peer-group support.

Competitiveness A healthy dose of internal competition is fuel for inspiration. When you’re working on a team it’s easy for people to become jealous or possessive of each other’s attributes or contributions. However, healthy, respectful competition motivates others to develop even better ideas, because it makes people ask themselves, ‘if she came up with this, can I create something even better?’

Building a breakthrough team requires the expression of open, positive emotions. Recognising individuals not only strengthens a team’s identity, but it also spotlights its effectiveness and fuels its collective passion for building a sense of solidarity, efficacy, and identity – clear traits in the RNLI breakthrough team.

Voltaire said ‘Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats’, whilst Churchill, on the 100th Anniversary of the formation of the RNLI in 1924 said, ‘The lifeboat drives on with a mercy, which does not quail in the presence of death; It drives on as a proof, a symbol, an affirmation, that man is created in the image of God, and that valour, and virtue, have not perished in the British race.’

Two quotes that vividly capture the image of the lifeboat enduring in our lives in times of hardship, and thereby the crew, a breakthrough team of unity and collaboration. The best teamwork comes from men who are working independently toward one goal in unison, recognising that none of us is as smart as all of us. I hope you can build a breakthrough team in your business, and achieve outstanding success.

What makes a collaborative team?

Today sees the 48th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, where Alf Ramsey’s England won a great match 4-2 after extra-time against West Germany. The scorers were England 4 (Hurst 18, 101, 120; Peters 78) West Germany 2 (Haller 12, Weber 90).

This is the day we’ve all been waiting for says Kenneth Wolstenholme at the start of the BBC match commentary. Saturday 30 July 1966. Match day. The lads are there in a fidgeting line in the gloom of the tunnel, behind Sir Alf, waiting to come out. Four of them are bouncing balls whilst the others are staring ahead, getting into the space.

England is in cherry red shirts, full sleeved with a simple round neck, plain, no logos or adverts. A modest football kit that today resonates with emotion. The Germans are in crisp white shirts with black trim and black shorts.

The English team comes out of the tunnel into the roaring light of pandemonium English support, rattles and klaxon horns. The weather forecast said ‘sunny periods and showers, becoming dry later’.

The Queen takes to the Royal Box in time for the national anthem, the lyrics of which promise her the moon on a stick. She’s wearing an ostentatious hat, which matches her handbag. What’s in the bag? Programme and pie, I’d imagine. Perchance some toffees. Next to her is FIFA president Stanley Rous, presumably holding Her Majesty’s Bovril.

The Royal Marine band play a few tunes, then the German anthem, like the British one before it, is met with a silent and thorough respect that speaks volumes for the Sixties football fan. No need to be opening old sores 21 years down the line; there’s hope for us all yet. Then, as the last notes fade out, a roar of anticipatory noise. Bedlam, bedlam, bedlam. What an atmosphere.

Moore and Seeler, the captains, shake hands and exchange plaques and pennants. Bobby wins the toss and elects to defend the goal England has picked for the warm up. The spare balls are kicked away, and the two teams line up to go.

The Germans looked the more dangerous in the opening minutes, Haller and Held leading menacing sorties and Seeler using his head to good advantage. Haller shoots West Germany into a 12th minute lead following Wilson’s misdirected header. He thought scoring the opening goal entitled him to keep the match ball – that was the custom in German football – but there was someone else who wanted that ball too.

England, behind for the first time in the tournament, equalised six minutes later. Hurst positioned himself perfectly to head home Moore’s quick free-kick. The German defence gave little away in the second period and only 12 minutes remained when Peters scored after Hurst’s centre had struck a defender and looped invitingly into the air. From that range Peters could hardly miss.

As England hung on for the final whistle, Jackie Charlton was adjudged, harshly, to have fouled on the edge of the box. The free-kick, blasted at the wall by Emmerich, appeared to strike Schnellinger’s hand before rolling on for Weber to shoot, almost in slow motion, past Banks’ desperate lunge. Gutted. 2-2.

Alf Ramsey’s speech at full-time  – You’ve won the World Cup once, now, go and win it againwas akin to Henry V at Agincourt. England looked fitter and fresher in extra time, continuing to play with confidence and composure. Hurst scored with a drive on the turn, which hit the underside of the bar and bounced over the line with Tilkowski, the flamboyant German keeper, well beaten.

The goal was disputed by the Germans – and still is. The Swiss referee, Gottfried Dienst, asked the nearer linesman Mr. Bakhramov from the USSR (what is now Azerbaijan), and between them they agreed that it was a goal. Of course it was.

German heads dropped as they lost their concentration, such that with the last kick of the match, Hurst completed a personal triumph by scoring with a firm left-footer, cheeks sucked in as he lashed the ball forward. Proper goal. Apparently some of the crowd were on the pitch. Geoff, now Sir Geoff, remains the only player to have notched a hat-trick in a World Cup Final, as I’m sure you know. And he got to keep the match ball. Not bad for a bloke from Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester.

A day to remember, even if like me, it’s from videos and news cuttings. England lined up: Banks, Cohen, Wilson, Stiles, Charlton (J), Moore, Ball, Charlton (R), Hurst, Peters, Hunt.

I’ve watched the video of this match and had daydreams. It’s come to my aid on sleepless nights. My daydream. We are ten minutes into the second half and England is 1-2 down. A worried looking Ramsey is on the touchline about to make a substitution (of course, this wasn’t in the rules in 1966).

He is going to take Hurst off, strangely off his game, and bring on this tall, inelegant, somewhat clumsy, more suited to rugby, substitute player. Alf is telling this player what to do. And he is me. I go on and generate a 4-2 victory with the greatest thirty-five minutes of centre-forward play anyone has ever seen. We can all dream.

Of course, since 1966 we’ve not had much success, highlight for me was the 2002 World Cup. Recall England manager Phil Cope suffered a heart attack during qualification and had to be replaced by Mike Bassett.  Needing to beat Slovenia in the final qualifier to make it to Brazil, we only managed a draw, but a shock win by Luxembourg over Holland meant we went through on goal difference.

In the balmy summer, I recall a difficult group stage as ever and we were on the verge of heading home after a goalless draw with unfancied Egypt before losing to Mexico. Who remembers Basset’s press conference where he mixed flaming sambucas with anti-depressants? As the gathered press baited Basset, expecting him to resign, Basset recites If by Rudyard Kipling followed by: England will be playing 4-4-fucking-2 and storms out.  Of course we lost in the semi-finals to Brazil, but we had regained our pride.

We can all dream about playing for a winning team, getting the results and enjoying the success. But what qualities do you see in that 1966 England team that you can learn from? When tackling a major initiative like an acquisition or new IT systems development, companies rely on large, diverse teams of specialists to get the job done. These teams often are convened quickly to meet an urgent need and sometimes work together virtually, collaborating online.

Appointing such a team is frequently the only way to assemble the knowledge and breadth required to pull off many of the complex tasks businesses face today. When the BBC covers the World Cup, for instance, it gathers a large team of researchers, writers, producers, cameramen, and technicians, many of whom have not met before the project. These specialists work together under the high pressure of a live environment, with just one chance to record the action.

Recent research into team behaviour reveals an interesting paradox: although teams that are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of specialists are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done. To put it another way, the qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success.

So how can we strengthen an organisation’s ability to perform complex collaborative tasks to maximise the effectiveness of large, diverse teams, while minimising the disadvantages posed by their structure, composition and individuality? Research by Gratton & Erickson (2007), and Newton (2014) offers some insight into how to maximise collaborative team performance.

Invest in enabling collaborative relationship practices Leaders can encourage collaborative behaviour by making highly visible investments in facilities with open floor plans and shared spaces specifically designed to foster communication that demonstrate their commitment to collaboration.

Modeling collaborative behaviour At companies where the leadership team demonstrates highly collaborative behavior themselves, teams collaborate well. Leading a networked, connected culture across traditional organisation barriers from the top breaks down the silos.

Get everyone on the same page By enabling a ‘we’re all in this together’ leadership ethos, people feel a sense of community and shared purpose, and they are more comfortable reaching out to others and more likely to share knowledge.

Assigning team leaders that are both task and relationship oriented The debate has traditionally focused on whether a task or a relationship orientation creates better leadership, but in fact both are key to successfully leading a team and fostering collaboration.

Building on heritage relationships When too many team members are strangers, people may be reluctant to share knowledge. The best practice is to put at least a few people who know one another on the team. Research shows that if more than 40% of a team are new to each other, team effectiveness suffers.

Understanding role clarity and task ambiguity Cooperation increases when the roles of individual team members are sharply defined yet the team is given latitude on how to achieve the task. Collaboration and team composition needs to reflect the desired outcomes – a jazz ensemble, a fire brigade unit and an international sports team each has different dynamics, roles and pulse.

Set expectations Everyone on the team needs to know what they have to do and when they have to do it by. Leaders need to connect and align the individual expectations with the shared expectations of the team.

Transparency If something isn’t going right, you need to be upfront with it. The more you hold back the more it will impede collaboration between the team. People love transparency because it makes them feel like they are part of an honest team.

Being an agent and a target of influence We spend a lot of time in leadership development helping leaders to have greater influence. Of equal importance when it comes to collaborative leadership, is being prepared to be a target of others’ influence. This requires openness to alternative ideas, inquisitiveness to understand the foundation of others’ arguments and recognition of the value the other party has and therefore can add to the collaborative venture.

We need to develop and disseminate an entirely new paradigm and practice of collaboration that supersedes the traditional silos that have divided enterprises internally for decades, and replace it with connected networks of partnerships working together to create a genuine collaboration. Collaboration is the best way to work. It’s only way to work, really, everyone’s there because they have a set of skills to offer across the board.

Collaboration is important not just because it’s a better way to work, but also to learn. Learning to collaborate is part of equipping yourself for effectiveness, problem solving, innovation and life-long learning in an ever-changing networked economy. Life is not a solo act, it’s a huge collaboration and we all need to assemble around us the people who can make a difference for each other.

So, come 3 o’clock today, just pause for a moment and reflect back on ’66. England, an outstanding team of individuals – not a team of outstanding individuals – everyone played their part, and everyone was over the moon, a genuine collaborative effort. As Shakespeare said ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’.




Teamwork – individual commitment to a group effort

Brasil 2014 was the World Cup of the individual, but Germany showed us the power of the team game. Superbly drilled as a team, tactically astute and individually disciplined, they provided the perfect example of the superiority of the team game with their 7-1 demolition of Brazil’s emotionally overcharged individuals in the semi-final, and a cohesive team performance to clinch victory in the final against Argentina.

With teams carried by one creative talisman, with individual talent seen a potential match winners – Lionel Messi, James Rodríguez, Neymar and even the Netherlands were reliant on the pace of Arjen Robben – whilst Germany had talented individuals, it was the relentless team performance that won.

The 1970 competition in Mexico was the first World Cup I recall watching on television. Broadcast live by satellite and in grainy images, I recall Brazil, golden shirts shimmering in the sunshine, playing a brand of football barely imaginable to British eyes. It was slick, skilful and joyous, a team game played and won by talented individuals.

However, despite individual talent, football has become increasingly systematised, sides playing less as collections of individuals and more as a unit. This mechanisation was no less beautiful than the previous style but it was a different kind of beauty – the collective play of the Dutch and ‘Total Football’ rather than the dribbling and flair of a Pelé.

With statistical analysis and improved understanding of team strategies, structures and tactics, a pressing-style emerged.This has made the game more tactically sophisticated and interesting, but also reliant on consistency of team selection as players fit into a style of play and regime, building the mutual understanding necessary for the integration this approach demands.

When two high-pressing teams meet, the result can be stalemate, the game squeezed into a narrow sliver either side of halfway. In this World Cup, though, the early round games were often filled with glorious anarchy and, with defences less rigid than usual, skilful individuals were able to exert a powerful influence.

Some games were a throwback to the romantic fervour of a bygone age, a return to the playground style of attack-and-defence, suggesting that the spirit of Brazil at work – that everybody had caught the jogo bonito attitude. However, in the later stages where the best teams came head-to-head in more competitive games, the counter-counter patterns re-emerged, and even in the individuals’ World Cup, the system came to assert itself.

It was also noticeable that consistency of team selection – an obvious characteristic of successful teams – became a defined feature, where a small number of individuals working together on a regular basis in a defined system were successful. This counters the assertion that big squads are needed – it’s the most consistent team that wins, collaboration, empathy and familiarity outdo a wider pool of talent, with focus on team spirit.

Bigger teams don’t mean better when it comes to work either, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon famously coined this with the two pizza rule. According to Bezos, the ideal is the ‘two pizza team’: if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big.

Working with small teams, they often wish for more brains on deck to work on projects, build more complex features, and talk with more customers. It’s just natural to believe that larger teams means you’ll get more stuff, and better stuff done, and much more swiftly – but the research shows that throwing more people at a problem is one of the most common productivity traps to fall into.

People in smaller teams are far more personally productive. As group size rises, all sorts of issues spring up. Individual performance levels diminish and people start to grow less engaged. So while larger teams may get more done altogether, it’s happening at a rate lower than the sum of individual efforts. Even if more people provide a greater pool of resource, they also require greater amounts of coordination and management, to the point where size becomes an impediment.

Forget herding cats, herding humans is a challenge enough, having to grapple with three hidden costs that start to climb with team size: coordination costs, motivation costs, and relational costs.

1. Coordination Cost

The late Harvard psychologist, Richard Hackman, bluntly stated ‘big teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time’. What Hackman found is that it is not the number of people but the links between them that accumulate when group size increases. The coordination cost proliferates with every new addition, and management is a project of handling the links.  His formula shows how the links grow at an accelerating rate:

Number of links = n(n-1)/2, where n = the number of people

To put this more simply:

  • A start-up of 7 people has 21 connection points to maintain
  • A group of 12 has 66 connection points to maintain
  • A group of 60 has 1770 connection points to maintain.
  • An enterprise of 6000 has 17.997m connection points to maintain.

Each additional person increases total productivity of the team but at a decreasing rate, which means if you were the third member to join a team, you made a bigger impact on its productivity than if you were the thirtieth.

Every steep jump in links also produces a steep jump in the potential for mismanagement and miscommunication. Delays emerge from the snowballing time and effort required to keep everyone informed, coordinated and integrated. Adding human-power to a late project just makes it later.

Research shows that the magic number for the most effective teams varies between four to nine, and more often six or seven. What’s clear is that if you want your herd of humans to get more stuff done, avoid having your team numbers hit double digits.

2. Motivation Cost

The mere perception that you’re in a group can deplete your own motivation and effort, a phenomenon known as ‘social loafing’, fear of getting lost in a crowd and depleting the strength of relationships.

A study by Latan demonstrated the social loafing effect with groups as small as six. Participants wearing blindfolds and noise-masking headphones had to shout as loud as they could. Everyone made less noise in groups compared to when they shouted alone.

While the total sound produced was louder, it didn’t grow in proportion with the group size. People in teams of six shouted at 36% of their full individual capacity. When researchers controlled for any possible coordination loss by having participants shout in concert when they were actually shouting alone, people still didn’t perform at full capacity, producing 74% of their full potential sound.

Another explanation for this phenomenon is Ringelmann’s rope pulling experiment, which shows clearly how input per head decreases as group sizes get bigger.

Ringelmann tested the effort capable of being exerted by seven individuals, on individual rope pulling tests. He then put them into teams, from two to seven, and found the collective output fell from 100% (baseline for individual effort), to just 55% per individual when seven formed a team – an attrition rate of 45%.

Social loafing is a feedback problem, when groups get larger, you experience less social pressure and feel less responsibility because your performance becomes difficult to correctly assess amidst a crowd. Human nature makes us try less hard, as we think our colleagues’ effort will compensate. The reality is a serious degradation in output as team size increases.

While initially you might not be cognizant of social loafing, that unconscious disengagement can quickly morph into purely selfish, self-interested behaviour, a fall in commitment to the team, a lack of intimacy and active disengagement. If you don’t feel like you matter, or have to make a difference, then what’s the point of trying so hard?

3. Relational Loss

University of San Diego Professor of Management, Jennifer Mueller uncovered ‘relational loss’ as the third element of why individuals’ efficiency decreases in larger teams.

Relational loss is when you feel as if you are receiving less and less support as teams get larger. This includes emotional support, assistance in performing work and overcoming setbacks. You become isolated, and don’t feel you have a shoulder to lean on or someone to help you out of a jam.

When you’re in a team, you regularly interact and spend time with each other every day. Mueller suspected that the deteriorating quality of those multiplying links contributed to weaker individual performance – just think about how the more connections you make on social networks, the weaker those ties usually are. People’s perception of support decreased as team size increased and this relational loss accounted for poorer individual performance.

The price of relational loss is paid with feelings of isolation, which harms cognitive ability and causes poorer performance. Mueller found that in larger teams, people were lost, had no identity with the team, and disconnected.

So what tools and techniques can we utilise to overcome the three risks of dysfunctional and unproductive teams? Here are some suggestions:

Figure out and apply the right communication tools The cult of productivity is often inwardly focused on the personal, while neglecting the needs of the collective. Find and use team based communication tools and processes that lower coordination cost and save people time. Focus on team productivity not personal.

This may mean finding opportunities for collaboration, apps or changing how you run meetings. Create meaning and connection through an adaptable cadence of communication rather than causing frustration and guzzling time. The agile practice of daily stand-ups is a highly effective tool for this.

Break teams down into smaller units Breaking teams down into units where everyone knows their colleagues name, role and personality makes common sense. The research highlighted earlier shows smaller teams are more effective where personal relationships are closer, there is intimacy and camaraderie, which creates a greater sense of belonging and purpose. Enabling rapport is a great way of improving productivity.

Be adventurous with your office configuration Find new ways to create opportunities for connection and personal interfaces, Skype and Google hangouts are effective for virtual teams, but having a café style area in the office for team conversations creates greater social meaning and also an opportunity for more intense and direct interaction.

Become radically transparent Transparency helps prevent behaviours such as social loafing and free-riding, which rely on the fact that there’s somewhere easy to hide, and power plays, which rely on hoarding knowledge like an information miser. Ensure all your team are highly effective communicators and socially comfortable with total transparency – half your job besides doing your work is communicating to colleagues about it, make knowledge a team asset, accessible, visible and a collective responsibility, chronicling decisions and processes, and being inclusive. Sharing daily learnings is a positive, protective shield against relational loss.

Give frequent feedback to each other Don’t isolate feedback to some twice-a-year supervisory formality, get the conversation flowing among everyone in your team to help strengthen the connections between individual effort and performance, which get swallowed up in the crowd through motivational loss. Make feedback meaningful.

Ask questions, show your teammates gratitude and appreciation, and respond to distress signals. Creating a high frequency feedback culture, where there are daily discussions on what everyone gets done and monthly one-on-ones, helps everyone connect, understand other’s issues, and be better at their own jobs.

But back to Sunday’s game. It was nerve-rattling, energy sapping and hard-fought. Despite the dearth of goals, there was never a dull moment inside the Maracanã Stadium and the match proved worthy of a World Cup Final. It was only during the second half of extra time that striker Mario Götze, who only joined the game in the 88th minute, scored the game’s only goal.

Mario Götze’s goal was of irresistible elegance, the crowning glory for the tournament’s best team, the one which had always sought the initiative. The German coaching team’s tactical flexibility, whether it was fast vertical play or patient ball retention,  always found the right answer for every tactical challenge. Joachim Löw played a crucial part in this triumph – he always had the right team strategy, right team structure, right team processes – and the right team players.

‘It doesn’t matter at all whether we have the best individual players or not,’ said German captain Phillip Lahm, ‘you have to have the best team. We had unbelievable coherence, cohesion and closeness’.

It’s a strange exclamation mark at the end of a tournament of free and flighty moments, from Neymar’s and Messi’s flitters of brilliance and after all the positive and negative passion and emotion, that the winner is an effort of pure planning and the fruits of the intricate and organised system they put in place.

Even in the chances they created, you got the sense of contrast on offer. While Lionel Messi provided the natural and the unexpected, Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos provided the learned and practiced, and for all the Germans’ movement, intricate passing and attacking that was evident from the early stages as they prodded and probed at the Argentinian massed defence, there was a sense of training ground planning to much of it. A winning team on top of their game.

That’s not to take away from their talent and threat, but it’s a misplaced narrative we are left with. They are the world’s best team, with some of the world’s best players – but they don’t have the best individuals. Other teams now must take note of how Germany created their success as they look to beat them. For business, the lessons of effective teamwork and relentless pursuit of the team goal was there to be seen.