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.

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