Teamwork, both in the elite sporting arena and the business context, involves the engagement and interaction of individuals to achieve an outcome that is, ideally, greater than the sum of the efforts of the individuals.

One undisputed elite team, is New Zealand’s All Blacks Rugby team. They have a win rate of 77% of all games played in 125 years of rugby,  winning three Rugby World Cups including the inaugural tournament and is also the first Rugby Union nation to win 500 test matches. No other team has had such consistent success.

Using the All Blacks as a case study, we will demonstrate how the Elite Team Framework discussed in a previous article and shown above, applies to an elite team, who has created a high-performance culture.

Fundamentals

  • Clear & Achievable Goals: The All Blacks set clear goals that are known to the entire team. At the conclusion of the 2011 World Cup they set the objective of being the first team to win back-to-back world cups. To meet this goal, they set several milestones that chart their path to success along the way.
  • Clear Roles & Responsibilities: The All Blacks are very big on both empowering and enabling by ensuring everyone knows where they fit into the team and knowing the end goal, which is of course, winning.
  • Sense of Purpose: The purpose of the All Blacks team is “to leave the jersey in a better place than where you found it”. Values are very important and there is a strong alignment between team and personal values. When Richie McCaw got his first All Blacks shirt, he spent a minute with his head buried in the jersey. They live by the Maori quote of “the person with a narrow vision sees a narrow horizon. The person with a wider vision sees a wider horizon”. The All Blacks also believe that better people make better All Blacks and understanding “Why?” identifies the purpose of being an All Black. 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.
  • Focus on Delivery: There’s a Maori saying, “the way the sapling is shaped determines how the tree grows”. All foundation for success on a rugby field is built in training. In order to ensure a focus on delivery, the All Blacks set their watches 10 minutes fast, in order to never be late, as they believe in total accountability.  Focus is vital for the All Blacks, and there is no paradox – play to win, don’t play not to lose. Don’t be a good All Black, be a great All Black.
  • Open Communication: The All Blacks have strong and regular communication, so everyone knows what is happening every step of the way. This even extends to include those people on the fringes of the team, who may be called upon in the future. They also debrief immediately after each game.

Team

  • Shared Commitment: In Maori, whanau means ‘extended family’. It’s symbolised by the spearhead. Though a spearhead has three tips, to be effective all of its force must move in one direction. The All Blacks select on character over talent, which means some of New Zealand’s most promising players never pull on the black jersey – because they don’t have the right character, they’re considered d*******s, their inclusion would be detrimental to the whanau. Like all the great teams the All Blacks seek to replace the ‘me’ with the ‘we’. No one is bigger than the team. The team always comes first.
  • Joint Accountability: The All Blacks have long had a saying: ‘leave the jersey in a better place’. Their task is to represent all those who have come before them, and all those who follow suit. Understanding this responsibility creates a compelling sense of higher purpose.
  • Psychological Safety:  In rugby, an offload is when you pass the ball behind you knowing someone will be there to catch it. Sonny Bill Williams is well-known for his offloads. They are so well-known that to, “Sonny Bill” to someone, is to offload. Although this is a highly risky move, he had the trust and psychological safety within the group of trying something risky, that could very well have failed, but didn’t. The All Blacks have the ability to be true to themselves. They have an unwaivering personal as well as a collective identity.
  • Diversity: The All Black have effectively harnessed the diversity of skill set and personalities in their team to make their ‘star performers’ into a ‘star team.’
  • Flexibility: It is the philosophy and focus on continual improvement and continuous learning environment that is at the core of All Black culture. They believe that when you’re on top of your game, change your game. Adaptation is not a reaction, but an everyday action. Even failures (for example, the 2003 Rugby World Cup) are seen as learning opportunities.

Leadership

  • Empowerment: Central to the All Blacks belief is the development of leaders and the nurturing of character off the field, to deliver results on it. This involves a literal and metaphorical handing over of responsibility from management to players, so that by game day the team consists of one captain, and 15 leaders.
  • Recognition: The All Blacks are internationally celebrated; however, the team believes in remaining humble. After games, all players “sweep the sheds”, meaning they themselves clean their own locker rooms. No player is better than another.
  • Talent Optimisation: Each player has an individual player profile. This profile has, amongst other thigs, their strengths, weaknesses and ways to develop their development areas.
  • Continuous Feedback: The All Blacks believe in a philosophy of “stabbing in the front not the back.” They have developed a culture where there is no blame and players actively seek criticism and feedback. Because they are empowered, they trust. Because they trust, they take feedback constructively. The coaches also use empowering performance feedback, whereby feedback is given on improving strengths and not only on reducing weaknesses.
  • Shared Leadership: The All Blacks’ management believes that if it is up to leadership to take responsibility for managing what happens on the field, they are doomed. There is a personal responsibility for own performance. Former head coach Graham Henry made pre-match time the team’s own, as part of his evolved leadership plan. He left the players alone as a group to do what they had to do.

References:

Byrne, P. (2016). First XV – lessons from the All Blacks – Legacy 15 pragmatic and powerful lessons for today’s business leaders from studying the All Blacks. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/first-xv-lessons-from-all-blacks-legacy-15-pragmatic-paul-byrne/

Hazlett, N. (2017). 10 lessons business can learn from the All Blacks. Retrieved from http://symmetryasia.com/learn-from-the-all-blacks/

Hickie, G. (2013). Rugby resolutions: The legacy of the All Blacks. Retrieved from http://www.rugbytoday.com/columns/rugby-resolutions-legacy-all-blacks

Hodge, K., Henry, G., & Smith, W. (2014). A Case Study of Excellence in Elite Sport: Motivational Climate in a World Champion Team. The Sport Psychologist, 28, 60-74

Kerr, J. (2013). The All Blacks guide to being successful (off the field). Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/active/10427619/The-All-Blacks-guide-to-being-successful-off-the-field.html

Kinnear, C. (2017). Rugby: All Blacks infographic reveals team’s statistics for the year. Retrieved from https://www.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=11962488

Lencioni, P. (2002). Re-Thinking: High-Performance teamwork: Ten lessons businesses can learn from elite sports teams. Retrieved from https://autopia.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Re-Thinking-High-Performance-Teamwork-Whitepaper.1.pdf

Priest, M. (2015). Lessons you can learn from the All Blacks. Retrieved from https://www.esquireme.com/sports/lessons-can-learn-all-blacks

Singh, J. (2015). 12 Leadership lessons from the world class All Blacks. Retrieved from http://www.eccltd.co.nz/sites/default/files/ABs_0.pdf

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