Identity, Culture and Performance
The New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, have been the dominant force in world rugby over the last 100 years. Over that period they have win ratio of 75%, no other team has achieved that in any sport, they are simply the most successful sports team ever, even compared to teams that have been playing for a much shorter time.
All this has been done on very limited resources, as you can see below there were only 27,000 adult male rugby players in New Zealand in 2011, England had 166,000, over 6 more players per position. England is far and away the richest union, although the Americans could probably stump up cash when needed and they too have more players than New Zealand. South Africa has 4 times as many adult male players as New Zealand.
So is there physically something special about the ABs? No. They’re not bigger, faster or stronger. As former Scotland and British Lion player and coach Ian McGeechan said when playing NZ back in the seventies, ‘Thirteen of the fifteen All Blacks were qualified to play for Scotland through parents and grandparents, I realised that day that an AB is just a Scotsman who’s learnt how to win’. Since 1905 Scotland have played New Zealand 30 times, they have yet to win. Not surprising when you consider only 6 countries have ever beaten NZ – SA, Australia, England, Wales, Ireland and France. England and Wales combined still haven’t reached 10 victories against 60 or more defeats.
In 2003/04, however, NZ hit a wobble for the first time in their rugby history, the game had turned professional a few years previously and now this team had played their whole careers as professional players. No longer were they the traditional farmers, doctors and lawyers but professional athletes with money. Used to winning and still with the highest win ratio of any sports team in history they had a bad season, lost in the semi-final of the world cup and came bottom of the Rugby Championship behind South Africa and Australia, unheard of in their history. There seemed to be a disconnect to past players and to what it meant to be an All Black, something that had always underpinned their team culture. A new coaching team led by Graham Henry, a former Auckland headmaster took over and began to rebuild the world’s most successful sporting team from the inside out.
To be an All Black in New Zealand is clearly very special, it’s of course their national game and it is their face to the world. All Black rugby embodies national pride in a way that only South Africa can come close to. As John Key the prime minister said ‘it doesn’t matter what you become in later life, Prime Minister or Chief Justice, nothing will ever come close for you or for your fellow citizens than having been an All Black’.
Out of a series of meetings what the coaching team and senior players were able to do was find a way of connecting a group of young men to All Black identity in a relevant, meaningful way. They then created a fresh culture that placed emphasis on individual character and personal leadership
Out of it came a new focus – to redesign the world’s most successful sporting culture – and a new phrase; Better People Make Better All Blacks. The strategy? Develop the character of the players off the pitch, so that they perform better on it. In the language of the corporate world the All Blacks developed a values-led, purpose-driven high-performance culture!
They did it though the power of storytelling and ritualised behaviour that gave it personal meaning.
There had long been a saying in New Zealand rugby ‘leave the jersey in a better place’. Maori culture is inextricably linked to All Black rugby, it was the vehicle used by successive governments to bond two cultures into a cohesive society through the 20th Century, the Haka is one of the symbols of All Black rugby and it was through rituals such as the Haka that they cemented their stated values.
A key factor in the All Blacks rebirth was Maori tradition of going to a camp, a kind of corporate away day, to bring the players and management together in an inclusive process that invoked the past while creating the future. Based on story-telling it reattached personal meaning to public purpose.
Rituals reflect, remind and reinforce the belief system of the collective. Organisations, countries and churches have significant rituals at their core to communicate their story and purpose. They don’t need that many words. Again what the All Blacks have done is identify the values they want to see and then nail it to a ritual. Young men are better at doing than listening. Some examples of how they used rituals include their key values:
Humility – Clean the sheds (changing room)
Before leaving the dressing room at the end of a game, or training, some of the most famous names in world rugby stop and clean up after themselves. They literally and figuratively ‘sweep the sheds’.
Former All Black Andrew Mehrtens describes it as an example of personal humility, a cardinal All Blacks value.
Though it might seem strange for a team of imperious dominance, humility is core to their culture. The All Blacks believe that it’s impossible to achieve success without having your feet planted firmly on the ground.
Team work – Follow the Spearhead
Like all successful teams the ABs look to the collective not the individual – no one is bigger than the team. They select on character over talent, believing that it delivers better long-term results – an interesting contrast to most companies we see who focus on the short term.
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 and through the tip. The latest version of the Haka uses that spearhead with the senior leaders being at the tip.
Devolved leadership – Pass the Ball
Tom Peters, the management guru, says ‘leaders create leaders, not followers’. Central to the All Blacks method was the development of leadership groups and the nurturing of character off the field, to deliver results on it. This involved a literal and metaphorical handing over of responsibility from management to players, so that by game day the team consisted of ‘one captain and 15 leaders’. The devolved leadership model means that in the week before a Test match the coaching staff gradually moves into the background, by Friday it’s just the players. They started this back in 2004 but prior to games the coach, Graham Henry, would talk to the team for an hour or so in the changing room. It was Tana Umaga, the captain, who asked Henry if the talk was more for Henry himself than the team? He took the point and there are no more talks.
Leave a Legacy – ‘leave the jersey in a better place’
There is a Maori concept, whakapapa, which captures the idea of our genealogy, our lineage from the beginning of time to the end of eternity. The sun shines on this, our time, just for a moment and it is our responsibility to ‘leave the jersey in a better place’. The All Blacks seek to ‘add to the legacy’ in everything they do, knowing that higher purpose leads to higher performance.
Those organisations that know what they stand for – and most importantly, why – consistently outperform those who are just going through the motions.
Accountability – Set the context
If something works it’s because of the context created, if it goes wrong it’s also because of the context created.
Julian Savea, a winger in the World cup winning team, was arrested for domestic violence in 2013. Interesting the response from the head of New Zealand Rugby Steve Tew.
“We need to find out whether we are doing enough to help these young men cope with the pressures of the professional game.
“As a result of this, we will be undertaking an independent assessment of the support we provide players from their time of induction into the professional game”, Tew added.
The creation of a learning environment – ‘Champions Do Extra’
The philosophy simply means finding incremental ways to do more – in the gym, on the field, or for the team. It is much like the philosophy of marginal gains used by many sports teams.
Decision making – ‘Keep a blue head’
Following their arguably premature exit at the 2003 World Cup, the All Blacks worked with forensic psychiatrist Ceri Evans to understand how the brain works under pressure.
‘Red Head’ is a resourceful state in which you are off task, panicked and ineffective. ‘Blue Head’, on the other hand, is an optimal state in which you are on task and performing to your best ability.
The All Blacks use triggers (rituals) to switch from Red to Blue. Richie McCaw stamps his feet, literally grounding himself, while Kieran Read stares at the farthest point of the stadium, searching for the bigger picture.
Using these triggers, the players aim to achieve clarity and accuracy, so they can perform under pressure.
Between 2004 and 2015, the All Blacks took their winning record from an extraordinary 75% (over 100 years, making them the most statistically successful sporting team in any code, ever), to an almost unbelievable 89%.