Lessons for startups from the rugby world cup: the attributes of high-performing teams

What a game! On Sunday Wales overcame Australia 29-25 in an enthralling encounter to put them in the box seat in Pool D. It was a thriller, with the tension mounting in what was a classic game of two halves in a famous Welsh win.

In a breathless start to the match, Wales burst out of the blocks to lead 10-0, Australia fought back with a try, but Wales secured a 23-8 half-time lead. A try early in the second half renewed Australian hope, and a further try and penalty reduced the Wallabies’ deficit to 26-25, only for Rhys Patchell to kick his third penalty to restore Wales’ lead to four points.

Both teams contributed to an absorbing, emotionally draining spectacle and grandstand finish. Wales were flagging and it looked ominous, but Patchell provided the breathing space and then it was all about digging deep in defence for a famous victory.

It brought back memories of England’s triumph in the 2003 final versus Australia, 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 – and to date only 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. 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 ten 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. ENGLAND TRY! Jason jumps up and punches the ball into the air. Queue full-scale mayhem in our house. Babies ten doors down the street started crying with the noise.

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. To this day, I still feel for Elton Flatley, the game of his life, but ended up on the losing side.

Now the players looked 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.

Being a startup leader is no different, self-control is essential, the capacity to make the right decisions when under pressure is a vital trait. Composure is a telling factor in performance whether it contributes to the scoreboard or the bottom-line. 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.

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.

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.

Having a team of high potential people to perform at the highest level when it matters most is the greatest asset you can have to build a startup business. When you pitch investors, a key thing they’ll look for is your team, as growth is invariably challenged by finding the right talent to grow the team. Yet too many founders hire on gut-feel and regret it down the line.

So how do you build a team of high-performing potential? Here are some thoughts:

There is clear unity of purpose Make the team’s purposes clear, and articulate the team’s performance goals. There should be free discussion of the objectives until members can commit themselves to them, ensuring the objectives are meaningful to each team member.

Clarify each person’s role in achieving the common purpose Define each person’s role in terms of its contribution to the team’s overall goals. This must be done in specific terms, not in vague generalities.

The group is self-conscious about its own operation The group has taken time to explicitly discuss group process – how the group will function to achieve its objectives. The group has a clear, explicit, and mutually agreed-upon approach on mechanics, norms, expectations, rules, etc. Frequently, it will stop to examine and reflect how well it is doing.

Alignment It goes without saying that trust, respect and camaraderie are underpinning essentials for a high-performing team to sustain a high level of performance. The team values cooperation, coherence and interdependence when the team has a common mission and purpose, and as Jim Collins states, Getting the “right people on the right seats on the bus” is more important than planning “where the bus should go” An army without a goal is just a bunch of violent men.

Each individual carries themselves Meeting or exceeding the expectations of other team members, each individual is respectful of the mechanics of the group – arriving on time, coming prepared, completing agreed upon tasks on time, etc. When action is taken, clears assignments are made (who-what-when) and willingly accepted and completed by each group member.

So that’s the positive side of teams, but what we also need to consider is that things can come off the rails. 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 Lencioni, there are five dysfunctions of teams:

  • 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

Teams that are cohesive, productive, and efficient don’t happen by accident and counter the above threats with their cadence and self-awareness. Successful teams are cohesive because team members work cooperatively, sharing common goals as well as the resources to achieve them. They are productive, not because team members never disagree, but because they have worked out ways to resolve conflicts when they occur.

They are efficient because tasks are assigned in a way that takes into account each member’s skills and interests, rather than letting the team be dominated by the most verbal, most aggressive, or most popular personalities.

Rugby is a team game played with eagerness and passion, based on simple philosophies such as running fast, tackling hard, using simple, direct, forward passes and then looking for individual play to create an opportunity. It’s simplicity, like any team, is in the fact that the success is based on unity and collective purpose, and strong leadership.

England back in 2003, and the current world champions New Zealand, have all the attributes of integrated, high-performing teams – those that ‘click’ – never losing sight of their goals and are largely self-sustaining. In fact, they seem to take on a life of their own.

As we approach England’s next Pool game, George Ford is at fly-half with captain Owen Farrell at inside centre as England face Argentina looking to claim three World Cup wins in a row. It is the same team that opened the tournament against Tonga, other than the inclusion of lock George Kruis in place of Courtney Lawes. Ben Youngs will become the third most capped England men’s player with his ninety-second game at scrum-half.

Can we repeat the amazing win of 2003? Do we have the qualities of that team in the current group? I think we might, and I’m looking forward to the coming games watching at home or at the local ruby club, where, as former England forward Gareth Chilcott once said, you can have a quiet beer, followed by several noisy ones.

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