Lessons for startups from the rugby world cup: the vision, values & purpose of the All Blacks

Saturday’s rousing contest between New Zealand and South Africa has been the best game to date in the world cup. The All Blacks’ first-half attacking prowess delivered fourteen points inside four minutes just before the half-hour, after South Africa had given the defending champions a serious early pounding. That tipped the scales on the way to a 23-12 All Blacks’ victory.

It maintained New Zealand’s proud record of never having lost a world cup pool game and threw down the gauntlet to other hopeful contenders in the tournament. Every side in the competition will have noted New Zealand’s problem-solving ability, their remarkable discipline and their lethal ability to capitalise on loose play.

The quicksilver Kolbe and Savea were bundles of energy, and Beauden Barrett’s pace, positioning and running lines helped the All Blacks sidestep onrushing trouble. Kieran Read’s calm captaincy was another influential positive. But as always, the All Blacks won as a team.

The All Blacks embrace a values-based team culture that evidences that above all the physical and mental toughness, as with any business 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 startup leaders for building their own first team. Studying the All Blacks’ success shows the importance of vision, values and purpose in creating team alignment, focus and a high-performance culture.

Kerr created ‘The First XV’ – fifteen All Black principles, based on the team being fifteen players out on the pitch, working together towards a common purpose – to win a game of rugby. Here’s a summary.

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 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 team succeeds when 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?’

The All Blacks shirt is an iconic symbol for any Kiwi, it is a symbol of their country and what they stand for, beyond the rugby pitch. 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 in a startup, what’s the purpose of yours?

IV Pass the Ball Leaders create leaders

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

Mastery, autonomy and purpose are three drivers of All Blacks success – defined as modest self-improvement, consistently done. For the All Blacks, leaders are learners, 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 whanau

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 potentially promising players never pull on the black jersey – 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, what is possible, literally reach for the sky. 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 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. 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’s habit was to grasp his wrists and stamp his feet, literally grounding himself, triggers to achieve clarity and accuracy, so he could perform under pressure.

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. 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

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 startup extraordinary? Focus is vital, and there is no paradox – play to win, don’t play not to lose.

XII Invent your own language Sing your world into existence

The All Blacks have a collected wisdom in the form of aphorisms that informs the culture. 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.

XIII Ritualise to Actualise Create a culture

A key factor in the All Blacks success was the development of the 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 relationships. Building a great team requires individuals who enjoy a deep degree of trust in one another. Au, au, aue bā! – It’s our time! It’s our moment! the final line of the haka, says it all.

XIV Be a Good Ancestor Plant trees you’ll never see

An All Black player believes that they 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. The legacy is more intimidating than any opposition.

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 leadership of your startup 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 becomes an All Blacks, they’re given a small black book. The first page shows a jersey from the 1905 Originals, the first overseas touring team. On the next page is the jersey from the 1924 Invincibles, and thereafter, pages of other jerseys to the present day. The rest of the pages are blank, waiting to be filled, by the player himself.

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 powers performance. The result of this extraordinary environment is extraordinary results.

In business, if we align our people around a compelling narrative, and reinforce that story through leadership, culture, communication and training, the results will come, shaped by the desire to achieve and to be part of something special.

Often a startup focus is on hard metrics. However, the All Blacks prove 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. The spirit of the All Blacks is captured by this Richie McCaw quote: 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 with a shared vision, value and purpose. The All Blacks show it in every game. Make sure your startup has this heart beat too.

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