Startup team culture: lessons from the All Blacks

The 2023 Rugby World Cup is in full flow, we’ve had some great matches in the first round of games, and we go again today with France v Uruguay. I’ve got my viewing schedule sorted, my wall poster in the kitchen with results filled to date, and of course, adequate supplies of Guinness and chicken wings – enough to see me through to the final.

France beat New Zealand in Friday’s opening game, you can see that the All Blacks are no longer all-conquering and in transition, but do not write them off. The team that retained the World Cup in 2015 were probably the best team that’s ever played the game – McCaw, Carter, Read, Retallick, Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Savea, Mealamu – and they have dominated world rugby for the last two decades. They were the world’s top-ranked team from 2004 to 2019, with the exception of a couple of periods when South Africa briefly usurped them.

The team went into the opening game against France fourth in the world rankings. Last year they were fifth, their worst-ever rating. In 2019 Steve Hansen, the coach who led the team through their most dominant period, retired. Under him the All Blacks won 87% of their games, the highest success rate of any coach of the modern era.  Current coach Ian Foster does not deserve all the blame. New Zealand has a preternatural amount of rugby talent for a country of 5m people, and they’re in a regroup.

Rivals particularly in the northern hemisphere, have caught up. But New Zealand’s decline should not be exaggerated. In July they beat Argentina, Australia, and South Africa to win the Rugby Championship. Many of today’s All Blacks are just as skilled as their predecessors.  But this will be the most competitive World Cup in a long time. For rugby fans – at least outside New Zealand – that is worth celebrating.

We are approaching an important anniversary – 16 September 1905 – 118 years since the first New Zealand touring rugby team came to Britain, the Originals, as they are now known. The Originals blazed through Britain, scoring 976 points, and conceding only 59. No one had even conceived that it was possible to play the way those All Blacks did. Nineteen years later, the 1924 touring All Blacks won all 32 games, scoring 838 points and conceding just 166. They became known as the Invincibles.

But back to today’s team. The fresh faces of 2023 are the next generation, regenerating the All-Blacks culture, following a values-based team ethos that evidences that above all the physical and mental toughness, a progressive, forward-looking culture is a key driver of success.  The All-Blacks’ culture has been documented by author James Kerr, who accessed their inner sanctum and produced Legacy – a compelling book that delivers fifteen pragmatic lessons for today’s business leaders from studying the All Blacks. Here’s a summary, and their relevance to building a startup culture.

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, players tidy up – they literally ‘sweep the sheds’. It is an example of personal humility, a cardinal All Blacks value. They believe that it’s impossible to achieve success without having your feet firmly on the ground. Humility is an attractive but uncommon virtue in business leaders.

II Go for the Gap When you’re on top of your game, change your game.

A philosophy of continuous improvement and learning is at the core of All Black culture. A winning organisation is an environment of professional and personal development in which each individual takes responsibility for their development, and when at the pinnacle of success, look to regenerate.

III Play with Purpose Ask ‘Why?’.

The person with a narrow vision sees a narrow horizon. The person with a wider vision sees a wider horizon. 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 startup?

IV Pass the Ball Leaders create leaders.

Central to the All Blacks belief is the development of leaders and nurturing of character. On game day, the team consists of one captain, and fifteen leaders. Shared responsibility means shared ownership, a sense of inclusion, uniting individuals means advancement as a team.

V Create a Learning Environment Leaders are teachers.

Mastery, autonomy, and purpose are three drivers of All Blacks success, where success is defined as modest improvement, consistently done. 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 spearhead.

In Māori, whanau means ‘extended family’. It’s symbolised by the spearhead. The All Blacks select on character over talent, which means 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.

Like all the great teams the All Blacks seek to replace the ‘me’ with the ‘we’. The team always comes first. You need to build and maintain a high level of trust in your business, so that individuals connect together towards a common goal.

VII Embrace Expectations Aim for the highest cloud.

A culture of expectation allows us to ask a simple question: how can we do better? Judge yourself against the best, create for yourself a narrative of extreme, even unrealistic ambitions and benchmark yourself to the ultimate. Make it an epic of what is possible. The All Blacks run on individual integrity. This means total accountability, and by actions not words

VIII Train to Win Practice under pressure.

There’s a Māori saying: the way the sapling is shaped determines how the tree grows. All 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. 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 a business opportunity. Avoiding poor decision making under pressure is vital. Pressure is expectation, scrutiny, and consequence. Under pressure, thinking gets diverted.

The All Blacks have  a framework to think clearly and correctly under pressure:

  • Red Head is 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. To act rather than react, move from volatility and an ambiguous space to having mental clarity, control your attention. Clear thought, clear talk, clear action.

X Know Thyself Keep it real Honesty drives better performance.

Attributed to Socrates, the phrase know thyself, is a key tenet of the All Blacks philosophy, believing that development of the authentic self is essential to performance. High performance teams promote a culture of honesty, integrity, authenticity. Better people make better All Blacks, is an All-Blacks’ credo.

XI Sacrifice 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 it takes to do something extraordinary. Give your best, 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’, which was for a time, for All Blacks eyes only (see XV below). Its collected wisdom, a system of meanings that everyone understood, a language, vocabulary, a set of beliefs that bind the group together. 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 belief is that they represent all those who have come before them, and all those who follow, a Māori spiritual 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. It’s your obligation and responsibility to add to the legacy – to leave the jersey in a better placeThe legacy is more intimidating than the competition.

This video captures the essence of this ethos:

It’s a TV commercial for Adidas and the All Blacks created by Saatchi & Saatchi in 1999 following the release of the new All Blacks shirt. The film is staged in an old locker room and features six past (and the then present) All Black captains pulling on historically appropriate shirts. ‘ The captains featured were Charlie Saxton, Fred Allen, Sir Wilson Whineray, Sir Brian Lochore, Graham Mourie, Wayne Shelford, Sean Fitzpatrick, and Taine Randell.

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 quotes of the principles, heroes, values, the ethos, the character of the team. And then the rest of the pages are blank, waiting to be filled. By the player.

This is your time. This is your All Blacks moment. Those organisations that know what they stand for – and most importantly, why – consistently outperform those who are just going through the motions. They create better results.


Since their first Test match in 1903, the All Blacks have amassed numerous accolades and are considered one of the most prolific teams across any sport. The All Blacks are the first rugby team to win 500 Test matches and have three Rugby World Cups to their name. They are the most successful international men’s rugby side of all-time winning 77.12% of 612 Tests.

Legacy shows how the All Blacks hold a values-led, purpose-driven high-performance culture and use the power of storytelling to give it personal resonance. The result of this extraordinary environment is extraordinary results over a sustained period. Similarly in a startup, if your leadership focuses on culture, vision, identity – the ‘who are we, what are we about, and how do we live with integrity’, you will create a special business based on the desire to be part of something bigger.

The pre-tournament warm-up loss to South Africa hurt because they were not up to the mark, were off physically and were outpowered by the Springboks. On Friday night against France, particularly around the scrum, there were a few little games being played and they failed to respond. There is plenty of fuel in the tank, I expect there is no lack of drive off the back of that loss, and their culture will ensure they respond.

Startup culture is about making people feel good about how they contribute to the whole. Culture is the multiplier for performance, simply a shared way of doing something with a passion. The All Blacks narrative proves that culture delivers results and creates competitive advantage. By focusing on your story, purpose and vision and the human aspects of your venture you will create better people, a better product, and better outcomes for employers, customers, investors, and yourself as a founder. Haere Ōpango!

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