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Into the black

Sad but true. You might never get to be an All Black. But what if you could learn the secrets of the All Blacks’ success and apply them to your business?

Sir Graham Henry, arguably New Zealand’s most successful coach, and now a director of recruitment specialists Momentum, gave Nikki Mandow his top 10 tips for business (and rugby) success.

Tip 1 | Build on the brand When Henry arrived at the All Blacks in 2004 the brand had been going for 110 years. His job was not radically reworking the brand, but adding a new chapter, he says. “Young guys playing now have a lot of respect for Dave Gallaher [the All Black captain killed in WW1], or Brian Lochore or Colin Meads or Sean Fitzpatrick. We are working out how to build on that for the future. Every business is trying to establish a brand that people respect and that employees are proud of. But it doesn’t just happen, you have to plan for it.”

Tip 2 | Self-sufficiency is your number one goal It might seem totally bizarre that you take some of the best captains, coaches and leaders in the game, and then task them with not telling everyone else what to do. Instead Henry says the leaders are told to “develop the rest of the group so they all become more self-sufficient”. What? “Why would you want your people to be led? A successful business – like a successful rugby team – is about individuals standing up and making a difference by their own ability. Because then they can run themselves, run their own individual development.”

Tip 3 | Better never stops It’s a cliché, but Henry reckons the mantra “Better never stops” was crucial in getting the All Blacks to be the best team in the world. “Everyone had an individual plan of self development which they visited all the time. And they had a weekly programme of ‘What I need to do this week to be the best I can be.’ “We thought, rightly I think, that if we could improve each member of the group, we would be a better team.” In his new role as a company director, Henry reckons individual and corporate continuous improvement is key in business too. It might be literacy programmes for factory-floor staff, mentoring for future leaders, or formal 360-degree feedback sessions.

Tip 4 | Planning, planning, planning The All Blacks’ leadership team (six “oldies” and seven players) got together for lunch every Monday and set goals, normally for a short period – the next two or three tests, for example. They called it “chunking”. “The objectives and strategies for each chunk were different, depending on where we were playing the tests (maybe in the heat, or at altitude), and the strengths and weaknesses of the team we were up against. We documented our plan for how to achieve those objectives and strategies, and we put it up on the wall so everyone knew; everything was very visible.”

Learning from failure: Following a devastating loss to France in the quarter finals of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, coach Graham Henry and his team worked out a new strategy, including focusing on understanding how the brain functions under pressure. Not only did the All Blacks get revenge on France in the 2011 RWC, but they beat the Irish late last year after being way behind.

Tip 5 | You gotta follow through It’s fine to set great goals, but Henry says the All Blacks’ success was in the follow through. Sports psychologist Gilbert Enoka facilitated each Monday meeting, took the minutes, sent them out within half an hour, and then followed up on progress at the next meeting – lunch on Thursday. “You need a facilitator, because the CEO or the coach hasn’t got time to be totally dedicated to making sure the plan happens.” Then at the end of each chunk, the management team would revisit the whole plan, Henry says. “We’d say: ‘What are the objectives for the next three games? How do we need to fine-tune these strategies to do the job?’ The objective is to challenge the status quo.”

Tip 6 | Keep meetings informal “You don’t want to spend huge amounts of time having formal meetings about goals and self-improvement,” Henry says. “But it’s easy over lunch. We found the more informal you make the settings for these meetings, the better.”

Tip 7 | Empower your leaders When Henry first joined the All Blacks, players were elected onto the leadership team by other players. It didn’t work. “We had some guys that didn’t want to be there, and some guys that weren’t capable of doing the job. And we were too formal, we sat around the board table.” Now management elects the player representatives, and other team members are given separate responsibilities. “You empower as many players as you can, because the more skin they have in the game, the better they play.”

Tip 8 | Integrate your new players Three hand-picked players on the All Blacks leadership group were tasked specifically with looking after the integration of new players, Henry says. “Those leaders knew that was their job and they spent time with the guys that were playing their first or second campaigns for the All Blacks. They wouldn’t say ‘Come to my room and I’ll integrate you’; they might have breakfast together or sit on the bus going to training or sit around after training and just have a chat.”

Tip 9 | Continuity works When Henry got the All Black job in 2004, there wasn’t anyone in the leadership team, apart from players, who had been there in 2003. Henry set about building a management team that would stay together. His resolve was tested in 2007, when the All Blacks were knocked out of the World Cup by the French in the quarter finals and the media bayed for blood. But the players stuck behind their management, which – unusually in the sport – was reappointed. “When you have continuity of people you can have improvement because you know where you have been and you know where you are at and you know what you have to do to get better.”

Tip 10 | Work out how to handle pressure The 2007 World Cup was a big wake-up call for the All Blacks. When the going got tough against the French in that crucial quarter final, the guys “choked”, Henry says. “We were like Brazil against Germany in the football. People started running around doing other people’s jobs, not trusting each other. We learned a huge amount from that. When the brain chokes, you don’t function. That ‘freeze, fight, flight’ stuff starts happening and you lose focus. “We set out to understand the brain and how it functions under pressure and to develop skills so that you understand when you are in the possible freeze situation and what you can do to get yourself out of there and get refocused. “If you watch the All Blacks play today, often they are behind – remember the Ireland game in 2013? They were behind by a long way. They should never have won, but they handled the pressure and they clawed their way back. They wouldn’t have been able to do that in 2007. The mental skills and strength and resilience of that team have improved immensely.” Henry sees big parallels between what the All Blacks did post-2007, and what companies face in a recession, or after they lose a major pitch or piece of business. The temptation is to say “That’s the way it is” and move on, Henry says. Resist it. Going through difficult times should galvanise you to look at your own and your team’s performance, analyse it and see how you can do better next time. There may be factors out of your control, but you want to get better at doing what’s under your control.” 

Chief editor at Idealog, Nikki's a veteran in the journalism industry. A former lecturer at AUT University, she was the chief reporter at NZ weekly business publication The Independent and was deputy editor of Canadian publication Unlimited magazine.

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