What the World’s Best Rugby Team Can Teach Us About Company Culture

As an American, I know almost nothing about rugby. But as a person working at a small business who is very conscious of our company culture, I am fascinated by New Zealand’s All Blacks.

Named for the color of their uniforms, the All Blacks had an unprecedented 95% win ratio from 2004–2014. The catalyst for this: rejecting “yesterday’s sports science” of fear, and instead embracing optimistic principles to help form a strong, winning team.

(Note: I found out about the All Blacks from the BBC’s article, British & Irish Lions third Test: What makes the All Blacks great? All following quotes are from this piece.)

Better people make better co-workers

At the center of the All Blacks’ methodology is “Better people make better All Blacks.”

One of the things we’ve embraced over the past year at Highland is to be very careful about who we hire. We’ve long had the ability to find competent people, but we’ve failed several times at hiring people who are also good co-workers.

To fix this, we’ve learned to be uncompromising and say no to anyone who doesn’t naturally embrace our company’s values. To put it in All Blacks terminology, we’ve learned that “Better People Make Better Highlanders.” Conversely, one bad hire can stir a lot of dissension. Since we began screening for values alignment, every new hire we’ve made has raised our organization’s culture and potential as a whole.

Leadership as a resource

Rather than seeing themselves as the top of the hierarchy, the All Blacks coaching staff see themselves as a resource for the players.

Imagine a rugby player who sees an opportunity to get the ball from the opposing team. A player who has to ask his coach for permission is never going to make that play. But one who is chosen for the the team because he has good judgement — and is empowered to use that judgement — can make game-winning plays on the reg.

The idea of an organization that is led from the bottom up is beautiful. Employees who are intentionally empowered to make good decisions make good decisions. Employees who are not empowered often make no decision at all.

In the All Blacks, the players are the team, supported by the coaches on the sidelines. At Highland, we are a maker’s company, supported by leaders who are there to help us if we run into problems, not strip away our power to make important decisions.

In it together

The All Blacks consider their team a family. And in that family, players are encouraged to take ownership, and to “leave the Jersey in a better place” — acknowledging their duty to one another as teammates, and respecting the legacy they will leave behind.

While I realize that family may not always be a realistic goal among co-workers, taking interest and having a stake in each other’s lives is incredibly important. You can’t treat customers well if you don’t treat each other well.

When employees are invested in each other, they are invested in your company. And when they are invested in your company, they cease to be merely employees and instead they become owners. Isn’t that what “invested” means?

In All Blacks’ assistant coach Wayne Smith’s words, “people will rise to a challenge if it is their challenge.” Give your people ownership and they will succeed in new ways.

No egos

Perhaps my favorite value of the All Blacks is that, “No one is bigger than the jersey.” They are a world-premier sports team, and yet anyone can be replaced.

At Highland, one concept often quoted around the office is that it’s important to have “the right people in the right seats.” Yes, we cherish our employees. Yes, you should feel safe knowing you have a place here. But if you are that rare person that is the best at what you do, then you should use that talent to serve the team and lift everyone up as a whole. If you’re more interested in serving your own ego, then you’re probably not in the right seat and someone else will be a better fit for us.

Express yourself

According to the All Blacks, “Tests (what rugby games are called)…are opportunities for the players to ‘express themselves.’”

I love this idea, because it shows how much that work is about the team, as opposed to work being about the work. When you’re on a team where winning is just what you do, winning no longer has to be a goal, it is simply a manifestation of your team being yourselves.

Performance = Capability x Behavior

Let us end with the formula the All Blacks use to create a culture of winning behaviors. Broken down further, Performance = Capability x Behavior means that:

“The level of the team’s performance is equivalent to their talent, which is multiplied by the way they behave: the way they prepare, the way they connect, the way they communicate, commit, and contribute.”

When we are able to embrace the behaviors described above — better people, leadership as a resource, being in it together, no egos, and expressing yourselves — we have a powerful behavior multiplier for an already talented team.

Lots of companies work with brilliant people. But when your people can work together by embracing positive behavior, you become a force to be reckoned with.

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