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What A Winning Rugby Team Can Teach Business Leaders

November 3, 2016, 12:00 AM UTC
Argentina New Zealand Rugby
New Zealand's All Blacks team celebrate with the trophy after winning the rugby championship in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016.(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Natacha Pisarenko—AP

The All Blacks are the most successful team in the history of professional rugby. Since 1903, they boast an astonishing .770 winning percentage, and the team’s players are heroes in their home country of New Zealand. And just last week with their victory over Australia, the All Blacks made history by winning their record-setting 18th consecutive match. Integral to this remarkable record of success is an unexpected All Blacks tradition that defines their core. In his book, Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, James Kerr describes how after every game – win or lose – the players “sweep the sheds.”

Unlike other professional sports teams, they don’t leave the locker room while a support staff comes in to remove their equipment and clean – each player is expected to clean up after himself. Superstars and rookies alike take part, establishing a level playing field and sense of meritocracy among teammates.

In an age of mega contracts and the self-indulgent personalities found in some corners of professional sports, this humble tradition can teach us a lot about building a winning culture – in sports or in business. While any team or company can have a good year, it takes a disciplined, unyielding commitment to team-building to achieve greatness year after year.

The tradition of sweeping the sheds is part of a broad commitment to meritocracy that can be seen in many aspects of the All Blacks’ operations. The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZR), the national governing body of rugby that oversees the All Blacks, invests heavily in community programs and youth and amateur teams across the country. Every primary school in New Zealand has a grass playing field and materials for youth rugby. Teachers and coaches are offered trainings on how to develop players at all levels, and organized teams and leagues exists for boys and girls of all ages. This is a stark contrast to rival countries where rugby has historically been limited to private schools and seen as an elite sport. In New Zealand, rugby is an “everyman” sport, and the All Blacks are a source of pride for all New Zealanders.

The famous All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry, who led the team from 2004-2011, coined the phrase “Better People Make Better All Blacks.” In addition to the symbolic sweeping of the sheds, this also means that even the best players are expected to identify and improve upon their weaknesses through individualized development plans.

The corollary to business is striking. Pure talent is, necessary – but not sufficient – for long-term success. In a field like financial services, firms compete heavily to recruit top talent in order to stay competitive. But to build a competitive edge that can be measured in decades, not quarters, companies need more than the equivalent of the latest top free agent signing; they need a diversity of talent willing to think in terms of common good. This can’t happen overnight; just as the NZR has built a program in New Zealand’s grade schools that teach these values to all students, companies need to think about the teamwork approach as a long-term investment. This entails developing a strong internal culture with buy-in from the top to the bottom of the organization.

When the All Blacks come to Chicago as part of the Vista 2016 All Blacks’ Northern Tour on November 5, I’ll be excited to watch one of the world’s storied franchises look to continue their record-setting win streak. And no matter the outcome of the match, you can be sure the Soldier Field locker rooms will be well swept.

Brian Sheth is co-founder and president of Vista Equity Partners.