Creating a high performance culture


As Australia's most capped forward, former Wallaby Captain Nathan Sharpe knows what it takes to create a high performance culture on the rugby field. Now he faces a new challenge on the other side of the white line, as Managing Director of specialist recruitment business SES Labour Solutions. He shares some of the lessons he has taken from his rugby career into the business world.

What do you see as the main similarities between leadership and performance in sport and business?

Culture is the key. In any high performing organisation I've been in, it's people's attitude towards those around them that dictates the culture. If people are more selfless – essentially they don't want to let their mates down – generally you get a much better performance because they're less worried about themselves and more focused on their impact within the team.

What does a high performance culture mean to you – on field and off?

To be honest, any success you have is simply the outcome of consistent processes and behaviour. It's preparation that will yield success over a period of time. A high performance culture is about that, but it's also about self-regulation within a group. If people are actually living the values of the organisation - if it's not just a sometimes thing but an always thing, they become better at what they're doing.

What role does the coach play in creating a high performance culture?

In the best teams I've been involved in, the coach has facilitated a self-regulatory culture, where the players can be autonomous but strategically the coach is running the show. They rely on a group of senior players to set and sustain the culture of the team – similar to the role of a managing director and line managers.

In a sporting environment, the coach's job is done once the players are on the field. You can't go out there and make decisions for players when they're five metres out from the line in a Bledisloe Cup match. You've got to rely on them to make the right decisions.

And how do mentors support the development of that culture?

In any changing environment, it helps to have some experienced heads up front. I always thought having mentors in an organisation as very, very important. A great mentor lives the values and culture every day. It's part of them – and that makes it part of the organisation, consistently and from year to year.

I think things have also changed in team sport with the advent of social media. In the past you would serve an apprenticeship before anyone got to know you, but now you get young guys coming into sport and their potential may be built up before they're ready. They are under the spotlight before they are able to cope with the pressure of making the right decisions at the right time. That's why it's so important to have good mentors, because they can really influence how young players cope with that sort of exposure.

Plus, the best captains are also often a direct result of their most influential mentors, as leadership is a combination of nature and nurture.

How important is player (or talent) selection and positioning to performance?

It's one of the most critical things. A skilled manager or coach understands the strengths and weaknesses of people and can find the right position for them. In rugby, the best coaches are the ones who understand their players individually, and then work out collectively what is best for the group. There's no point playing someone in the outside backs if they should clearly be playing in the inside backs, for example. Also, there's no point in having someone in the team who jeopardises the culture of the group and puts themselves before the team. Culturally, that means a collective understanding that what is good for the group is better for the individual.

How do you recognise the commitment of team members, and keep them motivated?

Recognising people's efforts for the unseen things is really important. After a game, rather than celebrate all the fantastic moments like when someone scored two tries, we'd work hard at celebrating the people who did a lot of the work that went unnoticed. Internally, as a group we'd celebrate the guy who made three tackles in a row, got up and got into the defensive line and stopped the opposition from coming that way, so someone else could make the turnover that allowed the team to get the ball and score in the corner.

Within our own company now we try to do that, and celebrate the people doing the hard grinding yards. Everyone wants to get satisfaction from doing their job, and recognition is an important part of this. You've got to feel as though everyone's contributing equally to the team, regardless of what's happening externally.

What about when things are tough – what keeps players going on the field?

There's an element of self-motivation because players don't like to lose, but they also don't want to let the person next to them down. So when they're under pressure, they know they need to push harder to get the job done for the person next to them. If you have a collective will to achieve a goal, it's far stronger than a few individuals running around a field. That gets back to the culture of the team.

How is player talent nurtured and developed? How would you apply those processes to the workplace?

In sport, it's probably a little easier because there are people with a full-time job identifying talent. The coach will have known about that new player for some time and can effectively integrate them into an apprenticeship where they simply need to understand and focus on their role. In the workplace, that's part of the management team's job, to identify people who would be a good fit in the business and develop a long-term plan. It might be people with certain skills, or a really good cultural fit so they will add to the motivation of the team.

What did it mean to you to win the John Eales medal twice? How important is that level of recognition?

In sport, the medals determined by your peers are the most important because it's so much more satisfying to do things that are better for the team. Often the media might focus on the person scoring three tries, while everyone in the team understands that it might have been more about being in the right place, right time – and there's someone else working a heck of a lot harder in the background.

What sporting teams do you think have a really successful culture of high performance – and what's their secret?

It pains me to say it, but I can't go past the All Blacks in terms of a successful culture of high performance. One of the things they do very well is the way they transition players into the team. A high proportion of mentors keep their culture strong and help new players understand who is there for them, how things are done and what is expected of them. The longer they spend in the team, the more they start living those habits and it becomes a way of life. Then five or more years down the track, they are the mentor themselves. Without even knowing it, they have been part of that succession planning and are keeping the culture strong.

Three tips to take from the field into business…

  1. Focus on the process rather than the outcome. Whether you do well or whether you do poorly, look back at the process of what got you there.
  2. Celebrate the things no one else sees, but that are vital to the success of the team.
  3. Plan, prepare, perform – and then review. There's always opportunity to improve the way you do things, and you will always learn the most from your failures.

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