There is a good chance that despite your best efforts, your team hasn’t performed to its expectations. You are not alone, the vast majority of teams in the world underperform. They fail to achieve their goals. Whether you are part of an elite sports team, or a corporate group or a startup with bold ambition, you are more likely not to achieve what you set out to attain.
Then there are the winners. The exceptional teams that always keep outperforming their peers. They appear to have the magic formula that others are thirsting to emulate. But even the best teams have times when they are down. What separates them from everyone else is that they always find a way to come back and regain their glory. From mega-corporations like Apple and Microsoft that came back from near-irrelevance, to your favorite sports teams that shake off slumps and setbacks, to the immediate squad that you may be part of; the winningest teams share a set of common characteristics. They know how to create and maintain an environment and culture that promotes sustained excellence.
But it takes work to create an environment that drives extreme success. A culture of consistent success doesn’t happen automatically; you need to work hard at building it. You need to create the physical, social, and motivational settings that positively influence your performance and that of your organization.
A Wake-Up Call For The All Blacks
Sometimes even the best teams in the world require a complete makeover, something that the All Blacks, the New Zealand national rugby team, needed to do.
The All Blacks are often considered the most successful team in sports. They have won over 75% percent of their international matches over the last one hundred years, an unmatched feat. However, despite their past success, in 2004, the All Blacks found themselves mired in a slump. They went through a string of critical losses. After a particularly stinging loss against South Africa (another rugby powerhouse), the team was at a low point, with players engaging in bouts of binge drinking and misbehavior. The coaches viewed this as a wake-up call and needed to create a renewed motivational climate to have the team return to its former glory.
The first thing the coaches did was get to the root of the problem. They wanted to address the real issues the team faced, not just the superficial actions they witnessed from the players. They set out to have open conversations with players and other stakeholders in the organization. After deep introspection and reflection, they realized there were a few core issues that were impacting every aspect of team performance. These included a lack of maturity, players who were disenfranchised and jaded, a culture that promoted excessive drinking, and an ineffective and obsolete style of leadership and management where the coaches made all the decisions and expected the players to carry them out on the field.
The coaches and players collectively decided that the foundational environment and expectations surrounding the team needed significant change. They wanted to create a renewed positive environment, but this meant changing to the very core everything the team had taken for granted. For example, the team switched from a system of autocratic management (where coaches made decisions and passed them on to the players) to a democratic and dual management system where players and coaches were both responsible for setting team strategy. This change made the players more invested in on-field actions.
The team also needed to change the mindset of the players and wanted them to become better citizens every day and in every way. They understood that being outstanding was not just limited to on-field performances. You have to be a better person in everything you do. As a result, the team adopted a new motto: “Better people make better All Blacks.” The new slogan was something that went straight to the heart of the characteristics the team wanted to instill in the players. Having players strive to become better in every way helped them achieve excellence on the field.
The environment surrounding the team was redesigned in every way possible to improve motivation and excellence, and it worked. Players began to feel a greater responsibility for the team. The significance of wearing the black jersey once again held a special meaning, and the players recognized this honor. A sense of pride was reinstilled in the organization. The team believed that excellence is expected, not merely desired, as that was the All Blacks legacy.
As a group, they agreed to put the team first. Every player put the interests of the team ahead of themselves. The All Blacks also made fundamental changes on how they practiced, how to stay fresh, how ownership of decisions transferred from coaches to players, and how they worked together as a high performing unit. Everything they did was up for reinvention.
Sure enough, before they knew it, the cultural and environmental makeover the team went through began to manifest itself into performance on the field. Not only did the team regain its century-old legacy, but they also did better. The team won an astonishing 85 percent of their international matches from 2004 to 2011, one of the most enviable records in all of sport.
You Too Can Make The Unexpected Happen
It is not too late for you to create an environment that drives your team to perform at its best. If your team shows signs of underperforming, you may need to do what the All-Blacks did and revisit the most fundamental questions and assumptions about who you are, what you want to achieve, and what you want your legacy to be. You will need your team to be as invested in your vision as you are, and make them part of the solution.
The first thing you need is to get to the very core of the issues that are holding you back. For the All Blacks, it was reigniting pride in a team that has historically been great. In your case, the foundational issue may be different. The only way to get to the underlying problem holding back your organization is through deep introspection and having a series of frank and open conversations with every stakeholder in the team. That is what the All Blacks did to initiate their turnaround. It wasn’t just a problem for leadership to solve; it was a problem for everyone to solve together.
If you aren’t clear about what exactly is holding your team back, you need someone objective to come in and dig deep and evaluate why your team is underperforming. Understanding the root cause of your problem is the most critical thing you can do. Unfortunately, most leaders make hasty decisions and quick fixes without genuinely understanding the issues that truly need fixing. Instead, the problems they fix are the outward symptoms, and this never results in exceptional performance. Since the All Blacks were able to pinpoint the root issues, they were able to implement changes that worked.
Once you identify the real issues that are holding you back, you know what you need to fix. And when you start making the necessary changes, very soon, the unexpected will happen. Your level of performance will take off in a way you would not expect. That’s what happened to the All Blacks, and the same can happen to you.
Only when you create an environment that promotes sustained excellence, will you be able to achieve it. To build the desired environment and culture, you need to start with the fundamentals. This includes valuing every opinion, promoting creative and independent thinking, honesty and introspection. If you have these values, you can build upon them. These are qualities that have helped the All Blacks become the winningest team in the sports world. But without this foundation, the house you are trying to build will crumble.