Building better teammates and creating a winning culture are intertwined. In order to build a long-term, winning culture, it takes months and years of continuous, dedicated, deliberate effort. It’s a never-ending commitment to sharpening each other at every turn.
The New Zealand All Blacks, the national men’s rugby team, were smacked in the face with this undertaking. They were the best team in professional sports history measured by winning percentage (north of 75% all time). Yet in 2003, the team was dysfunctional and coming off a poor showing in the World Cup. Senior members of the team wanted to quit, and a culture of drunken violence was dominating.
Following that off-season, Graham Henry the (now former) head coach developed a mantra. “Better People Make Better All Blacks.” No matter how talented, if someone cannot positively contribute to their culture, the All Blacks are not interested.
The All Blacks won the World Cup the following year, with an 86% winning percentage over the season – unheard of in modern sports. But even more critically, the culture the team developed blanketed a strong sense of unity and purpose through the organization.
Teammates and winning culture aren’t just relevant in athletics. Our society is nothing but a series of teams. Our families, our colleagues, even the loose structures surfers develop while catching waves in the Pacific Ocean are all our teams. The opportunity to build and foster winning culture is everywhere.
Unfortunately, in sports and in life, we don’t always have the luxury of choosing our ideal teammates. Our responsibility, as leaders, becomes to guide and develop the individuals we are surrounded by. Not all teammates are created equal, and, because we are acutely aware that a powerful culture is a sum of its parts, we must be constantly and relentlessly seeking out ways to build individuals capable of contributing to that endgame.
What a dilemma. What do we do when we are faced with talented individuals who may contribute with their skill or intellect but who poison our atmosphere? We’ve all been privy when selecting people with whom we work. We shouldn’t ask, “Is this guy a punk?” That’s the wrong way to approach it and potentially leaves too much upside on the table. The more appropriate question is, “can we help this human become an average or better teammate?” If, through the vetting process, we decide that the answer is no, we simply don’t bring toxicity into our space. More often, however, the answer is that we can, with the right determination, help someone to grow into a brother or sister you are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with.
Think of building a house. We begin with a strong foundation and the capability to withstand ugly weather. But even the most powerfully framed home is merely a shelter without constant and continual attention. If we constantly think about making our homes comfortable places to live, we will be guided by optimal principles. We will never disrespect our own space.
We’ve spoken before about clutter and the impact it has on our well-being. No one sets out to live in a cluttered mess; it results from inattention and lack of care. A few papers left out, some objects not put away, and the sense of “I’ll get to it later” begins to take over. Likewise, inattention to the little aspects of poor teammate behavior rapidly results in a snowball effect. If we don’t prioritize the small considerations, we won’t be able to dig ourselves out when the big problems occur.
This isn’t an easy task. Promoting a long term, winning culture requires constant maintenance. We cannot allow ourselves to become frustrated or deterred from this task. Like our house analogy, gutters will need cleaning and gardens need tending. Sometimes, a fresh coat of paint is in order. We do not get angry at the garden for growing weeds or question the purpose of gutters if they’re just going to get clogged again. We understand that a harmonious living space requires this regular upkeep, and our teams do as well.
We do this by talking about our goals continually. As a team, we are pulling on the same end of the rope. Ensuring that everyone, from the most junior members to the grizzled veterans, understands and believes in the same vision leads to confidence and cohesiveness. When one person slips, we look to grab them by the shirt, pick them up and point them back on course.
One of the All Blacks’ most famous (and successful) players, Brad Thorn, developed his own motto. “Champions do extra.” Certainly, we comprehend that the athletes willing to put in the consistent reps in the gym or deliberate swings in the cage will likely improve at their sport. But a champion culture means doing the extra wherever the effort is needed. It requires constant dedication to improving not only yourself, but your teammates, continually learning more and hunting value at the margins.
The All Blacks seek to create this culture to “leave the jersey in a better place.” The team is stronger as a group, and their identity is one of brothers, not simply individuals dressed similarly. We should be looking to ensure not that we get credit as individuals, but that we put our team and our teammates first. We are at our strongest when we look for ways to help others shine.
When we’re participating in our teams, whether at home or at the office, we will succeed by focusing and making the perpetual effort to develop a culture that fosters positive teammate behavior and stresses development for all.