3 Lessons Business Leaders Can Learn From New Zealand Rugby


First Published on Kotinos Partners Limited

When the New Zealand Rugby Union, the body behind the All Blacks, published their annual report for 2013, they highlighted some remarkable achievements:

The NZRU reaped an operating profit of NZ$2.9 million – a second successive annual profit, which had been projected at a mere NZ$790,000.

The Men’s and Women’s Sevens teams both became World Champions at the Sevens Rugby World Cup in Moscow.

The All Blacks completed a perfect season, winning 14 out of 14 test matches in 2013.

Let me repeat that last point: the All Blacks achieved 100% success over the entire season - the first country to ever achieve this remarkable feat.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that as the organisation behind the All Blacks, the NZRU might use this publicly circulated report as an excuse to pat itself on the back and bask in the glow of its accomplishment. In reality, the NZRU awarded its own performance as an organisation a lukewarm 82 out of 100, which exemplifies the exceptionally high standards to which it holds itself.

The NZRU is a winning organisation, and a recently released publication suggests that the All Blacks are likely to keep winning. What can this remarkable high performance example teach us about continuous performance improvement?

1. Even a perfect score leaves room for improvement

The NZRU awarded their 2013 performance a very respectable grade, but not the A+ mark you might expect. The reason? The report highlighted that they had missed targets for player retention and fan engagement – there was still work to be done. This hunger to constantly improve is matched by the national team. Darren Shand, the All Blacks manager, pinpoints the performance ethos: “What really drives us is the constant challenge to play the perfect game and then do it again the following week.”

The All Blacks and the NZRU are consistently working to improve their game, and do not use their pre-eminence in the rugby arena as an excuse to rest on their laurels. Likewise, true high performance business organisations refuse to become complacent even when bold targets are comfortably within reach.

2. Transparent performance measures are effective performance measures

Rugby is akin to a religion in New Zealand, such is the fierce devotion it inspires. Every move made by the NZRU is scrutinized ad nauseam. With this in mind, the NZRU’s level of transparency and honest self-reflection around organisational performance is unusual. Few, if any, other international sports governing bodies are brave enough to publish their performance ratings in this manner. Fewer still are brave enough to set out their goals for the following year with weightings to reflect their importance. In effect, these actions publicly and explicitly set the bar for how their performance will be judged over the next 12 months. It is a major factor in ensuring the organisation never ceases to strive for excellence in everything it does.

In business, transparency is fundamental to sustaining effective performance measures and continuous improvement. In many companies we find real reluctance to publicly share information regarding individual performance. However, the reality is that the more public and transparent a measure is, the greater the incentive there is to perform well rather than be exposed as lacking.

3. ‘Leave the jersey in a better place’

When a player is awarded their All Blacks jersey for the first time, it is a proud moment in their lives. Heritage and honour are attached to this piece of clothing, as well a powerful sense of connection to the player’s predecessors and those who will follow in their footsteps. There is a strong desire to “leave the jersey in a better place.” This a fundamental characteristic of the All Blacks team and a feature that acts as a personal driver to all its members.

A strong sense of purpose among individuals cannot be underestimated as a powerful driving force behind continuous performance. As well as feeling that their role and contribution are valued, employees should feel that their contribution impacts the legacy of the company in a meaningful way. A personal connection to the company’s vision is a powerful stimulus for performance.

How do you strive for continuous performance improvement? Tweet @KotinosPartners

Brian MacNeice is an expert on high performance and Managing Director of Kotinos Partners Limited. Brian advises leading international clients on driving improvements in the performance focus and culture of their businesses. His research in the field of high performance has taken him all over the world to study elite organisations such as the New Zealand All Blacks, the US Marine Corps, the Kirov Ballet, IMG Academy and Curtis Institute of Music.


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