Collaboration is King – Lessons from the Lions

If you love rugby then like me, you will love the Lions. Once every four years, players from every nation in the British Isles, from clubs spanning the length and breadth of the land, come together united under one banner, with one purpose – defeat a southern hemisphere rugby giant.

“This is your Everest boys”, the immortal words of the legendary Scottish coach Jim Telfer, have never resonated more when this year Head Coach Warren Gatland, a native Kiwi, mustered a team to face the New Zealand All Blacks – possibly the greatest generation of rugby players. Emerging with a drawn series was therefore a great achievement. So, how did they do it?

Underpinning every successful team, sporting or otherwise is collaboration. Effective collaboration is difficult to achieve, but I propose the Lions’ experience can serve as an inspiration for teams operating in a corporate environment.

Leadership

One of, it not the most important decision facing the head coach was the choice of captain. Wales’ Sam Warburton turned out to be a paragon a leadership excellence: universally respected and a consummate professional both on and off the field.

Every team needs a leader who sets the standards that every member must follow. It goes without saying that he or she needs to be admired and inspire confidence, but individuals need to see in a leader an embodiment of everything the squad represents and wants to achieve.

Leaders need to be resilient. Teams and individuals often face set-backs but what matters is how you respond. Sam Warburton was not chosen to start the first test against the All Blacks. However, results come first and his role therefore shifted to supporting, unreservedly those players who were selected to start. 

Building Cohesion

Yearlong adversaries must become brothers in arms. Rivalries, egos and grudges must be benched in pursuit of a unified team. 

Before the tour started, Gatland identified this problem: “Putting together players from four nations so quickly … to play the best team in the world is definitely the biggest challenge for us as a management team. We need to work out how players will get on with their colleagues who will be supportive of the rest of the squad”.

The old adage that if team mates don’t gel off the pitch they won’t perform on the pitch holds true. While no one would expect every team mate to be best buds, there needs at the very least to be an understanding of one another’s strengths and weaknesses, what everyone’s roles are and a base level of respect.

One of the best ways to build a unified team is to set out your standards and the ways you are going to achieve these. Every member of the team must buy into these values and processes. Led by their captain, they must be given the space and resources by management in order for these to be refined and embedded. Talking about standards is one thing, implementing and cementing them is another.

One trait that runs through all successful Lions’ teams has been a strong, tightly knit squad. Sir Clive Woodward, former England and Lions’ coach recognised the lack of cohesion in his squad in 2005, as a key factor in the three losses to the All Blacks. 

Trust

CEDR’s Andy Grossman authored a guide on collaborative working in which he identifies trust as a fundamental component of collaboration. If trust is present within a team, members will be more comfortable in being vulnerable and honest with each other, feel more able give and take feedback, resolve conflict and hold themselves accountable on a peer-to-peer basis with a view to pursuing a group aim.

This is perhaps most aptly reflected in the words of Willie John McBride (former Irish and Lions’ player) who said of the Lions team: “You don’t blame the guy who drops the ball, or the guy who’s not there to cover the situation, because you’re a team, and you’re all in it together, and it’s how you react when your backs are to the wall that will show what kind of team you are.” Individual errors are not to be seen as such. An error by one is an error by the team. Taking responsibility for failure as a unit can only come through building trust. 

Adapt or Die

The ability to move from one environment to the next seamlessly is critical. The players making up the Lions more often than not are pitted against each other either in fiercely competitive and relentless national and European club competitions or the Six Nations, a tournament that fans the flames of historic sporting, political and national rivalries.

Players must adapt to a completely new environment. They have to operate under a different management structure, headed by a different staff from head coach to nutritionists and strength and conditioning trainers. Different management is accompanied by different processes, ethos and day-to-day modus operandi. Everything from training schedules, team selection and disciplinary procedures and leisure/social policies may differ slightly or significantly from their norm, presenting a challenge to ensure the team comply and do so willingly and without dissent or disenchantment. All of this must be done in a very short period of time and for seven weeks only.

What’s more, sporting teams can change from one week to the next owing to injury, swapping of underperforming players or change of personnel owing to shift in tactical approach. Consequently, every member of the team must be well informed and fully integrated allowing for harmonious transitions.

Conclusion

The business environment, a melting pot of political, social and financial factors rarely stays constant. The ability to adapt to these changes will depend on whether a team can collaborate effectively, whether the necessary leadership is present and whether each member trusts in each other’s role and the processes and values shared by all. Fail to and you’re sure to miss touch.

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