World-class individual and team performance – lessons from England Rugby Union

What does it take for a team to create a world-class performance and what personal traits need to be evident within the individual team members?

This question popped into my mind after reading an article written soon after Stuart Lancaster became acting head coach for England’s Rugby Union team. He has since been confirmed in role and at the time of writing is showing signs of putting a team together that could go on to win the world cup in 2015.

In business, world-class performance is about being competitive, or on a par with, the best in the world, not necessarily being the best. On this basis, I would argue that even in their current form, England are demonstrating world-class performance.

Stuart was asked about the types of players he wanted to include in his squad. He responded by stating “I’m confident that we have great players and strong characters who can do us all proud wearing the white shirt. Talent gets you there, but it’s character that keeps you grounded and makes sure you retain the right values.”

I believe Stuart was, in part, referring to the lack of character displayed at the last world cup by some in the outgoing squad, both on and off the field. England were knocked out at the semi-final stage, well below par for a team with the talents at its disposal.

How often do we see teams perform below par, below world-class, despite their obvious collective talents? I refer here to a failure to achieve success and demonstrate integrity. We see it in all walks of life. It could be argued that the critical failure of many sports, professional, industry and political teams at this stage in our history is the failure to¬† demonstrate character (integrity) and apply their talents to the “right thing.”

At a time when the world is calling for greater levels of integrity and success that is more equitable in its focus, Stuart’s message resonates for me.

Stuart speaks of talent and character. I would add to this. If we think of “talent” as capability, then we can think of four ‘c’s’ needed for world class performance: capability, character, collaboration and culture. I could add a fifth, courage, but I think this a trait within character. You might think of others?

The personal traits of capability and character, are brought to life in a team environment through collaboration and culture.

Collaboration is needed to achieve what the sum of the parts (the individuals) cannot achieve by simply focusing on their strengths in isolation from those around them. In rugby, this is typified in the positions each player adopts, the accountabilities that fall to each position and the way in which the ball is passed from player to player as they advance towards the try line.

Collaboration also includes a diminishing of ego or self-interest for the sake of achieving the collective goal. For the England rugby team, this has recently been evident in a lack of show-boating and an increase in selfless play. I’ve seen individual players forego an outside chance of crossing the try line and taking the glory, instead passing the ball to a team mate who has a greater chance of scoring.

The fourth ‘c’, culture, is the climate within which this collaboration is encouraged, individual character is given permission to be expressed and capability is focused on the right objectives.

A definition offered for culture by Schein is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration.”

For the England rugby team this “external adaptation” is needed to achieve what is demanded of them (to win games) under the varying pressures exerted by their bosses, the Rugby Football Union, their fans and their opponents. The internal integration refers to the way in which the individual players find ways to “get on”, understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and, ultimately, perform at their best.

Note that Schein refers to assumptions (in other words, rules and guidelines) that are “invented, discovered, or developed.” This means that culture is not simply brought about naturally or by accident. It can also be a deliberate act. Given the right purpose, built around ethical and professional behaviours, this can create a culture that supports the right kind of collaboration, permission to display the right kind of character and ultimately an environment where capability is successfully applied in the pursuit of the right goals.

Do you know what your signature capabilities are? Do you have a character that is focused on ethical and professional behaviours? Is the environment you find yourself in collaborative in nature? Do you operate within a culture that supports this collaboration, allows character to shine and ultimately capability to be applied? If so, you have the ingredients for world-class performance. If not, maybe you have some questions to ask of yourself and your team mates?

 

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