15 lessons that business leaders can learn from high-performing sportspeople


The world of high performing sporting teams is ruthless. There are only so many positions on a team; if you want to add someone; you’ve got to drop someone. Performance feedback is regular and brutal. Success is black and white — your wins and your losses are visible for all to see. Media and public scrutiny is passionate and unrelenting.

The “greatness” of teams never comes down to one or two players or a coach. Great teams are renowned for their winning cultures. And rightly so. Conversely, losing cultures can be incredibly hard to turn around, and often only done by a mass clean out of players and staff.

Truly great players are judged not just by their individual contribution but by how they lift all of those around them to perform at their highest potential.

I have always believed that business has so much to learn from high performance sporting teams — so the panel I was most excited to hear from at our recently held People and Culture Growth Summit had the enticing title;

I had to pinch myself with the panellists that we had to tackle the topic:

Sir Steve Hansen — former coach of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team and one of the most successful high level sporting coaches of all time;

Tim Brown — former professional and NZ world cup soccer player and co founder and co CEO of Allbirds, a Nasdaq listed sustainable consumer brand;

Alyssa Healy — three time World Cup winner and Australian cricketing royalty; and

Ed Cowan (panel moderator) — our very own TDM team member and former Australian Test cricketer.

Full panel conversion – June 2022

Having now re watched the panel multiple times, I am more convinced than ever that these are the three key attributes that distinguish the good from the great — it defines the successful players, coaches and cultures and is the foundation of resilience to endure the inevitable ups and downs.

With this in mind, these are my 15 takeaways from the panel discussion that I think business leaders can learn from the parallel world of high performing sports teams (and in no particular order):

1. The CEO has to be the coach

Ed kicked things off with a powerful perspective having seen great sporting teams and great management teams; “The coach, to me, is akin to the CEO”.

This perspective is critical as a business scales. As a start-up, the founder / CEO is predominantly akin to being a player on a sporting team. Then as some scale arrives and the team grows, the role transitions to player / coach and ultimately to solely the coach. In our experience, adopting this mindset shift is a key component of successfully scaling businesses.

2. What’s your ‘why’?

The concept of understanding the ‘why’ of a team or organisation has become more widely appreciated in recent years in both sport and business. Tim Brown explained; “Being part of a group of people pointed in one direction is a very special feeling. The special groups in sport that I have been a part of, they weren’t just clear on the ‘what’… they were just as clear or clearer on the ‘why’.”

3. Let go of the ego, or you will be stuck as group of individuals

Throughout the discussion, each panelist emphasised the necessity of letting go of egos for the sake of the team. Alyssa noted that it has been the key to the success of the Australian women’s cricket team; “Everyone took their egos out and decided they wanted to play their role to make sure the team succeeds… You take the egos out of the room. Everyone buys into the culture, the values, and does their job for the team.”

Steve doubled down on this point as being critical to the All Blacks’ success;

4. Understand your people deeply

Steve spoke at length about the importance of understanding your people. He didn’t just mean their strengths and weaknesses as athletes. He spoke about understanding them at a deep emotional level. Only then will you know how to get the most out of them.

5. Embed your values from day one

Alyssa gave a wonderful and practical example of embedding team values during onboarding; “When a new player comes into the side, as daunting as it might be… one of the first things you have to do coming into the squad is presenting your version of the [team] values in front of the group… They’ve got to talk to us about how they are going to live the values, what it looks like for them whether that’s on the field or off the field… It makes each and every one of us accountable for that person living out their values. It makes them accountable — they’ve said it out loud.”

6. Building culture starts with identity

Steve described the building blocks of culture at the All Blacks:

“We sat down and wanted to understand our own identities for a start. Who were we, where did we come from… and then we wanted to establish an identity for the All Blacks. We [knew we] couldn’t be successful if we didn’t understand ourselves well enough. So you’ve got to break down the barriers to help people understand each other.”

Collective identity can’t be framed without individuals understanding who they are and who they want to be. The All Blacks always talked of the legacy they wanted to build both as a team and as individuals (they even wrote a book about it…)

7. Non-negotiables are… not negotiable

All panelists agreed that crystal clear expectations and accountability are critical for high performing teams. Defining the “non-negotiables” is key. Steve again;

“Right at the beginning, as a coach, I stand up and say A, B and C are non-negotiable. Everything else is.”

Tim followed up with a wonderful insight — sometimes we spend too much time focusing on what is non-negotiable and not enough time on things that are negotiable:

“The ability to impart your own style; bring yourself to work; your own sense of who you are; how you want to act; be your own person and not conform. I think a great team gives space for that… [but] that all has to work within the [constraints of] the non-negotiables.”

8. Build a foundation of trust and a language of performance

Tim is in a unique situation. VERY few if any professional sportspeople have gone on to be the CEO of a rapidly scaling publicly listed company. Leaning into his experience on both fronts, he aptly pointed out that a foundation of trust and a language of performance are required to extract the best from your teams — you can’t simply have one and expect the other.

“The language of performance is something I think you take for granted in a sporting context. It is there all the time… you are constantly getting feedback on your performance…
In the business world, it has been a big adjustment for me. People aren’t used to that. It doesn’t happen as often and you have to be very thoughtful and methodical about defining a language of performance.”

The challenge is to articulate a language of performance “that allows people to get better, that is very direct, that calls people out for things that fall short of values.”

Somewhat directly related, Steve talked to the importance of saying what you mean when building a foundation of trust and used the example of the language around optional traning sessions — they are exactly that, optional — you can’t judge a player for not attending. The sole input to judgement has to be around the non-negotiables, not mixed and matched as you see fit, which is a sure fire way to diminish trust and undermine the power of the language of performance when it is needed.

9. Confidence is king

I have heard Ed make the point numerous times over the years when privately discussing our own roles and personal development at TDM, but it was great to be reminded again;“The key ingredient to high performance in my mind has always been confidence. If you do not have confidence to execute, you cannot perform. Knowing how to build confidence or accelerate confidence is the art of coaching.”

Steve gave his coaches perspective on this and the importance on the clarity of roles when it comes to building confidence;

“My job [as a coach] … is to make sure you (as a player) clearly understand what it is you are being asked to do every day. Once you know what your role is, you can build confidence in it…it allows you to prepare better, it creates an ownership of that role. If you’re brave enough to empower that person as a leader to actually own the role, you get a real response of ownership and responsibility and the makings of a team coming together.”

Without deep clarity on what needs to be achieved and how you as an individual can contribute to this, confidence will never be authentically built.

10. Give feedback with empathy

Steve outlined another benefit of knowing your people intimately at an emotional level. Some will respond to tougher feedback; others will require a softer approach. Ultimately, “they want to know that you care about them” and what he knows for sure is that “your cuddle will never hurt them.”

11. “Pressure is a privilege”

Tim and Alyssa spoke about thriving under pressure. They both used pressure and criticism as a positive force.

Steve added the All Blacks perspective:

“The external expectations are massive. However, in the All Blacks, we saw it also as a privilege. If people care that much… We are doing ok. But those external expectations have to be met internally. And if your internal expectations are higher than the external, it makes it so much easier to deal with the external ones.”

12. Resilience

There were countless examples by all panelists about the necessity for resilience for being successful. Alyssa suffered a horrific run of form leading up to the 2020 T20 World Cup — to the point her selection in the team was in doubt. She responded emphatically with a match winning performance in the final in front of 90,000 fans.

Play of the Match: Alyssa Healy

Steve ultimately became the one of the most successful coaches of all-time but it wasn’t a smooth road to get there:

“I was lucky enough to be coaching internationally for 19 years. I was lucky enough to have the record for the most winning games in a row. However, I also have the record for having lost the most games in a row. So I was a shit coach and a good coach… What it taught me was — resilience. Having the understanding and resilience to know, just because you’re not successful today doesn’t mean you can’t be tomorrow.”

13. Balance “simulation and enjoyment” to drive performance

Steve shared a mental model used by the All Blacks to drive optimal performance. They would always perform when simulation (focused drills and purposeful practice) was balanced with enjoyment in equal amounts.

This made me think — how much of either simulation or enjoyment do we deliberately provide in a work context as leaders. And what is the mix? We may intentionally make room for deep work with a policy of ‘no meetings’ on any given day, but how is this balanced with pockets to ensure team connection.

Steve Hansen's Mental Model of Perfect Preparation
Steve Hansen’s Mental Model of Perfect Preparation

 14. Get the right people on the bus FIRST

Anyone who knows me know my affection for Jim Collins and this is not a new concept (see below) — but in a sporting context it feels all the more exaggerated given the limited number of seats. Steve, who admittedly was blessed with positive selection dilemmas, knew ultimately selection was the most important aspect to coaching success- “Getting the selections right is the golden key. If you get the selections right, everything else comes easy.”

Steve outlined the four key questions for All Blacks team selection:

  1. Do they have the talent?
  2. Do they have the mental fortitude?
  3. Bring them into the environment and see how they behave
  4. If they pass these tests, give them responsibility.

15. “Rest, reflect, recharge”

Ed always jokes around the office — “no rest, no progress’, in an environment in our office that tends to be always ‘on’, as is the tendency for most businesses. It has been foreign to him not to have clearly defined times to reflect. Athletes are so used to having blocks of recovery, light and heavy training schedules to ensure peak performance. It also reminds me of this stat — 4 out of 5 training hours spent as athletes is done at light intensity and only 5% at max effort.

Tim was in the best place to comment on the variation he sees to this in the business world — “The business world does not do this well.” He believes that the business world needs to think more purposefully with “off and on”, and to give people the space to “rest, reflect and recharge.”

Alyssa said that changing their mindset to embrace “resting, reflecting and recharging” has been “one of the biggest shifts I have seen in our team over the last 5 years. In my mind it has got more out of our team than going to training and hitting a thousand and one balls.”

This reminds me of a common scaling challenge of many fast growing businesses, especially for founders. They are so accustomed to fighting for survival and working around the clock. When their business hits the point where that is no longer the optimal M.O., it can be very challenging to adjust to the long term benefit and vitality for all the business’ stakeholders of taking the space and time to “rest, reflect and recharge”.

I know TDM’s Operating Partner Ethan Berman, who was the founder and CEO of RiskMetrics, deeply believes in this philosophy — despite the collapse of Bear Sterns in 2008, he was in the Galápagos Islands, knowing his return could not change the world, and his rejuvenation would allow for better decisions under pressure moving forward (anecdote at c31.mins in the podcast below).

While the bows drawn between sport and business can often be a little banal, I hope these reflections from what was one of the best panel discussions I have seen, provides some genuine food for thought for leaders of all types as well as for those interested in building great teams.

About the Author

At his core, Hamish loves helping people create futures they never thought possible. As a coach, mentor, and co-founder of TDM Growth Partners, he brings experience from multiple top-tier investment firms as well as from his hiatus as a school guidance counsellor.

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