What the All Blacks can teach us all about culture

It’s no secret inside Team PledgeMe that for me, major sporting events (like World Cups and the Olympic Games) mean erratic sleeping patterns, constantly waking up flatmates by yelling at the TV, and even more time spent trawling Twitter. A few of us have been relegated to a #sportsball channel on Slack for intra-office communications on the subject matter.

The Rugby World Cup is over. This makes me sad. The main reason I feel this way is that the All Blacks, especially this team, have captivated me for a few years now.

The thing I find so fascinating is the culture they’ve created. It incubates success better than anything else I’ve seen in sport.

The All Blacks have been ranked #1 in World Rugby for more than a decade (less a few months by South Africa). That, in itself, is crazy. But had they fallen to their Trans Tasman rivals last weekend, it would have been slightly harder to call them the best team ever.

But the All Blacks prevailed. They are unequivocally the best team ever.

Theories about the success by this current batch of All Blacks, and the most recent head coaches Steve Hansen & Graham Henry, will undoubtedly be covered by academics in years to come.

How can a team remain this dominant for so long? How do they continue to innovate and remain ahead of their rivals?

Things weren’t always this great. There was a turning point after the 2003 World Cup when New Zealand lost in the semi-finals to Australia. Coaches Graham Henry, Steven Hansen, and Wayne Smith met with some of the senior players. The outcome of the conversation was for the All Blacks to move past their macho-culture towards a culture with humility and respect.

You can’t change your culture overnight. It takes time. I’m sure it wasn’t easy either. After 100 years of being rugby’s toughest team, the All Blacks coaching staff and leading players decided being feared wasn’t enough.

Their culture was holding them back and it needed an adjustment.


… dictates your pace of change

There’s the saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This means with the right culture a team — whether it’s the All Blacks or a startup — achieves more faster. Everyone is able to focus on their key areas improvement. This allows the team as a whole to continue to innovate. Culture keeps a team’s inertia up.

The All Blacks began changing their behaviour, particularly while on tour. I’m sure at first it required effort to manage. As cultural norms shifted, the All Blacks likely spent little time on this. They focused on rugby while many of their rivals were probably still spending time and energy on off-field issues.

… happens behind closed doors

The All Blacks culture is not what us “normal people” see from interviews and read in the media.

Picture this. The All Blacks had just won. They have a quick debrief in the changing rooms and the team gets ready to head for their hotel. Before leaving they turn do a final sweep of the locker room. They leave it the way they found it so nobody has to clean up after them.

… is the sum of the team

A favourite athlete of mine was recently questioned about a pretty impressive team effort he played a key role in. He responded by saying “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit”.

Listening to Dan Carter’s interview after receiving Man of the Match, you notice he focuses on  achieving the goal of back-to-back World Champions as a team. None of it, not even the individual honour he’d just received, was about him. It was about the collective.

…dictates your long-term performance.

It’s impossible to say an organisation and team’s success is solely related to culture. Looking back now though, the All Blacks winning average went from 75% in 2004 to 86% by 2011 and again crept to over over 90% in the Steven Hansen era. It’s hard to deny the impact culture had in this progress.

Although it’s sad to see several legends leave this team, we’ve seen the All Blacks culture cut through the noise and focus on continual improvement.

That’s why they’re the best team ever.