Bleeding Black

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

The Montreal Canadiens are off to an eye-popping start – one of the best in NHL history.  Having won 13 of their first 17 games, they are on pace to win 62 matches, which would tie them with the 1996 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins ever in a single season.

It’s an almost unheard-of winning percentage of 76%.

But for one sports team in the world, these results are nothing but mediocre.  That team is the deeply legendary national rugby team of New Zealand, the All Blacks, who’ve won 75% of their games.

That’s not just for this year, or last year.  It’s for the past 100 years.

How do they do it?  James Kerr is the author of Legacy:  What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life.  Kerr spent 10 weeks inside the All Blacks organization in 2010, and his short answer is straightforward: culture.  What we call brand.

Kerr argues that the essence of the All Blacks’ culture comes down to just five elements.  What we call a brand foundation:

1. Sweep the Sheds
In the literal sense, this expression refers to the fact that the most celebrated rugby players in the world actually spend time tidying up their locker room after a match.  But the point of the exercise is not for these elite athletes to have a shiny dressing room.  Rather, it is for them to practice humility in all they do.  The All Blacks believe that to maintain their phenomenal dominance, they must remain humble.

Even more remark-ably, the All Blacks invite the opposition into their dressing room for beers and conversation after every match – win (usually), lose or draw.  This uncommon camaraderie is one way the All Blacks recognize they share a special bond with their opponents – whom, in striving for greatness, are making sacrifices similar to their own.

Exactly how deep is the humility on your team?

2. Follow the Spearhead
In Maori, the spearhead symbolizes whanau, or extended family.  In order for a spearhead to be effective, its three tips must all be going in the same direction.  So those with poor attitudes need not apply.  Either you are with program, or you are not on the team.  Kerr says that some of New Zealand’s most promising players have never had the privilege of wearing the black jersey – purely because they would be detrimental to the whanau.

How often, and for how long, have you tolerated players who aren’t the right fit?

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The All Blacks perform the Maori Haka before each match

3. Champions Do Extra
This element is all about continuous improvement.  It is not about making quantum leaps, but about very long-term focus on making incremental improvements in all areas of life.  And in a game like rubgy, as Kerr points out, in all likelihood it will involve literally spilling blood for your team.

How many of your players always go the extra mile?

4. Keep a Blue Head
After a sub-optimal showing at the 2003 World Cup, the All Blacks confronted the possibility they were choking under pressure.  Through consultations with a forensic psychiatrist, they articulated a Red Head as a panicked and therefore ineffective mindset.  A Blue Head, on the other hand, is a highly focused, grounded state in which optimal effectiveness is achieved.

All Blacks players use triggers to recognize when they are in a Red state and to then switch over to Blue – something as simple as stomping one’s feet on the sidelines or staring off into the far distance.  In winning their most recent World Cup just two weeks ago, seasoned observers witnessed, in the face of an Australian comeback and with the All Blacks down a player, the remaining New Zealand players all switching their approach to Blue at the same time.

How much of your time is spent running around Red?

5. Leave the Jersey In A Better Place
The All Blacks don’t just play for themselves.  Their purpose is much larger than that.  They play for every player that’s ever worn the jersey – and for every player that will wear it in the future.  And they fully recognize and embrace their pivotal place in the national culture and in particular, their crucial position as role models for New Zealand’s children.

From the book:
“A values-based, purpose-driven culture is a foundation of the All Blacks’ approach and sustained success…In fact, in answer to the question, ‘What is the All Blacks’ competitive advantage?’, key is their ability to manage their culture and central narrative by attaching the players’ personal meanings to a higher purpose.  It is the identity of the team that matters – not so much what the All Blacks do, but who they are, what they stand for, and why they exist.”

So:  what’s your foundation?  And how well is it setting you up for victory?

***Update November 18, 2015:  RIP Jonah Lomu.

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