Building high-performing teams; what can leaders learn from the Lions?

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Jamie Roberts, former Welsh rugby star, Cambridge graduate and qualified doctor knows a thing or two about teamwork. Having played at the highest level for club, country and with the British Lions, he understands the crucial dynamics that build truly exceptional teams. In the first of three articles, Jamie shares key insights that have helped build high-performing teams and can easily be applied by management outside the sporting environment.

Hard work is a given. Enthusiasm and accountability aren’t

As with most exec teams, rugby teams are not homogenous units. They are made up of all sorts of different people, shapes, sizes and personalities, and there should never be an assumption that everyone is the same. You have to respect that. But one consistency is that hard work is a given in any high-performing team. It’s not something you need to write down or run through in flip charts that outline the work-ethic pillars that drive a team – it’s why you’re there, a necessity in your role and what you’re paid to do.

For me, what makes a difference is enthusiasm and energy. I respected and enjoyed working with people who brought that to the team. Rugby is physically demanding and requires huge amounts of effort to excel and to win. Bringing energy and enthusiasm costs nothing and doesn’t require any skill – it’s an attitude.

Alongside energy and enthusiasm, accountability is also critical. That might be accountability for making the wrong call, missing a pass, or giving away a penalty, as you might expect. But also, and importantly, smaller things like being on time, having the right kit, leaving the gym clean and the changing room tidy, which demonstrate accountability across the board.

Unlike ability, size and shape, enthusiasm and accountability are not a skill you’re born with. They are readily available and contagious, setting a positive tone for the team. This fosters trust and brings out the best in you and everyone else. Leadership teams that surround themselves with individuals who take ownership, are accountable and do the right thing, as well as bringing energy and enthusiasm, in my experience, are mixing the key ingredients.

Knowing your role, and ensuring others know theirs

Ambiguity breeds confusion, so clearly defined roles were a huge thing for me. While rugby involves some grey areas, others are very black and white – your position at set pieces, where you should be on 1st, 2nd, 3rd phases, or in a defensive structure, are non-negotiable. I always knew eyes were on me if I did get it wrong; there’s a mutual understanding you don’t blow your role.

Something I prided myself on in leadership scenarios was making sure everybody knew their (and everyone else’s) role and what was expected of them. In any team environment, if everyone knows what’s going on (and knows they’re accountable), you’ve got the best chance of performing at the highest level when the pressure is really on.

Build around individual strengths, sharpen your edge

When Warren Gatland inherited the Wales team in 2008, the backs were bigger than their forwards. We were backs in forwards’ bodies! What Gats did was look at the best tools available to him and design the game we should be playing to most effectively utilise those tools. We played to people’s strengths and as a result, developed a very physical and confrontational game to great success.

The best coaches will tell you they want a team of players with super strengths, not ones that are jacks of all trades, so I learnt not to focus on my weaknesses and instead developed my strengths. When I did that, it was certainly when I played my best rugby. In the most successful teams I played in, the brilliant players excelled at what they were best at. The approach maximises individual potential and, in so doing, propels the team towards collective success.

Join us again soon, when Jamie will be discussing team motivation and preparation.

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