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Photo of New Zealand All Blacks in action

How Do Winning Organisations Sustain Their Success?

Alex Hill
September 9, 2009

With the Rugby World Cup now underway, high-performance expert Alex Hill explains how one of the tournament favourites – the New Zealand All Blacks - embraces stable stewardship and why this is an important behaviour for any organisation looking to enjoy long-term success.

As part of the team behind Radically Traditional, I spent five years studying how seven organisations - the Centennials, as we called them - have managed to outperform their peers for 100 years.

Despite their different vocations, all seven are very similar and behave in ways that defy conventional wisdom.  

They all have a stable core — with a stable purpose, stable stewardship and stable openness.

And while stabilising their core, these organisations keep waves of disruption crashing at their edge – with disruptive experts, a disruptive nervousness and disruptive accidents - to stay fresh and get better every day.

The New Zealand All Blacks can teach us a lot about stable stewardship. Why we need it, and how we create it.

Stability in action

Most organisations change their leaders every five years. But, the Centennials keep them in place for more than 10.

Not just at the top of the organisation either but two or three levels further down too — where key knowledge and influence often sits.

And the New Zealand rugby team are a great example of this phenomenon.

On the 6th October 2007, New Zealand crashed out of the Rugby World Cup - losing 20-18 in the quarter-final against France. The worst ever World Cup performance in their history. The only time they’ve ever failed to make the semi-final.

As you would expect, their fans weren't happy. And the post-mortem started.

Some said the team was too arrogant and didn’t see France as a threat as they’d destroyed them in their four previous games. Others said they were unprepared as their group was too easy.

Some said they rested too many players in anticipation of the games ahead. Others said they used the wrong tactics - focusing on scoring tries rather than taking penalties.

And some decided to blame the referee for missing a forward pass just before France’s crucial try.

But, after weeks of debate the All Blacks decided it wasn’t because of any of those things. They decided it was because they hadn’t stabilised stewardship. Because their coach had only been in place for four years.

“We made some bad decisions,”  Steve Hansen (then the Assistant Coach) remembers. “Things that were done for the right reasons but were wrong. And we didn’t realise that, until we’d been knocked out.”

Too much change

Since winning the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, the All Blacks had changed their coach every four years. At the beginning of each World Cup cycle - or two years into the cycle if they weren’t performing.

This wasn’t unusual for rugby. Most countries followed a similar pattern - clearing the decks after each World Cup, giving the new coach two years to prove themselves, and dismissing them if they don’t achieve their targets.

But, after their disastrous performance in 2007, the All Blacks realised this approach wasn’t working. They weren’t taking the learning from one World Cup into the next. And four years wasn’t long enough to learn everything needed to win a World Cup.

So they decided to save the coach that everyone wanted to sack.

The golden era begins

It was a bold decision, but it paid off. And started what many now consider to be the golden age of New Zealand rugby.

In the ten years since then, New Zealand won ninety percent of its matches - compared to eighty percent in the decade before. And scored twice as many points as its opponents - becoming the first nation to win back-to-back World Cups in 2011 and 2015.

Henry stayed for another four-years, so eight years in total. And then, in 2011, he handed over to Steve Hansen who had been his assistant for eight years.

Hansen is still the Head Coach today, and is about to head out to Japan for his fourth World Cup campaign.

And, what’s really interesting, is that if you go back in time then the success of this type of stewardship is not unusual in rugby. Most countries weren’t doing it, but the ones winning the World Cup were.

Their Head Coaches were all part of their coaching team for at least four years before they won - apart from South Africa in 1995 who had only just come out of apartheid.

And they stabilised the stewardship of their players too, with a quarter of their players usually playing for at least eight years, in two World Cups, before they won.

History in the making

In what most people consider to be one of the most fiercely contested World Cups of all time, it will be interesting to see if New Zealand can achieve a third successive World Cup triumph in Japan.

By stabilising stewardship, in both their coaches and players, they've given themselves the best opportunity they can to learn from the past – it’s now up to the players to take that knowledge onto the pitch, into battle.

To redefine history, and set new records, once again.

You can find out more about Radically Traditional - including how you can stabilise stewardship - by contacting alex.hill@managementfutures.co.uk.

If you have any further questions about how Management Futures can help you create and sustain a high-performance environment, contact john.bull@managementfutures.co.uk.

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