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Ben Davern

Ben Davern

25th Oct 2023

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Building Capabilities for High Performance – Insights from Ronan O’Gara at IMI’s National Leadership Conference

Although it is common for business leaders to take inspiration from successful sports coaches, former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger – despite being a regular on the corporate speaking circuit – believes lessons from sports aren’t easily transferable to regular organisations.

Perhaps Ronan O’Gara had this in mind when he arrived at IMI’s National Leadership Conference. From the outset, Ronan emphasised to the two hundred senior business leaders in attendance that sport and business were not comparable models.

And yet, throughout Ronan’s fascinating fireside conversation with IMI chief executive Shane O’Sullivan, universal truths emerged that negated any difference between sport and business: around leadership, culture, vulnerability, empathy, and above all, how to equip teams and build capabilities for high-performance.

How to motivate your people

Ronan opened by emphasising the ability to motivate your team. This is a far simpler task in sport, according to Ronan, because sport is measurable, with clear winners and losers, number of points scored, table positions, and so on. If a team is winning, generally they are happy, and the goal of winning trophies will be a motivator to most. Business is not so easily measurable, as Ronan noted, so how can leaders reward and motivate their teams beyond financial incentivisation?

Giving your team a vision they can all buy into is key, urged Ronan, and this is true in sport or business. In Zero to One, Peter Thiel writes that an integral aspect of business success is building a strong team that shares a common vision, with a talented and motivated group of individuals aligned with the company’s mission and values. Regardless of whether the discipline is sport or business, a cohesive team that collaborates and supports one another is essential for overcoming challenges and driving growth. Furthermore, having a clear vision that inspires and motivates everyone in the organisation is crucial for steering the team towards its long-term goals. A shared vision fosters a sense of purpose and commitment, making the journey towards success more rewarding.

The importance of humility and vulnerability

Numerous thought leaders and thinkers have emphasised the importance of displaying humility and vulnerability as part of a leadership style, with a plethora of textbooks, theses and papers written on the subject. However, Ronan summed it up more succinctly: “When I f— up, which I do a lot, I put up my hand. The players respect that. They know I’m human.” Rather than playing the rigid role of “coach,” appearing as other to the players, Ronan emphasised the importance of owning up to mistakes rather than trying to appear infallible, creating an environment of authenticity and openness. Before strategy planning, your team must get to know you, they have to know you care and have a vision they connect with – and for Ronan that all starts with displaying humility and vulnerability, along with simple things like ensuring players and staff all eat together to break down boundaries.

Rachel Botsman notes that humility is vital for leaders because it exposes blind spots and knowledge gaps, whilst giving rise to curiosity, open-mindedness, vulnerability and respect. Humble leaders listen more effectively, inspire great teamwork and increase employee engagement. Brené Brown notes displaying vulnerability is vital for building trust, elevating performance and the key to unlocking courage. Leaders who show vulnerability are more curious, ask more questions, embody their values and create more psychological safety and organisational resilience.

Although sometimes it’s simply about putting up your hand when you mess up and owning it.

The rugby pitch is no place for hatred – neither is the business world

Although sport is inherently competitive, Ronan noted he does not obsess over his rivals or the opposition. Ronan’s greatest opponent is himself. Every day is a new day to learn, and yesterday is only worth looking back on when you’re learning from it – especially learning about what not to do. The rugby pitch is no place for hatred and past accomplishments mean nothing. Off the pitch, Ronan mentioned that people spend too much time cutting other people down and trying to diminish their success – while also spending too much time chasing other people’s dreams. In other words, sharks die unless they are moving forward and there’s a reason why horses wear blinders.

Similarly in business, an obsession with competition can be catastrophic. In Zero to One, Peter Thiel notes that competition fixation often leads to a downward spiral of price wars and diminishing profits when two companies became fixated on “beating” the other, along with diluting what’s important and valuable about that organisation’s offering. According to the philosopher René Girard and his concept of “mimetic theory,” most human behaviour is based on imitation, which is why people end up competing for the same things – or as Ronan said, chasing other people’s dreams. However, competitors tend to become obsessed with their rivals at the expense of their substantive goals, and the intensity of that competition doesn’t tell you anything about underlying value. People will compete fiercely for things that don’t matter, according to Girard, and once engaged in conflict they will fight harder and harder.

Much like how Ronan focuses on competing with himself to become better, Peter Thiel argues the best way to establish market dominance is by differentiating your organisation from competitors through a vastly improved product or service. Rather than putting money and time into what will only harm your competition, business leaders should think about how they can 10x the value they bring to customers – be it through better performance, user experience, cost-effectiveness, etc. By offering something truly unique and valuable, businesses can dominate their market and create lasting advantage, enjoying pricing power and ensuring sustainable growth and profitability. But this starts with thinking about what’s best for your people, both your customers and your team, rather than obsession with competition.

Rats sink ships…sometimes

A genuinely thought-provoking session will provoke thoughts and generate insights that not all attendees agree with, and Ronan did not shy away from espousing controversial truths. Ronan believes there are three types of players: ambitious players at the top, middling players in the middle, and the bottom-rung of players that Ronan deemed “rats” – not only for their lack of talent, but for their attitude and negative impact on the team’s culture. Ronan urged attendees to “kill the rats, get rid of them…because rats sink ships.”

This may be where sport and business differ. The role – and motivations – of talent separates sports teams from banks, or law firms, or even startups. Not least because the hierarchy of compensation is flipped, with many players earning in a week what their coach earns in a month, or what the club directors earn in a year (this may not be true in rugby, but it is true for football, NFL, NBA, NHL, and other sports), albeit for a limited period of time. Professional athletes are almost entirely finished by their late thirties, whereas traditional professionals are only coming into their peak earning years.

Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper notes that corporations and traditional organisations are based on the concept of replaceability, whereby individuals don’t need to be exceptionally skilled or talented to succeed – they just need to be good enough to get their tasks completed. A corporation succeeds thanks to efficient processes, notes Kuper, and not extraordinary talent (this isn’t necessarily true for when a company is still growing, but certainly when it reaches a certain point. Visionary Steve Jobs was crucial to Apple’s growth over many decades, but the tragic passing of Jobs in 2011 did nothing to stop Apple’s ascent to becoming a trillion-dollar company years after his death with Tim Cook at the helm). Compare this to a football or rugby team, where team performance will suffer if they lose their best talent, who need to strive for excellence every time they step onto the pitch, and beyond. To become the All Blacks or Real Madrid, one needs to come close to human perfection practically 24/7.

By contrast, because perfection isn’t expected or even possible in the day-to-day business world, what we might term ‘low-achievers’ have more room for growth and self-improvement, either through mentoring, coaching, further L&D opportunities or even simply being moved to a role they are more suited for. Plus, cultures of innovation succeed because failing fast is how organisations grow and innovate, which the rugby or football pitch cannot allow because the margins are so tight. Nevertheless, while the brutality of Ronan’s language may make some leaders uncomfortable, it’s a side of leadership that cannot be ignored. Tough decisions. Difficult conversations. A level of sacrifice that seems inhumane to non-leaders. As Vice Admiral Mark Mellett has noted, leadership necessitates both “a time for diplomacy…and a time to be an authoritarian.” However, it’s worth remembering that leaders are not infallible, leaders may not get every decision right, especially amidst so much uncertainty and complexity…but leaders should always be guided by the belief they are doing what is right for their people, their team, their organisations, their shareholders and their customers.

Find your why

Influenced by Eric Ries’ 2011 book the Lean Startup, the business world has spent much of the last decade obsessed with organisational agility and constant iteration. However Ronan argued that if you’re adaptable on everything then it can mean you don’t have a clear plan or vision. While a certain amount of adaptability is important, it’s vital to give your team a clear framework to operate in. Returning to the topic of motivation, it’s vital that you and your organisation “find your why.” For Ronan, rugby is all-consuming and everything he does is for the good of the team, but he understands every player has a different “why.” Some are motivated by money, or for providing for their family, or for personal glory, or from fear of failure, and so on, but even though his players’ motivation will be different from his, a good plan can come together quickly. Besides, the best players are selfish, Ronan acknowledged, and they wouldn’t be competing if they didn’t have an ego.

The topic of “find your why” echoed IMI chief executive Shane O’Sullivan’s opening remarks earlier in the morning when he stated that “sometimes as leaders we need to remind ourselves why we do this; why we get out of bed in the morning; why sometimes we don’t go to bed at all!” For most leaders, their “why” will be ensuring their organisations are not only surviving by thriving in the coming decades. For leaders committed to building the future, the selection and training and education of people and teams for high-performance is critical to that mission. Leaders committed to building the future must surround themselves with people also committed to building the future. Leaders must be committed to their people, but their people must be committed to the mission, vision and values of their organisation. Leaders must be equipped to make decisions amid uncertainty and complexity, and to empower their people to do the same. This is how you create a culture where people don’t wake up in the morning and say “I have to go to work” – instead they say “I get to go to work.”

Ronan has created this culture at La Rochelle, while the IMI is committed to growing leaders who can build the future. If you are interested in learning how you can achieve the same results within your organisations, check out our Leadership and Digital Leadership diplomas.

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