The Making of a Leader: Assessing Culture

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In the second of three extracts we’re publishing from his new book, The Making of a Leader, Tom Young looks at how sports leaders assess and create culture while remaining mindful of the history of their organizations. The Making of a Leader is published on 30th July and is available for pre-order now.

Elite sport teams are often steeped in history and tradition, making the process of achieving a cultural shift ever more challenging. While there is the rare occasion when a new team or franchise is formed, each organisation has its own symbols, stories, rituals and language. These must be understood and respected by any new leader who arrives into the environment.

Cricket as a sport is steeped in tradition, both in England and across the Commonwealth. My conversation with Ashley Giles, director of cricket at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), takes place on a summer evening overlooking the playing surface at Lancashire’s home ground, Old Trafford. Historical images, individual records and memorabilia look down from all angles, a reminder of the sense of tradition that surrounds the players every day.

Giles, referencing his time at Lancashire, says, ‘You have to respect that they know what it is to win a championship, respect what happened there before and learn from it.’ Gary Kirsten, former head coach of the Indian and South African cricket teams, sounds a similar warning: ‘You have got to tread carefully. You have got to respect the history of that team or that group of individuals. You have got to respect what they stand for and what they’ve done. And then just slowly start to introduce new behaviours.’ However pressing the need for cultural shifts, leadership requires tact and delicacy at certain times.

Michael Maguire, head coach of the Wests Tigers in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL), uses the history of an organisation to his advantage by simply choosing to ‘use the good years because that is what really holds the club together’. Recalling his time at Wigan Warriors, who have a long and illustrious honours list, he was able to utilise ‘a lot of the people that were around the club, because they are winners, they are used to winning’. When we met, he talked about taking the same approach during his time with the South Sydney Rabbitohs:

There was a time when we were winning and winning and winning. There were a lot of guys that were involved and I brought them back into the club because that’s all they knew as players so why not get that feeling around the place of what winning is all about. I guess I use the history of the winning parts of the club . . . I want to know the stories about why that club, at that time, was winning, because that is what I constantly aspire to do.

Maguire’s natural drive is to lead and move forward, but his lack of ego allows him to pull symbols of past successes back into the environment, taking inspiration from the past in order to push the team forward.

Despite the positives that come from being able to draw upon a rich history, leaders also warned of the need to sometimes take a different direction. Stuart Lancaster, head coach of Leinster Rugby, does not believe that history should ‘define where you go in the future’, adding that ‘history can provide a sense of identity but, when you are trying to reshape your culture, sometimes you have to make some pretty bold and very difficult decisions and have almost a sudden change of direction’. The skill in leadership, therefore, is to know which approach will work for your team: make a statement, embrace the past, or a mix of the two.

I am sure you can think of a club or business that you might describe as reluctant to change or as being ‘stuck in the past’. These organisations, especially those with low staff turnover, may struggle to progress as the past becomes a weight holding them down, preventing them from achieving high performance. Limiting beliefs, expectations and existing group norms can stall a team’s progress, irrespective of the level of talent at their disposal.

Michael Maguire spoke about how a club’s past can hold back a process of culture change. Here, the mindset of the people through- out the organisation is vital. He looks to avoid a club’s ‘lean years, eradicating the old news, because it means nothing’ to both Maguire and the current group of players. ‘We weren’t here at those times,’ he tells me, ‘so why should it hold us back?’ For Maguire, the process at the Rabbitohs was about ‘changing people’s mindsets in a lot of ways. We got caught in talking about the fact we had not won for however long. I had nothing to do with that and neither did the players that hadn’t been there for the last forty years!’ Maguire is selective in his approach – using the allure of past success while dispelling lingering doubt from years in the wilderness. The past is a powerful force and a leader must tread carefully in the footsteps of history.

As well as understanding what has gone before, leaders must spend time assessing the existing personnel, environment and behaviours of an organisation. This crucial process takes time and focus. Only fools rush in, as they say. Roberto Martínez, head coach of the Belgian national football team, tells me that there needs to be ‘an intense period of understanding the organisation’ and where it is at that specific moment in time. Stuart Lancaster provided an insight into the issues that he encountered upon taking over as England’s head coach:

There was a sense of entitlement from the players. There was no real joined-up leadership group at the top from the players. There was a disconnect between the senior players and the senior management and the top leaders in the group all had a different set of values that left the group in the middle and the younger players with no barometer of where to go.

The process of assessing a culture was described by Ashley Giles as something that invariably takes time. ‘You can’t rush because you will miss something or look past something seemingly insignificant that is the cause. It is generally not what you see in front of you but something underneath that.’ This was supported further by fellow cricketer Gary Kirsten, who warned about this potential ‘red flag’ area for any new coach. A leader must be mindful not ‘to come in and straight away feel like you can impose a new way of doing things on to a group of people, many of whom might have been here for a significant period before you. It takes time to establish some trust and create an environment where people say, “OK, we are ready for change and we are ready to look at things slightly differently.”’

A newly appointed leader, inheriting a group of athletes, must display a blend of interest, appreciation, respect and humility. They will need to ask questions and genuinely listen to the answers, even when their natural style is to jump in and take control. Athletes are switched-on people, typically at the top of their profession. They are not easily fooled. Actions, just as much as words, are keenly observed and duly noted.

The Making of a Leader is published by Robinson and available to pre-order now.