The High Performance Culture Turnaround

In Leadership

By Michael Tonkin

Lessons from the 2017 Richmond AFL Football Club

Most of Australia is in a football frenzy right now with the eagerly anticipated grand finals in both the AFL and NRL football codes. In keeping with the spirit of these events, we’ve decided to shine a spotlight on the Richmond Football Club in the AFL and unpack their success in the last 12 months, from a low of finishing 13th in 2016 and losing by more than 100 points in the last game of that season, to now being on the eve of winning the 2017 grand final (even if they lose the grand final they still win on performance improvement).

Update: The Tigers won the 2017 grand final by 58 points.

This year has seen a remarkable turnaround for the Richmond Football Club. Here are our five observations of the team in 2017 and how we can all learn from their success …

  1. Senior leaders held their nerve

Sporting clubs around the world are notorious for buckling under the pressure of a series of poor results with the Head Coach usually the first casualty. In Richmond’s case they did a thorough review of the 2016 season and concluded that their Head Coach, Damien Hardwick still had the confidence and connection with his players. So he was kept on as coach for 2017. It was a bold decision to make.

How quick are we as organisations to put a line through individuals after a series of poor performances? To attribute poor performance to one person? As author Jim Collins describes, great organisations conduct autopsies without blame and that’s exactly what the Richmond Football Club did. We all recognise that sometimes we don’t move quickly enough on below-par performances of people in the workplace, but equally, we are quick to make rash decisions based on the symptoms rather than the real causes. How thorough are your reviews of your people?

  1. The team recruited top talent

Not content with improvement from within, the Richmond Football Club made some tough decisions on its playing list and brought in top talent to fill the gaps. This allowed other players to play in positions that were more suitable to their strengths. Equally, the club ended the contracts of a few of its Assistant Coaches and brought in new coaches with experience from other successful teams. All of their hiring decisions turned into gold!

It’s easy to think that next year will be better than this year based on the natural improvement in the capability of employees, or improvement in processes or any other kind of improvement. It takes a courageous leader to look outside their own bubble for ideas and inspiration by investing in top talent. Is it time for you and your organisation to look at your talent pipeline for 2018 and ensure the right people are in the right seats?

  1. Leaders were prepared to be vulnerable

It started with their coach Damien Hardwick. He had regular heart-to-hearts with the team in the off season and openly shared his leadership failings in 2016. He was honest. He was raw and he was vulnerable. This public declaration was then spontaneously followed by the team captain and the rest of the team. Their guard was down. They let people in. The team has openly talked about a special bond in 2017 where every player feels as valued as the next guy. “You wouldn’t know that anyone was better in terms of talent than anyone else” was a recent comment from one of their players.

This is emotional intelligence at its best; balancing self-awareness with building relationships with others. How are you and your leaders doing in this area? What’s the level of trust in each of your relationships? As with Damien Hardwick, and the team, is it time to leave egos aside and be human?

  1. The team developed a simple game plan

For so many years the Richmond Football Club has changed its game plan, not just from season to season but almost from game to game and even within games. While teams need to be adaptable, they also need to have a reliable game plan that gives confidence to the team and their supporters, i.e. what do they stand for? And in 2017 Richmond has done just that. Richmond’s game plan was simple to understand (and execute) with everyone clear on their role. It also played to the strengths of their players and exploited the weaknesses of their opposition. On top of this, the coaching team were able to build hope in the plan at the start of the season before there was any evidence to prove otherwise. You could say there was total buy-in!

How many times do we feel that the game plan changes in the workplace? Or that the game plan is rock-solid but we haven’t done a good enough job getting buy-in from those around us? High performance cultures are able to devise and execute on their plan with unwavering commitment to the outcome. What’s the opportunity for you and your teams?

  1. The team played to their full potential

It’s hard to think of a previous Richmond team that has performed to their optimal levels as consistently as this team has in 2017. As an organisation they have openly admitted that 2017 has been a focus on people development and culture. It’s allowed everyone to be themselves, respect the differences in others, grow and develop and feel safe, which has translated to the whole team performing on the field to their full potential.

How many people in your team are performing to their potential right now? If your answer to this question is anything other than “most of them”, what’s the opportunity for you? Is it a cultural thing? Is it about improving the capability of your team? If you’re not sure, that’s OK too as it’s a very complex challenge – how do you help your team reach their full potential and then maintain this over the course of a year?

So, there’s our view of the big 5 reasons that have contributed to the high-performance culture turnaround for the Richmond Football Club in 2017. For what it’s worth, Richmond will win the grand final by 7 points.


This blog is taken from our Performance Leadership eBook. Download your copy today.

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