Sport can provide us with great examples to draw on in the business world. The journey, failures and successes sporting clubs experience are so public for all to see that in some ways they feel familiar and known to us.
Even if we’re not sports fans ourselves, we have all witnessed a great, inspiring act of leadership on the sporting field that we can learn from in business.
I have a very personal insight into how Australian Rules Football (AFL) team Hawthorn Football Club rose from the ashes in the mid 2000s following a decade of poor performance. My husband, Clinton Bown, was part of the senior executive team that took the club from languishing around the bottom of the ladder to become one of the most dominant clubs in the modern era of AFL.
Following years of success in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, Hawthorn’s performance spiralled downward. It was bereft of any of the grit that had seen it so admired, and lacked the clear leadership required to see it flourish. It got so bad that in 1996 the club almost merged with the Melbourne Football Club.
In 2007, the board released its first ever public business strategy: Five-2-Fifty. The ambition was to secure two premierships and 50,000 members in five years.
Considering the club had only so far won nine premierships in its over 100 years of existence, with its last over 16 years prior in 1991, and with the club’s membership dwindling below 28,000 members, this strategy seemed ambitious to say the least.
With a strong leadership group including the Hon Jeffrey G Kennett AC as President, Senior Coach Alastair Clarkson, and CEO Ian Robson; players and administration staff alike were mobilised so that their actions reflected their ambitions.
The 28,000 members soon swelled to 32,000, then 35,000, 45,000…and then 55,000. At the end of the five years the Hawthorn Football Club had swelled to 75,000 members, and were considered a powerhouse again despite only securing one premiership cup within that period, in 2008. However, the foundation for success had been set and the club won a further three premierships in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
What happened inside the club to deliver such a dramatic and public turnaround? While Five-2-Fifty provided a clear roadmap to success, how did the players and staff convert that strategy into such tangible results?
With Clarkson (aka Clarko) leading the charge, the club participated in a program known as Leading Teams. Leading Teams had been associated with AFL clubs for a number of years and had been credited with helping Geelong to three premierships from 2007 to 2011. The program demanded that players, coaching and administration staff alike, take an honest look at themselves and confront the gaps between standards of behaviour they set and agreed on together and what actually happened, both on and off the field.
The program supported the group to establish a culture of feedback – where constructive feedback was both sought after and shared between players and coaching staff. Everyone, regardless of seniority or status, had an equal role to play in meeting the standards set by the group; no one was exempt. The principles and practices established in that program were reinforced through daily habits and behaviours, led by the players and supported throughout the rest of the culture.
I interviewed Brad Sewell, a key senior player for the club and now AFL commentator, about his perspective on the Leading Teams experience.
Brad: ‘It enabled the creation of positive conflict in a way that depersonalised feedback and criticism… it promoted a certain style of feedback, which was only to be constructive… whereby it wasn’t about the individual, it was about the cause, it was about your role. It was bigger than any one person’.
Sewell explained that key to driving a high-performance environment at Hawthorn was normalising feedback as part of everyday conversation:
Brad: ‘The analogy was for this exercise not to become like church, where you would go to church on Sunday and profess all of your sins and beg for forgiveness, but that was the only time you checked in through that lens. The challenge was to create an environment whereby confronting conversations could be had in the hallway, could be had at the water cooler, could be had over a meal, could be had on a day-to-day basis. Whereby if those conversations were seen through the lens, they would make us better.’
While the program helped the group confront the brutal facts, it also helped leaders establish strong relationships that ensured difficult conversations would not damage trust and respect.
The Hawthorn Football Club established a leadership system which went far beyond the performance of the team. It created a shared purpose for all stakeholders (players, staff and supporters alike), communicated it effectively and made it part of their community’s DNA. They created a culture of accountability to leadership behaviours, both on and off the field, which saw the club re-emerge as a force in the AFL.
Understanding that leadership is a system of performance – a series of habits and behaviours that became established as part of the new culture – was the key factor that cemented Hawthorn Football Club’s legacy as one of the greats.