I have been watching the Women’s World Cup Rugby over the past 2 weeks held in Ireland. I admit to having a vestige interest as my daughter plays for the England team who are close to being, in my eyes, a ‘complete high performing team’. They are also about to contest a World Cup Final this Saturday.
What’s the big deal you may say?
Well, after 40 years of leading large and small teams in different and sometimes difficult environments around the world, I can truly say that the flow and synergy which is matched to consistent winning results only come to teams once in a while.
Teams such as these are extremely rare. They are tough to find and even tougher to build. But they do exist. They can be built. Anyone who has seen one in action or been fortunate enough to participate in or lead one will know it. We are watching such a team now in the England Women’s side.
Some background first.
This England Women’s Rugby team has built over years with a vision to be the best that there is in the world, and to win a World Cup (they were also building from a solid base having won the World Cup in 2014). The standard of women’s rugby (as well as the followership) has grown exponentially year on year, and the Rugby Football Union recognised that their approach to the women’s game needed to change.
To that end the Rugby Football Union decided that in order to achieve this vision, that they must make an Elite Squad of players for an 8 month period. Hats off to the senior management in the RFU for putting this into place, along with a set of coaches and back room staff that would make the difference in a constant emerging and fiercely competitive global game.
There are many so called characteristics of high performing teams, but for me I will only touch on 3 as I see them currently exhibited in this England team. They actually do form the core for any high performing team – without these, you cannot have a team of this magnitude.
First up is ability.
No one has yet figured out how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and world-class teams will not be produced without a fair number of world-class players.
Ability is important of course, but you cannot expect fantastic results with twenty or so brilliant individuals. Teams are created out of the belief that they generate an energy and synergy that make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. In the world-class team, the result is performance that is consistently at or beyond the level that any reasonable person could expect.
Ability is the result of the mastery of skills. In rugby these skills are very basic: running, kicking, passing, catching, pushing, jumping, tackling, and decision making. Each team member has a specific job to do which combines a number of these skills. Prop forwards are pushers par excellence, but also runners, passers, and catchers. Lock forwards are jumpers, catchers, and pushers, and occasionally runners and passers. Fullbacks are catchers, runners, passers, and kickers. Each of these specialists must contribute her particular skills if the team is to perform to world-class standards.
But this England team is breaking the mould. Both backs and forwards can excel in areas that you might not expect to see them excel in. For example, to watch a prop sprint 40 metres down the touchline is a wonderful sight, and to see the backs clearing out the ball in rucks and mauls with ferocity again, is incredible. In rugby, world-class teams are conspicuously breaking down the barriers of specialization. Forwards are learning to run and pass like backs; backs are getting bigger and learning to push and jump like forwards.
Next - Sacred ‘discontent’.
I use the term ‘sacred discontent’ because it describes beautifully a culture that exists in this England team.
By this I mean that this is linked to the team’s ability to question anyone in the team/squad in the pursuit of excellence. So, an honesty pervading in the squad that allows even the newest arrival to question the most senior player. I believe that the England coaches have had a massive part in this ‘team culture’ and again, should be highly complimented for this approach.
It is an attitude to learning and growth that is never satisfied with past achievements but always searching for the next challenge. It is remarkable how many sports players and teams are perpetually dissatisfied with their performance. After what seems an outstanding performance they appear ill at ease.
World-class teams are highly analytical and self-critical. They feel there is always more that could have been done, mistakes that could have been eliminated, and opportunities that could have been taken. The attitude is not one of unrelenting self-criticism, but rather a conviction that there is always more to be learned.
This team engages in extensive discussion, and everyone gets a chance to contribute — even the introverts.
Linked to ‘Scared discontent’ is the competence of discipline.
In this England world-class team, it has developed the ability to recognize, face, and tackle interpersonal issues promptly – and to be disciplined about it. Team members understand they must overturn any obstacles quickly and completely to focus on the job in hand. Issues may be settled by semi-formal methods or by extensive networks and informal chats. Coaches have been upfront and honest about team selection or individual performance.
Whatever form this takes, it has been incredibly powerful during the time they have had together and has helped bond the women into a force of co-opted warriors who will do anything for one another.
The players have solid and deep trust in each other and in the team’s purpose — simply put they believe totally in each other. Equally so, the leadership of the team shifts from time to time, as appropriate, to drive results. In this team, No individual member is more important than the team.
So, the next time you feel that your team is at a high performing level – just see if they act and perform like the above England Women’s Rugby team core characteristics…
And remember, Excellence is Good Enough.