Where do business leaders and Lions agree on team building?

Managing a business and a sports team are surprisingly similar. Here are four ways goals and methods are aligning.


In today’s complex and global economy, following the leader is no longer good enough — you need to follow the right type of leader. Team leadership is more critical than ever, and effective collaboration often means the difference between winning and losing. 

Of course, none of this is new to The British & Irish Lions. Since 1888, some of the best coaches and captains in the world have taken some of the top rugby players from the British Isles to play against the best players in the southern hemisphere. And being able to forge a team of erstwhile rivals into a single cohesive unit has been essential for success. 

Most business leaders know this as well. EY research shows that, of the 821 global business executives surveyed, 84% said that their organization’s ability to develop and manage diverse, high-performing teams was essential to their future success.

However, only half of the respondents believed that their leaders are equipped to manage and motivate such an eclectic mix of talent. But, what can leaders learn from the world of the Lions about building the right teams and inspiring them to reach their full potential? 

1. Create the right mix of team members

“To stay ahead of your competition, diversity must be more than just an HR campaign; it must be the way business is done,” says Steve Howe, EY Americas Managing Partner.

But, to make the most of diverse perspectives, backgrounds and skill sets also takes careful management. “This means that managers must develop the mentality and habits for leading inclusively,” says Howe. Indeed, “managers should receive continuous coaching to help them develop the mentality and habits for leading inclusively.” 

Choosing the right players is also a difficult task for any Lions coach. Current coach Warren Gatland faced tough decisions in who to pick for the 2017 squad — there were a lot of brilliant players who just didn’t make the cut in a team like the Lions. “It wasn’t about what nation you come from. We put together what we thought was the strongest possible squad,” says Gatland*. 

2. Encourage debate 

Forming teams is easy; getting them to succeed is harder. This calls for inclusive leadership, or the ability to encourage all team members to voice their diverse perspectives and dissent. Executives agree: 85% of those surveyed saw this as an effective way to improve performance.

In rugby, the team cohesion is an important part of any game. The state of play can change at any time, and letting all voices come to the fore in planning tactics is important — particularly those that might be marginalized. 

“For example,” says Howe, “one team member may be consistently dominant, which makes it difficult for the team to harness the diverse experiences and skills it possesses. Leaders need to be taught how to manage such challenges.”

3. Share the vision

According to survey respondents, having clear, achievable goals are among the key attributes of a high-performance team. Aligning people behind a long-term strategy defines who businesses are in the marketplace, and what they need to accomplish to meet overarching goals. “Individual team members must have a clear sight line from their specific day-to-day responsibilities to the broader objectives of the business,” recommends Howe.

In rugby, as in any sport, that shouldn’t be too difficult. Winning the game for the team takes priority over individual ambitions. The responsibility of the leader is in making sure that the team sees it this way as well, even if that means putting national loyalties behind you. As Martin Johnson, captain of the Lions team in 1997 and 2001, is alleged to have said, “Forget your nationality, you're all Lions now.”

Stuart Lang, former Scottish rugby international and now a partner at Ernst & Young LLP, agrees: “You need an awareness that you can be the best player in the team but you will still require the help of your teammates. Without them, there is a limit to what even the most talented individual can achieve. It’s also important to remember that to be successful as a team, you don’t always have to like your teammates or colleagues, but you have to respect what they do and the contribution they make to the team.”

4. Commit to quality and measure results

“There’s nothing like accountability to make sure that team members know their roles,” says Howe. This is what makes leadership so critical. Team members will, by nature, differ in the way they work, communicate and collaborate. Making it clear to everyone the metrics the organization uses to gauge success will keep the team focused and on task.

It’s always been easy to measure team performance in sports — the scoreboard seldom lies. But new data techniques have also made it possible to gain a more granular understanding of performance. “Data provides empirical evidence to prove trends and outcomes, whereas previously, we relied on gut-feel and visual interpretation,” says Lang. “Coaches and players can both use data to improve the performance of the team and individuals.”

Making the most of diverse teams

“I am convinced that organizations that learn to harness the power of cross-functional, diverse and multicultural teams will outperform their more parochial competitors,” says Howe. “The numbers appear to support this: we see a direct correlation between team-building ability and bottom-line results.”

From EY’s survey, at the best-performing organizations (EBIDTA growth of 10% or greater), 39% of respondents said their organization is “excellent” at building and managing diverse teams. At second-tier organizations (EBIDTA growth of 0% to 10%), only 27% rated their team building as “excellent.” In the bottom tier (0% to negative growth), just 11% graded their team building as “excellent.”

“The lesson is clear,” says Howe. “Executives who understand and codify the essence of successful team leadership will be the winners.”

In other words, as the Lions take on the All Blacks, the stats of the individual players on the pitch may not be as important as the ability of the team as a whole combined with the skill of coach, Warren Gatland and captain, Sam Warburton. Leadership, focus and the psychological support of being able to trust your teammates is just as important as an individual’s talent — and this is what will decide which is the best rugby team in the world

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