What The British & Irish Lions can teach about team building

The Lions represents, on one level, a multinational enterprise. What can it teach other organizations about mergers and integration?


Ask any Irish rugby fan (or any Scottish or Welsh one, come to that) about their thoughts on the English, and the answer won’t always be glowing. Yet, every four years, top players from the four home nations of the UK and Ireland come together to form one of the most elite, high-performing rugby teams in the world: The British & Irish Lions.

But what works on paper doesn’t always work in real life. Just because the Lions are made up of some of the best players in the world doesn’t guarantee victory — they have to be able to work together as a team. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but getting people to work well together is a major challenge. EY studies have found that as many as 70% of mergers fail to create value.

So how do the Lions do it? How can the individuals who make up the squad go from opposing sides one day, to cooperating and coordinating within a world-beating unit in the space of mere days? And, can the methods used to build a strong, multinational sports team shine a light on the challenges of integrating business teams and functions following an organizational change, such as a merger?

Bonding by leading

A coach that knows the individual strengths and weaknesses of each player is essential for developing a strong match-day strategy for any team.

Lions coach Warren Gatland made some difficult decisions during the 2013 Tour of Australia for the benefit of the team.

With Gatland thinking about the team as a whole — rather than individual performances — he was ultimately vindicated when the Lions went on to win the series 2-1.  

Being a successful leader means knowing who is best for what role, and when to deploy them, even when that’s a difficult decision to make. It also means understanding the big picture, not simply focusing on the immediate and obvious.

But finding a savvy leader is only the first step in building high-performing, motivated teams. 

Metrics for motivation

Like a rugby team in training that hits the training ground or gym in the early hours of the morning, bringing functions together into a unified, active whole requires patience and repeated effort. But all of this can go to waste if no metrics are put in place to measure the success (or failure) of integration. 

Rugby players — and sporting professionals more generally — are lucky in that their profession has a feedback mechanism embedded into it. If they win games, the team is working. If they aren’t, it isn’t. And beneath that is a wealth of other KPIs: tackle rates, ruck retention, length of possession and ground gained, all provide valuable data on how well a team is or isn’t working. 

Of course, earnings reports provide similar feedback on company success — but whereas rugby teams can turn over results in 80 minutes, it could be months before data surfaces on the successes (or failures) of organizational change.

Businesses need ways to see how the team is working on a day-to-day basis. Gauging the mood in the office is always important, but is particularly the case after a major cultural shift such as a merger. 

In the sporting world, this is often encouraged by open, stand-up discussions, where every player has the opportunity to voice their thoughts on the team. While open conversation can and should be a major part of office culture, more formal methods of gauging workforce morale, such as employee surveys, can turn these into actionable data sets, which can be used to track the progress of integration efforts.  

Creating ties that bind

Building a team is more than just about training — it’s about bonding. You can have the top players in the world, but if they don’t get along, then that team is going to be worth far less than the sum of its parts. If the players work well together, this can be worth more than one world-class talent — as the O’Driscoll decision in 2013 proved.

For the Lions, this means a lot of emphasis on getting to know each other, and reaffirming joint commitment to the higher purpose of the supranational. 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.”

Similarly, multiple studies have shown that if employees feel like they belong to an organization with a higher purpose, they become more productive. Research by EY has found that companies that operate with a clear and driving sense of purpose, beyond the goal of just making money, outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of 10 between 1996 and 2011. 

So, when a new company enters the fold, or two companies (or functions within a single company) merge, establishing loyalty to this higher identity is crucial if that overarching, shared mission is to be effectively pursued. 

Get these things in place — that is, a leader that knows how to run a team, a method of measuring that team's success and an overarching goal to tie everything together — and you stand a much better chance of turning a collection of disparate elements into a truly world-class unit. Warren Gatland managed to do this for the victorious 2013 Tour to Australia. Will he be able to repeat the feat for the 2017 Tour of New Zealand? Lions fans — and EY, as a sponsor of the Tour — will be willing him on.

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