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The Boks binned 1-on-1s - Why it can work … and flop

It has been known for some time that the Springbok rugby team (a world leader in their sphere) had decided to adopt true transparency in their set up when it comes to selection. It was just this week however that the coach stated publicly that they do no one-on-one conversations, that they have selection discussions in front of everyone, and give direct feedback in front of everyone. They are lauded for their transparency and honesty because of this. My question though is would this work for all teams, in all industries, or is the behind closed doors conversation still very much needed?

I will qualify that I am not part of the Bok set up and therefore do not have every bit of context around how they run their business - but I do have, I believe, enough insight to give a fair view.

Firstly we need to look at culture to evaluate the merits of this strategy. The Springbok culture is hard. Full stop. They value hard work - as measured by ‘number of battles’ a player gets into during a game. This hard work manifests in on-field work effort (they don’t train for very long, but they train hard), in off-field knowledge of detail through analysis, and through world-class physical conditioning expectations which are measured for 12 months of the year. There is not much wiggle room on these things - as represented by their rule that if you don’t train, you don’t play - however important a player you are.

Yes, they allowed families to spend time with them in the bio-bubbles brought about by COVID-19, and yes they value a beer and banter between team mates as any team does - but they do not tolerate ‘softness’, excuses or corners being cut. Their culture is intense and hard.

Lockstep, a leadership consultancy I have worked with for many years, have a simple philosophy around organisations and teams that founder Rowan Belchers, having at that time studied at Harvard, designed. He states that your leadership, culture, strategy and way of managing people all need to be perfectly aligned. Should they not be, the organisation will likely fall short of optimal performance. This thinking came to mind when assessing the Boks’ ‘No 1-on-1’ policy.

Their leadership is direct, hard-working, un-flashy, with a backs-against-the-wall type of mentality. Their culture then rewards hard work, honesty and heavy reliance on compliance to a plan. Their strategy is to keep things very simple, and importantly to always be consistent in their processes on and off the field to alleviate confusion and excuses for not being highly physical and intense. Their way of managing and selecting talent then allows for concepts such as ‘No 1-on-1’s’ to fit in perfectly, as well as only picking players who meet their well-publicised criteria (throughout the year, not just when playing for the ‘Boks). I have simplified this for the purpose of this article, but one needn’t go too deep into the Bok camp to know what they are about and what they believe in. Did someone say ‘Physically f*ck them up’?

You might be involved with a team yourself, had read the Springbok coach’s interview and thought how brilliant that concept is - and I would opine that for the ‘Boks it is brilliant. I would also opine that it might be a disaster for certain teams. For the simple reason that it is not aligned to their Leadership, Culture and Strategy.

Having worked in professional now and with business teams for many years now, I can not unsee the faces of people who have received the news that they’ve been dropped or moved aside without a private explanation. I also cannot unsee the subsequent decrease in trust of that leader, or engagement with the team, once this has happened. You may say people must harden up, but I think the context between a Springbok rugby team and another team is quite different - as are the beliefs of the leadership.

A Springbok team is the pinnacle, they are only together for short periods of time and exist to inspire many in short-term crusades (think Rugby championship, World Cups, Lions tours). A provincial team exists all the time (they are your primary employer), play in longer tournaments and is not the pinnacle of the game. For a provincial coach to adopt a ‘No 1-on-1’ policy, or even for a manager of a Fintech Startup to do the same, I would suggest there may be some problems down the line.

The Boks’ way must be admired, if for nothing else that they are so clear on their Leadership, Culture, Strategy and Talent policy (LCST). Other great leaders and teams will also be admired for understanding their own LCST. But what we must be wary of doing is trying to Copy-Paste a way that may not be fully understood or backed up by the Culture of the team.

What might be something unique to YOU that breeds equal effort from your team, AND that is within your own LCST?


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