Blueprint for Building a High Performance Organisation – Lessons from the AFL

Successful AFL clubs in recent years have developed and executed their own blueprints for achieving premiership success.  The good news for senior leaders of organisations is that the steps required to win an AFL Premiership are the same as those required to build a high performance organisation – so there is much that can be learned by taking a closer look at how AFL clubs achieve success in a highly competitive league. 

 How to win an AFL Premiership
1. Establish a competent and stable Board supported by an excellent management team
It is no coincidence that the most successful AFL clubs in recent years such as Collingwood and Geelong have built and sustained highly credentialed and united Boards and professional senior management teams.  Conversely, those clubs with turmoil at Board level such as Richmond, North Melbourne, Essendon and Carlton have under-performed. 

2.  Create an attractive vision of the future for the club and rally support
Perennial underachievers both off and on the field, Richmond and Melbourne are but two examples of clubs which have recently identified just how critical a vision is to creating a successful and sustainable future for their club.  A key to this has been the creation of a highly attractive and shared vision of where the club will be in the future and the rallying of all staff, players, sponsors, members and supporters behind the vision. 
3. Set specific goals which make the vision tangible and against which progress is measured
The Richmond Football Club has recently articulated its vision by developing very specific goals including by 2014 they will have played in 3 more finals series, will have zero club debt and 75,000 members, and will have won their next premiership by 2020.  Everyone at the club focuses their efforts relentlessly on contributing to the achievement of these goals.  Progress is measured, reported and communicated regularly.

4. Identify, articulate and drive the club’s values – never compromise them
Ten years ago if you heard an AFL player talking about values it was most likely a reference to their burgeoning property portfolio.  Now, most AFL clubs have a set of core values which all players (and back office staff) are held accountable for upholding.  The values drive the disciplines and behaviours which produce high performing teams.  There is no better illustration of this than the ‘Bloods’ culture entrenched at the Sydney Swans which helped drive a modestly talented side to premiership glory in 2005. 

The Bloods culture applies to all players equally – despite being one of the Swans’ most talented players Nick Davis was dropped from the side and then delisted from the club after failing to uphold the team’s values.  By way of contrast, clubs such as Carlton, Brisbane and West Coast enforced team rules selectively, with elite players like Ben Cousins and Brendan Fevola keeping their place in the side despite reported frequent instances of behaviour counter to the team’s values.  Each of these sides had little success in the periods where the club’s culture was exposed as fractured (NB: West Coast won a premiership with Cousins in the side however they suffered an unexpected and rapid decline around the time that his off field troubles came to a head for the club).

5. Develop a winning game plan
While traditionalists bemoan the death of one-on-one contests and burly full forwards kicking regular bagfuls of goals, recent premiership sides have turned football wisdom on its head with new and innovative game plans (many of which are borrowed from other sports such as soccer and ice hockey).

Sydney’s high stoppage style of football took it to the flag in 2005, West Coast used a high handball to kick ratio on its way to the 2006 premiership, Hawthorn’s rolling zone helped it win a premiership well before the club itself thought possible, while Collingwood’s relentless focus on keeping the ball locked in their forward line using a ‘forward press’ saw them hold the cup aloft in 2010 after a 20 year drought.

Developing and executing a winning game plan is an essential component of the premiership blueprint.

6. Recruit the best available talent
While the annual AFL Draft takes place in November, recruitment and selection is a year round highly resource intensive process for clubs.  Clubs have talent scouts scouring football games across the breadth and depth of the country (and increasingly overseas including Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States) to identify and assess the draft talent pool. 

Hours of footage of potential draftees’ games are pored over, their season statistics are analysed in detail and extensive data is collected from the AFL Draft Camp and heavily scrutinised.  Prospective draftees are interviewed by each club to assess how well they are likely to fit in with the club culture and many clubs utilise psychometric and abilities testing to further inform their player assessments. 

Making the right recruitment decision at each draft impacts the success of a club for years to come – just ask Fremantle supporters what might have been in their formative years if they hadn’t traded Andrew McLeod, before he had played a game, for Chris Groom. McLeod went on to become a legend of the game for Adelaide while Groom faded into obscurity after playing just a handful of games for the Dockers.  Successful clubs expend substantial time and resources to understand their current and future talent needs and identify, assess and select the best talent in the draft pool.

7. Ensure that every player clearly understands their role in the team and their performance measures
Having the appropriate team structure to win a game is critical and this requires each player to clearly understand the purpose of their role and their main accountabilities.  For example, a midfielder’s primary accountability may be to win the contested ball at stoppages, or to break the lines with bursts of speed through the centre or to shut down the opposition’s most dangerous midfielder by playing a tagging role.  Each role is important but distinctly different and must be clearly understood and then effectively executed by the player. 

Both the team as a whole and each player has a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which provide specific targets which the player is accountable for achieving during the game – these drive behaviours which maximise the team’s chance of winning the game.  KPIs may include kicking efficiency (percentage of kicks which hit the target), number of tackles laid, number of contested possessions won, percentage of hit outs to advantage and the number of ‘one percenters’ such as shepherds and smothers.

In a sign of the times most small forwards’ performance is not judged primarily by how many goals they kick but rather how many tackles they lay in the forward 50.

8. Develop a strong leadership group
The days of a team only having a captain (usually the best player in the side) and a vice captain are long gone.  Recognising the importance of leadership from within the playing group as a critical success factor, most clubs now have a captain (usually the best leader at the club, not necessarily the best player, e.g. Collingwood’s Nick Maxwell) supported by a leadership group of between 5 and 8 players.

Leadership groups play a vital role in driving and role modelling the team’s culture, motivating the team, promoting honest communication both within the team and between players and coaches, leading and directing players during a game and mentoring and developing younger team mates.

AFL clubs invest heavily in developing the leadership skills of all their players, identifying future leaders and supporting the work of the leadership group.

9. Provide constant feedback and coaching to each player
Would an AFL footballer receive performance feedback just once per year at an annual review like employees in most organisations?  Not a chance.

AFL footballers receive continuous, constructive and very specific feedback both during and after games highlighting what they are doing well and where and how they can improve.  During games runners take messages of feedback out to players, they receive feedback at each major break during the game, feedback is provided directly after the game and early the following week each player is taken through an individual review of a highlights reel of their critical incidents from the game. There is also an increasing incidence of head coaches coaching from the boundary line at ground level during a game rather than high up in the coaches’ box, which is largely attributable to their desire to provide players with immediate and direct feedback during the game.

Clubs such as the Western Bulldogs place a heavy emphasis on the use of peer feedback – where players provide each other with feedback.  This is an important tool both for improving performance and also for driving the team’s culture.

When was the last time you saw a successful AFL coach use giving players a ‘bake’ as their main tool for trying to improve performance?  Successful coaches of the modern era such as Paul Roos and Mick Malthouse know that it is through feedback (both positive and negative) and teaching that players learn and develop their capability to perform at the highest possible level.

10. Invest heavily in developing the capability of players and onboarding of new recruits
Most clubs now have a head coach and a battery of assistant coaches and other technical specialists who spend significant time one on one with each player to provide the feedback and coaching required to develop and sustain high performance.

Core capabilities for the various roles in the team are identified, players’ strengths and weaknesses are assessed against the capabilities, and players work on these in both a whole of team and tailored individual manner to continuously improve their capability and performance.

New players to the club are carefully onboarded to ensure they understand the team’s vision, culture and game plan and their own role and accountabilities within the team.  Younger players and/or those who relocate are supported to settle in to their new city and environment.  The more effective the onboarding process the more quickly a player will start performing and contribute to the team’s success.

11. Carefully manage the playing list – not just for today but for the medium and long-term
These days AFL playing lists do not just evolve haphazardly – they are very carefully managed for the now, the near future and the long-term.  Most clubs target an optimal spread of experience across their squad grouped by position to ensure a pipeline of young developing players coming through the system. 

AFL clubs know which of their roles are most critical, which roles are hardest to fill and have plans in place to ensure replacements are ready to take the place of their high performers nearing the end of their career.

Difficult decisions are made.  The average AFL player’s career lasts just six years.  Talent and list management is a key strategic tool as part of the premiership blueprint.

12. Constantly search for a competitive advantage – innovate
In a highly competitive league, clubs now leave no stone unturned to identify a competitive advantage.  Collingwood successfully exploited sports science knowledge to dramatically increase the frequency of player rotations through the interchange bench thereby ensuring players on the ground were fresher than their opponents. In the past several years Fremantle identified players at the next level down from the AFL, a talent pool dismissed by most recruiters, who could enter the AFL and make an immediate impact – resulting in rapid improvement to their side’s historically poor performance.

13. Review progress against the strategic goals and plan and refine what isn’t working
The good AFL clubs constantly review progress against their goals and plans and adjust and refine aspects that aren’t working.
14. Execute the game plan
AFL teams play for just 3 hours per week for less than half the year.  When a supporter sees their side run through the banner each week they are unlikely to appreciate the thousands of hours of preparation, hard work, science and planning that is all channelled towards their team performing at their peak on game day. 

There are no short cuts to premiership success and it certainly doesn’t happen by chance.  Clubs which develop their blueprint for high performance, implement each component and then execute it on the day are those which succeed.  Success in the business world is no different to the AFL – those organisations which develop, implement and execute their blueprint will be high performers with a significant advantage over their competitors.

About Michael Sleap

Interested in all things related to HR, leadership and sport.
This entry was posted in Organisational Development, Sports and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Blueprint for Building a High Performance Organisation – Lessons from the AFL

  1. Andrew Tan says:

    Nicely balanced observations Michael, and very well written. As a Carlton supporter, I begrudgingly acknowledge the accuracy of your statements about the club. Hope you are very well !

  2. Cade Elg says:

    Love the AFL analogy Michael, finally, HR in my language! Enjoyed the blog posts and hope all is well in Abbotsford.

    • Thanks for your comment Cade and good to hear from you. I agree that analogies such as sport can be really useful to make HR/OD more tangible and interesting. Now I just need to expand my repertoire a little beyond AFL! I hope that you are enjoying your new job.

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