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Insights into a Winning Culture: 2016 AFL Grand Final

Insights into a Winning Culture

Late in the fourth quarter, I still held out hope that the Swans would break through and overcome the suffocating pressure of the Bulldogs. We were trailing by 9 points, which given the way the match was being played out, was beginning to look insurmountable.

In the centre square, our $10mil talisman Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin gained clear possession of the football and looked to either shape up for a shot at goal or offload to a teammate in a better position. The collective hopes of everyone in attendance at the Rocks Brewery in Alexandria – a sea of Red and White fans, simultaneously stood as one as we all screamed out whatever harboured hopes we had left directly at the big screen. ‘BUDDY!’ or ‘GO BUDDY!’ I heard all around me and screamed myself, whilst my hands supported my weary head which was exasperated from being 2nd best for most of the last 4 quarters.

As Buddy danced, searched and hesitated, Dale Morris (playing with a cracked vertebrae) from the Bulldogs stalked, tackled and wrapped him up – Buddy was unable to offload the ball and the opportunity was gone. Holding the Ball –­ free kick to the Bulldogs.

Winning Culture

Dale Morris tackles Lance Franklin

We often describe a moment like this as having the ‘air sucked out of the room’, this wasn’t air – it was our collective hope. We knew at that moment that the 2016 AFL Grand Final was lost, Sydney was incapable of overcoming the relentless pressure and intensity of the Western Bulldogs and their fairytale was complete.

Winning

Bob Murphy at the Siren

Here are some insights into the winning cultures of the Sydney Swans and the Western Bulldogs throughout the 2016 season, as well as the number one reason why the Bulldogs prevailed in the final. To assist me with sporting insights into the 2016 Grand Final, the Sydney Swans and the Western Bulldogs, I spoke with news.com.au sports reporter – Tyson Otto and for business insights, I spoke with My Accounts Executive Director – Matthew Rowe.

3 Insights into the Winning Culture of the Sydney Swans

1. A culture of developing and nurturing young talent

In the 2016 season, the Sydney Swans debuted 7 seven players – the most out of any club that finished in the top 8. Of these 7 players, Callum Mills won the 2016 NAB Rising Star Award, finishing 8 votes ahead of Caleb Daniels of… yep, you guessed it – the Western Bulldogs.

Having people on your team that are smarter than you, more talented and who have plenty of runway in front of them are indicators of a business leader confident in and of themselves. A mix of youthful enthusiasm, talent and experience leads to discretionary effort, and the success of a business can be measured through the culmination of such discretionary effort.

On the other hand, when a business leader is insecure this may manifest in a reluctance to employ people that may “show them up”. This same insecurity is often shown in the need to micro-manage, a style that can be a morale killer and limits the team’s capacity to grow and develop.

Winning Culture

2. Strong bench strength = a strong team

The Brownlow Medal is awarded each season to the best and fairest player in the AFL. In 2016, Patrick Dangerfield of the Geelong Cats won the medal with a total of 35 votes. However, if you look at the total number of votes per team, the Sydney Swans tallied a total of 105 votes – the most votes accumulated by any club. The Western Bulldogs accumulated a total of 81 votes as a team.

There is a link between strong leadership pipelines and strong financial performance. Strong leadership ‘bench strength’ is built through a focus on culture, a learning mindset, knowledge sharing, collaboration and a willingness to have difficult conversations.

Organisations that follow these basic rules bring in 37% more revenue per employee, are four times more likely to be efficient (measured through profitability), and are three times more likely to be market leaders and innovative by nature.

3. Strong identity – mission, vision & values

When Paul Roos was appointed to Head Coach of the Sydney Swans midway through the 2002 season, it had been 69 years since the Swans had won a Premiership. Roos set about changing the culture within the club, forming a collaboration with Leading Teams and from there, the ‘Bloods’ culture was created.

The Swans went through the Leading Teams process of developing a team Trademark, and the club’s first leadership group was established. The playing group began speaking openly about what behaviour they expected from each other, both on and off their field, in order to meet the requirements outlined in the team trademark, and which would ultimately lead to Premiership success.

Since the Swans initiated its famed ‘Bloods’ culture at the end of 2002, they have played in twelve of the following thirteen finals series – winning the flag twice (2005, 2012) and finishing runners-up in 2006, 2014 and 2016.

For some businesses, a mission, vision and value statement can just be set of words on the wall and in the un-read Employee Handbook with no correlation to behaviour, business plans and crucially, no accountability framework to uphold the mandate. In the past, we’ve even been a bit guilty of this!

For both the Sydney Swans and successful businesses, setting up an identity, through an agreed mission, vision and value set is not just a task to check off a corporate to-do list, but rather the backbone of a successful winning culture.

3 Insights into the Winning Culture of the Western Bulldogs

1. Winning against the odds – the will to win

At the end of the regular season, the Western Bulldogs finished 7th out of 8 teams that qualify for the finals series. Their run in the finals was arguably the hardest, requiring 3 successive away-from-home victories. Here’s how the odds stacked up against them in each match:

The Bulldogs started each final as the underdog (excuse the pun) and it was no different for the Grand Final:

So how did they do it? A dejected Josh Kennedy of the Sydney Swans answers this question best in a post-match interview after the finals – “…at critical moments of the game, they stood up and we didn’t… the Bulldogs were a bit more consistent over the four quarters… every possession was well earned from both sides, but they [Bulldogs] just got on top of us a bit in that area – contested footy.”

Having won 3 consecutive matches in the finals series with the odds firmly against them, the Western Bulldogs had the resilience to stand up when the contest was at its fiercest.

Resilience is the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change and to keep going in the face of adversity.  A business is successful when it has people that build resilience reserves that can be drawn upon in a time of need. The depth of these reserves depends on individual circumstances and the team environment. In a survey, a whopping 75% of people said that the biggest drain on their resilience reserves was “managing a difficult person or office politics at work” so a strong team that quickly rids itself of negative influences is crucial for a winning culture.

2. Community Engagement / Passionate supporters

Can it be denied that the most passionate supporters during the finals series were the rabid Bulldogs fans? I don’t think so. There seemed to be a disproportionately large amount of news articles in the lead up the Grand Finals about the antics and ground swell of the Bulldogs community.

From the Bulldogs team anthem ‘Sons of the West’ being played through the speakers at the West Footscray Station to fans painting their properties red, white and blue it seems as though the community were doing everything they could to push their sons over the line.

Winning Culture Community

Matthew Heasly of the Western Bulldogs Community

The community engagement didn’t just flow one way either. Luke Beveridge – coach (turned cult hero) of the Western Bulldogs gifted some of travelling fans with some money for breakfast to thank them for their committed support, prior to the Preliminary Final against Greater Western Sydney.

The reputation of an organisation is the sum of what the community thinks of it.  How we treat the community we serve, speaks to the moral compass of any business and its leadership.

Winning culture community

Luke Beveridge’s letter and donation to travelling supports

3. Leadership

In round 3 (of 23), Western Bulldogs club captain – Bob Murphy, attempting to mark the ball, got tangled with another player attempting a mark and went down clutching his knee – it was devastating news. He had ruptured his ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament), damaged his MCL (Medial Collateral Ligament) and was subsequently ruled out for the rest of 2016 season.

Speaking to reporters after the news emerged, coach Luke Beveridge spoke of Murphy – “He’s the spiritual leader. He’s the actual leader.”

Fast forward to the 2016 Grand Final, after the siren had sounded and the Western Bulldogs broke their 62-year premiership drought, is the moment that will forever remain in our memories.

It is a moment about leadership. It is the moment when Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge takes off the medal that’s around his neck, calls out Bob Murphy to the stage amongst rapturous applause from the crowd and places it around his crying club captain’s neck – “This is yours mate, you deserve it more than anyone.”

Winning Culture Leadership

Coach Beveridge giving Captain Murphy his medal

We left Leadership – this insight into the Western Bulldogs winning culture – to last because we believe it was the most important aspect of getting the Bulldogs across the line in the 2016 Grand Final.

Simon Sinek, author of the influential book ‘Start with Why’ explains Leadership perfectly and succinctly in a recent tweet – “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.”

Is there any doubt that the Western Bulldogs, from top to bottom, looked after each other on the field when they faced insurmountable odds, looked after their supporters when they travelled to cheer them on or looked after every player that deserved to be recognised, whether they played or not? The Western Bulldogs are Leadership personified in a team.

Whilst researching and writing this piece over the last month, I observed business through a slightly different lens – the lens of a winning culture, and it became very clear to me that a business will never consistently outperform the leadership that guides it.


By Noel Tiufino