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John Eales – Follow the leader

With his enormous footy boots hung up for good, John Eales is applying his winning savvy to mentoring. Camille Howard catches up with the former rugby star who is now passing his experiences on to the business arena.

When John Eales walks into the room, you take notice. At six foot seven he is certainly hard to miss, and as he extends a giant hand in greeting, you feel daunted by the sheer size of him. Once seated, we’re on a more level playing field and as we start chatting his relaxed demeanour would put anyone instantly at ease.

On top of his hugely successful rugby career, perhaps it’s this demeanour that makes this well-spoken hero a perfect candidate to be a mentor—who can’t learn something from John Eales?

Despite leaving rugby three years ago, Eales still associates with businesses that have the inherent values that fuelled his remarkable career. Nowadays, he spends his days between consulting to BT Financial Group in their financial planning area, and as a director of Mettle Group, helping organisations through culture change and leadership development.

And it is his leadership qualities that shine as, with various business partners, he builds brands with sporting ties in the areas of corporate hospitality, athlete management and sponsorship leveraging. It works under three different brands, he explains. John Eales 5, International Quarterback, STW Sport and Events–effectively the same company with three different brands in very different areas.

What is most remembered about John Eales—aside from his trademark grin and articulate conversation—is the leadership qualities he used to guide the Australian rugby team to several successful Bledisloe Cup campaigns and their 1999 World Cup victory.

Remembered as one of the most successful Wallaby captains, if not players, Eales is touted as one of the most-loved members of the game. In fact, his sense of fair play will always be remembered with the Australian best and fairest rugby award named in his honour.

While Eales is flattered by the accolades—which include being appointed a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia—he doesn’t let them influence him. "It’s nice to have the affirmation but at the end of the day the most important thing is how you feel about yourself and about what you’re doing, and that’s where you get your best sense of self worth."

Olympic Campaign

When Peter Montgomery, former Olympian and assistant chef de mission for the Australian Olympic Committee, recognised Eales’ commitment to leadership, coaching, teamwork and culture, he thought he would be a perfect candidate for mentoring. And while chatting to Eales, Montgomery planted the idea of becoming an athlete liaison officer for the Australian Olympic team’s campaign in Athens.

Once the offer was formal there was no hesitation. "It wasn’t something I really knew much about, but I was quite excited about it," he says. "I was going back into the world of sport but into totally different sports. But I think the important thing was, I wasn’t there to be a coach as such on their skills and their development, but to aid and support in other ways. There’s a lot of common elements about being successful in one field and being successful in another, whether it’s in sport or out of sport."

Eales recognises that to be an effective mentor in any arena, you need to be available to your charges, taking time to get to know more about them before you meet. To prepare for this role, he spent time learning more about the fields he was supporting (men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s hockey, all swimming, all rowing and men’s water polo) and tried to have some kind of contact with the teams in the lead up to the Games. Given the large number of people involved, this occasionally proved difficult. "But if you knew a bit about their preparation and what they had gone through, it certainly helped a lot," he says. "It helped people feel comfortable to come up and have a chat, where they didn’t feel they had to talk specifically about their performance or the pressures."


As a mentor, Eales says you share a sense of achievement when your charges do particularly well or receive some acknowledgment for their skills. While you may not really feel part of their particular success, he adds, you definitely feel for them and share the experience with them.

One of the highlights for Eales at the Olympic Games was the gold medal win for the men’s hockey team. "A fantastic bunch of blokes and a fantastic team, great attitude, so enthusiastic and so determined to do well but so modest at the same time, and I was really impressed by the way they went about their work.

"It was great to spend time with them in the lead up to it, through a couple of times when they were a bit disappointed with how they were playing, goals they let in, and then seeing the joy at the end of the road. You don’t feel like you contributed at all, but you feel a part of the whole thing."

As well as riding the highs with those he was mentoring, Eales was around to help teams deal with disappointments as well. And as any Australian would remember, the Games were far from smooth sailing in the rowing camp, and Eales played a small part in that incident. "I was there and available if they needed me to help out in any way," he says. "And I helped a little bit, in that I had a chat to some of the girls."

As any high profile sports person or businessperson can tell you, the spectacular highs of competition or business are celebrated but it’s the spectacular lows that often go down in history. As Eales says, "People in life go through experiences like that but very few people go through them under such scrutiny. And that experience is not easy for anyone, no matter who you are or what experiences you’ve had."

Eales maintains the role of a mentor, sporting or otherwise, is simple. "You offer your experience, basically, and that can be what you did in preparation for a World Cup final as opposed to an Olympic gold medal match, or how you prepared in the weeks leading up—the different pressures you’d face," he says. "Maybe it’s dealing with the media, maybe it’s dealing with the workload under a coach. It could be a whole range of things, but knowing you’ve been through those experiences, players and coaches are willing to come up and have a chat and ask you questions."

As his chosen business alliances indicate, Eales is a big advocate for the role of leadership and mentoring in any arena. "I know that any time I have been able to achieve a lot in any field, it’s been largely because of people who have inspired and helped me along the way," he says. "And whether you officially call them a mentor, or whether they’re a mate, or whatever you call them, that role is so important."

Part of this process, says Eales, involves people creating shortcuts for you, based on their own experience. "It doesn’t mean you don’t go through the learning, you still have to go through and make some mistakes, but you probably make less mistakes and will be aware of them a lot quicker. I think great mentors are people who can get in tune with you really quickly. They need to be people you get on well with, people you’re very comfortable with, talking about more than just the office stuff. Because I don’t think you can isolate what you’re doing in any work environment totally from what you’re doing outside, and so a real mentor needs to know you as a person, not just as a role."


Eternal Lessons

Eales’ philosophies for business leaders and sporting stars include maintaining balance between work and family life, and he believes there is a lot for sporting leaders to learn from business leaders and vice versa. Everyone is coachable and can improve, he says, and the sporting environment produces a mentality where you are receptive to coachi
ng, even if you are at the top of your field.

"You should always have the mindset that you’re learning," he explains. "In business there is a reticence for people to coach people above them, as happens in sport. You could be packing next to someone in the second row and you could be in your first season and they could be in their tenth and you can suggest ‘why don’t you try this or that?’ and that’s accepted in sport."

He feels his sporting experiences and other lessons he has learnt from life make him an appropriate mentor in both the sports and business fields. "I feel that I have a lot to teach people, but equally I’ve got a lot more to learn. I’d be disappointed if I couldn’t teach people or help them out in some way," he says. "There’s no one person for everyone, but everyone’s got to be open to getting help from others.

"Mentoring is a two-way street: you need to have enough humility to accept advice from other people, to feel that you don’t know everything yourself, and to seek advice from others."

Does he miss the game? "No! I love watching it, but I don’t miss playing. I was ready to move on and do other things." And although his rugby-playing career is over, his passion for inspiring leadership and teamwork continues and Eales is content to focus on the success of the businesses he is involved in. He is particularly excited about his involvement with the newly-launched Mettle Group, involving corporate culture training on leadership and teamwork. "It is something I have a great passion for—the leadership and team development side of things—because it is something I have been involved in a lot."

As well as his involvement in the sport side of his business interests, Eales says this area of training and development is one he feels he can still contribute to, given his passion and strong understanding of the industry and how things work. He is also keen to continue his role with BT’s financial planning department, which he says "is a lot of fun".

And while Eales describes his Olympic mentoring as a wonderful experience, he is reluctant to say for now whether he’ll sign on again in another four years. "I’m not sure what space I’m going to be in then. If it’s an appropriate time to be away from home, I would certainly love to consider doing it again."

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