Tips on managing a winning team

As every smart business owner will tell you, your business is only as good as your team. We sit down with John Buchanan, former coach of Australia’s most successful cricket team, for his tips on managing a star team.

Hailed as a coaching legend, John Buchanan led the Australian cricket team to become the world’s best. His methods and lack of playing experience were controversial at times, but the success achieved and maintained under his leadership can’t be disputed.

Now, the recently retired coach is launching his book If Better is Possible, and sharing his secrets to managing a brilliant team. Not that he sees what he has done as extraordinary. “I believe everybody coaches–any person involved in terms of influencing the behaviours or actions of other people,” says Buchanan. “That’s why I believe coaching is so important. It’s about trying to help other people, trying to help them develop and be better in their lives.”

So what is the first step to managing a team? “Vision is always important. It gives everybody a certain direction, a clear direction of where we’re going over a period of time,” says Buchanan, but that is only the start. “Coaches need to very clearly understand what their philosophies are, what their cornerstones are, what they stand for. Because the coachee, if there is such a word, needs to know that the coach is a rock they can turn to when needed.”

Next step is to create an environment where everyone is comfortable experimenting and learning. “The learning environment was very much about encouraging the guys to step outside their comfort zone, to try to do things they hadn’t done before to improve their skills. It allowed us to dominate world cricket for a period of time, through our technical, physical skills improving in a way that we actually sustained performance.”

But emotions can run high when constantly working to improve skills, especially when team members are presented with a challenge they don’t feel ready to confront. In these situations, when faced with emotional responses and ego battles, Buchanan prefers to place his own ego in his back pocket. “I don’t want to get in an ego battle because there’s no winners there, there’s only losers on both sides,” he says. “If I get into an ego battle then I’m going to damage that relationship for some time, maybe irreparably. The last thing I want to do is tackle an individual, or try to win a debate, through my ego beating their ego.”

Expert Theory

Experience has taught Buchanan that placing himself as an expert doesn’t work. “A few times, as a teacher and as a student teacher as well, I would try to be the expert, and it was quite obvious after a short period of time that I wasn’t. Either that was through me demonstrating the fact that I didn’t have the expertise that was demanded of me, or people would ask questions that I couldn’t necessarily answer.” This severely eroded Buchanan’s credibility, as it would have any other team leader or manager’s, and diminished his ability to teach, leading him to eventually realise there was always going to be someone with more expertise than himself. “Certainly within cricket that was clear, because I didn’t have the playing experience, the playing skills that the players I was coaching had, so I would be silly then to place myself as an expert cricketer. Rather I placed myself as a person with some expertise in cricket environments.”

This approach eased communication between himself and the players, but so did a willingness to listen and receive the messages being sent. Buchanan believes it is essential to know the target audience you are addressing, to know that your message is being received. He often reviews this process both formally and informally.

He also keeps an eye on the competition. “It’s about understanding how your opposition is most likely to play. If we can understand how they’re most likely to play it gives us a competitive advantage once we’re on the field,” explains Buchanan, who examines the statistics and quantitative data gained from each player’s performance. Businesses should similarly analyse their own and their competitor’s performance, to ensure they aren’t caught unprepared, he says. “We prepare for that before we go out on the field. We basically know our opposition’s game inside out.”

Gathering in-game analysis helped his players better understand their own game as well. “It provides us with a tool. It doesn’t replace human knowledge, experience, intuition, but it’s a tool to complement that.”

Assimilating & Improving

During his time as the Australian coach, Buchanan kept a close eye on integrating new team members too, first meeting with them to discuss their strengths and weaknesses. “We try to assimilate them in that way, give them tasks to do, or associate them with older members of the side, so that’s a bit of an orientation.” However, Buchanan feels team members need to know more than just what’s expected of them, and how to train. So they are filled in on the more informal things as well, including where to sit in the dressing room, and what to do when you’re the twelfth man and drinks go around. “They’re the more broad areas that allow young people and new people to assimilate into the side.”

Once they are assimilated, they quickly realise not to be satisfied with their achievements. “As soon as you’re satisfied with what you’ve done, then you become very comfortable in that environment and there’s no longer a challenge. You’re just happy to be where you are, and with that comes certain consequences.” He believes without improvement, whether it is technical, mental, physical or tactical, the opportunity to truly succeed will pass team members by.

This is not to say successes shouldn’t be celebrated. “There’s an opportunity to celebrate that, not take that for granted. It’s so easy for teams and individuals to do that, particularly when they’re winning,” says Buchanan, who encouraged his players to be aware of the effort and sacrifices that went into a win. “It’s all been designed so that we understand what’s just been achieved.”

Even for this seemingly unbeatable team, success was not always guaranteed, which became clear after the 2005 Ashes loss against England. But there is always a lesson learnt, and something to be gained. “The biggest thing from that was probably to try and stand back and realise that in there somewhere there are silver linings, things you can actually learn from it that are going to benefit you in the future. It does take some time,” says Buchanan, explaining that after the loss Cricket Australia realised the team needed a higher level of support.

The team then set out on the process again, this time with a facilitator, to identify the “handbrakes” stopping them. “These were just things that were preventing us from performing well. And those things could just be our intensity of training, were we taking any shortcuts, it could be punctuality, it could be team meetings. If we could identify what the handbrakes were, then we could actually go about fixing them. We set about addressing those as a group, and really showed the benefits of those right from the word go.” And after the next test series, the urn was again in Aussie hands.

But for any team, careful inspection only goes so far, and after a while it’s best to take a step back and become redundant, just like parents. “What we&rs
quo;re trying to do is ensure that our children, or our staff members, or our players begin to take on more and more responsibility, and are more and more accountable for their actions. A coach can stand back, to allow players to do that, to actually make decisions, have the courage to go beyond areas that they’re certain in, to make mistakes or to have success, but learn from those experiences. It is the way a player grows and learns more about themselves.” The coach or manager’s responsibility then becomes creating a supporting environment, where team members can feel the confidence to step out and give it their best.

This is not to say the redundant relationship always remains so. “There are a lot of times when you need to revisit; things are not going quite as well, they need more guidance, they need more boundaries placed around them, they need some increased discipline. It is about making sure those things are put in place if and when it’s required. The only way you know that is to make sure that your relationship is as good as possible, that it is as open as possible, it is as honest as possible, and that you’re providing the right feedback.”

While this knowledge may assist you in managing your own team, there is little point if the success achieved as a result can’t be maintained. Managing to sustain success is what John Buchanan is best known for. So how did he and the Australian cricket team do it? “It’s driven by everybody in the team,” he says. This includes players, coaching staff, and other support staff. Individuals were also rewarded for their achievements. This might have been an official award or just praise at the end of a game. Either way, it is significant to recognise achievement.

But what really made a difference was the attitude of those on the team. “I think every day we felt like we needed to improve, so it didn’t matter whether we won or lost games, or had close games, or had finished the season and had to embark on another,” says Buchanan. “We really wanted to, all the time, move into the next game, better than we were the last time.”

Buchanan’s Philosophy

Challenges can be daunting, in both sport and business but in his book, If Better Is Possible, John Buchanan forms the framework he needs to meet them head on, with these seven principles.

  • * Vision. I firmly believe in attempting to control the future by having playing skills and support technologies that no other team has, plus having the all-round skills to effectively react to whatever the future may throw at us.
  • *Create a learning environment. Motivation comes from each individual, but it must be nurtured by a team environment which is challenging and encouraging personal growth.
  • *Never satisfied. No matter how well or poorly we perform, results are only an outcome of a process of continually wanting to be better. Today is a benchmark for tomorrow.
  • *Coach to be redundant. If I do my job properly with each player, then I can retreat further and further from the individual. It is about them being totally responsible and accountable for their decisions and actions. Each player is to be a leader.
  • *The whole person. All of us involved with the production of a product for public consumption operate in the people industry. We happen to conduct our business in the sport sector of that industry. Nevertheless, I see the players with whom I work as people first and cricketers second.
  • *Planning. No business can operate successfully for any length of time without planning methodology. The planning process gives us a framework to work within–from the immediate needs of playing the Fifth Test, to the medium-term needs of World Cup in 2007, and three to five years beyond this event.
  • *Culture and values. The glue which binds these principles together are the intangible elements often posted in the organisation’s orientation booklet, and includes words or phrases such as punctuality, discipline, honesty, hard work, trust, respect and tradition. Whatever the mantra, the words must actually be lived, not just be platitudes.

If Better is Possible is published by Hardie Grant Books (RRP: $35.00).

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