John Eales: What business can learn from sport!

By Anna Whitlam

John Eales

I was fortunate enough to share the stage, and microphone, with Wallabies legend John Eales at a “fireside chat” last week hosted by Commtract, and sponsored by Streem, at the very impressive offices of Corrs Chambers in Melbourne.

Rugby is not my strong suit, as those who know me would understand, but I was interested to learn about the common ground between sport and business, especially in relation to communication and leadership, and the lessons John had learned in making the transition from rugby field to corporate environment 18 years ago. As an entrepreneur myself, I was also fascinated to learn about how in one lifetime someone can be so successful in sport and business – two very different careers that on their own can take a lifetime to build.

Some of his insights and comparisons were wonderful and got me thinking that, in many respects, business could take a lead from sport in how it prepares its leaders, communicates its ideas and messaging, and nurtures its ‘teams’, particularly in light of the disruption caused by digital and social media.

John grew up in Brisbane and started his representative career with the Wallabies in 1991 when he was just 21. Of course, all you rugby fans will understand that he went on to become one of Australian rugby’s greatest players, captaining the team which won the World Cup in 1999, as well as four straight Bledisloe Cup series, and retiring from the game as the highest scoring forward in Test rugby history.

He was given the nickname ‘Nobody’ by his teammates – as in ‘Nobody’s Perfect’, such was his gilded reputation.

Given that background, it was interesting to hear him talk about the transition from a field where he was an undisputed master of his domain – rugby – to the corporate world as a freshly retired 31-year-old.

John got his start at BT Financial Group and, working through different divisions of the company, learned about what it's like to be part of a big business. But what he learned most was how humbling it was going from being a big contributor in a team that was the best in the world to being just another Joe Schmoe, a very small fish in a big corporate pond.

John quickly found his feet in the city though. In 2003, he co-founded the Mettle Group – a corporate consultancy which was acquired by Chandler Macleod in 2007 – and later sat on the boards of Flight Centre, Fuji Xerox and the Australian Rugby Union. He is a columnist with The Australian newspaper writing on both business and sport, and has served as a consultant to major companies, including Westpac and Qantas. He also founded a company, John Eales 5, which is now part of International Quarterback, a sports marketing and events company.

So it is difficult to talk about John without spending some time detailing his extraordinary list of achievements. 

The quintessential all-rounder, he has written two books about Leadership – ‘Learning from Legends Sport’ and ‘Learning from Legends Business’. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1999 for services to the community and rugby.

To top it off, in 2010, John dethroned the Australian Sudoku champion, Mark Skiffington, at the national championships in Perth, becoming the No.1-ranked Sudoku player in the country.

While success, garlands and gongs have come his way in a steady stream, John has also had to deal with profound sadness in his life, too. His sister, Carmel tragically passed away at the age of 20 from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. When discussing this with John, I was personally shaken as I can relate to a similar experience, having had the same form of cancer in 2014/16 but thankfully for me, I am in remission.

It was interesting to hear how he has learned to manage his stress through those difficult times and compartmentalise the various aspects of his life. He talked a lot about his mum and the strong role she played in developing his mental strength.

What brought the audience together last week in Melbourne was a shared passion for communications.

And this has become an area of special interest for John – how the ability to communicate can help provide great leadership and inspire teams, whether they be in sport or business.

It’s difficult to distil his address in a short summation, but these were the key takeaways for me:

BEING SUCCESSFUL IN BUSINESS:

John felt the biggest reason people failed with their transition into business was their lack of humility. Even though they are going into a completely different environment where they are not going to know everything and not going to be perfect, they are sometimes deluded enough to imagine they can seamlessly make the transition and be successful straight away. But everyone making this transition needs to have a high degree of self-awareness – they need to know who they are (and that they don’t have to be someone else), what their qualities and limitations are, and how those strengths fit in with the new environment.

Just because John was the Wallabies captain during their most successful era, for example, it didn’t mean those skills were going to make him a successful businessman. He understood that. John had to apply that methodology in learning – and he said he’s made mistakes and learned from them every day – to his business career.

HIGH-PERFORMANCE TEAMS:

In professional sport, athletes are coached all day every day. They are being assessed and their weaknesses are being identified and worked on with elite one-on-one coaching. Yet it is extraordinary how rarely we operate without that kind of focus in the corporate world when trying to build high-performing teams.

In a sports team, if they aspire to be the biggest and best in their state, or in their own particular league, or even the world, like the Wallabies, then there is always a coach. Someone who is going to look at where the weaknesses are and develop the skills to overcome those weaknesses. That doesn’t really happen in business.

‘WE’ AND ‘ME’:

He also talked about the concept of ‘we’ and ‘me’ in a team. In sport, you need to have both. You have your own individual responsibilities and accountabilities, but these are also interlaced with what the team is trying to achieve. You have to make sure that everyone is well drilled about the game plan, which has to be transparent, and everyone is clear about their responsibilities.

SUSTENANCE AND REPLENISHMENT:

In terms of how business works, John felt that ‘replenishment’ in sport was appreciated and practised much better than in corporate life. By that, he meant the recovery and rest that are crucial to optimum performance. In any professional sport, the recovery is built in as part of the training program – every week, there is a planned recovery where there is icing, seeing the physio, getting a massage, and so on. We don’t do that in business. When do people replenish and fill back their stores? This is when we see a lot of stress-related issues appearing in business – because it is operating at a rapid rate and there is no replenishment.

The advent of social media and technology has only added to our inability to actually seek that replenishment – because it is a factor in our lives 24/7.

CULTURE:

The Wallabies’ culture and behaviour was very important to John when he was captain. The concept of loyalty to your teammates, and feeling proud of that loyalty, was one of the things that drove him and his colleagues. Team members worked a lot on “sense of self” – being clear on who they were helped in proactively managing their reputation, and therefore the team’s.

‘Culture' in rugby 20-30 years ago would have been different in some ways as to how it is now. Like today, the coach and team leaders played a role in keeping players’ behaviours in check. But the game is more transient now – Australians are playing in Japan, France and elsewhere and swapping team allegiances all the time – and the culture would be different as a result. In both environments however, the similarity is that there needs to be alignment of values in any successful team.

The ‘team ritual’ plays very strongly in sport, where you would do anything for your teammate, but that does not really translate into the corporate setting. The level of trust is often not the same.

COMMUNICATION:

The communication within the Wallabies was something he talked about. And how the approach has been maintained over the years. The coaching staff have consistently been collegiate, collaborative and sensitive, although players a generation ago were probably much more resilient. And that’s true in broader society, as well. 

THE MEDIA:

The media pressure was nothing like as bad as it is today. Twenty years ago, John said the players all knew the journalists and there was no social media so the team’s image was much easier to control.

SUCCESSION PLANNING:

John stayed on for the Tri Nations series in 2001, which Australia won, but he knew then whether they won that or lost that he was going to finish up. He really felt his passion was diminishing, and knew at that moment it was time to get out.

He said: “I think it's a huge challenge because some people can find succession very threatening. The reality is that no one should be irreplaceable in any team. There’s some people that are more difficult to replace than others but you always need to be planning for the contingency of these people not being there. But if you're really concerned about the team or the business that you're a part of, then it has to be something that you have to focus on.”

HIS INSPIRATION:

“I always felt that my sister, Carmel, was with me right throughout my rugby career. At the age of 20 she passed away, and her death probably thrust on me that extra sense of responsibility. I always thought to myself: You're still here and you've got this wonderful opportunity so you can't waste it. That’s the mantra I lived by throughout my career.”

 

Back to Wisdom and Wit