Southgate, Super-chickens and Spearheads

What England’s World Cup can tell us about talent and teamwork. 

After the sound of a nation’s dreams shattering on the floors of England’s pubs had finished, there was a sense of quiet reflection. A nation’s familiar feeling of despair and disbelief turned to the unfamiliar feeling of pride in our football team. Why? Yes, we got into the semi-finals for the first time since 1990. But there was something else. 

There was something different about the way in which this particular England team and their coach had conducted themselves during the World Cup. So much so that Gareth Southgate has had a Tube station temporarily named after him. So, what was the difference? 

Without wanting to digress into a post-mortem, it could be argued that England had a distinct lack of world-class players. Sure, Harry Kane won the Golden Boot (most goals scored during a World Cup - 6), but 3 of these were from penalties and one was a deflection. Apart from that, I doubt there is much of a case to be made for the inclusion of any other England players joining a World XI. This lack of world-class talent is arguably why they did so well and why they restored a nation’s pride in more ways than one.

The idea of prioritising team unity over individual stars, is by no means a new concept. We are indoctrinated by eulogising sports coaches from a young age that there is “no ‘I’ in team” Yet this is often discarded when the search for corporate talent begins. As young adults enter into the world of work, there seems to be a change in advice. It’s about getting ahead of one’s peers, standing out and climbing up the greasy pole. 

Malcolm Gladwell writes that in the 1990s the ‘War for Talent’ was all the rage, preached by McKinsey and dutifully followed by the likes of Enron. The process of ‘ranking and yanking’ – that is treating the ‘talent’ like they were God’s gift to corporate America and firing everyone else, was all the rage. Those with ‘talent’ were promoted and well-remunerated regardless of skill or experience. They were given license to set up new business lines and products without manager permission, all because they had ‘talent’. We all know how the Enron story ends. But yet there seems to have been little change in talent strategy since - we see many firms still using the likes of ‘up or out’ and stack-ranking systems to manage(?) their teams. 

So, what happens if you have a team full of stars performers? A team full of the most productive and successful individuals? The answer may be found by looking at chickens. 

In Margaret Heffernan’s TED Talk, she talks about William Muir’s study of chicken productivity (measured by laying eggs). He conducted an experiment with one flock of normal chickens that were left alone for six generations. The other flock was created from the individually most productive “super-chickens” and each generation was carefully engineered to produce a super-flock. The result was that the normal flock were all healthy and produced a great amount of eggs. The super flock, however, did not fare as well. After six generations, all but three of them had been pecked to death, as the more superior chickens suppressed those around them in order to improve their individual productivity.

There is a wonderful story about that late-great All Black, Jonah Lomu. During the 1995 Rugby World Cup the team received a fax saying, “Remember rugby is a team game, so all 14 of you pass the ball to Jonah”. Lomu went on to score a record 15 tries in the tournament. But despite Lomu’s efforts, the All Blacks lost the final to South Africa. 

Since then, the All Blacks have become the greatest rugby team of all time. Indeed, they are arguably one of the most successful sports teams in the world. The changes since the Lomu era are best summarised in John Kerr’s 2013 book Legacy, specifically, the idea of whānau. In Māori culture, Kerr says, whānau translates to one’s family, tribe and team and is best symbolised as a spearhead, which carries a sense of everyone pointing in the same direction. Whilst individual brilliance is part and parcel of All Black rugby, it is never prioritised above the team. Everybody in the team, no matter how talented they are, must follow the spearhead. This is perhaps best summed up by the All Black’s pithy rule of ‘no dickheads’! 

Football is ultimately a bad example when it comes to talent and teamwork. The small scoring margins can be disproportionately influenced by a single star player, so the team over the individual mantra does not work as well. But in sports such as rugby or rowing let’s say or indeed the majority of modern companies, a group of super-chickens is not the answer. The modern company is a diverse entity and as such hiring talent and the construction of teams ought to be relative. 

Absolute rules and frameworks are always popular. There is a sense of comfort and certainty that comes with them. Relativism is intimidating due to its fluid uncertainty. Consultancies try and sell certainty – “follow our 5-step framework and you’ll be successful!” – but this is precisely what went wrong in the case of Enron. There was a failure to realise that Enron, like any company, requires a diverse set of individuals to fulfill a diverse set of tasks and functions. Allowing ‘talent’ to run amok does not work in the long term. This is a particularly interesting considering the rise of celebrity Silicon Valley CEOs. 

Building successful teams is a consistently overlooked and often labelled as ‘fluffy’. It’s demeaned because it’s a thorny problem and is hard to attribute a financial value. Furthermore, it requires the use of relative, not absolute, talent strategies. There is also a misunderstanding of what ‘talent’ really means for the modern company. This is not to say that you shouldn’t hire talented individuals. But it is about building teams that can ‘follow the spearhead’. Ultimately, this requires more effort than just stocking your teams with the Golden Boot winners of the corporate world.