Outside of the uniform and dirty environment, you’d be forgiven for not seeing much of a parallel between playing rugby and the mining industry, but for former Australian Wallabies captain Nathan Sharpe the two are united by the critical function team building and leadership plays.

Nathan Sharpe

Nathan Sharpe is a decorated former professional Rugby Union player who represented Australia in over 100 test matches, including 20 as captain. Following his retirement from rugby in 2012, Nathan founded his own labour hire company which has since been absorbed by international recruitment agency Brunel. In addition to his role as Executive General Manager, Nathan remains active in the rugby community, regularly participating in Classic Wallabies activities, serving as an on-air commentator for Channel 10 and continuing to provide guidance to Rugby Australia and the current Wallabies.

Rugby, Mining and Leadership

I have been lucky to experience most of my life in a team. I love it. Being surrounded by a group of like-minded people with a collective goal, prepared to sacrifice their own needs for the good of their mates is as good as it gets for me. 

There’s room to debate whether it’s the result of spending my formative years immersed in the sporting world or simply too many knocks to the head, but from my perspective, teams and organisations are one in the same. And while it may sound generalistic, I’ve found that outlook to be absolutely fundamental to getting the best out of the people and organisations I’ve worked with over the past decade.

I have spent time pushing the boundaries, both mentally and physically, in high performing teams, which backed each other to the hilt and tasted success built upon hard work and shared conviction. However, I have also found myself stuck within painfully average, entitled teams that moped along, irrespective of how much support or direction they were given. Most of the time it’s easier for me to draw on my experiences from the quality teams – but the truth is that I learnt just as much from the poor ones.

When I called time on my rugby career, relationships and circumstance lead me to mining and construction. More by mistake than design, I soon realised that all I had learned about leading high performance sporting teams was surprisingly relevant in my new industry. After all, outside of the military, there are few other scenarios where your physical wellbeing is as dependent on your colleagues, as it is within mining or professional sports. 

If whether you’ll make it home at the end of the shift or not is in the hands of the people you work with, they need to be more than just a co-worker. That’s a mate. A teammate you depend on every time you run out onto the field. A teammate you depend on every time you strap on the steel cap boots.

Looking back on my rugby career with the benefit of hindsight, it’s intriguing to think on some of the mistakes I had made in leading people, in getting the best out of them, and allowing them the satisfaction of being a part of something they were passionate and proud of.

Nathan Sharpe

Understanding and Leveraging Motivation

There are a handful of key factors which leaders can leverage to help realise their team’s full potential. Foremost amongst these, is ensuring that your team members understand not just what is happening within the organisation, but the rationale behind it. Why has the company made a decision to do this? Why has that process been altered? Why would that make such an impact on the final result? Knowing the answer to ‘why’ allows your people to buy-in and grants them the agency to support the idea, rather than helplessly react to circumstances which are beyond their control or comprehension. It also enables them to contribute more freely in their own way.

Inversely, it is also essential that organisations ponder the ‘why’ of their people. Every individual in a given team will have a different reason for turning up. Some want to make their families proud. Some want to be the best in the world at what they do. Others may be solely interested in achieving the highest possible income. Some will derive genuine satisfaction from being in a team environment. All are valid, but each requires a different tact from the people leading them. It’s also important that leaders don’t exclude themselves when deciphering the motivations of their teams. Take a moment to ask yourself, why you are here? And does your leader know this?

It’s crucial that leaders understand that they cannot achieve greatness without pulling others around them up.

In rugby, if someone wanted to be the best in the world in their position, they understood that in order to achieve this, they would need to help the people around them be more effective in their positions too. You can’t be the best player in the world in a poor team.[No text in field]

Nathan Sharpe Wallabies lineout

The same applies in other settings – an individual has no chance of becoming the highest paid in their profession if the team around them is performing poorly. The key for leaders is to understand and intertwine the motivations of individual team members with collective goals and objectives which harness that personal drive in a way which prompts them to lift their teammates in pursuit of results. 

As a leader, continually pushing the boundaries until all team members are effectively incentivised to achieve the team’s goal is the key. Let’s take an underground coal mining scenario. So you incentivise each crew for example, to cut as much coal as they possibly can in a session at all costs? They hit their target and celebrate success … but is it? In doing so they may leave the work area in such a mess that they don’t set their mates up for the next shift to succeed. Sure, one shift has super-high productivity, but the rest of the team is then just continually chasing its tail trying to clean up before they can try to hit their own targets. Ask yourself this – how would you approach this situation to get the best out of your team.

Australian Wallabies

Key Performance Indicators

Setting accurate KPIs can make or break a team’s performance. My sporting career took place during a brief window of time where individual KPIs were introduced as a means to rate each player’s performance. It was disastrously counter-productive. Imagine a group of team-oriented players suddenly shifting their focus from the team’s collective goal to playing with the primary purpose of accruing individual statistics like tackles, ball carries, passes or rucks hit. Repeatedly, this lead to individuals making self-centred decisions to maintain their place in the team over and above less measurable options which would put a mate in a better position and lead to a stronger chance of achieving the team’s overall goal.

"That individual focus almost wiped out the culture of the team."

Props who were expected to achieve the same statistics as back rowers felt as though they were non-contributors, even though they played in the toughest position in the game. Holding up scrum after scrum, defending mauls and doing the grunt work that no-one saw, or measured, but was crucial to the team’s collective results.

Mercifully, over time a refocus on unit rather than individual-based performance restored the collective mindset which is the lifeblood of team sport. This didn’t mean that individual performance wasn’t scrutinised – strong leaders let individuals know when they weren’t performing and guided them into better skill execution – but overall, the result of the team or unit was the celebrated factor. For me, the lesson from this experience was clear: motivated individuals do not necessarily result in performing teams; and poorly selected KPIs can undermine every other effort made to foster a team-oriented mindset. Be wary of what you ask your team to aspire to …

Nathan exiting

Mentoring the next Generation

Most representative rugby teams are fortunate enough to have an almost perpetual, rusted-on, high performing team culture which is generated from within. It gets laid down by the experienced players and mentors who set the bar for the current generation. They instil a mindset which self-regulates the inherited standard. As more young players come through, the standard is passed on and the same principles adopted.

In the mining industry it’s a little more work, but the opportunity is still there. Experienced hands are essential, not just to school green workers on how to perform tasks, but to help instil a mindset and to set the next generation on a successful career pathway. Very often mentors appear within the workforce organically, without planned intent or a full-grasp of the impact they have on those around them. These people are effectively the champions and living embodiment of your organisation’s desired culture. Identify these people. Recognise these people. Retain these people.  The impact mentors have on your organisation will extend, not only into your next generation of workers, but the generation which follows them as some of those mentored staff step up as mentors themselves.

In rugby, the best players are the most consistent ones. They’re methodical in their preparation and mindset, and their performance follows. These players don’t need a lucky bounce, but you can guarantee that if one occurs they’ll be ready for it. Others in the team will look to their example, absorb the lesson and upon their eventual succession from the team, a new contender which has watched and learned will step up to play the role. Recently retired All Blacks captain Richie McCaw is a perfect example of this. Little more than a test match after his retirement, Sam Cane who had clearly been developing quietly in the wings, was heralded as McCaw’s replacement and an overnight success. It only took him 10 years to get there overnight ...

In summary: If you want to get the best from your people, spend time making sure they understand why your company does what it does. Understand what motivates individuals and draw upon it to make them pull together for the team’s collective good. Be mindful of how the individual KPIs you set will reinforce or undermine your organisation’s culture. Identify the mentors within your organisation and fight tooth and nail to retain them and spread their influence. And most importantly in my eyes – don’t stagnate.

Nathan Sharpe

To succeed, organisations just like a sporting team need to constantly evolve and reinvent how their people engage with one another and strengthen their interpersonal relationships. There is a reason why teams who did not taste success never have reunions. It’s not because they don’t have a trophy to admire, it is plainly that they don’t have enough connection to bother reliving the time they spent together. My advice? Build a workplace where in 15 years’ time, the entire team turn up to share a meal together, then you will truly have a high performing team on your hands.

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