Phil Kearns shares his lessons from the rugby field to the boardroom

Friday, 01 February 2019


    Former Wallabies rugby captain Phil Kearns AM GAICD talks leadership, culture and transparency, both on the field and in the boardroom.

    There are so many elements to leadership and many are relevant to boards and leading organisations. They vary depending on the situation, but some things never change.

    Courage is a critical aspect to decision-making and direction on a board. Leaders require courage when they see a need for change; to push through in the face of “the way we do things around here” or a change of personnel — someone who isn’t right to take the business or team in a new direction. Courage doesn’t always mean you will be successful, but people will follow those who show courage in backing up decisions with actions, even if they are tough ones.

    When thrust into a leadership position, you need to be grounded. Be yourself, because people will see through a message delivered by someone trying to be something they’re not. When Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer made me captain in 1992, he said, “I’ve picked you for how you are on and off the field — so keep doing that”. While your responsibilities may change in business, it doesn’t mean your personality has to. If you’re a caring person, stay a caring person; if you’re strong but fair, stay that way.

    Accountability is about setting and enforcing standards, and making people accountable. Today’s world demands that service and quality standards are adhered to and if there are no consequences, organisations or teams will go backwards. A lack of accountability leads to laziness, reduced innovation and a blame culture — the bane of any organisation. Teams that were once successful but then fade away are usually characterised by a lack of accountability in their performance — so visiting the “house of mirrors” is really important. Accountability can be anything from the way we dress and the tidiness of our desks, to the way we formulate proposals or service our clients. From 1994–1997, the Wallabies let some of these standards and accountabilities — such as dress codes at mealtimes and functions — get lax, then other things fell through the cracks. But we got back on track to win the 1999 World Cup.

    In business, we focus on the numbers so much that we forget about what actually gets us there. While they are an important guide, they can also be deceptive.

    Phil Kearns GAICD

    Understanding content

    I’m fit, but I’m not a great runner. So if a coach said, “You need to go on a 10km run”, I’d tell him he was dreaming. But if a coach said, “Phil, when you’re up against the All Blacks with 10 minutes to go, that fitness will give us the edge”, then I’d be out running. People always perform better when they understand the context of what you ask them to do. Allowing people to ask why is an important part of culture, openness and transparency.

    In business, we focus on the numbers so much that we forget about what actually gets us there. While they are an important guide, they can also be deceptive. Back in 1993, when we won a rugby series against the All Blacks, Bob said to us, “Don’t worry about the scoreboard — just do your job and the scoreboard will look after itself”.

    Everybody gets so worried about EBITDA, margin and all those good things that we forget what we need to be doing along the way.

    Our jobs, actions, ideas and implementation are what make the numbers tick — not the actual numbers themselves. Poor one-off numbers can also instil short-term panic and unnecessary changes, in turn creating reactivity, which may be further detrimental. So if we have faith in our people and our work — and do our jobs — then the numbers in the end should look after themselves.

    Latest news

    This is of of your complimentary pieces of content

    This is exclusive content.

    You have reached your limit for guest contents. The content you are trying to access is exclusive for AICD members. Please become a member for unlimited access.