Monday, January 21, 2019

Breaking bad: Culture change and the bad boys of tennis


                                                      Image by news.com.au 

Perhaps even more newsworthy than Channel Nine’s off-centre camera angle which no-one is talking about anymore is the actual players themselves, significantly some of whom, like the weird camera angle, were knocked out early. I’ve been pondering what it must be like in that figurative and literal hothouse that is Melbourne Park and the Australian Open. 

People more expert than me describe Nick Kyrgios as a prodigious talent. We’ve watched, cheered and vilified the mavericks before. I’ve said in print they can be really good for business. 

He is. Isn’t he, Nike?

Is anyone else old enough to remember Jimmy Connors or the antics of John McEnroe? 
I wouldn’t suffer miserably from device lock-in if not for Steve Jobs.

Like Shane Warne, McEnroe still tells it like it is but both are highly socialised, eminently employable and compelling to hear commentate. Wayne Carey, according to some who know him, even work with him closely, have told me he’s reinvented himself as a person. So what do we do about our triple Ts - our talented tennis trio of Kyrgios, Kokkinakis and Tomic?

It’s well established in neuroscience that the male cerebral cortex is still developing into one’s 20s. “Poor impulse control” aka reactive tweets deleted but a short time later are big telltale signs. Plenty of straight-laced judgmental baby boomers were rebels at that age too. We could explain it (even if we don’t forgive it) with the narrative of entitled millennials who want and “deserve” all the opportunities - think Davis Cup - just because I exist and it exists. But then how do we explain the way in which de Minaur and Barty carry themselves? Easy. Higher emotional intelligence, greater humility, perhaps better role models in their orbit, growth mindset including a positive relationship with feedback and the likely absence of personality disorder. Or all of the above. And what’s more, Tennis Australia, in a thinly-veiled manifesto about what it does and doesn’t find acceptable has applauded that too and made it clear opportunities will flow for those who model the desired behaviours. But moulding, rewarding, affirming good culture doesn’t equate to performance in the short-term, especially in an individualistic sport. Perhaps regrettably, it also doesn’t transcend talent and experience.

Kyrgios is patriotic and I believe him when he says he loves to play Davis Cup. Yes, #irony, it’s one of the things he and Lleyton Hewitt have in common. Also, Kyrgios seemed last week to have demonstrated a willingness to resist groupthink, distancing himself, somewhat awkwardly, from Tomic and a dastardly depiction of Hewitt. He indicated with his “Sure” (Enthusiasm) that he’d love to play Davis Cup if given the opportunity (Humility or the suggestion of it).

I’m fascinated as to why some have concluded Kyrgios and Tomic are mates. There is nothing in Kyrgios’s body language or “script” that I’ve detected that leads me to believe they are close. Perhaps they are somewhat bonded in the face of adversity but it’s adversity mostly created by themselves. And even if they are close, contrast the mates’ reactions to losing early at the Oz Open. Tomic externalised blame and created a subterfuge story in the best tradition of smoke and mirrors politics. Kyrgios said he thought he played quite well, that his opponent served unbelievably well and then refused to blame his injuries for his loss. His potty mouth and anger on court (thanks court microphones!) seemingly directed at the physio during his first round match but which was really a crass symptom update, is a reactive and raw sign that he really cares, wants to do well in his home Slam and his body just won’t let him.

His “What do you want from me?” in the after match press conference depicted by a news outlet as a “bizarre response” was a reasonable question. He was being hounded on a story he did not create and a feud of which he may not be part.

I do agree with Pat Rafter that any possibility of conscious or unconscious bias in selection should be toughly scrutinised. I also think it is entirely legitimate that criteria other than form weigh into decisions about who represents our country. More than just performance weighed into the cricket bans of our two best batsmen!

But that dynamic tension between character and capability is tough when you’ve got compliant and enthusiastic learners AND mavericks in your selection pool. 

Hewitt has driven a stake in the ground for great culture and character. He’s right to do it but it’s a fraught strategy. It is offensive to be half-hearted about representing your country when others would almost kill to do so. Stepping onto the court is the first bit. It’s staying the course when the going gets tough which is one of the things we love about the “Demon” and something Hewitt lived by and now demands.

As for Kokkinakis, he may have decided that all Hollywood bratpacks must have at least three members, or else he’s being roped in by Tomic’s use of the oldest trick in the dirty fighting playbook being “I’m not the only one that feels this way. Everybody hates Hewitt etc...” (or words to that effect). Brené Brown calls it the “invisible army” and while it may only be a small unit rather than a battalion, they are armed and dangerous. At the end of the day, whilst Lleyton Hewitt tries to embed a new culture in the nextgen Australian tennis players, Kyrgios and Tomic are responsible for the vast majority of wins against top 20 opponents and alienating them completely when they play for themselves most of the year and shoot their mouths off with abandon, is risky and publicly brand-corrosive. 

Hewitt with the backing of TA is trying to tell them what to do. Heck. Kyrgios doesn’t even have a coach. That’s how much he loves being told what to do. l’ve offered. He never replied. But Kyrgios is the majestic wild brumby; difficult to tame, but tame him we must, not try to break him. And I think he can get there. I want him to get there.

For mine, it’s Tomic I don’t believe is redeemable as our kind of national representative. I’m struck by his language and behaviour. It seems so pervasively damning, aggressive, arrogant, blame-shifting, ‘fused’ to his perspective, even anti-social and extreme in his self-importance that I’m not sure he can ever fit in with our normative expectations of our sporting stars, whom we have shown time and time again - think Mssrs Warne, Carey, Smith - we can and will forgive if they meet us even half way. Failing that, perhaps Tomic would like to have a go at being President - but please, not of Australia.

Monday, January 7, 2019

A New Year's commentary on... commentators, cricket and culture



Australia is poised to lose the Summer test series against India today but it won't be for lack of motivation or work ethic. Having watched more hours of cricket this holiday break than I care to admit, even to myself, I'm struck by the allegory of my patriotic sporting binge as it relates to teams, timing, culture and performance. The good news is you don't have to love cricket to get the point/s.

My New Year's three-part question is this. Are there people in our teams, right under our noses, who:
  1. Aren't getting the credit they deserve?
  2. Are being overshadowed by those who demand our attention or affirmation but have less substance or raw talent?
  3. Could absolutely fly if only we become attuned to those little things that could make all the difference?

Where might we focus our attention as we return to work? 

Emerging stars. Rishabh Pant has been a question mark for a long time because of his low run rate and the perception that he was a poor relation to MS Dohni as India's premier wicket-keeper. His wicket-keeping through the series and his stunning first innings with the bat this test has brought him out of the shadows; an Indian superstar in the making. His poise and patience at the crease was wondrous to behold, only second to that of Chesharwar Pujara's heart breaking innings that had me barracking for his double century.

Leadership through experience. Kohli is a proud, some would say arrogant man. Yes, his wicket celebrations can be a bit over the top but I love his passion and honestly, his batting prowess justifies a little swag. However he is transitioning from elite batsman to captain and tactician. Leadership is developed through experience even if one is born with potential. At the end of Friday's play, I saw Kohli get around each of his players. Patting their hearts, arms around shoulders, applauding them, imparting a word here or there. When he's at the crease, he's the man. When his opponents are sent into bat, in the twilight of the day's play, having spent all day toiling in the hot sun, he knows there is no "I" in team.

High performance culture. Australia is long-admired for our fielding prowess. Indeed, so often a catch taken in the slips or the outfield is made to look so easy that we're shocked when one gets dropped. But being blessed with fast-twitch muscles, even superb hand-eye coordination (I assume that's what commentators mean when they say exceptional batters see the ball early and play late) doesn't take the place of practice, and often the practice in the most unlikely of one percenters.... just in case... because you never know... This is often the difference between really good and great. Warnie talked about Kohli's net practice. He said Kohli puts down a shoe and doesn't stop practising until he has hit that shoe over and over and over again. How much do we practise to achieve flawless execution, especially such high levels under "exam conditions"? Yes, the journey from good to great.

Diversity. The coverage this year has been made better by the new commentary team. I love Isa Guha's contribution. I would have loved it in 2012 after she retired as a bowler for England from international cricket. But it took the #MeToo movement and a revocation of Channel Nine's 40-plus years of cricket coverage to bring new faces, male and female to the screen.

The only difference between the performance of knowledgeable, articulate and insightful women and the commentary team of yesteryear was deciding to contract them. Don't think for a moment though that the double standard has been swept away. I fancy it is not coincidental she is young, slim and attractive. She sits along side Shane Warne who told me in his book he has never had plastic surgery and Kerry "Skull" O'Keefe who I'm sure has not! 

Subject matter experts. In a world where many people work to acquire generic, portable skills, no team can over perform without its domain experts, its specialists. How wonderful to hear Brett Lee and Adam Gilchrist provide insights into the thought processes of bowlers and keepers out there in the field? And how exhilarating to watch the magic of specialist spin bowlers like Nathan "Garry" Lyon. I shudder to think what our test season could have been without him in the side.

The job security/performance nexus. In the aftermath of the ball tampering scandal I wrote about last April, the Australian team is down two of its best players and its entire senior leadership team. In the experimental environment of a team rebuild, few of our batsmen have performed well enough to be assured of a place in the upcoming one dayers, much less our Ashes squad. The crippling pressure of a new team fighting for redemption and respect against a top competitor has made it hard for them to operate "in the zone". I see this in my consulting work every day. At one end of the continuum are people whose job security is beyond doubt which allows some of them to lose their sense of "Why", stay too long, sell themselves short and cultivate a culture of mediocrity. At the other end of the continuum where players are fearful of failure, flooded with emotion, are too physiologically aroused, we know performance falls away. Marcus Harris, batting on the weekend, knowing that India's first two days' performance almost assured India of a match and series win, batted confidently, fluidly and without fear. He neither threw away his wicket nor played it too safe. With Aussie spirit broken after two days with Cheteshwar Pujara, Pant and Ravindra Jadeja at the crease, Australia's loss was virtually assured. This freed up Harris to play well for his 79 runs, and the likely highest score in the Australian innings. No hint of desperation. No risk of being blamed. And as opener for Australia, no expectation he would be solely responsible for clutching victory from the jaws of defeat.

The futurist. Every team needs at least one person who can read the context, observe what is happening with razor sharp acuity and know what to do next. With literally thousands of sports journalists in Australia and half of the rest of us wishing we were too, there is no shortage of musings, diagnostic firepower and unsolicited commentary on every move, snicko, opinion and selection. But nothing to me this season has been more impressive than watching the maestro Shane Warne, analyse a series of balls bowled and predict what the bowler was trying to do only to have the bowler do that... next ball (See here). If only all my clients had that acuity to be plugged in to the moods, values, beliefs and skills of each of their players, predict what was likely to happen next and either circumvent or capitalise.

If we could do what Warnie can do, then organisations would not spend months, even years on lavish change management programs only to have them fail miserably. Even if the physical/process/digital change is delivered, how do the staff feel about it and about themselves afterwards? Why do we end up scratching our heads wondering why we didn't see something coming as we do our own metaphorical version of trudging back to the pavilion, out for a duck. 

The maverick. I must continue my allegory on Warne because it's the most humbling lesson for me. I was always a fan of his bowling. What's not to admire in someone almost universally labelled the greatest leg spinner of all time? For twenty years he was my pet example of someone who seemed to get away with a lot of bad behaviour because his performance was outstanding. And I have seen what that does to the fabric of teams and to the individuals on the receiving end of indiscretions and harassment and bullying and other forms of counterproductive workplace behaviour just because the perpetrator is a superstar (Yes, David Warner. if the baggy green cap fits....). But Warne's bogan brashness, his criticism of Steve Waugh's obsession with the baggy green cap belies his patriotism, his commitment to excellence, his tactical genius, his courage to call things as he sees them, to enjoy life and to love passionately - his country, his sport, his children, his football club, his close friends, indeed his life. While his book will never win a Pulitzer prize, neither will this article. He has his moments. He can be impulsive and temperamental and trade on his name and reputation when convenient. Mavericks are not easy to have around but if we know how to get the best of them and set non- negotiable limits about the few things we will not tolerate under any circumstances (like sandpaper underpants on the field and trading above authorised discretions in banking), they can and will make extraordinary contributions to a team.

Feedback culture. Much has been said in the media about allegedly frank, fearless and even uncomfortable conversations between coaches and players at the end of the first day of this fourth test. Ribald and robust conversations in the locker room may not suit white collar corporate cultures (if indeed they have their place anywhere at all and some will argue they don't). But in teams where people worry they risk friendships, the silent treatment or retribution when they're honest, the team will never achieve what it could. Friendship at work is a bonus. All team members must feel safe to give and receive feedback; always aligned with the team's stated and shared purpose and in keeping with shared values and agreed behaviours. For every one of us armchair commentators who say that being a team player means being considerate of others's feelings (and I'm one of them), being a team player also means being willing to stick our necks out and get comfortable with the uncomfortable if it's going to make us better. A robust feedback culture is not just about honesty when we give feedback. It also means hearing that which we would rather not.

Celebrating success. Many of us will look forward to the feel-good accolades, the trophies, the awards nights - even the after-parties. But we first have to put ourselves in a position to qualify for such recognition. Celebrating success as much as anything else goes to that intangible quality in a great team - team spirit, heart and compassion. Digressing momentarily from test cricket to the Big Bash competition, I've been moved by the way Aussies have been moved; showing their compassion and affirmation for Rashid Khan, an Afghani bowler playing for the Adelaide Strikers despite losing his father last week. Each announcement he was to bowl an over was met with thunderous applause despite allegiances. We would all have understood if he had flown home. He embodies the one ingredient in exceptional teams consistently taken for granted.

Commitment to being a team. Charette is said to have remarked in 1796 that one can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Commitment to being a team cannot be taken as a given and that commitment, especially in the midst of discomfort and hardship, must be a full-throated commitment.

For those of us who lead, and that's anyone who influences, leadership must inspire and enable exceptional performance, not "drive" it. Please excuse the weak cricket pun at the end. Couldn't help myself.